Monday, August 1, 2011


Taos in summer is ALL about hollyhocks
Part II of my notes on the recent retreat I attended on St. Therese of Lisieux, given by Br. Joseph. F. Schmidt.
[Part I is here].

When I converted to Catholicism back in '96, that Christ was utterly non-violent I took to be so completely, self-evidently obvious that it didn't even need discussing. If the Crucifixion was not about love, about life, about subverting the eye-for-an-eye vengeance-based violence that had held sway since the dawn of man, what was it about? That the Church was for life across the board--anti-capital punishment, anti-abortion, anti birth-control, anti-poverty, and especially anti-war--was to me the very proof of its authenticity. So was the fact that Catholicism was not politically correct, that there was something for both the left and the right to struggle with.

To me, it was self-evident that you can't be violent in your personal life, e.g. hopelessly addicted to alcohol, and effectively work for global peace. You can't think every war is a just war as long as AMERICANS are fighting it and also be kind with any real purity of heart to your next-door neighbor.

To be violent in one area and profess to be not violent in another is a contradiction in terms. To be anti-abortion and pro-war is a contradiction in terms. To be anti-war and anti-rich people is a contradiction in terms.

I was also clear that to convert in and of itself is nothing. The question is convert to what? To me, the conversion was from fear to faith, from fear to love. It was only after I converted that I looked around and saw the pews were full of people who apparently believed that their being members of the Church was a gift to the Church, rather than the other way around.  It was only after I converted That our tendency is to say not Wouldn't it be great if everyone acted like Christ, but wouldn't it be great if everyone acted like me? That was when I took a look around and realized the pews were full of rabid war-wongers.

Thus, I was happy, relieved, and gratified to find that Br. Joseph Schmidt  also takes as a matter of course that the love of God is utterly, completely, resolutely non-violent.

Violence is THE  issue of our culture and our day and Br. Joseph's thesis is that Thérèse's contribution is more than a recognition that we should do all things, even little things, for God, more than humility, more than we should be childlike, more even than her famous "My Vocation is Love!"

Her contribution was that love is without violence to either ourselves or others.

and lavendar...

She also realized that we need to vastly widen our definition of violence. Gandhi pointed out that one primary form of social violence is poverty. Poverty is violence, sexism is violence, delighting in other people's wrong-doing is violence, gossip is violence. Violence is any attitude, gesture, thought or feeling that diminishes life.

As it is, there are three main kinds of violence.


Violence begins in our feelings and thoughts. The first phase on the spiritual journey is developing love for ourselves.

Thérèse had major, basic, feelings of abandonment. As in infant she was sickly and had to be farmed out to a wet nurse and so was shuttled for a time between home and the farm where the wet nurse lived, then had to say goodbye to the wet nurse. Then, when she was 4, her mother died of breast cancer. One after the other, her two beloved oldest sisters left for the cloistered convent at Carmel (the same convent TThérèse would later enter herself).

So from a very young age, Thérèse had an extreme capacity for love and had tendencies toward "co-dependence." She was constantly trying to "bond" with people not so much or not only because she loved them and wanted to please them but because she wanted to please them in order generate the "good feelings" that compensated for the pain of abandonment. (Co-dependence refers not just to be wanting to be close to people and get their approval, but to the overly "good feelings" we get when we feel we are close or that we do have people's approval). She began to realize that her desire to please people was in some way working against her desire to please God.

After her mother died, Thérèse tried in particular to please her father. She tried to please God but when others didn't notice her efforts, she got upset (if you're anything like me, that latter has you cringing). She genuinely wanted to be loving but she also realized, that with her morbid oversensitivity and clinginess, she was on the wrong path. Though she would die a virgin, she compared herself to Mary Magdaleine, because she realized she was in danger of becoming emotionally promiscuous. She could give her heart in the wrong way to other people, in fact to any number of people.

arty Ledoux Street, Taos, NM
At the age of 13, she underwent what is known as her "Christmas conversion" around this very issue.

