Tuesday, September 30, 2014

St Thérèse and the Terrifying Joy of Vulnerability

It is no secret that I was a devout non-fan of St. Thérèse for many of my Catholic years. Everyone was all "St. Thérèse this" and "St. Thérèse that," and I just simply could not warm up to her. In fact, she was the only saint that I felt a particular aversion towards.

My aversion was rooted in my ignorance, and my ignorance was fed by the tiny bit of knowledge I had about her. She was sweet, humble, simple, joyful, trusting.... and childlike.

Ok, let's be honest. Another factor in my aversion is that I really thought she simply was these things naturally. And, the heart of all my aversion was that I knew I am not those things.

But of course no saint comes by her virtues naturally. Not every saint goes through the dregs of sin, but no saint comes by virtue except by walking the way of the cross. I missed that about St. Thérèse.

But now, I have to admit, I am beginning to grasp St. Thérèse's profundity and why she is a Doctor of the Church, and perhaps some of why she was given to our age. And, particularly, why I need her so dang much.

St. Thérèse was the one who famously summarized her vocation, the Carmelite vocation, thus: "In the heart of the Church, I shall be love." She knew that love encompassed everything that she wanted to be -- Carmelite, spouse, mother, warrior, priest, apostle, doctor, martyr -- because love is the essence of all these things.

God is love, and the love of the Father is made manifest in Christ. If you want to see the ultimate in love, behold the Crucified One.

It is true, what Freud says. We are never so vulnerable as when we love. St. Thérèse embraced this call to be love, as she says, with "delirious joy." But vulnerability like that of the Crucified One is no weakling's task, nor it is anything akin to natural to any mere human.

St. Thérèse had made of herself an oblation to Divine Love, asking that all the pent-up mercy of God's heart be poured out upon her. Mercy is for misery. It seems to me that there is a connection between this offering and the fact of her tremendous spiritual and physical suffering she endured in the last phase of her life, offered all for the conversion of sinners. For example, she had no feeling of certainty that there was a heaven, or anything beyond death except nothingness. She desired to experience this type of suffering for the conversion of atheists and all manner of souls who had separated themselves from God. This is heavy-duty, tough-slogging intercession.

The essence of what I could never appreciate about St. Thérèse earlier is that I did not understand what it takes for the human heart to be made child-like, vulnerable, loving, and sweetly self-giving. It takes the cross. It takes death to self. It takes the spiritual night, where the light faith gives becomes like darkness. The mystery of the cross is in that moment where Christ cries out "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" There is something so child-like in this mystery of experiencing being deeply alone when in reality, we are not.

In my experience, vulnerability is terrifying, but then it is freeing. The experience of the cross is terrifying, and then it is freeing. The terror comes from our darkness being purged from us, from losing that which binds us, like the young men in the fiery furnace. But instead of knowing our bondage as bondage, we tend to think it is what is "keeping us together."

The joy and childlike abandon of St. Thérèse is not a natural state. It is the fruit of the cross going deep. When I look at her now, I realize that in Christ there is hope for me, a newcomer to joy, innocence, and trust. The more I open myself to God's mercy, the more I too can become little and know how fiercely I am loved.

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