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THE MESSAGE OF ST THERESE OF LISIEUX

A letter from the O.Carm and O.C.D. Superiors General
on the occasion of the Centenary of the death of
ST THERESE OF LISIEUX
 

 

 

 

 

 


Dear brothers and sisters in Carmel,
 

1.   We will shortly begin to celebrate the centenary of the death of our sister Therese of Lisieux.  As this anniversary approaches, many are turning their eyes to this young Carmelite, who was a member of a Teresian convent in France  and who, in her writings, shared her profound vision of the relationship between God and mankind — the fruit of her personal experience under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

2.   Therese’ mission was to remind us of the essence of the Christian message: that God is love, and that he gives himself gratuitously to those who are evangelically poor; that holiness is not the fruit of our own efforts, but of divine action, which requires nothing more of us that loving surrender to God’s saving grace.  Thus her teachings have lost none of their relevance over the years; indeed, their influence has been so great that more than thirty Episcopal Conferences and thousands of Christians have requested that Therese be declared a Doctor of the Church.

An evangelical and contemplative woman

3.   Although Therese of Lisieux spent her religious life in an enclosed Carmelite convent, she was declared Patron of the Missions, because in her, contemplative spirituality was united with its apostolic dimension.  She communicated her evangelical experience in language that was both simple and vital, in words that could be understood and absorbed by believers from every country and every culture.  Her return to the Gospels and to the Word of God, to the Jesus of history and to the paschal mystery of his death and resurrection, anticipated the Second Vatican Council.  She stressed the priority of love in the Church, the Body of Christ.  She bore witness to the spirituality of ordinary life and to the universal call to holiness.

4.   Therese’ experience and doctrine acquire special meaning in our time, when new possibilities for presence and action in society and in the Church are opening to women.  Women are called to be “a sign of God’s tender love for the human race,”[1] and to enrich humanity through their “feminine Genius.”  By her life and her writings, our sister did both.

A new look at Therese’ message.

5    Rereading Therese’s works from our own social and ecclesial contexts, and from within our own cultural realities, will help us to focus on what is truly essential: trusting openness to God our Father, who loves us and understands us; allegiance to Jesus our brother, who is the way, the truth, and the life, always present and close to us; and obedience to the Holy Spirit, who guides history — our own and that of our religious families.  All of this must take place within the acceptance of our own poverty and weakness, with the certainty that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (cf. Romans 8:37-39).

6.   We hope that our reflections will help to keep alive the dynamic spirit of this celebration, which must be a time of special grace for all Carmelites — religious, priests and laity.

Present importance of Therese to the Church

7.   During the Synod on Consecrated Life, several members of the Synod mentioned our sister as someone who has an important message for the Church at the dawning of the third millennium.  Among those who spoke of her in their contributions was the Secretary General, Cardinal Schotte, who concluded his report with the following words:

“In conclusion, may I recall a woman who was an excellent witness to the consecrated life in the mission of the Church: St. Therese of the Child Jesus...  This Carmelite nun of Lisieux distinguished herself by her humility, her evangelical simplicity and her trust in God...  In her autobiography she wrote: ‘As I desired martyrdom intensely, I found an answer in St. Paul’s letters.  The Apostle explains that the greatest charisms are of no avail without love, and that this very same love is the most certain path to God.  And I found peace...  I would be love in the heart of my Mother, the Church.’”

8.   At an audience on 4 January 1995, Pope John Paul II spoke of the commitment to prayer in consecrated life, and pointed to the importance of prayer for evangelisation. He concluded thus:

“On this point, it seems right to conclude this catechesis with a word about St. Therese, who by her prayers and sacrifices contributed to evangelisation just as much as, and perhaps more than she would have, had she been involved in missionary activities — so much so that she was proclaimed Patron of the Missions.”[2]

9.   The post-synodal apostolic exhortation Vita Consecrata, also mentions our sister: it speaks of her yearning to be love in the heart of the Church,[3] and her desire to be involved in a unique collaboration with missionary action.  She repeatedly expressed her desire to love Jesus and to make him loved[4] through her own communion with him: “To be your bride, O Jesus ... to be, in union with you, a mother of souls.”[5]

An invitation to focus on the essential

10.  In her religious name — Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face — our sister summarised her entire life’s journey which took her to spiritual maturity through a process of kenosis, the self-emptying of the incarnation and the suffering of Jesus, who by his paschal mystery liberates us from every form of slavery.  She was able to understand and to live out Jesus’ plan of life, through which he transforms the entire world of our relationships and gives a new dimension to our relationships with God, with others and with all things.  Against the plan of death which dominates and enslaves us in all these areas, the Gospel offers a plan of life which liberates and transforms us.  Therese’s mission was to remind us of these truths, and to centre us again in what is essential.