Here's a description of the event, taken from a former post:

The custom at the time was for the children of the house to leave their empty shoes by the fire for the parents to fill with Christmas candy. Thérèse, the youngest of five daughters, was the last to keep up the custom. Upon returning from Mass that night, her usually kind and pious father, uncharacteristically cranky, passed the shoes and remarked, "Well, thank heaven, this will be the last year." Thérèse, 13, overheard him. Ordinarily she would have burst into tears and made a scene, devastated at the thought of having displeased her dear Papa. She began running upstairs to her room, choking back sobs. But on the moment, something changed…

From Br. Joseph's Everything is Grace:

Thérèse’s sensitivity had been offended, but what of that? Could she not bear the pain of having inadvertently displeased her father, if enduring that pain was necessary to remain true to herself? Originally, in conformity with the family pattern, she had felt that if she did displease her father, she would not survive as the person she was. Her feelings had made her believe that failing to please her father would mean that she was not the good person on which she had staked her identity. Who would she be if she were not the sensitive, pleasing little Thérèse? She felt that she would surely die; it was as simple as that. Her feelings told her that she would simply no longer exist; that she would dissolve, as it were, into nothingness.

The threat of the feelings of separation and being abandoned attendant on Thérèse’s displeasing her father were so intimidating that they raised the specter of annihilation. The movement from the path Thérèse had been on with its dimension of falseness to the path of deeper truth to which she was called—a movement of profound transformation—felt like death.

But she did not die. She gathered herself, allowed herself to experience but not be overwhelmed by the feelings of hurt, and marched downstairs like an adult to open her presents with gratitude, good cheer, and joy.

Thérèse was pleasing her father, but not because she needed to please him in order to make herself feel connected and good. She was pleasing him now because, from the depths of her true self with a deepened sense of inner freedom, she could act in whatever compassionate, creative, and free way she was called to. And pleasing her father was exactly what, on this Christmas night, she was called to do and wanted to do.

[F]rom the time of her complete conversion she would never walk on the path of accommodating others at the expense of her own true self. That is, she would never please others because in a self-indulgent way she needed to please them for her own sense of security, or closeness, or fear of separation. Now she would accommodate others in a spirit of freedom and creativity, and as an expression of real love. In pleasing others, she would never again act in violence to her own integrity.

By the time Thérèse had entered Carmel, she had become so skilled at pleasing others and accommodating situations that she never insisted on her own way

She never afterward had to insist on her own way because in a sense she always got her own way, which was to love, and to be loved by, God in total freedom. In an instant, God had done for her what she hadn't been able to do for herself in ten years. She regained the inner strength she had lost when her mother died.

From that moment, "Charity entered my life"...She realized she didn't need to cry and weep anymore. She could bear the pain of being "separated" from her father, of being a failure, of not being pleasing to him. She could allow her father to have his moment of crabbiness without making him feel guilty.

We, too, get to ask ourselves, "Am I going to compromise the integrity of my spirit by pleasing others at my own spiritual expense? Am I going to be mildly depressed all my life because I won't let my childhood griefs, hurts, wounds, harm that was done to me go? Am I going to continue down this path of sentimentality in order to get the love I need?"

She realized that all God requires is our good will. She also realized that no-one knows of this inner transformation but us. We get to quietly, anonymously go about our daily business but with a new orientation of heart marked by freedom, peace, and goodwill.


There is no such thing as an objective enemy, a person who is by his or her very nature, an "enemy. Our enemy is someone else's friend or even protector. So if we can see God's image in that person, he or she ceases to be our enemy. Some people we simply have a natural aversion to; we are never going to be friends with them. But we can act "as if." We can treat our enemy like a thunderstorm: we don't take their actions personally, we don't gossip, badmouth, try to retaliate, expend energy. We just close the window...Thérèse got that it's impossible to do this all the time. We're going to fall short. Sometimes the better part of love is to remove ourselves from the situation, to "flee."

