'You Will Do My Works'-St. Thér`se of Lisieux (1873-1897)
THERESE of the Child Jesus' way of practicing charity reflected her strength of soul. The Church has confirmed this by canonizing her. Those who read her writings or pray to her can testify that the saint's charity is still being exercised. Therese is always at work. She said it herself: “I want to spend my heaven doing good on earth.”
What she does, she does not do of herself and her work, her methods come from the Father. Like the Son, she does what she sees done by the Father. Jesus Himself declared: “Whoever believes in me will perform the same works as I do.” This kind of charity in action reveals God's face to us. Love reveals love; true knowledge communicates itself. This charity, which is by nature divine and therefore everlasting, is offered to us. We receive it, as Therese did, through a life of prayer and contemplation-the Theresian “little way.”
It is Jesus who does everything (Letter 142). It's one of the saint's keenest insights into the nature of her relationship with Jesus. She goes on to say: “and I do nothing.” The Father is the source of all good for her, but it is always through Jesus that He acts. Through Jesus, He makes Himself known to her, guiding and calling her. It is in Him that Therese sees the working of God, first as a whole and then in its particular movements. The Son is everywhere. When she writes of God, Jesus' name flows naturally from her pen. This shows Therese's clear perception that it is through Jesus that God is for her; through Jesus she is linked to the Father and through Jesus she is able to approach Him.
When she thinks about Jesus, Therese sees Him at work. He works for Therese, for everyone, for all sinners. Therese goes so far as to attribute to Jesus the very work of the Father. She calls Him the Creator, labeling herself His child. She sees Jesus welcoming the prodigal son. She attributes all gifts to Him. This is not mere sentiment, but a keen understanding of the relationship between Father and Son and their work of love. Until 1894, she hardly even mentioned the Father in her writings. And the word “God,” for Therese, is “generic.” Whenever it is a question of a specific action and relationship, Therese speaks of Jesus.
If you knew the grace you have received! When Therese says this to her sister Celine, she is expressing the orientation of her soul and her habit of docility. Her “investigations of grace,” one of the major preoccupations of her writings, aren't a matter of speculation or curiosity, but a way of studying reality. Therese probes events, encounters and thoughts which occur to her in order to discover in them the precise actions of the Lord. Therese welcomes the truths taught by the Church not as propositions but as revelations of a reality to which they refer but cannot exhaust. She discerns God's action in everything that happens. The penetration of her gaze grows along with her fidelity to this practice-her simple, total response to the light she receives. Therese tells Celine not to ask God for palpable signs of His presence, but simply to follow the light He gives her. Such an attitude denotes faith, but also, as she is ever attentive, tremendous flexibility, the fruit of Therese's absolute gift of self. Therese recognizes the truths of faith in the events of her life. Even when tempted to see only human manipulation behind what's happening to her, Therese would say that this or that “cross” is a grace, a gift from Jesus.
God made me understand. Jesus leads Therese by means of a personal relationship, whose intimacy reaches to the depths of her being. For Therese, understanding hinges, first of all, on a relationship between two persons who love each other. It's a matter of understanding and being understood. In this way, the beloved becomes accessible in his or her very movement and life, beyond appearances and more intimate than any words could express. More than any other person, Jesus is the One Who understands Therese and the One Whom she understands. This understanding doesn't derive from intellectual activity-it is a gift, that flows from a relationship, an openness to the Other.
Suffering attracted me. It had charms which ravished me. In consenting to suffer, Jesus has pushed His love to the limit and thus accomplished the work of the Father. Therese would do no less. For her, suffering resonates in her being in opposition to her vitality, even arresting it. Therese is a vibrant person and life for her is movement. Everything which, one way or another, impedes this movement she experiences as suffering. She tells the Abbe Reverony: “All the distractions of the pilgrimage to Rome could not drive from my soul for an instant the desire to be united with Jesus. Oh, why does He attract me so strongly if I am to languish far from Him?”
Through Jesus, she learns to yield herself up to suffering instead of resisting or fleeing it. In Jesus Who suffered, and Whom she understands because she too suffers, Therese sees Love. Jesus delivered Himself up to death, not by one isolated act but in a journey, a progression through life. Therese enters into this movement. Looking at Jesus, she discovers the charms of suffering. To suffer while loving is the real plenitude, the real triumph of eternal life and the most profound happiness. Suffering appears to her as the setting for the pure exercise of love.
