Friday, September 14, 2012

St. Thérèse and the Man Thing

Recently I finished reading Story of a Soul, the autobiography of St. Thérèse. I was waiting for the lightening bolts of grace to crash through, because of so many people saying how reading it changed them, how it is the most powerful spiritual book of modern times, etc. Well, didn't really happen for me. 

I'd listened to Ralph Martin's lectures on her life, I'd read about her and become very familiar with the images she uses, and I've watched the recent movie about her a few times. I can't watch the movie without crying just because it is emotionally moving, but spiritually moving? I have to say it didn't register with me. At all.

And this made me feel bad. She is one of the most revered saints of all time. Even my daughter became fascinated with her as a toddler, and so I've considered her my daughter's patron saint. She's come through for me a few times after novena-attempts with a completely unexpected rose. But still she's been like the distant cousin at the reunion to whom you nod and say hello but never really develop much of a connection with. 

I think I've found it difficult to relate to her life. The key suffering of her childhood was losing her mother to death and her "second mother," her elder sister, to the convent. But these things were acute sufferings to her because of the intense bonds of love she knew in her family. Not only was she raised completely enveloped by intensely loving relationships surrounding her and enfolding her, but she also had profound and intense formation in the Faith. Their family was practically a Carmel in and of itself. While I can relate to some of Thérèse's childhood, like slipping off to pray and contemplate without knowing what prayer and contemplation were, for me these were not natural outgrowths of my environment, but the beginnings of special graces that indicated Jesus intended to put up a fight for me, rather than watch me be sucked down into hell by the bitterness and hatred I started to dabble in, responding to my own environment. Thérèse's life was one of being lifted straight up to God like a child by the elevator of His mercy. Mine has been more like a tug of war, a chance for my Love to prove His tenaciousness and determination (and ability) to completely break apart so many tendrils of deformation. 

So it wasn't her autobiography or the story of her life that got me. It was her exchange of letters with Maurice. I just happened to have needed to kill some time in our parish library, and this book, Maurice & Thérèse, caught my eye. It is nearly 300 pages, but I read half in one sitting and half in another. And somewhere in that second sitting, my heart cried out Thérèse! and I burst into tears. Not the sentimental tears of the movie, but the tears that happen when everything within you gets up and moves toward a person because of some undeniable recognition.

Her autobiography had pointed out that one thing she had longed for and prayed for all her life was a brother to join her family. She had had two brothers who died in infancy before she was born, and all of her surviving siblings were girls. She had wanted so much to have a priest brother, and she asked the Lord for this gift. And quite remarkably, God answered her. Maurice, a young man, struggling with his seminary formation, happened to have heard of the Carmelite convent in Lisieux, and happened to write, asking the Mother Superior if she could ask one of the Sisters to pray for him. The superior chose Thérèse. There were a few letters exchanged between Maurice and the superior, because it was considered "just not done" for a sister to exchange letters with a man. But when the superior became ill and could not respond to his letters, she gave Thérèse permission to simply do the writing herself. Thus was born a correspondence that had a profound meaning and impact in both their lives.  It seems that their relationship put into concrete reality the mystical yearning Thérèse had to become a missionary, and I suppose even the very fact that she is today the patroness of missionaries, despite having barely ever left her own backyard. And Maurice, who became Fr. Louis, became one of the very first to spread devotion to her.

Their letters (now here's something that makes it easy for me to love Thérèse -- the only reason she didn't die in obscurity was because of what she wrote!) reveal the tremendously ardent affection they had for one another. Maurice was unsure of himself and his vocation, plagued by his past sins, and not at all afraid to beg Thérèse for more letters and words of wisdom and consolation because they strengthened him and helped steel his resolve to follow the Lord. They had barely begun corresponding when Thérèse's health took a serious downward turn, and so a prominent aspect of their exchange was the growing awareness that she would die. What he did not know was how very much in pain she was, not only physically but spiritually as well. During the last 18 months of her life, she endured a spiritual darkness that required from her intense acts of faith to maintain that there even was a heaven. All the while she wrote to him of her promise to accompany him from heaven until the day he died, she battled the constant tormenting thought that after death there was only eternal emptiness. As she said, she "ate the food of atheists," but did so willingly as a spiritual offering for them.

And in this state, Thérèse wrote nothing but encouragement to Maurice, teaching him to immerse himself in the mercy of God. He was afraid that his failings and his instabilities made him somehow displeasing to God, and even that after she got to heaven and would be able to see more clearly who he was, he feared that he would be displeasing to her. She taught him her Little Way of confidence. She gave him the example of a father who had two sons. They both had disobeyed the father. The first son, when he saw the father approaching, was afraid and ran away from the father, trembling. The second son ran to the father, threw himself into his arms and told him all about it, holding the father close, and then asking to be punished with kisses. This is not manipulation but childlike trust in the merciful goodness of the father. Childlike trust and confidence in God, she insisted, is the way to holiness, because in these we stop with the self-obsession over our own wretchedness and start looking at and responding to the immense love with which God surrounds us. Eyes off self; eyes onto God. Then we start to become like the One we behold.

The doctrine is rich, but it wasn't even that that moved me. It was their love for each other. Thérèse held nothing back in expressing all the pure affection of her heart. Maurice held nothing back in how beholden he was to her. She was canonized, is the patroness of missionaries, and is a Doctor of the Church. He was ordained, arrived at his mission in Africa the day after she died (October 1, which is her feast day), suffered horrendously and died in a mental institution -- the same one where her father had lived for several years. When she had told him how she feared she would miss the sufferings of earth in heaven, he asked that she beg for him the grace to take her place in suffering. And since she promised to accompany him from heaven, I'm thinking what a gift it was to her to spiritually attend him in the very place her father suffered. His life was not about becoming a brilliant saint (he wasn't). He is remembered because he was enveloped in a brilliant love.

Karol Wojtyla explains in his book Love and Responsibility that for women, being loved is about being freed to give, and for men, it is about being freed to receive. Somewhere in this is the key to why the image of God in humanity is in our maleness and femaleness. It is why our maleness and femaleness images the Trinity. The mystery of God with us is all about giving and receiving. Nothing is supposed to interrupt this flow. The mutual love that is suppose to characterize Christians and the Church is simply this flow of love that enables giving, love that enables receiving. Love is the fuel that puts the gospel in action. Both men and women need to give and to receive (for we can't give something we haven't received), but I think JPII means that it is inscribed in the nature of each of the sexes to especially need to either give or receive if we are to stay human, or become holy. 

There's so much I could say about this "man thing" in my life.  Sigh.  My Lord is determined, tenacious, and victorious, and He has made me the same. St. Thérèse got me because I see in her the example of a pure, ardent affection pouring out of her that filled her last days of suffering with intensity of purpose, a way to more fully and completely be herself, because she was freed to give in a way her heart longed to be free to give. It was all for God, and it was God who rewarded her. God, who always uses His people as His instruments, because we need to receive His love as much as we need to give it.

Maurice Belliere


Willa said...

I loved this post, especially the part about the little way of confidence, since I can relate to Maurice's doubts and worries. Thanks for sharing!

Marie said...

Thank you, Willa! So good to hear from you again :)

Donna said...

Thanks for posting this. I didn't know those letters existed; I will have to find a copy of that book as I am looking for something good and of substance to read.

When I was younger I felt drawn to Therese and even took her name at confirmation. However, as an adult I've missed her presence. Perhaps, like you, this book is what is needed.

Marie said...

There are some very inexpensive used copies on Amazon right now: (I know I'm always looking for a bargain... or a library!)