Sunday, August 27, 2017

Reflections on St Therese as a Revolutionary

So today during my Carmelite formation meeting, we took in a talk by Fr. Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD on St. Therese as a spiritual revolutionary. The following is a smattering of notes from the talk and my own thoughts and reflections on it.

What was really valuable to me about it was how he clearly outlined the historical development of the prevailing spiritual attitude among the French Carmelites of St. Therese's day. It is one thing to say that Jansenism had had a negative impact on French Catholicism and that the waves of it were still being felt in the 1890s. It is quite another thing to hear quotations from the influential books and the formative figures of those intervening centuries, and to understand how various private revelations and juridical aberrations lead to imbalances which led to St. Therese's Little Way then corrected.

What I thought was very interesting was how Jesus was understood in the milieu of French Catholicism, and Carmel in particular, after the Counter Reformation. Fr. Kavanaugh mentioned how the incarnation came to be understood as Jesus "handing over his human nature to the Incarnate Word" crushing his natural humanity by complete abnegation and austerity, and how glorifying God in imitation of his hidden life entailed seeking to do the same. It is all about crushing, mortification, crucifixion, and about how large hearted souls would seek to be immolated with Jesus in this way.

This sounds nothing at all like Teresa of Jesus or John of the Cross. The fire of Love is not leading the way here. There is almost exclusive emphasis on the annihilation of the human self.

The French Carmels were under the jurisdiction of Cardinal Berulle of France who managed to bring them there from Spain, yet sought to separate the Sisters from the Friars and stand in between as the sole figure responsible for their formation. Under him, the formation of the Sisters kept this severe austerity popular at the time and it colored the teaching of the Carmelite parents, Teresa and John.

In the mid 1800s, the private revelations of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque had their deep effect on the spirituality of the Carmelite Sisters. She spoke often of the justice of God, his anger at the outrages of France ad the wounds inflicted by his chosen people. The first French prioress (after the two original Spaniards, friends of the then-deceased Teresa of Jesus, left the French foundation) was of this mind centuries before. She also spoke of the need to "make reparations for the outrages," to "atone for the sins of France", to "appease the anger of the Father". Jesus was to her the "perpetual victimhood". The devotion to the Holy Face had this flavor to it, and of course that was part of St. Therese's experience in the Lisieux Carmel.

This simply sounds like Catholicism had become classical Protestantism. It is hard to distinguish between Luther, Calvin, and some Jansenist-flavored Catholic teaching of that time. "God beholds His Son as a sinner; Jesus suffers the disdain of God".

But the simple fact of the matter is that none of this is true, nor does it match with Teresa and John's teaching about Jesus and the spiritual life. It is not Catholic, and it is not Carmelite. It's plain wrong.

God the Father did not crush the innocent Jesus with sin. God the Father did not reject the hideousness of sin in Jesus. God the Father does not call us to destroy our humanity in imitation of Jesus nor to crush ourselves with suffering. God does not call us to become victims of his justice, nor does he wreak vengeance on innocent souls or Jesus to atone for sin.

It is impossible for Christ to be an object of God's wrath.

It is all, always, and only about God's love.

Jesus chose to love us unto death. His love redeemed us. The Trinity did not rip asunder; Jesus did not become foul in His Father's eyes. From eternity, the Second Person of the Trinity poured out love (Third) to the First. He did this on earth in his humanity, and this is called the Redemption. His love transformed everything.

For us, God's love is a fire that burns, and it causes suffering to the extent we do not allow ourselves to be loved. To the extent that we push away vulnerability and the suffering that comes from loving, and the love that desires to consume us, it causes pain. All of the expiation and reparation we do really boils down to allowing ourselves to be loved by God. This is what relieves God's heart. God does suffer thirst for us. He does not suffer from a lack of perfections, as human beings do. He suffers out of the superabundance of His love. Love suffers violence when love meets in encounter with sin. But it is also a happiness in suffering, because it is the result of love. This is what St. Therese knew.

I believe we are poised at a time when the felt need for love among humanity is so palpable that inventing new ways to make ourselves extremely vulnerable is almost an addiction. We need a theological realignment to dump substitutionary atonement and to embrace instead God as a Fire that burns and purifies with love. But we can't have a true doctrinal shift without the lived experience of holiness. The two will help each other. At some level, I believe this is what awaits us in the reunification of Christians.

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