Instead of fearing suffering, the reflex of our vital powers contradicted by death, Therese, rising to the plane of eternal life, loves in the midst of suffering and loves suffering itself. Instead of rejecting suffering in order to preserve her life, she lets it penetrate and purify her love. Therese sees suffering, therefore, as a gift from God, which arouses in her the living, ardent flame of love. She gives thanks for it. She longs for this suffering and abandons herself to it.
For a long time now Jesus and poor little Therese looked at and understood each other. Therese of Lisieux describes her First Communion as the occasion when Jesus united her to Himself in a bond so close she calls it “fusion.” A fundamental characteristic of Therese's relationship with Jesus is established: It is He who loves her and understands her. He is the one to whom she can happily unite herself.
Jesus, the spouse, awaits a spousal love. Therese will follow Him wherever He wills, as He wills, at His speed, in a way more unseen than seen, in lowliness rather than on the heights, in abandonment rather than mystical transports.
I felt myself consumed with a thirst for souls….While contemplating Jesus on the Cross, Therese is struck to see the Crucified's blood falling to earth with no one to gather it up. She senses His unrequited love. She perceives its ardor, power, and abandonment. She suffers the very suffering of Jesus. She understands that it is sinners-those who do not respond to His love, who reject Him-whom Jesus loves. She places herself close to Him in order to receive His overflowing love and to pour it out upon souls, thus obtaining the object of His desire.
She is at once the object of His love and one who loves with His love. The love of Jesus is a love which gives itself by sharing. Its nature is to be received and to give itself. In Jesus, Therese catches a glimpse of the Father, the One Who has sent Him. In Jesus' love, she perceives the very love which He Himself has received. Therese discovers that God delights in giving Himself. She understands that this is the fundamental movement of God. It is this characteristic that she wishes to satisfy. She wants to give joy to God: It seems to me that You would be happy not to hold back the waves of infinite tenderness within You….
Even as God loves, and gives Himself without return, so Therese wants to give herself unconditionally. She enters into the reality of the glowing log, whose sole occupation is to burn in the fire without ever being consumed. This is a divine reality; for creatures, it would be impossible. If Therese expresses herself in this way- even though she was criticized for it-it's because she possesses within her [a kernel of] that same divine generosity.
Through His incarnation, the all-powerful God “made Himself subject to weakness and suffering for love of me,” the saint says. Christ experiences not only weakness but suffering as well. He takes upon Himself all our weaknesses, including those of moribund nature, but especially the sufferings resulting from sin. He assumes all the pain and darkness of sin. In Gethsemane, this darkness nearly overwhelmed Him. Therese sees in the face of Jesus infinite depths of love joined to limitless suffering. She wants to love Him in the same way.
On that night … He armed me with His weapons. After the night of Christmas 1886, Therese finds within herself the weakness and suffering that can carry the weight of the sins of the world and overcome it. These were Jesus' weapons. When the very love of God takes over in her soul-to the point where she can say: “It seems to me that Love penetrates and surrounds me"-the suffering [caused by] sins of the world also penetrates her. She consents to this with Jesus' own love: “Your child, 0 Lord, has understood Your divine light, and she begs pardon for her brothers. She is resigned to eat the bread of sorrow as long as You desire it; she does not wish to rise up from this table filled with bitterness at which poor sinners are eating until the day set by You….”
God makes Therese share in His own movement by entrusting souls to her. With Him, she will love them throughout her earthly life and for all eternity. “You, Jesus, will be everything.” She discovers within herself the very movement of the Son who is turned toward the Father who sent Him, and this movement turns her, united with Jesus, toward men, whom He loves. This movement encounters sin. Like Jesus, Who was crushed by sin, Therese suffers, too, but in suffering she loves. She pours herself out and extends the work of God.
Seized and animated by this divine movement, Therese discovers little by little, with ever more ravishing depth, the life that is in God. Time is telescoped, as it were, and eternity almost captured in the simple created moment: “After all, it's the same to me whether I live or die. I really don't see what I'll have after death that I don't already possess in this life. I shall see God, true; but as far as being in His presence, I am totally there here on earth.”
Whoever believes in me will perform the same works as I do myself, and will perform even greater works.Therese never ceases to gaze upon the One who asks for her heart. She believes in Him to the point of never looking outside of Him for inspiration or a reason for living. The One on whom she gazes with faith and perseverance impresses her to understand the Heart of God. Through her, He gives us access to it. Therese put it simply: “Love alone counts.”
Father Loys de St. Chamas is based in Venasque, France. Translated by Sister Mary Thomas Noble, O.P.
- September 22, 1996