So there are some people we can't like, but we don't have to make the person into an enemy. Be willing to bear your inadequacies of failing to appreciate God's gift in that person.

Forgiveness is what happens when we let go of vengeance.


In Thérèse's time, a kind of very unfortunate Jansenism held sway. God was held to be punitive, angry, vengeful, vindictive, justice-bent and the way to gain his love was by mortifications, penance, and a very unhealthy keeping track of good deeds. Thérèse didn't complain or openly resist this way; she simply quietly, hiddenly, with utter focus, determination and love went about finding her own way.

As Br. Joseph observed, this is so apropos to the violence today in the Church. The violence of sexual abuse, the violence of the laity toward the clergy, the violence among putatively Catholic commentators and bloggers. We have to say to ourselves, I don't need to participate in the violence. I need to maintain my integrity. Which can be difficult, as violence attracts violence and therefore, sadly in a violent climate, readership, and is in fact calculated to attract readership. So we have to make love, not attention, not numbers, our goal.

The common spirituality of the day was toward "perfection" as in "Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect" [Matthew 5:48]. But notice what comes just before this in the Gospels--"For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?--and also what comes just after: "Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your father in heaven."

Thérèse saw she could not climb "the rough stairway of perfection." She was saying, "I can't do holiness as a big deal. I can't make it to the top of the ladder." She was not able to make herself perfect in the sense of never making a mistake. In fact, to tell people that perfection consists in eradicating all their fault is a form of violence. Perfection doesn't mean getting rid of all our faults and defects; it means opening ourselves to God's love.

We have to realize that right now the faults compensate for some inadequacy. Greed compensates for the fear that there won't be enough. Lust compensates for feelings of powerlessness. Self-righteousness compensates for the fear of not looking good.

We think we need to be perfect so other people and God will think we're "good"--but that's nonsense in the Christian life.

So how do we do this? Surrender and prayer.

The surrender is not giving up, nor is it denial. It's just not wilfully trying to achieve perfection.

Again, there is nothing milquetoast about this--quite the opposite. Thérèse picked Joan of Arc for her patron saint--not for her violence, but for her courage and integrity, because Joan of Arc followed her own voice. Thérèse walked a solitary line here, and in every other way. She was utterly out of tune with the rigid, fear-based spirituality of her time, which in a sense, is still the spirituality of our time. No-one in the convent understood or was on board. She transformed words like "martyr," "victim," "holocaust," so that they were no longer violent, but were driven by love.

in a pasture bordering the road in the village of Valdez, NM
when the owners, Maxine (leads the Monday rosary) and Nick (sings in the choir) saw me mooning about,
they invited me up to their porch for a chat

"If you are willing to bear serenely the trial of being displeasing to yourself, then you will be for Jesus a pleasant place of shelter."

"Yes, it suffices to humble oneself, to bear with one's imperfections. That is real sanctity."

"I entrust to Jesus my failings; I tell Him all about them; and I think, so bold is my trust, that in this way I acquire more power over His heart and draw myself in still greater abundance of the love of Him who came to call sinners, not the righteous."


  1. For this, and this alone, I would gladly trade most of the existentialist muck I waded through in my angsty twenties:

    If you are willing to bear serenely the trial of being displeasing to yourself, then you will be for Jesus a pleasant place of shelter.

  2. Heather, I hope you don't take this personally but I VIOLENTLY disagree with you. I don't think Christ was anti-war, at least in anything resembling the modern sense of the term. I think it's a pretty big leap to infer that his teachings and example point to extreme non-violence as the Christian norm. The "turn the other cheek" teaching is a good example of how we tend to interpret scripture according to our own worldview rather than looking at what it actually referred to in its historical context: - see "Literal Interpretation" Even Christ's reaction to the stoning of the adultress was about the hypocrisy of the crowd rather than the morality of capital punishment.

