Where before I saw the path illuminated before me - like the luminous footprints in Michael Jackson's Billy Jean video - now I felt as if there was a blindfold placed over my eyes which no matter how hard I tried, I could not remove. "Woe is me," thought I to myself. I feared something terrible might happen to me, and yet how could I complain? My health was good, I was not "suffering" under any great pain. And yet there were days that I would wake up on Sunday with the best intentions of going to Mass and yet end up spending the day at home. What was happening? Had I lost my faith?
I began to question everything I did, and everything I had done in the recent past. Had I abused my gift of the Holy Spirit? My mind was filled with doubt.
And then I was guided to read from a book I have had for many years that had been sitting on a table almost directly in front of me for the past month or more. And yet I hadn't opened it in all that time. Perhaps I was afraid to read what it had to say to me. Or perhaps God had just been waiting for the right time to reveal its truths to me.
The book is the "Story of a Soul" and it is the autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux - also known as "the little flower". I've never read all the way through it. Perhaps that is because every time I open it to a random page, I become quickly absorbed in a particular revelation of "the little flower" about her interior spiritual life.
In this case I turned to a page that I had previously bookmarked. I suppose I should write notes on my bookmarks so that I can remember the reason that it seemed so important to me at the time. As it was I had no clue and so I began to search the two opposing pages for an answer to this puzzle.
And once again I became absorbed and began reading and turning pages, and my search became a voyage of discovery. I don't remember ever reading these pages, but then at the same time I felt a sense of déjà vu. And as I read I could clearly hear the voice of the little flower speaking to me, I began to realize that here was an answer to a question that had been troubling me for a long time - perhaps most of my life. It was not the answer that I expected and so at first I thought it must be wrong, but then it slowly dawned on me that it was I who had been wrong all along. And that early morning light of dawn suddenly turned into a bright sun appearing over the horizon as if in an epiphany. I felt I had nothing to envy of St. Paul who saw the light on the road to Damascus. No, I was not literally knocked off my horse, but I was perhaps figuratively "knocked off my high horse".
Hear then, the words of a Saint...
|St. Thérèse - the little flower|
[Excerpts from "Story of a Soul - the autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux"]
You know it has ever been my desire to become a Saint, but I have
always felt, in comparing myself with the Saints, that I am as far
removed from them as the grain of sand, which the passer-by
tramples underfoot, is remote from the mountain whose summit is
lost in the clouds.
Instead of being discouraged, I concluded that God would not
inspire desires which could not be realised, and that I may aspire
to sanctity in spite of my littleness. For me to become great is
impossible. I must bear with myself and my many imperfections; but
I will seek out a means of getting to Heaven by a little way--very
short and very straight, a little way that is wholly new. We live
in an age of inventions; nowadays the rich need not trouble to
climb the stairs, they have lifts instead. Well, I mean to try and
find a lift by which I may be raised unto God, for I am too tiny
to climb the steep stairway of perfection. I have sought to find
in Holy Scripture some suggestion as to what this lift might be
which I so much desired, and I read these words uttered by the
Eternal Wisdom Itself: "Whosoever is a little one, let him come to
Me." Then I drew near to God, feeling sure that I had
discovered what I sought; but wishing to know further what He
would do to the little one, I continued my search and this is what
I found: "You shall be carried at the breasts and upon the knees;
as one whom the mother caresseth, so will I comfort you."
Never have I been consoled by words more tender and sweet. Thine
Arms, then, O Jesus, are the lift which must raise me up even unto
Heaven. To get there I need not grow; on the contrary, I must
remain little, I must become still less.
[I'm reversing my standard mode of operation, and allowing St. Thérèse to act as the author of this entry. My comments are in these block quotes. The book can be found online here. Also, there are a few different translations available. The one in the book that I have is slightly different from the one online.]My soul has known trials of many kinds. I have suffered much on
In this passage we see the grace of humility beautifully expressed as our little flower describes her desire to be as a child sitting on the lap of Jesus.
The Bible passages cited are:
 Proverbs 9:4
 Isaiah 66:13, 12
[Note: The word "lift" in this passage means "elevator".]
A little while later Thérèse tells us of her suffering. She begins with this introduction.
this earth. In my childhood I suffered with sadness, but now I
find sweetness in all things. Anyone but you, dear Mother, who
know me thoroughly, would smile at reading these pages, for has
ever a soul seemed less tried than mine? But if the martyrdom
which I have endured for the past year were made known, how
astonished everyone would be! Since it is your wish I will try to
describe it, but there are no words really to explain these
things. The words will always fall short of the reality.
Thérèse at once tells us that she is suffering greatly, and yet that by external appearances it would seem that she is barely suffering at all. What is this inner torment which she is about to describe? Apparently it is not the first signs of tuberculosis that she soon discovers. In fact this brings her happiness because she sees it as a call to join Jesus in Heaven.During Lent last year I felt much better than ever and continued
so until Holy Week, in spite of the fast which I observed in all
its rigour. But in the early hours of Good Friday, Jesus gave me
to hope that I should soon join Him in His beautiful Home. How
sweet is this memory!
