THÉRÈSE AND CONTEMPLATION
by Father James Geoghegan, OCD
I. CHARACTERISTICS OF HER PRAYER
In St. Teresa of Lisieux, A Spiritual Renaissance, Father Petitot shows the marvelous balance of opposites in Thérèse's spiritual life. It is the same with her prayer.
A modern woman, she has much to teach us today lest we make the renewed interest in contemplation, charismatic prayer, or Eastern methods merely a fad of the 70's.
PERSONAL AND LITURGICAL
Thérèse devised a daring new path in life, her little way of spiritual childhood - one that she lived in prayer. Her approach to God was intensely personal and creative, but it was balanced by a deep liturgical life. She tells us how she loved the Divine Office. Her First Holy Communion was a major turning point in her life of prayer. From her childhood she loved daily Mass.
She speaks of her preparation for the Sacraments of Penance and Confirmation. Through the daily family reading of Dom Gueranger's The Liturgical Year she prepared for the great feasts and actively participated in them. She situates some of the marvelous graces of her life in the context of the liturgical feasts: her conversion occurred after Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve; she revealed her desire to enter Carmel after Vespers on Pentecost Sunday; she entered on the Feast of the Annunciation, made her profession on Mary's Birthday; offered herself to God's merciful love on Trinity Sunday; she received the call to join her Bridegroom and began her dark night of faith during the Sacred Tridium of Holy Week. Thérèse was very aware of the graces of these liturgical feasts. This balance of personal and liturgical prayer is also seen in her relationship to the Church. As she developed, she became more aware of God's infinite love for her and also of her place in the Church. Her prayer is not only her own; it is the prayer of the Church. As she began mature prayer after her conversion, she prayed for Pranzini;(1) her prayer was answered. After her pilgrimage to Rome her zeal extended to priests. Eventually, united in prayer with the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the whole world is the area of her love and concern. She found the lever and fulcrum to raise the world.
Thérèse's prayer is deeply personal, united simply with God in the very depths of her soul where she is unique and totally herself. There, too, she is open to the Church and to the whole world. She teaches us, as does St. Teresa in the Seventh Mansions, that the gift of contemplation expands into love for the Church; that it is apostolic.
II. THÉRÈSE'S METHOD OF PRAYER
Father Petitot says that Thérèse freed us from a method. This can be an oversimplification. She used vocal and formal prayers all her life. She offered herself to God in a formula her mother taught her. The "Our Father" and "The Lord is my Shepherd" sustained her in her agony.
As a child she was deep and intuitive. Through reflecting on nature, she got valuable insights and practical ideas. Thus a storm or the sea at Trouville show her God's power; stale bread, a dead lamb, friendship unreturned, loneliness, led her to thoughts of God, life and eternity. This was prayer; yet we find her seeking a method. She asked Sister Henrietta of the Abbey to teach her how to pray. The Sister explained that for her praying meant opening her heart to God and talking to Him like a child with its father. From Sister Henrietta Thérèse learned simplicity and openness with God in prayer of the heart.
Having entered Carmel Thérèse found dryness and insipidity in prayer. She sought a method to help her during the formal hours of prayer. These two hours daily, faithfully observed, were difficult times - she got her insights at other times. The method she adopted was that of reflective reading with outbursts of prayer of the heart. It seems that this was the source of her extraordinary knowledge of St. John of the Cross' works. While she was 17 and 18 years of age, she read his works prayerfully. This deep personal knowledge will later save her sanity, for St. John gave her a map of the terrain she will travel in her fearful and terrible dark nights.
It was especially by meditative reading of Sacred Scripture, in particular the Gospels, that she prayed. She would savor the words, penetrate their meaning and act on the lights received. She slowly prayed the words of the Our Father, the Hail Mary and some of the Psalms.