    Christ didn't tell St. Peter to put down his sword because he was against all violence in all circumstances; he told him to put down his sword because Peter was too thick to understand that Christ's Passion was beginning, and had to take place in order for the world's salvation. He was always trying to clue Peter in (see the Transfiguration), and these episodes are highlighted in the Gospels so that we don't make the same mistake - conflating our wants and needs and beliefs with those of God's. His way is not our way.

    If it weren't for war, millions more Jews, gypsies and homosexuals would've been killed by Hitler's regime. If it weren't for war, Saddam Hussein would still be gassing Kurds, herding women into rape rooms and feeding his enemies into wood chippers. If we're going to say "war is always wrong" then we at the very least have to bear the responsibility for the results of our inaction. War is a terrible thing, but it's also sometimes a necessary thing. You and I might not have had a church to join if Christians in the past hadn't taken up arms against those who wanted to destroy it. The bombings of Dresden and Hiroshima were awful things, but there's ample evidence from the German and Japanese documents of the time that they hastened the end of WWII, thus saving many more lives.

    The terrible truth isn't that some bad people exercise violence in order to assert their power. That's bad, but it's not the worst thing. The worst thing is that we live in a world where terrible actions sometimes need to be taken in order to prevent much worse things from happening, and in doing so, people will necessarily suffer and die. We can very easily make mistakes with horrifying consequences. We can fight and lose, and nobody gets his life back. The terrible truth is that there is no escaping violence in this world. And while we should strive for non-violence as a rule, we are aiding and abetting evil if we resolve never to resort to violence or war no matter the circumstances. I think it's dangerously naive to reject all violence all the time and, more importantly, I don't think there's the slightest evidence that such a view was ever held by Christ, much less taught to his followers.

  3. What you have written today is the most difficult tenet of Christianity. It is not in our nature to not defend ourselves when attacked. It is easier to not do that in our personal lives but when we are acting to protect our brothers and sisters--what then?

    Public officials take an oath of office to "Preserve, protect and defend" They are obligated to use force in some circumstances. Non-violence is a noble goal for us all but so is total chastity. Both are almost impossible to achieve in the real world which is why Christ gave us the sacrament of penance.

    I love your thoughts and insights and do not mean this comment as a criticism but rather as a realization most of us will fall short in our personal lives and if we fail to defend our brothers and sisters when acting as public servants we will be derelict.

  4. That is some powerful stuff. And, as usual, when I visit here, just what I need at this moment. Thank you.

  5. To be anti-abortion and pro-war, I saw, is a contradiction in terms.

    Only if by "pro-war" we mean having a lust for war. However, no Catholic is morally obliged (as a strict matter of Catholic moral teaching) to be categorically anti-war, yet all Catholics are obliged, as a condition of remaining in full communion with the Church, to be categorically anti-abortion.


  6. What's your take on St. Joan of Arc?

  7. These are tough questions. I carry a rosary and a Glock pistol to work every day. I use the former a lot more than the latter. I admire people like Dorothy Day who took a very hard-line against violence, but I also recognize the traditional Church teaching about legitimate self defense. I like the comparison to perfect chastity. As an ideal, it's up there with the best of them. In practice, for most, it is a very mixed-bag most days. I think that "violence" may be righteous, and, at least, in theory, one could act violently while fulfilling the requirements of justice and even charity.
    There is a maxim used by the royal Canadian Mounted Police when deciding when to use deadly force that goes mostly like this: The only reason for using deadly force is that the action being interrupted (the crime) is so horrible that it doesn't matter if the perpetrator of the action dies as a result of you having to act to stop it. The action one might take to defend the innocent against evil might be violent, but it has to be motivated by love and justice. If I hate the person I have to shoot, I sin. If I love the victim I am protecting (and possibly even the perpetrator, at least in theory), and that love is my motivation, then I don't believe I sin in pulling the trigger.
    That might be a technical qualification on my part, but it gets me through the day, and would allow me to sacrifice any self-righteousness I may harbor to allow me to protect an innocent victim. I also think it's pretty reasonable.
    I think this is where the Catholic Church, again, gets very "earthy." Dr. Bernie Segal writes about "holy shit" as in the "crap" we have to slog through each day on this crazy pebble on which God has placed us that, while it might appear to be smelly and dirty, actually, in time, turns into fertilizer that produces growth. Of course, most days it just stinks when we step into it, but sometimes, it's a necessary part of walking around. The Church doesn't shy away from the crap of violence. She certainly advises against seeking it as an end and wallowing in it, but I believe She tells us that if we step in it while walking along the Way, we should wash off our feet, and keep walking.
    I just cannot imagine telling a woman who is being raped to "offer it up" in imitation of Jesus' sacrifice (the image of the priest passing by the victim on his way to the temple in the parable of the Good Samaritan comes to mind.) I believe I would aim for center-mass on the perpetrator and fire until the threat was ended. Someone holier than I might then pull out his rosary and pray for the person he just stopped. It would probably take me some to get to this second step, but with the help of grace, I might make it.
    C.S. Lewis wrote a piercing essay "Why I am not a Pacifist" that I re-read often.
    It seems to me that Pacifism and Quietism (a heresy) seem too closely related for my comfort.
    Still, thanks for the piece Heather. As usual you provide good food for thought, contemplation, and movement.