11.  We shall look more carefully at Therese’s message in the perspective of Jesus’ plan of life, which we shall summarise briefly.  Her message invites us to pass from the image of God-as-judge to that of God, Father-Mother; from lack of trust to self-abandoned trust in God; from the quest for perfection to the quest for communion with God;  from complexity to simplicity; from laws that enslave us to the law of real and effective love which liberates us; from immaturity to maturity; from external asceticism to evangelical selflessness; from trying to earn God’s love to standing before him empty-handed; from purely spiritual considerations to the Word of God; from complicated prayer to a simple contemplative gaze; from an unreachable Mary to the Mary of the gospels, who is very near to us.

I JESUS’ PLAN OF LIFE

12. The gospel of Jesus Christ, the Good News he came to bring us, is the proclamation of life and of freedom.  The freedom he brings is synonymous with love — a love which forgets itself and gives itself for the good of others.

13.  Both in his life on earth and in his teachings, Jesus fulfilled his commitment to life, even to the point of accepting the process of death which culminated in the cross.  By his incarnation, Jesus assumed the human condition and gave it its full dignity.  Out of this grew his respect for the life of each person and his will to struggle against all that oppresses or diminishes life.  He was never insensitive or indifferent to suffering or death.  By his attitude, he revealed God’s plan, which is a plan of life.  Even suffering is, within this plan, a path of life and of resurrection.

14. The God of life made himself present in Jesus of Nazareth.  He, who was the Word of life (Jn 1:4), came to give us life in abundance (cf. Jn 10:10), and to transform us into the children of God (Jn 1:14).  In the temple in Nazareth, when he began to proclaim the Good News of life, Jesus presented it as liberation (Lk 4:17-21).  In this discourse, summing up his mission, he pointed out various forms of enslavement and oppression which control human existence and keep it in a state of death.

15.   The plan of life which Jesus presented and initiated affects all three spheres of human relationships: relationships with God, with others, and with all things.

    1.  From fatalism to the responsibility of children of God   

16.   To the plan of death, which presented God as the powerful and fearsome creator, Jesus opposed his own plan of life, revealing God as the Father-Mother who, far from imposing a destiny on us, helps us to overcome fatalism and to cooperate with him freely and responsibly.  According to Jesus, our relationship with the God of life is a relationship of love and trust.

17.   Jesus revealed to us the face of the Father, and this revelation is the core and the cornerstone of every believer’s life, becoming the very centre of existence.  The God that Jesus reveals to us is a God who respects our freedom.  He is an unknown God who reveals himself in his incarnated Son, and who, through the action of the Spirit, destroys our idols — a God who becomes, more and more fully, the one foundation of our existence.

18.   Our commitment to life in all of its dimensions can become reality if it is rooted in this image of the God of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

2. From division to fraternal communion

19.   In the plan of life presented and initiated by Jesus, relationships with others are summarised in the commandment to love our neighbour, based on the commandment to love God with all our hearts, our souls and our strength (cf. Mt 27:37-39).

20.   Guided by this love, Jesus places himself on the side of the excluded and the marginalised, those condemned to various kinds of death: the poor, the sick, women, children, sinners, strangers.  He offers life to them all.  He struggles against all that opposes life, as he struggles against all that creates division — between neighbour and stranger, between pagan and Jew, between man and woman.