Thus we see that Thérèse does teach us the value of a method, one that gives stability to prayer. It is not complicated, composed of divisions and subdivisions. It is simple, the way of a child who uses all the help it can get. As a young girl she used the formula taught her by her mother or Pauline; later she used prayers of holy people; finally, she responded with love to the infinite love of God revealed in Sacred Scripture, like Mary hearing the Word of God and treasuring it in her heart
Thérèse's prayer is inescapably linked with her life. Here she is a true daughter of Teresa of Avila. You cannot live one way and pray another. "My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go," said Claudius in "Hamlet." Prayer is communicating with God, being in His presence in all the naked truth of ourselves. We are most ourselves when we pray. In prayer we hear God say, "I love you as you are" and we listen and respond, "I love you." If our life is not a life of love we cannot say that.
VITAL TEST: CHARITY
So charity and the virtues are necessary for growth in prayer. As Thérèse developed her way of living, which was her way of spiritual growth in prayer, we see growth in virtues: trust, confidence, faith, also in concern, in truthfulness, in purity, in kindness, in courage, in prudence (a virtue that impressed Mother Gonzague), and in justice (a virtue that impressed her novices).
The vital test of this prayer is her charity. As her love was purified in the night of suffering, her heart was enlarged. The Holy Spirit of love was poured forth into it, she embraced the world in love, the missionary in China, the slave in Africa, and the mentally disturbed nun down the corridor. That same Holy Spirit groaned within her praying to the Father, crying out, "Abba, Father." Her life, her doctrine and her prayer are "ABBA." She is a child, weak and dependent, reaching out in love and trust to its Father who loves it and who gives gifts, Himself, to it.
We cannot separate prayer from Christian living. A true contemplative cannot be a spiritual snob, looking down on the mere vulgar crowd who are drunkards and lechers and cheaters or even ordinary people who don't have mystical experiences. Humility, charity, kind judgments, justice and gratitude to God are essential elements of prayer. We cannot be men and women of prayer if we fly from our weakness, if we pretend we don't have lust or anger or insincerity within us. If we recognize our weaknesses and limitations, admit them and reach out to God, He can fill our emptiness with the Holy Spirit. Then truly we are children.
Thérèse is an ordinary woman yet she is a mystic. How can she be a model of prayer for all? Because her life and her prayer are one. Everyone can be a child of God and it is up to God to give all necessary grace. For Thérèse mysticism is the form of prayer of her way of spiritual childhood; another path may be for someone else. Or perhaps we make too much of the term "mystic" and separate the mystic from the ordinary person. In living fully the way of Thérèse, in abandonment and confidence, one's prayer is mystical. It is a prayer of faith, of love, of trust and it is a prayer of receiving - passive prayer. Jesus thanked His Father for revealing to the little ones. Spiritual Childhood is a path to the knowledge of God, a knowledge that is a gift of God which is infused by Him.
The center of Thérèse's prayer is Jesus. Her life's ideal is to please Jesus. As she prepared for First Communion she prayed daily for "she wants Jesus to be happy in her heart and to stay there."
She sees herself as a little ball that He can use as He pleases. She is a boat. He can fall asleep if He wants to in it. She only wants to please Him. Everything in her life is directed to that end. Prayer Pleases Him: He loves to be with us; it is His time. In her trials in prayer she is faithful - to please Jesus. In her darkness she is willing to go to hell, that He might be loved there. She does not pray for the sake of "highs" or consolations. At one time she needed them and was helped by them; now she prays to please Him.
He is the center of her prayer as he is of her life. This became a glorious reality at her First Holy Communion. Now the person she spoke to was within her, united with her. He did not come on earth to stay in a ciborium but to dwell in our hearts.
In Sacred Scripture she learned more of her bridegroom, listened to Him. She knew Him and loved Him. She spoke to Him or just stayed with Him.
She loved Him as the child Jesus. Then, through the experience of her father's trials and her own suffering, she loved Him in His passion. The Holy Face - suffering, misunderstood, pained, but loved by God - was a symbol of her own prayer - dark, dry, painful but loved by God, close to God, one with God. In the days of her illness she scattered roses on the crucifix, little gestures of love. In the infirmary she looked at Celine's painting of the Agony in the Garden. She wanted to be like her loved one in all things and the prayer of Jesus was her prayer, a prayer of resignation to the will of God. "I always do the things that please Him." Her dark obscure prayer is a prayer of unselfish love, a prayer of union with God.
