THERESE OF LISIEUX – PROPHET OF NOTHINGNESS
“Sin is the refusal to accept our own nothingness – that in ourselves we are a mere want, a need, a desire. Our very existence is from another…To recognise this is truth and life. Then we begin to live in God and through God and for God”.
“Only Jesus is”
St Therese of Lisieux
I keep a reproduction of a photograph of Therese on my kitchen wall. She was only young at the time but looks wise beyond her years. I never tire of looking at that extraordinary, multi-layered face and I often talk to her as I make the tea. In those eyes there is a great deal fun and joy, but pain and suffering are mysteriously pre-figured there. Above all it seems to me there is a ferocious determination, an unflinching resolve.
How real and actual that face is! Some saints, perhaps the majority, can seem distant, no matter how inspirational their lives, but not Therese. What an extraordinary blessing it is that we have these photographs and that her sister had the unprecedented opportunity of taking a camera into Carmel.
Like no other saint, she has gripped people’s hearts. I’ve been trying to work out why.
In primary school, like many others, I was told of her famous “Little Way”:
“Sensational acts of piety are not for me…even a child can scatter flowers , to scent the throne room with their fragrance …that shall be my life, to scatter flowers- to miss no single opportunity of making some sacrifice here by a smiling look there by a kindly word, always doing the tiniest things right and doing it for love.” (from “The Story of a Soul”).
I only really became interested in Therese again when I had the opportunity to see her relics in 2009 when they came to the Preston Carmel and Lancaster Cathedral. It was an extraordinary experience. She led a very short, hidden life in an enclosed monastery in a small town in Northern France. In the eyes of the world she did not “do” or “achieve” anything at all. Yet countless thousands of people came to catch a glimpse of her relics during that world tour.
It is only comparatively recently, when I actually read her autobiography “The Story of a Soul”, that I realised that “the Little Way” is only half the story of her spirituality, and the less important half! The problem is that the above quotation from that work puts all the emphasis on self – on what I can do for God. Her autobiography clearly shows that in fact she placed the whole weight of her life on what God was doing for her, not the other way round.
The “Little Way” then is only one wing of her spirituality – or perhaps one feather! The main element, the one that makes her fly, is her extraordinary, fearless confidence in God, her Holy Daring:
“Holiness does not consist of this or that practice but in a disposition of the heart which remains always open and humble and little in God’s hands, but trusting to audacity in the Father’s goodness. This is spiritual childhood. A child trusting its parents” (St Therese)
“The Story of a Soul” is a revelation. There she stresses time and time again that no importance is to be placed on her fervent feelings or her desire for martyrdom etc. – these are spiritual riches and should be ignored. What pleases God, what is her only real treasure, is her awareness and love of her poverty and “nothingness”, and her blind trust in God. Indeed, she delighted in the growing awareness of her imperfections, because then she could trust God unconditional love all the more.
The idea of her “nothingness” occurs in the autobiography again and again:
“(Jesus) you are still ready to feed my soul with your own Divinity, my wretched soul that would sink back into nothingness at any moment if you did not give it life with a look”
“Love cannot be content without condescending – condescending to mere nothingness – and making this nothingness the fuel for its flame”.
Paradoxically, it is this realisation that enables Therese to be so incredibly bold in her relationship with Jesus and the Father. I often wonder what my reaction will be when I am about to come face to face with God. Will it be fear, hope, relief? I’m afraid I seem to change my mind on this from day to day, depending on my current situation! For Therese there was no such doubt, no hesitation – she would fling herself into the Father’s arms in total trust – she is his beloved child – the more she sees her nothingness the more she trusts the unconditional love of God, her “parent”.
In this trust and this loving acceptance of her “nothingness”, she was of course simply following the words of Jesus and St Paul:
“Unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven” Matt 18:3
“”I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me”. Galatians 2:20
“For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it”. Mark 8:35
This does not of course mean that good actions are not vital, but if they do not spring from a love of God and our neighbour they tend simply to boost the ego. Therese loved with such intensity that her ego was burnt to ashes.
She spent the final years of her short life in utter spiritual desolation. On the level of feeling, God had totally disappeared. All prayers, all “spiritual life” seemed like a mockery. She stood before Him totally empty-handed, with no virtues or fine sentiments to offer him. She didn’t pretend to be empty-handed, she knew that she really was. Yet because she had abandoned self-importance and, at the deepest level, trusted God utterly, He could fill her with His very self. Not that it felt like fullness – more like complete dereliction. But she knew in her heart what God had done for her and she let Him be. She died in great pain, still trusting.
She is a totally modern saint. She speaks to us because she knows how easy, how logical, how sensible it can seem to be an atheist, to abandon hope. She is with us right here in our secular world. She says we must live by pure, dark faith, not by feeling. By trust, not by evidence. God is Holy Mystery and by definition is beyond anything so paltry as “proof”, something the neo-atheists would do well to remember. The thousands and thousands who flocked to see her relics know that she is the real thing.
In 2009, as I sat in the Preston Carmel, I thought I caught a glimpse of her sitting at the back. Not with her obligatory angelic expression so loved by the statue-makers but with a gleam in her eye and a rather mischievous grin. That’s something else we’ve forgotten about her – that she was an absolute scream. I’m sure she was seeing the rather delicious irony of her bones travelling the length and breadth of the world while during her entire adult life she stayed so resolutely in Carmel.
There is one very great blessing in particular that Therese gave our family when she came to Lancashire. One of my daughters visited Lancaster Cathedral to see her relics with us and nine months later her own daughter, Theresa Rose, was born – and, incidentally, when I look at her little face, there seems to be a hint of that steely determination I have seen somewhere before…
Help us, dear Therese, to be without self-importance. Help us, in the darkness, to trust the Father.
I recommend “Holy Daring” by Fr John Udris, which is an inspirational account of Therese’s spirituality. It is available on Amazon