21.   Each human being is a synthesis of creation, accomplished in and by the Word (see Col 1:15-16; Jn 1:3).  Because of this, human beings possess a sacred quality which comes to them from God.  In the light of Christ, human beings appear in the universe as those who hear the word of God and dialogue with God.  By his incarnation, the son of God “has in a certain way united himself with each human being”.[6]  As Matthew’s Gospel tells us (Mt 25:31-46), Christ is very near to us, present in every human being, “and with particular tenderness he chose to identify himself with those who are poorest and weakest.”[7]

22.   This is a sacramental presence, which at once reveals and conceals.  In the face of every human being we can see something of the face of Jesus, the Word of life.  We first intuit the mystery of God within our own unique experience and within the autonomous and reciprocal reality of man and of woman.  Pope John Paul II has emphasised the dignity of women and their “specific contribution to the Church’s life and to pastoral and missionary activity... The Church depends on ... women for new efforts ... especially in (fostering) everything that affects the dignity of women and respect for human life ... and promoting the fundamental values of life and peace”.[8]

23.   The discovery of God’s presence in others brings about a change in human relationships.  It motivates us to live our commitment to love that is real and effective.  It demands an openness to universal fraternity in the Church and in society and it invites us to commit ourselves to all that implies life, communion and participation, from the perspective of a preferential option for the poor in whom the face of God is “dimmed and even defiled”.[9]

3.  From a selfish to a shared use of resources

24.   In Jesus's plan of life, relationships with material things are transformed. We are invited to move from using things in a way which alienates and enslaves us — leading to the oppression of others, forcing them into various forms of death — to using them with freedom, and, above all, to sharing them with others in a society which is just and human to everyone. For Jesus, material things are places of encounter with God and with our brothers and sisters, means of communication and of communion among people.

25.   Jesus' religious message has social implications which result in a commitment to justice as a source of life. This is the expression of the social and communal dimension of his commandment to love.  Jesus' plan of life, the Kingdom of God which he announced, has repercussions for the structures within which human beings live together. When these structures are founded on injustice and oppression, they become instruments of death. Christ's teachings question and challenge us powerfully on this point, and invite us to commit ourselves to a life of justice.

II.    THERESE OF LISIEUX LIVED AND BORE WITNESS TO JESUS' PLAN

 26.   The celebration of our sister's centenary is a time to re-read her life and her writings in the context of Jesus' project of life, from the perspective of our social, cultural and ecclesial environment. However, reflection on her spiritual experience demands from us, above all, a deep renewal of our lives as Carmelites. Therese reminds us of the fundamental values of the Gospel and invites us to centre our lives in them. Reading and meditating the word of God, she discovered the essential aspects of our relationships with him, with others, and with all things; she lived these with great simplicity, deeply and spontaneously, and she communicated them by her life and in her writings.

1.  A close and loving God

Drinking from the living source of the Word of God

27.   Therese of Lisieux nourished her life and her spirituality from the pure source of the word of God. At a time when reading the Bible was seldom encouraged, she did what the Second Vatican Council would later ask of all believers, and in particular of religious: she acquired "the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures. 'Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ'".[10]

28.   Faithful to the Rule, Therese meditated day and night on the law of the Lord, and kept watch in prayer.[11]  Like her spiritual mother Teresa of Jesus, she found in Jesus a living book[12]; and in imitation of St. John of the Cross, she "fixed her eyes on Christ."[13] She herself tells us how, little by little, she left spiritual books, which — especially St. John of the Cross — had been of great assistance to her on her journey, and focused on the Scriptures, in particular on the gospels:

"Later on, however, all books left me in aridity.... If I open a book composed by a spiritual author..., I feel my heart contract immediately and I read without understanding. Or if I do understand, my mind comes to a standstill without the capacity of meditating. In this helplessness, Holy Scripture and the Imitation come to my aid; in them I discover a solid and very pure nourishment. But it is especially the Gospels which sustain me during my hours of prayer, for in them I find what is necessary for my poor little soul. I am constantly discovering in them new lights, hidden and mysterious meanings. I understand and I know from experience that 'The kingdom of God is within us'".[14]

29.   Reading and reflecting on the Word of God, Therese discovered the essence of Jesus' message in ordinary daily life. This link between the Word of God and concrete everyday life led her "to find, just when I need them, certain lights which I had not seen until then... in the midst of my daily occupations."[15]  But it is primarily in his liberating Word that Jesus made himself present to Therese: "Never have I heard him speak, but I feel that he is within me at each moment, guiding me, and inspiring what I must say and do."[16]

30.   In her efforts to remind us of the essential, Therese presents the Word of God as a lamp which sheds light on our paths (cf. Ps 119:105)[17]. She reminds us that in order to understand God's message, we must have the hearts of children open and available to whatever the Spirit is saying to us and asking of us in our vocations and in our mission in the Church.