And if Thérèse's prayer is directed to Jesus from first to last, Mary is always there, too. We find throughout her life this tender love of her who cured her, who sheltered her, who consoled her. Thérèse could never understand her difficulty with the Rosary because of her love for Mary and her love for the Hail Mary recited slowly. The first word Thérèse read was heaven. The first sermon she understood was on the passion but the last word she ever wrote was a prayer to Mary, her mother, Queen of Heaven. In her prayer Thérèse is always sustained by the presence of Mary.
III. THÉRÈSE'S PATH OF PRAYER
Let us now follow the path of Thérèse's prayer. As a child she lived in a family atmosphere of prayer. She prayed for her friends, for an enjoyable holiday for her dad, for good weather for her cousin at the seaside, and she asked others to pray for her.
She was an intuitive and reflective person like her father. Through reflective prayer she gained insights into God (His power and beauty), into life (especially its transitory nature), and into eternity.
At her First Holy Communion Jesus became more than ever the center of her prayer. She longed to be alone with Him, above all during her own lonely hours. She learned to meditate in simple heart-to-heart conversations with Him.
At 14 under the grace of Christmas her mind matured. Her Prayer broadened and strengthened under the influence of solid reading. She writes of her experiences of God in the Belvedere.(2) These seem to be mystical experiences for she writes of advancing in virtue "under divine impressions" and "He taught me in silence the secrets of His love." Through Pranzini she experienced the power of prayer and became an apostle of prayer.
She had been purified through her excessive sensitivity, scruples, illness, mother's death, Pauline's and Marie's entrance to Carmel. This was a dark night of sense. By the time Thérèse entered Carmel she was a mature woman deeply in love with God, who prayed by reading solid books and reaching out to God in prayer in acts of love.
She entered the Carmel of Lisieux at 15 years of age. From that time she tells us her prayer was full of dryness and dereliction. Seven years later she was still concerned about dryness and drowsiness. She found it heartbreaking that she was so dry and full of distractions after Holy Communion. "I don't know of any moment at which I experience less consolation." God's love was purifying her love. No longer did she find sensible joy in prayer and the Eucharist. She experienced the dark night.(3) She suffered from the harshness of Mother Gonzague, from the trials regarding her vocation and the questioning whether God loved her. The thought of heaven - which once was her great consolation, giving meaning to her life and strength to bear her father's insanity - now no longer helped her. It hurt; mocking voices became torture. A wall descended; what gave joy now gave pain - a characteristic of the night. Yet she said, "Aridity increased; no comfort in heaven or on earth, yet I was the happiest of mortals."
During her illness she told Mother Gonzague that all she wanted was that God's will be fulfilled in her. In her dark night her will was purified (e.g., by the postponement of her profession). In her aridity she became detached from creatures, and lived humbly in God. She grew in facility in the practice of the virtues and in trust in God.
We note that when she had her first hemorrhage that she felt joy and was thrilled at the thought of being with her beloved. Very soon her soul was plunged in darkness. She understood atheism, for she experienced the void, loneliness and suffocation of a godless life. Father Godfrey tells that at 18 Thérèse believed she was damned by God - but this led her to trust Him and abandon herself more totally to Him.
She suffered pain of body and of soul. She likened it to purgatory as does St. John of the Cross - a purification by love, not by fire. She experienced deep peace and joy and tells us that in the temptations against faith she made more acts of faith than at any other time in her life. "He knows I try to live by faith even though it affords me no consolation. I ask no other favor beyond that of never offending Him." Her faith, love and trust were purified and strengthened in this dark night of the spirit.
