St Therese of Lisieux: only half the story

St Therese of Lisieux: only half the story

Msgr Peter J. Elliott

Her eyes look out at us from the photos, those fascinating strong eyes. They draw us to Saint Therese of Lisieux. If they attract us, we can also detect in her gaze a slightly reproachful secret, as if she is saying, "But you ... you only know half the story ... ".

That story presents her life as a tragic failure from the human point of view - an obscure young woman of 24 consumed by tuberculosis, locked up in a French convent, not allowed to live most of her life, as could be expected, in our glittering century. In fact, her life was one continuous string of sacrifices, first in giving up the family who adored her and then in giving up everything to follow Jesus in Carmel.

When I was a boy, I looked at the standard images of Therese carrying a crucifix and roses and imagined that she held the crucifix like a violin she is about to play. It is easier to concentrate on the roses than the crucifix and we ask for them, because we know she keeps her word and she is very generous.

Mystery

Yet we should look more closely at that crucifix which opens up the rest of the story. The melody of her life was focussed around the "offering to Merciful Love" that she made to God.

That total act of self-immolation was met with the illness that devoured her body and much more, and she became a crucifix.

We can try and enter that mystery deeper through reflecting on her life of prayer. Her celestial Lover, to whom she had offered all, was silent. God did not reply to her prayers, or if He did it was always with a strange kind of "no". Whatever she requested was met with the stone wall, the divine negative, and there is the Cross, her Cross. At times it is ours. But she embraced it in the daily events of a life as her vocation. In illness, spiritual dryness, anguish, she was always doing the small things quietly and well. Here we find the embodied reality that is Therese, the one who never said "no" to the silent God. She has always been a Doctor of the Church for our times as she teaches us her "little way". In this constant fidelity, she never ceased to love this silent God who seemed to say "no".

After her death she was heaped with sentimentality, with garish lithographs and cheap statues, part of the piety of an era. But worse, they even falsified her story, making it saccharine, superficial. Yet she breaks through the sugar frosting and, if we reflect and wait, we can begin to see more of her "hidden face" even in this phenomenon. At least the popular pieties show that people loved her and love her still with a devotion that spreads far and wide, touching hearts beyond the Church, even beyond Christianity. We love her for what she is, "love at the heart of the Church", the epitome of Carmel, that is, of all those Carmelite women who we know are always "there", with us and for us, being love at the heart of God's People. Through them we can come to know more of her story.

Piety has also misrepresented Therese as a perpetual little girl. But she is a woman. She epitom-ises the strength of womanly power and energy in the Church. To each Christian woman she makes the invitation to join her and become "love at the heart of the Church". That is no easy task because being love means the Cross. Here Therese is not merely our little sister. She is a mother, a woman standing with the Woman, a mother in solidarity with the Mother on Calvary. She penetrates the mystery of Redemption in a way only women can understand.

However, she still had her own plans and these open more of the hidden side of her life. She wanted to be a missionary, which seems ludicrous when we consider the circumstances of her life.

Mission

But we now know that this desire went back to the fact that her parents wanted a boy. They had prayed that he would be a missionary priest, and little Therese appeared instead, the baby of a family of girls. But Therese did become a missionary, the greatest of missionaries, when she discovered her mission to be "love at the heart of the Church".

She stands beside all missionaries in their zeal and toil, in their loneliness and weariness, because she found her mission in being "love at the heart of the Church". In eternity and in time, she is not only the patroness of the missions but a patroness of our beloved land, where we often find it so hard to take up the Cross and go forth and evangelise.

So send us the roses, Saint Therese, for great is our need. But help us to see deeper into the story of your soul, to learn more of the mystery of the Cross in our lives, to hear the melody of a marvellous hymn rising to God from your life, where lowliness is exalted and pride comes tumbling down.

Monsignor Peter J Elliott is a Melbourne diocesan priest who has been working at the Pontifical Council for the Family in Rome for some years.

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