  8. A very meaty post!

    On lust, I never connected it to powerlessness before. I just figured mine an addiction to the female form.

  9. Hey Ben, oh no offense taken—I think this is the most interesting and important issue of mankind. To me, Christ “thrown everything off balance,” as The Misfit says in F. O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Christianity is of an entirely different order than this world, while also utterly practical and able to be practiced (albeit with huge resistance and difficulty on our parts) in this world.

    The point is not “extreme” non-violence so much as non-violence as the primary characteristic of God’s love FOR US, and thus non-violence as a paradigm and a compass for how to gauge how we treat ourselves and each other. Nonviolence, in other words, as a mystical phenomenon, and only incidentally as a political one. The line isn’t necessarily anti-war/pro-war, it’s nonviolence as the undergirding concept, including in the rare instances, i.e. when being directly attacked, or when protecting someone who's being directly attacked, when force might be morally legitimate. But clearly even when morally legitimate, violence is the absolute last resort, not the first. Not violence as a POLICY. Not ever a “right” to exercise violence. Violence undertaken, if at all, with great reluctance (if great decisiveness), great sorrow, and as the Catechism says, only after all efforts at peace have failed.

    Of course if someone’s, say coming at you or your kid with a knife, you get to use force. But unless we're in law enforcement or the military (and God bless the folks, Chris, Father Joseph in Afghanistan, who are on the front lines facing this thorny uber dilemma every day) how often is that likely to happen to most of us?

    What’s millions of times more likely to happen is what happens every day as we go about our lives: petty jealousy, resentment, irritation, anger, pride, etc. And this is just where we get to do our part in coming awake in love so that the seeds of violence and war never get to take root.

    Non-violence doesn’t mean cowardliness, groveling, resignation, or inactivity. It means an entirely NEW kind of activity (Therese describes dripping with sweat in the effort not to turn around and glare at the sister nun who made an annoying clicking sound with her teeth in chapel) that brings forth everything we have: all our heart, all our soul, all our heart, all our strength.

    No-one knew better than Christ that violence begins in our hearts: “You have said that it is wrong to commit adultery; I say to you that if you lust in your hearts, etc.” Of course there are “bad” people in the world, and the real dilemma is that the bad people are often us.

    Far from ignoring the fact that the world has “bad people” in it, Christ took the fullest possible measure of evil and then came up with the most creative possible solution to the eye-for-an-eye vengeance that had held sway up till then. Which was instead of killing others, to lay down your own life for your friends. That was his entire life and death. And if he did not mean for us to do that, too, in our respective ways, then the Crucifixion was a gesture. The Crucifixion was a “nice thought.” The Crucifixion was for him but we are left, as always and forever, alone—our lives and suffering devoid of meaning.

