Jesus is more proud of what he is doing in your soul, of your littleness and your poverty, than he is proud of having created millions of suns and the expanse of the heavens.
--St. Thérèse of Lisieux
I recently attended a week-long retreat, given by Br. Joseph Schmidt, author of Everything is Grace.
Here are Parts I, II, and III on this series on St. Thérèse of Lisieux which, along with this last post, attempt to get across the gist of Br. Joe's wonderful talks.
According to Br. Joe, the most important thing that's happened in the Church since Thérèse was made a Doctor is that Cardinal John Henry Newman was beatified.
Newman was almost excommunicated at one point for advocating "the development of doctrine," a term of art within the Church that allows for the ongoing development and evolution of Church doctrine—“Such developments were, in his view, the natural and beneficial consequences of reason working on the original revealed truth to draw out consequences that were not obvious at first" [wikipedia]—and the way I understand it allows even for the contributions of laypeople.
Christianity is not "political" in the sense that it's bipartisan, but it is "political" in the sense that it must begin to transform culture. So at least we're moving in the right direction with the abolition of slavery, the acknowledgment of individual rights, honesty (even if frequently departed from) as the baseline for human interaction.
But we need to deepen our conscience and continue to transform culture. Violence is becoming more and more incompatible with culture. To see that non-violence is essential doesn't require high intelligence; that is, we're not more aware that violence is incompatible with love because overall we have more education, but because of the movement of the Holy Spirit.
Take Matthew 5:48: "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." For context, we need to look at the preceding verses of Matthew 5:43-47:
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[a] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?
Then comes: "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." Perfection, in other words, consists in loving not just our friends, but our enemies. It's the inclusivity of love that constitutes perfection. Not the love itself, but the inclusivity. So no violence to yourself, to others, to God, to nature. This is the "development of doctrine" before our eyes.
Luke 6:27-36 gets it even better:
27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you. 32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
This shift from perfection to mercy and compassion is a shift in mentality, another example of "the development of doctrine."
The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector [Luke 18:9-14], likewise became extremely important to Therese:
9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
The Pharisee is telling God how good he, the Pharisee, is. The tax collector is saying how good God is. The Pharisee's "righteousness" is based on arithmetic, not relationship.
The shift from willfully striving for perfection and willingly receiving God's compassion is the essential shift of the Gospels and the shift that Therese experienced, understood, and articulated with such unique fullness and clarity. The shift is from violence to oneself to receiving God's mercy. God's mercy IS God. God's mercy is love. God's mercy is the Holy Spirit.
This attitude transforms our actions from the inside. This doesn't allow us to have enemies. Our prayer is to receive the Holy Spirit, not to vanquish our enemies.
Before his conversion, St. Paul was the quintessential Pharisee. He was genetically, nationalistically, racially, morally, ministerially, and by virtue of his gender, "perfect." By all worldly standards he was "without fault," one of the "chosen people. But as followers of Christ, we do not put our trust in any external circumstances or ceremonies or observances, e.g. circumcision. And just as Thérèse had to give up her whole identity as a person who strives, Paul had to give up his identity as a perfect person and come to see that his identity instead lay in union with God. "But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ." [Phil. 3:7-8]
Instead of being the one who strives the hardest, in other words, we get to dare to be the one who is most open to God's love.
The following excerpts are from Divini Amoris Scientia: Apostolic Letter of His Holiness Pope John Paul II, dated October 19, 1997 (Adapted, sec: 1, 7-11) making Thérèse a Doctor of the Church--an extraordinary honor bestowed upon (I believe) thirty men but, to date, only three women (the other two being Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena).
"Her teaching not only conforms to Scripture and the Catholic faith, but excels for its depth and wise synthesis. Her doctrine is at once a confession of the Church's faith, an experience of the Christian mystery and a way to holiness. Thérèse offers a mature synthesis of Christian spirituality: she combines theology and the spiritual life; she expresses herself with strength and authority, with a great ability to persuade and communicate, shown by the reception and dissemination of her message...
