Throughout her life, Blessed Mother Teresa acted as the face of Christ while she served…
Icons of Mercy: Little Flower of God’s merciful love
“In order to live in one single act of perfect love, I offer myself as a victim of holocaust to your merciful love. Asking you to consume me incessantly, allowing the waves of infinite tenderness shut up within you to overflow into my soul, and that thus I may become a martyr of your love, O my God!”
Most people nowadays do not pray using such language: “waves of infinite tenderness,” “a martyr of God’s love.” But it was the style of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, known to millions as the Little Flower. The quote comes from her “Act of Oblation to Merciful Love,” written by Thérèse on the feast of the Holy Trinity, June 9, 1895.
With Thérèse, it is not an instance of style over substance. Her way of expressing herself may sound saccharine to us, but it conveys a bold and courageous way of living, as anyone who has read her autobiography knows. Thérèse set out, even as a young child, with confident trust in God to live by his mercy.
Thérèse was born on Jan. 2, 1873, in Alencon, France, to Louis Martin and Zélie Guerin. She had four sisters to greet her: Marie, Pauline, Léonie and Celine. The family life was very warm and pious. Zélie and her older daughters instructed Thérèse in the Faith very early, encouraging her to take every opportunity to do some kind deed out of love for Jesus. It might be giving a coin to a beggar or helping with a household chore.
Sadly, Zélie died when Thérèse was 4. Her father and sisters tried to compensate by showering Thérèse with attention and affection. As Thérèse admits in her autobiography, she sometimes took advantage of this and needed correction. One instance was her unkindness to the family’s maid, to whom she was instructed to apologize. Thérèse would say that being corrected helped her to check self-absorption.
Family life meant getting along with each other and considering the needs of the other, as well. Thérèse marks Christmas Day in 1886 as the moment she began to make the effort against selfishness: When her father showed signs of exasperation about exchanging gifts after Mass, Thérèse was tempted to make a scene. Instead, she considered her father’s feelings, composed herself and spared the family a childish tantrum.
“Little Way” of love
Thérèse’s experiences within the family home would later influence her development of a spirituality that has been called the “Little Way,” which began to take form during her years in the Carmelite convent at Lisieux (1888-1897). The popular understanding of Thérèse’s Little Way has sometimes been limited to having nice thoughts and doing kind acts. These can be part of the Little Way, but to avoid being mawkish, such efforts must be rooted in a radical trust in God’s providence: that everything he inspires us to do, no matter how small, cooperates in his saving plan. Pope Francis, understanding this, cited Thérèse’s Little Way in Laudato Si‘ (“On Care for Our Common Home”) precisely because of its ability to anticipate the kingdom (No. 230).
One needs to remember that Thérèse’s spirituality, while growing out of her family life, also matured as she did. In the convent, Thérèse deepened her prayer life by pondering the Scriptures and receiving the Eucharist frequently. Her prayer revealed more clearly God’s mercy in sending Jesus, without whom mankind would be lost. She began to appreciate more the gratuitous nature of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, for which it seemed so few were grateful. Her desire to love like Jesus, without reward, increased. And convent life provided plenty of opportunities. It’s one thing to get along with family, especially a family that dotes on you; but loving and getting along with people outside the home (who may even be hostile) is not so easy.
|Model of Faith|
During the Year of Mercy, St. Thérèse’s trust in the mercy of God can inspire us to:
– See ourselves and others as children of God. St. Thérèse’s childlike confidence was based on her knowledge that she was loved by God and that he also loved those around her.
– Read and ponder sacred Scripture. St. Thérèse drew her strength from reading the words of Christ, which enabled her to more fully appreciate the greatness of God’s mercy to her.
– Follow her “Little Way.” Offering our daily tasks and irritations to God can help us to be more merciful to others and to see ourselves as part of God’s providential plan.
The spiritual climate of Thérèse’s time — late 19th-century France — did not help. Many people, including a few of the nuns in her convent, emphasized God’s justice. Popular piety included harsh penances — and the idea that such penances added to one’s merits. Thérèse rejected all of this out of hand. She knew intuitively that she could do nothing to add to her salvation. Her hope remained in God’s mercy, which was offered to every human being on the cross. Thérèse’s vocation was to do the little things she could with great love, offering everything in union with Jesus’ sacrifice.
Mercy in the convent
In her autobiography, Thérèse included quite a few anecdotes about her efforts to love the members of her community. For example, an older nun who used to sit behind Thérèse at prayer time would make noise constantly, clucking her teeth and rattling her rosary. It drove Thérèse mad. At times, Thérèse was tempted to scold the older nun, or give her an icy stare. But instead of acting on these impulses, Thérèse began to listen to the noise as if it were music. Why did she do this? Quite simply, she wanted to treat others with the care and kindness she had received from God. Also, if she could not bear to put up with little distractions, how would she ever love her sister in more serious moments? Moreover, had not God and others put up with her? The world did not turn around her, so she wanted to be merciful in matters small and large. Soon, the distraction faded, and Thérèse was able to pray without thoughts of retaliation.
Another example of Thérèse sharing God’s mercy, which she had received, is the manner in which she cared for the novices who were under her direction. Thérèse was assistant to the novice mistress, a position that put her over other nuns, including some friends. Her duties involved teaching the novices the way of life at the Carmel and sometimes having to correct or remonstrate them. One of the novices, a close friend of Thérèse, thought she might be able to gain access more easily to the prioress with Thérèse as the gateway. However, Thérèse did not let affection get in the way of censuring this blatant ambition. Mercy, she knew, was not merely the forgiveness of sins or showing restraint at an offense; it also included helping someone avoid sin.
These are two examples of Thérèse sharing God’s mercy with others. Perhaps they seem trivial, and taken as individual moments, they may not be serious matters. However, when one considers that Thérèse lived this way consistently during her life at the Carmel, then one begins to understand why Thérèse gives God the glory. Who can consistently check one’s anger and frustration and thereby avoid a confrontation? How many of us always tell the truth to a friend, even at the risk of losing the friendship? Thérèse took a cue from God the Father, raising seemingly trivial matters to opportunities of love and mercy. Isn’t this the idea behind the sacraments? Doesn’t God take the elements of the earth — water, fire, oil, bread and wine — and transform them into saving actions? A simple meal, through the power of God, becomes a participation in the love and salvation of Jesus Christ.
Thérèse’s genius was recapturing for her time (and for us) that sense of man’s dependence on God and God’s eagerness to provide us with the means to remain in him. Thérèse’s prayer, her ongoing relationship with God, pondering his word and applying it to life and recognizing that she had been forgiven and blessed; all of these good gifts allowed Thérèse to battle selfishness and pride, and to pass on the mercy she had received from God.
If we begin to comprehend how much God has done for us, how much he has put up with us, forgiven us, blessed us; if we understood how we have received God’s mercy in many ways, then we, too, would respond like Thérèse.
Pope Francis has chosen as the theme for the Year of Mercy a verse from the Gospel of Luke (6:36): “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
Thérèse read this same verse, and then she lived it.
David Werning writes from Virginia.