In her we see the effects of this dark night as described by St. John of the Cross:
1. Her intelligence is purified as she receives clear
2. Her will is purified in a growth of love.
3. Her security in God develops as she grows in trust and confidence.
4. Her faith is purified as she makes more acts of faith and the Creed, written in her blood, becomes her guideline.
5. She becomes more apostolic.
Her apostolic spirit reached out to sinners because she experienced their pain. She also experienced God's love and wanted to share it. Her love grew. She chose all, and in her prayer finds all her desires fulfilled. "In the heart of my mother the Church I will be love" - a love that goes beyond the confines of space and time, Like the Crucified Christ with His arms open to embrace the world, Thérèse on her cross of physical pain, of loneliness, of spiritual darkness, opened her heart to embrace the world.
On her deathbed Celine went to visit her and scolded her, "You should be trying to sleep." "I cannot," said Thérèse, "I'm praying." "What are you saying to Jesus?" "I say nothing . . . I just love Him."
1. Please refer to the OCDS Rule of
Life, Articles 1, 4 and 5.
2. Combes, Andre. The Spirituality of St. Thérèse: An Introduction. Trans. P. E. Hallett, Chapter V: "St. Thérèse's Theory and Practice of Mental Prayer," pp. 90-118, Dublin: Gill, 1950.
3. "Sainte Thérèse de Lisieux, Modele de Vie Contemplative," Ephemerides Carmeliticae: de Contemplatione in Schola Teresiana. pp. 5-134, Anno XIII, Roma, 1962.
4. Cummins, Norbert, O.C.D. "Night of Faith," Mount Carmel. Vol. 21, No. 1, Spring 1973, pp. 3-10.
5. Gregorio de Jesus Crucificado, O. C. D. "Las Noches" San Juanistas vividas por Santa Teresa del Niño Jesus. Ephemerides Carmeliticae. pp, 352-382, Anno XI, Roma, 1960.
6. McCaffrey, Eugene, OCD, "St. Thérèse at Prayer," Mount Carmel. Vol. 21, No. 1, Spring 1973, pp. 39-49.
ADDENDUM:THE CASE FOR ST. THÉRÈSE AS A DOCTOR OF THE CHURCH
by Most Reverend Patrick V. Ahern(4)
Candidates for public office know that for a successful campaign you make your case, not once, but as often as you can. Their perseverance is a good example for those who hope Pope John Paul II will declare St. Thérèse of Lisieux a doctor of the church.
In "St. Thérèse of Lisieux: Doctor of the Church?" published last October in AMERICA (10/10/92), John F. Russell, O.Carm., a professor of theology at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, gave a concise and constructive report on the requests for the proclamation of St. Thérèse as a doctor of the church that are currently coming to the Holy See from around the world.
"The matter continues to move forward," wrote Father Russell, and indeed it does. The number of national hierarchies placing this petition before the Pope is increasing. In the past year or so, The request has been sent to Rome by the bishops of France, Brazil, Switzerland, Haiti, Romania and Spain. The bishops or Belgium, the Philippines and Ukraine are likely to follow suit soon. In the near future the bishops of the United States may wish to add their names to the growing list.
As Father Russell pointed out, some distinguished theologians have gone on record as thinking that St. Thérèse deserves this title. A number of cardinals have individually lent their support to the proposal, among them Cardinal John J. O'Connor of New York and Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston. In short, the desire to see St. Thérèse given this recognition is very strong within the church and we shall be hearing more about it in the days ahead.
Why? What is so significant about Thérèse and her teaching that she should be singled out as a Doctor Ecclesiae? I should like to supplement Father Russell's article by developing somewhat the answer to that question.
As many of AMERICA'S readers know, Thérèse Martin was born in Alencon, France, in 1873, the youngest of her parents' nine children. (Five of these children, all of them daughters, survived infancy, and Thérèse's older sisters lived for many years after her death.)
In April 1888, when she was 15, Thérèse entered the Lisieux Carmel and died there in September 1897 at age 24. She was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1925, at which time, had she lived, she would have been 52.
