Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A NEW BOOK ABOUT THÉRÈSE


As you may remember, in the summer of 2011 I did a retreat with Br. Joseph F. Schmidt, FSC, a devotee and scholar of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. I was already quite taken with his book, Everything is Grace, and posted-- some might say OVER-posted--on his insights. (The first of a series of four ran on 7.28.11 and the next three directly follow.  I was up on a mountain above Taos by myself and I see now the solitude made me way chatty).

Anyway, now Br. Joe has a new book: Walking the Little Way of Thérèse of Lisieux, that I highly recommend. I identify so strongly with her over-sensitivity, the wrong kind of people-pleasing, the violence of our intense reactions against others and against ourselves, the way our efforts to whip ourselves into shape are utterly, fatally doomed...In fact, I can't imagine that a human being who has deeply examined his or heart could do anything but identify with St. Thérèse, as described in this book.  Her confluence of the psychological and the spiritual is very much of, and deeply relevant to, our times.

Br. Joseph breaks every incident of Thérèse's life down: the death of her mother the Christmas eve "second conversion" when, at the age of 14, and in the space of a few seconds, Therese transformed from a neurotically self-centered adolescent to a mature young woman who would achieve almost unparalleled spiritual genius; the loving way she dealt with her borderline personality Superior, Mother Marie de Gonzague; the crotchety old nun Thérèse took it upon herself to accompany each night after Vespers to the refectory; her slow, agonizing death, at the age of 24, from TB. He shows how, guided by little other than fervent prayer, the Sacraments, an intelligent, tender heart, and a close reading of the Gospels, her actions and thought evolved.

Here's an excerpt called "A Way That is New."

In her maturity Thérèse came to refer to her path of love as a little way, a way that is . . . totally new (SS 207)*. Her little way is, of course, not new in the sense that it really is “the fundamental mystery, the reality of the Gospel that the Spirit of God allowed her heart to reveal directly to the people of our time,” as Pope John Paul II said in proclaiming her a Doctor of the Church (DAS 10).**

However, Thérèse’s little way can be considered“new,”since it is a way of spirituality that had been lost to the common religious teaching. By rediscovering Jesus’ spirituality of love, Thérèse has rediscovered the treasure hidden in a field; she has grasped the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:44-46). Her little way is the newly unearthed cache of gold, the treasure of apostolic faith that had been hidden beneath the misunderstandings of the prevailing spirituality, buried in the field of the common sense of the conventional wisdom, the culture of violence and death of our times.

Thérèse’s “intimate sense of spiritual realities” provides through the vision and life of a contemporary young woman a new, fresh, creative expression of Jesus’ teaching of love without violence. Thérèse’s little way offers a new emphasis in the developing understanding of the apostolic faith as that understanding“makes progress in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit” (DAS 7). Thérèse’s little way, therefore, contributes to the Church’s development of doctrine in our time by proclaiming a spirituality that negates any violence that might linger in a mistaken understanding of the Church’s authentic teaching.

As we noted, Thérèse’s spirituality in particular shines the Gospel light on the violence hidden in Jansenism, perfectionism, and Pelagianism. These errors poisoned the spirituality of Thérèse’s day and continue in various forms to contaminate religion in our own time. Among other errors,  there is a mistaken belief that a so-called “good” or “sacred” violence can be used to end the perceived evil in oneself or others. This “good” violence is often thought to be pleasing to a vengeful, punitive God. Thérèse simply rejected all aspects of these notions.

Specifically, she rejected violence, not violently but by being more and more available to the source of love. She resisted violence and subverted it, serenely bearing its pain, resisting its contamination, opening herself more fully to God’s love, and quietly living and teaching her little way of love.

In her maturity she managed relationships without the codependency of her youth, setting appropriate boundaries of detachment and self-protection. She avoided violence to herself, fleeing situations that she could not cope with but returning without resentment or revenge. The inevitable violence that she encountered in her life of love, violence that she could not end, she diminished with patience and kindness but without masochism or self-pity. She resisted being violent to others through faith and prayer, not engaging in rivalry or gossip. When in a position of authority, she acted responsibly but without compulsion or arrogance, requiring obedience but without overpowering. She made judgments without condemning and corrected without retaliation. She avoided the violence of striving for perfectionism and resisted the violence of excessive fear or guilt in failing. Her spiritual discipline was not self-punitive but consisted in maintaining awareness and faith as she established her identity, security, and self-worth in her union with God. In all of this she combated evil but without using evil’s means.