She has made the Gospel shine appealingly in our time; she had the mission of making the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, known and loved; she helped to heal souls of the rigors and fears of Jansenism, which tended to stress God's justice rather than his divine mercy....Thus she became a living icon of that God who, according to the Church's prayer, "shows his almighty power in his mercy and forgiveness." (cf. Roman Missal, 26th S.Or.Time).
Even though Thérèse does not have a true and proper doctrinal corpus, nevertheless a particular radiance of doctrine shines forth from her writings which, as if by a charism of the Holy Spirit, grasp the very heart of the message of Revelation in a fresh and original vision, presenting a teaching of eminent quality...
Her "little way" is the way of 'holy childhood.' There is something unique in this way, the genius of Thérèse. At the same time there is the confirmation and renewal of the most basic and universal truths. What truth of the Gospel message is really more basic and more universal than this: God is our Father and we are his children?...
Thérèse's doctrine possesses an exceptional universality, transcending ever border. The influence of her message extends first of all to men and women whose holiness and heroic virtues the Church herself has recognized, to the Church's pastors, to experts in theology and spirituality, to priests and seminarians, to men and women religious, to ecclesial movements and new communities, to men and women of every condition and every continent, even beyond the Catholic and Christian church....The power of her message lies in its concrete explanation of how Jesus' promises are fulfilled in the believer who knows how confidently to welcome into his own life the saving presence of God...
Moreover, some circumstances contribute to making her designation as a Teacher for the Church of our time even more significant. First of all, Thérèse is a woman, who in approaching the Gospel knew how to grasp its hidden wealth with the practicality and deep resonance of life and wisdom which belong to the female genius.
Thérèse is also a contemplative. In the hiddenness of her Carmel she lived the great adventure of Christian experience to the point of knowing the breadth, length, height and depth of Christ's love...By her life Thérèse offers a witness and theological illustration of the beauty of contemplative life as the total dedication to Christ, Spouse of the Church, and an affirmation of Christ's primacy over all things--a hidden life which possesses a mysterious fruitfulness for spreading the Gospel and fills the Church and the world with the sweet aroma of Christ.
Lastly, Thérèse is a young person, who reached the maturity of holiness in the prime of her youth. As such, she is a teacher of evangelical life, especially for young people, who must the leading witnesses of the Gospel to the new generations"...
So there you have Br. Joseph's reflections and handouts, and I myself particularly like the phrase "female genius." Here at last is a sign of real hope for the healing of the wound between the sexes, for a renewed recognition of the nobility of motherhood, for the acknowledgment of the incalculable contribution that women have made down through the centuries to the Church and to humanity: the patient endurance, the ability to bear the tension of what so often seems unbearable, their "deep resonance of life and wisdom."
I would add their fierce, white-hot love.
Because if you think Thérèse's "little way" is timid or soft, try living it. To care so much about the suffering of the world that you will metaphorically lay down your own life rather than take the short-term satisfaction of hurting the person who hurt you back; to bear with the endless petty annoyances and irritations and setbacks and disappointments of daily life without bitterness or complaint; to stay the course silently, anonymously, when everyone around you is saying--No, violence is a good thing! Come into the REAL WORLD where PEOPLE ARE EVIL. Who are YOU to say God is merciful, God is love?--is a fearsome task.
One reason Thérèse is such a bridge builder, however, is that she consistently said what she was for, not what she was against. She didn't tell the haters they were wrong. She didn't try to argue with the people who believe in a punishing God and that we should therefore punish ourselves and our enemies. She didn't try to set the people straight who see "Thou shalt not kill" not as a commandment but as a challenge to start looking for loopholes.
She told what she treasured. She prayed for the vicious murderer Pranzini. She said open yourself to love and God will do the rest. She stayed squarely within a Church whose faults she could see but refused to dwell upon, preferring to surrender to God's infinite mercy and to believe her inner work would bear fruit.
"The power of her message lies in its concrete explanation of how Jesus' promises are fulfilled in the believer who knows how confidently to welcome into his own life the saving presence of God."
Surely that is part of what a writer can do.
Surely that is part of what we can all do.
|downtown l.a. skyline|