Although she was in Carmel only nine years and followed a monastic schedule that left little time for composition, Thérèse has left us a surprisingly large number of writings. These have been collected into a critically edited volume that was presented to Pope John Paul II at a special audience a few months ago. In addition to the autobiography (known as The Story of a Soul) that she wrote toward the end of her life at the request of her prioress, these collected pages include 266 letters, 62 poems, 21 prayers, 8 playlets and such minor writings as her retreat notes. Finally, there are The Last Conversations, the faithful record by Thérèse's sisters of her comments during the final months of her life.
The Story of a Soul first appeared in a limited printing a year after her death. More and more printings followed, then translations one after another until now it can be found in more than 50 modern languages and dialects. After the passage of almost a century, the autobiography retains its popularity and is still a worldwide bestseller.
It is, no doubt, the simplicity of Thérèse's teaching that appeals to so many. Children grasp it readily; young people are powerfully drawn to it; older people go back to it again and again. In this it resembles sacred Scripture, for as often as readers return to it they find it fresh and fertile.
As Father Russell noted: "Three characteristics have traditionally been required for a doctor of the church: holiness of life, theological acumen or learning and the proclamation of the title by a pope or an ecumenical council."
Thérèse's canonization testified to her holiness. In fact, years before that event Pope Pius X had called her "the greatest saint of modern times." Those who hope to see her named a doctor of the church think that it is precisely the doctrine contained in her writings, her "spiritual teaching," that provides the second requirement for a doctor.
That doctrine touches the minds and hearts of ordinary people, those who have no unusual religious experience. Thérèse's own religious experience had nothing to do with visions, revelations, dialogues with Christ. ecstasies or the like. There is nothing esoteric about her. She found God where He is, in the seemingly banal routine of every day, in the present moment from which He never withdraws - though He often seems to. Wherever we are and whatever we do, He is there in our present moment, close to us. He is there to love us. He cannot not love us because He is Love. And His love possesses always the quality of mercy. This is the simple doctrine Thérèse propounds. She is the doctor of God's merciful love.
She teaches this central truth with admirable simplicity, in anecdotes and charming parables. All the doctors of the church propose the Christian message, but they do not enjoy the popularity of Thérèse. How many ordinary people, after all, read and reread the works of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross? Yet Thérèse has her readers by the millions. She is the doctor for whom our age is silently calling out. "Will someone lead us to the Living God?" we all are asking in the secret places of our souls.
We are torn apart by wars and violence and hatred. We are heartsick over the state of the world. Anxiety gnaws at our insides. The pace of change has become too much for us, and we no longer know who we are or where we are heading. We desperately long for the absolute, and the only absolute is God. It is for Him that we are crying. children crying in the night.
Thérèse says to us: "I have found Him, and I know the way that leads to Him, here in this modern world. I can show you the way, the little way of confidence and love. I have experienced your desperation and the way that I discovered was the only one for me. I know it is the only one for you. Let me teach it to you."
We shall not master it in a day, of course. we must be schooled in it patiently. It has implications that are profound, and it calls for a Copernican revolution in our way of looking at reality. It is not easy to become a little child. But if we are willing, St. Thérèse will guide us and we shall find that the way is sure.
The way of spiritual childhood may seem simple, but it led St. Thérèse into the whole vast field of Catholic dogma. There is hardly any area of it that she did not touch, and her insights can now be seen to foreshadow much of the renewal called for by the Second Vatican Council.
The centrality of holy Scripture in the renewal of the church is foreshadowed surprisingly in her own spiritual development. Even without possessing a complete Bible, she fed her soul on the pure nourishment of both the Old and New Testament. At 17 and 18 she was held spell-bound by the works of St. John of the Cross, but later on she closed all other books save those of sacred Scripture. The "Little Way" has its roots in Proverbs and the Psalms, and Isaiah enthralled her. Eventually the New Testament became her deepest study. The spirit of the four Gospels blows like a fresh breeze through all her writings. "She understood them," someone said, "because she believed them." Romans took long hours of her time. She pored over it endlessly for Paul's doctrine on faith and works.
