‘Living by Love’: Reflections on the New Papal Exhortation on St. Thérèse
ROUNDTABLE SERIES: Part 1
On Oct. 15, Pope Francis released an apostolic exhortation on St. Thérèse of Lisieux. This year marks 150 years since Thérèse’s birth and 100 years since her beatification. The message was published on the liturgical feast of St. Teresa of Ávila, a fellow Carmelite from whom Thérèse inherited “a great love for the Church.” Thérèse, a doctor of the Church, has called the faithful to follow her along her “Little Way,” inspiring countless people to greater charity toward their neighbor and more complete trust in God.
The Register spoke with several devotees of the Little Flower who have studied and written about her spirituality and offered timely insights gleaned from this new papal document on the beloved saint.
Heather Khym is the cohost of the internationally popular Abiding Together podcast. She and her husband, Jake, are the co-founders of Life Restoration Ministries, where she serves as director of vision and ministry of the British Columbia-based apostolate. She has more than 25 years of experience as a speaker and retreat leader, offering workshops and conferences in the United States and Canada.
Anthony Lilles is professor of spiritual theology and director of the M.A. program at St. Patrick’s Seminary and University in Menlo Park, California, and co-author of Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days With Thérèse of Lisieux.
Kris McGregor, founder and executive director of Discerning Hearts, is a regular on EWTN Radio, conducts retreats with Anthony Lilles and Father Timothy Gallagher, and provides commentary on saints for EWTN’s The Doctors of the Church series.
Edward Sri is a theologian and author of a new book featuring various saints, including St. Thérèse of Lisieux, called When You Pray: Trust, Surrender and the Transformation of Your Soul (Ascension Press).
The translated title of the exhortation is: “It is confidence and nothing but confidence that must lead us to Love,” taken from a letter the Little Flower wrote. As Pope Francis put it, these words “sum up the genius of her spirituality.” Can you elaborate on her spiritual genius?
SRI: I like summing up the heart of St. Thérèse’s spirituality in her own words. Shortly before she died, her sister asked her to describe her Little Way. Thérèse replied with two key words: surrender and trust. These are the two pillars of her Little Way.
First, it is the way of surrender. This is surrendering to the truth about ourselves: our faults, weaknesses, failures, sins. We must accept the truth of how small we really are and how much we need God — how dependent we are on him for everything, how little we can do on our own.
Second, it is the way of trust: We trust that even if we fail, even in our weakness, God is merciful. He not only forgives us, but can change us. We trust that God can heal us, transform us and lift us to heights in the spiritual life we could never reach on our own.
Thérèse famously used the image of a spiritual elevator that could lift her to God. But the key to getting to the top of that spiritual elevator ride with God is first surrendering to the fact that we need the elevator — to accept that we are too small and poor to climb to God on our own — and putting our trust in God and not ourselves.
That’s one thing I appreciate about the title of the Holy Father’s apostolic exhortation. It puts the focus of Thérèse’s Little Way on the question of confidence. Do I place my confidence in myself — in my effort, my ability to overcome sin and grow in holiness? Do I seek my identity, my security, in my performance as a Christian disciple? Or do I surrender to the truth of my utter poverty and place my trust — my confidence — entirely in God?
“Its publication on the liturgical Memorial of Saint Teresa of Avila is a way of presenting Saint Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face as the mature fruit of the reform of the Carmel and of the spirituality of the great Spanish saint”: What does the Pope mean? How does the “little” Carmelite indeed offer “mature fruit” of the elder Carmelite?
LILLES: The charism of Carmel, a prophetic charism, has matured over the last millennium, but the reform initiated by St. Teresa de Jesus was cataclysmic for a renewal of mental prayer that continues to unfold even now. At the same time, spiritual renewal in France as well as the particular challenge of Jansenism helped focus and prepare the Carmelite patrimony to speak into the needs of the contemporary heart, a heart seized with resentment, fear and anxiety. This message witnessed to by Elijah and John the Baptist is one of repentance and trust in the goodness of God against forces that would abuse religion for power. St. Thérèse gave voice to the prophetic message in ways that have engendered a more confident return to the sacraments, Scriptures and prayer. She did this not only by her written words, but even more through her hidden life of sacrifice and prayer.
Pope Francis mentions how Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI referred to Thérèse’s “science of love.” How does that accurately reflect her spirituality?
KHYM: Although she was just a young woman when she died, Thérèse was an expert in love. She seemed to have mastered the art of both pouring out love and allowing herself to receive love, which produced incredible fruit. I think her encounter with the love of God, which she allowed to continually permeate every area of her being, released her to love with a similar intensity, truly living in the image of God to the best of her ability. Her spirituality teaches us that this “science of love” isn’t for the elite, but it is accessible to all of us.
LILLES: We like to think of science as a carefully studied body of knowledge advanced by wise hypotheses and daring experiments. The saints of the Catholic Church advance the love of Christ in a similar way. Their hypotheses are not their own, but truths revealed by God, and their experiments consist in the faith by which they live their lives. St. Thérèse was conscious of the claims of science, and so she set to prove what God has revealed about love, even if she knew by her own effort she could not. But this is where confidence in God comes in. She was confident that if God gave her the desire to make known his love, he would also help her realize her desire with his love. Her life is a daring experiment in the love of God, and she hopes we will live by the same confidence.