By living a life of love and revealing what loving might feel like and look like, Thérèse has become a “living icon of God,” as Pope John Paul II called her. She manifests the feminine face of God, “who shows his almighty power in his mercy and forgiveness” (DAS 8). Her understanding that God desires love without violence is a “new” modern lens through which to read the signs of our time and a light of hope in the darkness of contemporary confusion and conflict.


* Story of a Soul, Thérèse's autobiography
** Divini Amoris Scientia, Apostolic Letter of His Holiness Pope John Paul II

Br. Joe's insight that the heart of Therese's spirituality is the utterly nonviolent nature of God's love can hardly be overemphasized. How incredible, how glorious, how difficult, what an ongoing scandal that the way to end abortion, war and violence of all kinds is to be kind to the crabby person beside us at home, at work, at school, in the line at the Post Office...It is somehow the last thing we want to hear--because to be kind to people toward whom we do not feel a natural affection or preference seems to be the hardest, least glamorous, least glittery, least outwardly interesting, attractive, or compelling thing imaginable.

And it is exactly what Christ taught

Inwardly, of course, the call to love is the pilgrim's journey: the most interesting, the most compelling, the most perilous, the most radical undertaking in the world. Br. Joe suggested that I add my own insights, but this whole blog, now that I think of it, could be considered a manifestation of the Little Way. I've written extensively of my own struggles, failings, ongoing compulsions, codependence, small joys, burning heart, tragicomic efforts toward charity; of my wonder, my awe, my reverence, my prayer, my reading, the meals I've cooked for my friends, the flawed scarves I've knit, the lonely leaves I've rescued from the sidewalk; of my solitary trudging to the 99-Cent Store, to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, to Mass. Heck, if that doesn't qualify me as a student of  "the Science of Love," I don't know what does!

But read Br. Joseph's book. It will give you a whole new appreciation of the crazy paradox that this bourgeois French schoolgirl became one of the most important spiritual figures of our time. It will give you a whole new sense that your own outwardly meager, mostly unseen, often seemingly pathetic hero's journey will somehow, someday, bear fruit. It will make you really, really, grateful for central heating and morphine.

"Like You, my Adorable Spouse, I would be scourged
and crucified. I would die flayed like St. Bartholomew. I would be
plunged into boiling oil like St. John; I would undergo all the tortures
inflicted upon the martyrs."
Here's an insight: That happens to us all, one way or the other, every day.

10 comments:

  1. Dear Heather, I read, as all 'good' Catholics must, a book I'd never heard of until I began working in a mom&pop Catholic bookstore where staff said, enough times, What, you've never read The Story of a Soul? I didn't want to utterly shock them and tell them I have never even heard of St. Therese of Lisieux. So, I got a copy for myself and MB. Neither of us took to it. We simply could not relate. She seemed impossibly perfect and sweet. We both gave up on the Story before finishing it. Bad Catholics, I know.

    But then I was given Maurice and Therese: The Story of a Love by (Aux.Bshp.Fr) Patrick Ahern. My then Spiritual Director lent me the copy he was given at his ordination in the year the book was published. I didn't want to give it back. Ahern opened up for me a way to understand the saint of the Little Way. I understood why she is a Doctor of the Church. I saw the connection of the Little Way with (the now Saint) Bro Andre Bessette 'of Montreal' to whom I had developed a devotion.

    Then I read your wonderful book of which I have already said much in your combox and my own blog(s) before and about taking it on retreat with me to the Benedictine monastery in MI almost exactly one year ago (it began Dec 19). I tried to get a local book study group to pick it up but I think your take on the Little Flower was to earthy and not flowery enough for them.

    So, of course I am intrigued to read this new book. But, for a variety of reasons, purchase of it will have to wait. In the mean time I trust that this book, like all good books, will find me again when the time is providentially right. :)

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  2. So true, Heather. I sense that's why St. Therese appeals to me as well. Definitely going to have to pick this book up in the near future.