I could not obtain permission to remain watching at the Altar of
Repose throughout the Thursday night, and I returned to our cell
at midnight. Scarcely was my head laid on the pillow when I felt a
hot stream rise to my lips. I thought I was going to die, and my
heart nearly broke with joy. But as I had already put out our
lamp, I mortified my curiosity until the morning and slept in
peace. At five o'clock, when it was time to get up, I remembered
at once that I had some good news to learn, and going to the
window I found, as I had expected, that our handkerchief was
soaked with blood. Dearest Mother, what hope was mine! I was
firmly convinced that on this anniversary of His Death, my Beloved
had allowed me to hear His first call, like a sweet, distant
murmur, heralding His joyful approach.
To our modern ears, so obsessed with youth and vigor, these words seem strange indeed. It speaks of an attitude towards Death which seems foreign. And yet, we are all destined to depart from this Earth. Our unspoken fear of Death and suffering is a symptom of the spiritual malaise of our times.Still full of joy, I returned to our cell on the evening of that
As she is nearing Death, she contemplates the fate of those who approach Death without the spiritual gifts of Faith and Hope.
happy day, and was quietly falling asleep, when my sweet Jesus
gave me the same sign as on the previous night, of my speedy
entrance to Eternal Life. I felt such a clear and lively Faith
that the thought of Heaven was my sole delight. I could not
believe it possible for men to be utterly devoid of Faith, and I
was convinced that those who deny the existence of another world
really lie in their hearts.
But during the Paschal days, so full of light, our Lord made me
understand that there really are in truth souls bereft of Faith
and Hope, who, through abuse of grace, lose these precious
treasures, the only source of pure and lasting joy.
Thérèse then reveals her true saintly genius when she describes a deep depression that envelops her.He allowed my
soul to be overwhelmed with darkness, and the thought of Heaven,
which had consoled me from my earliest childhood, now became a
subject of conflict and torture. This trial did not last merely
for days or weeks; I have been suffering for months, and I still
await deliverance. I wish I could express what I feel, but it is
beyond me. One must have passed through this dark tunnel to
understand its blackness. However, I will try to explain it by
means of a comparison.
Let me suppose that I had been born in a land of thick fogs, and
had never seen the beauties of nature, or a single ray of
sunshine, although I had heard of these wonders from my early
youth, and knew that the country wherein I dwelt was not my real
home--there was another land, unto which I should always look
forward. Now this is not a fable, invented by an inhabitant of the
land of fogs, it is the solemn truth, for the King of that sunlit
country dwelt for three and thirty years in the land of darkness,
and alas!--the darkness did not understand that He was the Light
of the World._
When my heart, weary of the surrounding darkness, tries to find
some rest in the thought of a life to come, my anguish increases.
It seems to me that out of the darkness I hear the mocking voice
of the unbeliever: "You dream of a land of light and fragrance,
you dream that the Creator of these wonders will be yours for
ever, you think one day to escape from these mists where you now
languish. Nay, rejoice in death, which will give you, not what you
hope for, but a night darker still, the night of utter
nothingness!" . . .
Here she describes beautifully the siren's song of our godless modern society. No wonder that depression is epidemic in our society - just look at the huge sale of anti-depressants. The little flower in her simple way is revealing to us the true cause of this infirmity. No wonder that Pope John Paul II made her a Doctor of the Church. She truly has the correct diagnosis and the cure for the greatest disease that afflicts modern man. For disease does not just come from bacteria and virus - these are diseases of the physical body - but there are also spiritual diseases that afflict the soul. For these, the pharmaceutical companies have no cure. At best, they can attempt to cover up the symptoms. But search as they may for a physical source to these maladies, they continuously come up empty.Each time that my enemy would provoke me to combat, I behave as a
Here is where Reason fails, and Faith must take over. Why is this so difficult for our Modern Sciences to accept? The ancients understood this well, but our modern egos do not allow us to accept that there is a God that is greater than Man.
In abandoning Faith and embracing Reason as the sole source of Truth, we plunge into the abyss of atheism and agnosticism. To avoid seeing the true nature of this false world, we obsess over youth and earthly delights. We say this is based on reality, and yet we refuse to confront the ultimate reality of Death and all its implications. Without knowing it, we actually end up embracing Death. But not Death as a door to another world, but Death as "utter nothingness". What meaning then do our earthly lives have?
Shortly after this, Thérèse describes her ordeals with Satan as she pleads with Jesus for the souls of the unbelievers.
gallant soldier. I know that a duel is an act of cowardice, and
so, without once looking him in the face, I turn my back on the
foe, then I hasten to my Saviour, and vow that I am ready to shed
my blood in witness of my belief in Heaven. I tell him, if only He
will deign to open it to poor unbelievers, I am content to
sacrifice all pleasure in the thought of it as long as I live. And
in spite of this trial, which robs me of all comfort, I still can
say: "Thou hast given me, O Lord, delight in all Thou dost."
