What is it about this little saint of the 19th century that can still capture our imagination even today? Why is it that in many churches in our Diocese you will find a statute to this young woman, dressed in her familiar brown and cream habit, whose life was hidden away in an obscure Carmelite Monastery in Normandy? And why was it that even to some members of her own community there seemed nothing extraordinary or strikingly obvious of a profound holiness? The answer is simple, one word - love.
Today on her feast day, I would like to forgo a look into the scriptures and suggest four aspects of that love that we might learn from in our own journey.
When you read her story of a soul, it is seasoned with a variety of desires: the childish desires of curiosity concerning the things of God and religion; the earnest desire of a self-willed young girl to enter a Carmelite monastery; and ultimately the desire to follow the path of holiness.
A young woman, born in 1873 and died in the Carmel, Lisieux at the age of 24, who would in the end discover the secret that her desires would not prevail, were they not the loving desire of God. Her Story of a Soul has given us the testimony of an extraordinary life of loving holiness. A holiness that transcends boundaries, of time, of convent walls. But there are no boundaries to holiness!
The world of today invites us to desire many things, mainly material, in the confident hope that they will bring fulfillment and happiness, Thérèse discovered something very important and very different - that we have to live beyond our personal desires, for these can never totally satisfy.
These are too narrow and restrictive and indeed passing. And, living beyond these personal selfish desires is the true path to holiness.
Her story is filled with desires: the very longing to be all, to do and be everything, brought her to a new reality about herself. God desires not great deeds but our availability. Her desire to be heroic would bring her to find her way - “I will be love in the heart of the Church.”
This young woman did no great deeds hidden away as she was behind her convent walls. She was enclosed not just in restricted physical space, but within the very narrow and rigid society of her day. And she transcends that narrowness to become the Doctor of Love. Jesus is my only love, she scratched into the wood in her small room in Lisieux. Her heart opened to receive the love God would pour into it. In one of those powerful moments recorded in her story, she describes how she felt the love of God enter her heart.
Her life highlights the interior struggle that takes place in each of us - the struggle with God who wants to lead us in the dance of life. She teaches us that weakness and holiness co-exist. Thérèse shows us the soul of one who struggles deeply to believe even in the darkest night, of suffering and pain, which she describes as “a dark tunnel.” Her early life brought its own struggles, the death of her mother when she was only four years of age, the gradual departure of her beloved sisters into Carmel, a period of spiritual trial for eight years, the mental illness of our dear father and the physical pain endured in her body at the end of her life. And above all, when in the final days of her short life she had to struggle to believe when all was dry and without consolation.
I believe this is what makes Thérèse so relevant and universal in the 21st century. Her struggles, despite the short and very different circumstances she faced, are ours also. In the 1940’s and 50’s her story touched a champion of the New York poor, Dorothy Day by means of a little medal given to her in hospital that would lead Dorothy to a life-long relationship with the saint.
What is it about this little saint that thunders greatness? Faced with the emptiness of all her struggling, she teaches us to sing a song of life. God triumphs within her because Thérèse had grown into a loving relationship with God. Even in God’s seeming absence and her inability to pray, she continued without words, she said “I just love him.”
Confronted with the walls of division and intolerance, the Christian of today must stand as a witness to mercy and love. This type of holiness the Vatican Council of the 60’s tells “is conducive to a more human way of living even in society here on earth. Throughout her suffering she learnt the power of suffering to bring about transformation and purification. She is not the sweet little saint of plaster statutes, but a doctor of love - amidst her suffering.
Ultimately, her only desire was to go beyond the struggle and fear and to trust in God’s love and mercy, to surrender, feeling like a child safely playing within the protection of a loving parent.
One contemporary writer put it this way, it was a “problem of reconciling the great desire she had to love God and her experience of imperfection and powerlessness. Her little way to holiness is a ‘daring surrender’ and abandonment to his mercy.” (Donna Orsuto, Holiness) This secret to holiness, is accessible to all. It is not easy, especially if we feel on our own. But we are not alone.
Life calls for a truthfulness in the face of our own reality and limitation. Only God can lead us loving beyond all the limits of this world. In this moment we must surrender and let the Lord lead us - let God’s will be done. Literally, she had to throw herself on the mercy of God. To use the phrase of the mystic Adrienne von Speyr “littleness absorbed into holiness”.
A while ago the relics of St. Thérèse took a tour of the world. It was not about bones in a box - it was/or is about the call to each one of us to holiness - to be other saints.
Saints are models, teachers, witnesses…. Thérèse herself describes them as levers that have “lifted the world”
This little saint enables us to perceive a little way to holiness that is accessible. It is obvious that Thérèse still speaks to our world. Unlike a pilgrimage to a holy place, she comes to visit us today. What mysterious rose might be handed to us today? Thérèse was aware of her weaknesses. St. Paul reminds us “when I am weak then I am strong.” Our saints are those who surrender to God’s merciful love. Love is the way to peace and harmony - there is no other way.