    I know non-violence works because I’ve seen the fruits of it in my own life: being willing to make the goal in a conflict not winning but resolving the conflict, restraint of tongue and pen, taking responsibility (all done extremely imperfectly) for my own happiness instead of trying to manipulate others into making me happy. The way of Christ says we may not get to see the fruits of our work, our love, our laying down of our lives in this world. But we know FROM HIM and from the saints that the fruits are infinite and eternal…

  10. Heather,
    I think the life of the martyr Archbishop Oscar Romero is a great example of the kind of nonviolence you describe. As Fr. James Martin, SJ has asked, and I'm paraphrasing, "How in the world hasn't this man NOT been beatified yet?"
    I got so caught up in my reaction and response this morning that I missed my usual trip to the Y.
    A big cup of coffee, St. Therese, and Heather is a great way to start the day.

  11. "Far from ignoring the fact that the world has “bad people” in it, Christ took the fullest possible measure of evil and then came up with the most creative possible solution to the eye-for-an-eye vengeance that had held sway up till then. Which was instead of killing others, to lay down your own life for your friends. That was his entire life and death. And if he did not mean for us to do that, too, in our respective ways, then the Crucifixion was a gesture. The Crucifixion was a “nice thought.” The Crucifixion was for him but we are left, as always and forever, alone—our lives and suffering devoid of meaning."

    But I really don't think the Crucifixion meant that we're to let people kill us if they want to. If it means anything for us other than our salvation - which is by far the most important aspect of it - it means that we're called to follow Christ by dying to self and the world. Sometimes that will mean literal martyrdom, but usually it doesn't.

    Mostly I'm uncomfortable with conflating physical violence and emotional or psychic violence, which is really better termed hate or anger. And hate and anger aren't physical violence. They're undesirable. They're often harmful. And they might be at the root of a lot of violence, but then sheer greed and lust for power are also at the root of a lot of violence, with no anger or hatred involved. Actual physical violence isn't the same as being pissed off at your neighbor for letting his dog crap on your lawn. I think it's very dangerous to start equating those things in any sense. I think if we do that, we run the risk of ending up like a friend of mine who I hadn't heard from for years. I ran across her blog and learned that she'd been divorced from an abusive husband. Obviously I felt terrible for her. But as I sifted through the archives, it became apparent that the alleged abuse was actually nothing more than her husband condescending to her, being unhelpful around the house at times, being irresponsible, etc. I mean, It sounded like her ex was immature and a bit of an oaf, but there was no actual physical abuse. Sounded like a pretty typical marriage actually. But she'd read a book that expanded the definition of spousal abuse to include every marriage in the history of the world and had decided that she was a victim. Result - she publicly accused her ex of having abused her and tells their kids she was abused by their father. It's laughable, but it's also kind of evil.

    Anyway, thanks for your response. I think most of your post and your reply are right on.

  12. Heather:

    Normally, I agree with your writings,but not on this.

    You can easily be a Christian,and still have to go fight a war to protect and free others from tyranny. If, our nation hadn't gone to war and still does, so many people would not have the right to live in freedom.

    You can be a policeman/woman,a Christian and still have to use a gun if needed. Does it make you less perfect or less Christ like?
    No. In no way. If, you are the protector- you protect. Christ protected the weak. He did it with words and deeds. We are human.

    Christ never meant for us not to resort to violence. He knew we would have to. Words alone will never be the answer. Humanity will not allow it.

    What disturbs me deeply about this post- (it's your blog)- is the liberalism that smacks of irrational thought.It's follow the fear drivers and not the facts.

    Governments- ALL goverments, tend to fear-monger. It's politics. It's the name of the game. Did I enjoy what just happened in DC? No, but it was quite a civics lesson.

    I have probably gotten myself in a bit of hot water, but, after last week and sober humanity with it's numerous character defects- I still survived sober!!!

    A provactive blog. Necessary at times. It's refreshing.

    I do love the photos.New Mexico looks beautiful.


I WELCOME your comments!!!