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  3. Today I read your Christmas entry in Magnificat - I agree with you in this post and believe your blog and writing is indeed an example of the little way - br.'s book sounds wonderful - thanks for hi-lighting it -thanks for sharing your friendship with little Therese.

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  4. Br. Schmidt's book is an education in St. Therese's Little Way. It takes her seemingly straightforward autobiography and analyzes it so deeply for a student of the saint. I'm finding the book transformative and challenging. Thanks for sharing Br. Schmidt with us.

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  5. Exciting to read more interpretations/reflections related to the little flower! Always a respite.

    She embodies the concept of the infinite so perfectly. If God is infinite and infinitely Good- defined in love- there is no small or large. So the small action has the same impact and is just as important as the large.

    Which is great for me, who is not even capable of the small without His assistance- no His doing. The smallest of my part just actually requires consent in my free will. Which, for whatever reason this week, I cleave to no matter how many times it has let me down.

    Amazing how little I actually have to give (especially in the light of what that could lead to) and still fail! The little flower (and subsequent interpretations- Mother Teresa) makes me realize that a few fish and loaves can feed thousands. This is most important on days when the thought of 10 more minutes is manageable, but the thought of the whole day is unbearable.

    Over and over again, she proves to me that I need the simple, the small, the little way. For me, it is the only way that anything is possible.

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  6. Exciting to read more interpretations/reflections related to the little flower! Always a respite.

    She embodies the concept of the infinite so perfectly. If God is infinite and infinitely Good- defined in love- there is no small or large. So the small action has the same impact and is just as important as the large.

    Which is great for me, who is not even capable of the small without His assistance- no His doing. The smallest of my part just actually requires consent in my free will. Which, for whatever reason this week, I cleave to no matter how many times it has let me down.

    Amazing how little I actually have to give (especially in the light of what that could lead to) and still fail! St. Therese (and subsequent interpretations- Mother Teresa) reminds me that a few fish and loaves can feed thousands.

    This is most important on days when the thought of 10 more minutes is manageable, but the thought of the whole day is unbearable.

    Over and over again, she proves to me that I need the simple, the small, the little way. For me, it is the only way that anything is possible.

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  7. Heather, thank you for sharing the excerpts from this latest book. And I must agree with Jessica that the little way is the only way for me.
    I am so encouraged by your blog, Heather. Thanks!!

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  8. I add mine to the voices of many others thanking you for the way you interpret big things and bring them down to earth, for the likes of people like me.

    I have not read anything by or about St Therese but went to bed last night (being in South Africa, I think i may be among the first to receive your blog) feeling so encouraged that such a person existed. I find your interpretation of her way fascinating and something I can relate to.

    If it weren't for those who interpret these saintly concepts into more earthly terms, i think I would find, as Owen said, St Therese too perfect to relate to. I am now longing to read Br Schmidt's books. Like Owen, i will have to wait until the books find me .... or until cicumstances allow.

    I found particularly enightening your idea of identifying with the raw materials that make up this particular saint's personality. You identify with her "over-sensitivity, the wrong kind of people-pleasing, the violence of our intense reactions against others and against ourselves, the way our efforts to whip ourselves into shape are utterly, fatally doomed". Of course, as you point out, there is something of this in us all, and i look forward to learning from St Therese, if i can.

    But I wondered if there was a saint with whose basic make-up I could strongly identify. Is there a saint who who was ... oh hang it, i cannot describe the mish-mash that is me. But I hope I find one! Anyway, Heather, blessings to you and all your friends, and somehow, you, Br Schmidt and St Therese have really made my day.

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  9. I just lost all my comments to you again! Waaaah ...! Summary: I love you, Br Schmidt and St Therese. That will have to do!

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  10. Isn't that amazing what Jessica said about there being no small or large when it comes to our actions?!! I never thought of that! So perhaps in God's eyes smiling at someone may have more impact than delivering up my body to be burned ... When I reported this great finding to my wife she paused a beat to absorb it and replied "I'm going to smile more often."

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