April 23, 2009

Christ thirsts for our Love - an insight of St. Therese

There were two great contentemplative mystics from the 19th Century who continue to have an impact on the way the Church understands prayer and the spiriitual life. Therese of Lisieux and Elizabeth Catez were late 19th century contemporaries and Carmelites. They both plummeted the depths of prayer and reached the heights of sanctity. Their messages, while different, are complementary. This is due not only to their Carmelite spirituality, but also because Elisabeth was among the very first people to read Therese's autobiography, Story of a Soul. Less than a year after the death of Therese, the Carmelites in Dijon shared this edited collection of texts with a local youth minister profoundly gifted with a life of prayer, thinking that it might encourage her own vocation. They could not have known that this work would blow wide open a new vision of prayer and spirituality for the future Elisabeth of the Trinity.

To shed light on what Elisabeth grasped in the writings of St. Therese, it is helpful to refer to a letter which in all likelihood Elisabeth never saw. Known as LT 196, Therese wrote to Sr. Marie of the Sacred Heart right around Sept. 13, 1896, trying to provide her with an explanation for her approach to the spiritual life. Therese helped form young women who came to the Carmelite Monastary in Lisieux - a small town west of Paris. To provide formation, she developed a body of teaching she called "The Little Way."

Rather than drawing attention to great heroic acts of the faith performed in a way that others might notice, Therese proposed the ideal of spiritual childhood. In this ideal, all the emphasis was on trusting the loving goodness of God, the Father instead of one's own accomplishments in religion and prayer. She considered this a new spiritual invention - not unlike the elevator. Instead of struggling up a stare case of trying to do things to please God, this "Little Way" focused on doing everything out of love for God. It provided a way of living the discipline Christian life through humble acts of love rooted in a prayerful awareness that the Lord was in control - the most important thing would be to trust in his merciful love. Therese of Lisieux went so far as to offer herself to God as an oblation to his merciful love - generously accepting all the graces God yearned to give but no one else would accept. She understood that by doing this, God would make her into an instrument of his love for others. The key insight to understanding her discipline of spiritual childhood, however, does not shed as much light on what someone is expected to do as a child of God as much as it illumines the intensity and extent of Christ's love.

In this letter, Therese roots the ideal of being a little child as part of a response to Christ's love for us. It is especially moving in its reference to the thirst with which Jesus suffers for our love. But leading up to this insight, Therese reflects on an ancient Christian truth and an image celebrated by John of the Cross. Namely, it is our love that makes us pleasing to the Lord and Saint John of the Cross describes this love as fire - an intense flame in this life and a blazing furnace in the next (LF 1, 16). Please forgive my poor translation of the text:

“I understand so well that only love can render us pleasing to God so that this love is the only good I strive for. Jesus is pleased to show me the only way which leads to this Divine Furnace, this road is the abandonment of a little child who sleeps without fear in the arms of the Father: 'If anyone is little, let him come to me' says the Holy Spirit through Solomon, and this same Spirit of Love has said that “mercy is granted to the small.”

The letter goes on to explain, “Offer to God sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving.” Behold everything which Jesus reclaims for us: there is no need for our works, but only our love … He thirsts for love. Ah, I feel it more than ever – Jesus is suffering thirst – he only meets ingratitude and indifference over and over among the disciples of the world. Among his own disciples he finds (This is so overwhelming!) so few hearts surrendering themselves to him without reserve, understanding the tenderness of his love.”

A Carmelite once explained to me that the Lord searches for us more than we search for him. This is so true. His heart yearns for to come to him without reserve, with complete trust. How can we be half-hearted when the Lord yearns for us so much? How can we be indifferent? Yet, not our great works, only our wholehearted love appeals to Christ.

It is this insight - or rather encounter with the thirsting heart of Christ - which Elisabeth of the Trinity came to share with Therese of the Child Jesus. To search for and accept this encounter seems to be the key to their teachings.