To Martin Luther she would have had much to say, and while obviously there are important differences between them, he would have been powerfully drawn to her battle cry of "confidence, nothing but confidence" in God's merciful love. As a doctor, therefore, she would have much to bring to the ecumenical encounter called for by Vatican II. She would be at home with Protestants, and they would be at home with her.
Thérèse's Mariology coincides remarkably with that of the council. For her it was far more important to imitate Mary than to admire her. She was outspokenly impatient with sermons that exaggerated the Blessed Virgin's privileges - as though Mary did not walk in the darkness that shrouds all true faith.
To the contemporary church seeking a dialogue with atheism Thérèse would have much to say, as well. For the 18 months before her death she experienced a total blackout of felt faith. The experience was terrifying, as day after day an inner voice kept saying: "Go on, go on rejoicing in death, which will give you, not that which you hope for, but a night more profound than the one you are enduring - the night of nothingness." She clung to her trust in God with a grip of steel and made more acts of faith than she had made in all her previous life. She even wrote out the Creed on a piece of paper and pinned it inside her habit close to her heart, and she was honored, she said, to sit at the table of the atheists and eat their bitter food, asking to remain there until it should please God to summon her away. He did not do so until the moment of her death.
Thérèse's ecclesiology provides an enrichment of the church's teaching about itself. She saw the church for what it is, the living Christ continuing the work of redemption. Her famous statement: "I have found my vocation at last; my vocation is to be love in the heart of the church," gives theologians enough to ponder for years to come, as they explore the mystery of the church.
Finally, we may thank her for her contribution to eschatology, the theology of the "last things." She rejected out of hand the notion of heaven as eternal rest. It could never be that, for her at least, while there was a soul left on earth to be saved. "I will come down! I will spend my heaven doing good on earth." What a lively sense she had of the communion of saints and of the love that goes on forever.
These are a few indications of the links between Thérèse's teaching and the major themes of the doctrinal renewal launched by Vatican II. They also suggest why Thérèse would be a doctor for the church in our time. At this moment, the church is experiencing malaise and has a great need. It needs to proclaim a message alive with meaning for its own members and a teaching that will appeal to the world of today.
Thérèse has always been able to speak to the hearts of a variety of individuals - to Georges Bernanos and Paul Claudel, to Dorothy Day, Edith Piaf and Jack Kerouac. She continues to speak persuasively to countless people because she teaches a lived theology. She would be a doctor of the church who combined authentic holiness with authentic teaching - one who guaranteed in her person the truth she proclaimed.
She is an evangelist who was both profoundly intelligent and so deeply in love with Jesus that her writings warm our hearts and put wings on our prayers to make them soar, not to some lofty height above us, but to the living God within us: "The kingdom of God is within you!"
"I have never sought anything but the truth," St. Thérèse said. With rock-like realism, and placing upon us no demand that we be other than we are, she propounds the truth to a world that needs truth and nothing more.
God does not demand great things of us, she says, but only the little things of which we are capable. He does not ask us to be great, but to remain little, to stay a child with child-like trust in the Father's love: "Unless you become as little children you shall not enter the Kingdom of God."
Many of us earnestly hope that Pope John Paul II will officially recognize St. Thérèse of Lisieux to be what in fact she already is - a great doctor of the church, one who will join the company of 32 others, including two women, Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena, both designated as doctors by Pope Paul VI in 1970.
By proclaiming St. Thérèse a doctor, the Pope would invite the whole world to learn from her what millions have already learned: the science of God's love. "To love God and to make Him loved" was the program of her life. Her example and teaching can help us make it the program of our lives. If that happens on a world-wide scale, the renewal of the church, of which we dream, will become a reality.
1. A notorious murderer at that time.
2. The top floor of the Martin home Les Buissonets in Lisieux.
3. cf St. John of the Cross, I Dark Night, ch. 8, p. 312
4. The Most Rev. Patrick V. Ahern has been an auxiliary bishop of New York since 1970 and is currently the archdiocese's Vicar for Development.
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