For what joy can be greater than to suffer for Thy Love? The more
the suffering is and the less it appears before men, the more is
it to Thy Honour and Glory. Even if--but I know it to be
impossible--Thou shouldst not deign to heed my sufferings, I
should still be happy to bear them, in the hope that by my tears I
might perhaps prevent or atone for one sin against Faith.
Her belief in Heaven is unshakeable. Here in this passage I think I am hearing through Thérèse the thoughts of the martyrs as they went bravely to their deaths, praising Jesus and accepting their fates as God's will. These acts of self-sacrifice and martyrdom inspired many of the early Christians to believe, and even today is part of the reason for the quick spread of Christianity wherever it is openly persecuted.When I sing of the happiness of Heaven and the eternal possession
We live in a society where Christians are not physically persecuted. And yet there is a pernicious form of persecution that the little flower describes so well here. Satan is indeed hard at work spreading the "sin against Faith", and turning young children of faith into "poor unbelievers". Those who believe in Heaven like St. Thérèse are ridiculed. "Prove it!" they say. They might as well be in the crowd before Pilate crying "Crucify Him!"
This is indeed ironic because the rational Roman governor, Pilate, could find no reason to sentence Jesus to death, while it was the religious leaders of the time that demanded he be crucified. Today it is the voice of Reason that leads the call for the banning of religion from public places - a virtual death sentence for Christianity even more slow and torturous than crucifixion.
Christ addressed this modern crisis of Faith when he spoke these words to the Apostle Thomas, "Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed."
Thérèse then speaks to those who have lost their Faith. She speaks of a period she calls "the night of my soul". How many of us have not experienced the same feeling of being lost? Indeed these are perhaps the words that spoke most directly to me in my situation. But what is most surprising and uplifting is her response to this inner suffering.
of God, I do not feel any joy therein, for I sing only of what I
wish to believe. Sometimes, I confess, a little ray of sunshine
illumines my dark night, and I enjoy peace for an instant, but
later, the remembrance of this ray of light, instead of consoling
me, makes the blackness thicker still.
And yet never have I felt so deeply how sweet and merciful is the
Lord. He did not send me this heavy cross when it might have
discouraged me, but at a time when I was able to bear it. Now it
simply takes from me all natural satisfaction I might feel in my
longing for Heaven.
Here, the little flower reveals her saintly secret to us. Even though she had lost the belief of her upcoming "happiness in Heaven" she still retained her Faith - her "wish to believe". And it was this Faith that sustained her through her "night of my soul".I must now continue my story where I left off. Three months after
It was a Faith that she had nurtured through many years of prayer and devotion. So that when the inevitable time of spiritual drought came she had a silo full not of grain - fruit of the earth - but of manna from Heaven. Even an extended siege from the enemy could not defeat her. Her castle walls were not built of rocks from the Earth, but of Heavenly blocks of Faith piled up high - so strong that the continuous bombardment from the enemy could not even begin to make an impression.
In the world in which we live it takes the Faith of a saint to survive. We are surrounded by voices whispering to us that "God is Dead". They do not shout it, but the incessant message has its effect - like water eroding the canyon walls. And we barely notice that we are sinking steadily deeper into oblivion.
Death is the ultimate reminder; death is the great equalizer. Perhaps we live too long today; perhaps we don't experience enough Death to remind us of the Life that comes after Death. I leave you with one final passage from St. Thérèse that touches on these themes. Here, Thérèse recalls an event from when she was 10 years old, soon after a period of serious illness.
my cure Papa took me away for a change. It was a very pleasant
time, and I began to see something of the world. All around me was
joy and gladness; I was petted, made much of, admired--in fact,
for a whole fortnight my path was strewn with flowers. The Wise
Man is right when he says: "The bewitching of vanity overturneth
the innocent mind." At ten years of age the heart is easily
fascinated, and I confess that in my case this kind of life had
its charms. Alas! the world knows well how to combine its
pleasures with the service of God. How little it thinks of death!
And yet death has come to many people I knew then, young, rich,
and happy. I recall to mind the delightful places where they
lived, and ask myself where they are now, and what profit they
derive to-day from the beautiful houses and grounds where I saw
them enjoying all the good things of this life, and I reflect that
"All is vanity besides loving God and serving Him alone."
Thérèse warns us that with prosperity comes also the looming risk of falling into decadence.
Bible passages quoted here are:
 Wisdom 4:12
 Ecclesiastes 2:11
I encourage all of you to learn more about St. Thérèse. She died at the age of 24 in 1897. I seem to be strangely drawn to this period in history - the latter half of the 19th century. The spiritual struggles of that time seem to foretell the ultimate fate of 20th century man.
On a related note, I hope to write in the near future about Pope Leo XIII who has come to fascinate me. He was Pope from 1878 to 1903. In his encyclicals he displays an almost prophetic vision of the 20th century. It is curious that St. Thérèse met him as a young girl. In a comical scene, she threw herself at him and begged him to let her become a Carmelite nun at the tender age of just 15. The Swiss guards had to drag her away. The Pope's fatherly reply was "You will enter if it is God's Will". As it turned out, it was God's will. Perhaps one day my beloved Pope Leo XIII will be recognized as a saint - just like the young girl that humbled herself at his feet.