31.   We need to be constantly attentive to the word of God, “the source of all Christian spirituality.”[18]  The Church recommends communal meditation on the Bible, not only for consecrated people, but for all members of the People of God. “From familiarity with God’s word, they draw the light needed for the individual and communal discernment which helps them to seek the ways of the Lord in the signs of the times.”[19]

32.   Therese of Lisieux, whose devotion to the Scriptures was so great that she wanted to learn the biblical languages in order to enjoy the word of God better, was not in contact with the recent Church approach to the Scriptures.  Nor did her environment give her the opportunities we have today to acquire better knowledge and understanding of the biblical message.  Nonetheless, she practised the Carmelite Rule’s recommendation to keep the word of God abundantly on her lips, and in her heart, so that all that she did might alway be in agreement with the word.[20]  Let us read and meditate the word of God, as our sister did, and let us put its demands into practice, using the new means that God offers us, at this particular time in the history of the Church, to assist us in deepening our understanding of his word.

Rediscovering the paternal-maternal face of God

33.   Therese lived in an era characterised by a Jansenist spirituality which deformed the face of God, presenting him exclusively as a severe judge who could even ask us to offer ourselves as victims in an effort to appease his wrath.

34.   In reading and meditating upon the word of God, Therese of Lisieux opened her heart to Jesus, who revealed to her the true face of God: the merciful father-mother who invites us to live as his sons and daughters, in trust and in self-abandonment, surrendering ourselves to divine love, assuming with responsibility — as Christ did — the mission to proclaim God’s plan for humanity.  She understood “how Jesus wants to be loved”, and she offered herself as a sacrifice to his all-merciful Love, which wishes to communicate itself to all people.[21]

Prayer as simple filial dialogue

35.   Like her spiritual mother Teresa of Avila,[22] Therese of Lisieux experienced prayer as a trusting and loving dialogue with God the Father-Mother.[23]  The strength which comes from prayer opened her to the evangelical abnegation necessary for authentic prayer, and was transformed into vital experience. “It is prayer, it is sacrifice which give me all my strength; these are the invincible weapons which Jesus has given me.  They can touch souls much better than words.”[24]

Her prayer became increasingly simple, placing her at the very source of the living water, in the divine fire which purifies and transforms. “For me, prayer is a surge of the heart, it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy; it is something great, supernatural, which expands my soul and unites me with Jesus.[25]

From holiness as “perfection” to holiness as communion

36.   For Therese, the rediscovery of the paternal and maternal face of God marked the beginning of a new path towards holiness.  She followed this path most fully after the onset of her illness in 1894.  As she tells us in her writings, Jesus showed her that the way to holiness lies in the trust and self-abandonment of a child who falls asleep without fear in the arms of his Father:

‘Whoever is a little one, let him come to me.’ So speaks the Holy Spirit through the mouth of Solomon.  This same Spirit of Love also says: ‘For to him that is little, mercy will be shown.’ The prophet Isaiah reveals in His name that on the last day... as a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; I shall carry you at my breasts, and caress you on my knees’... Jesus does not demand great actions from us but simply surrender and gratitude.”[26]

37.   This is the transition from fear to trust.  We stand before God as children before a father and a mother.  God makes everything, even our faults and our mistakes, work for our good:

“It is confidence and nothing but confidence that must lead us to Love...  What pleases him is that he sees me loving my littleness and my poverty, the blind hope that I have in his mercy... To love Jesus, to be his victim of love — the weaker one is, without desires or virtues, the more suited one is for the workings of this consuming and transforming Love.”[27]

38.   At the root of our vocation to consecrated life in Carmel is the Lord’s initiative.  In responding to God’s invitation, those who have been called entrust themselves to his love, dedicating their lives unconditionally to God, “consecrating to him all things present and future, and placing them in his hands.”[28]  Like Therese of Lisieux, we are called to live profoundly the experience of the paternal and maternal face of God; to experience prayer as a loving dialogue with God and as a contemplative look at reality, an attentive ear turned to God as we commit ourselves to our brothers and sisters; to look at holiness not as “perfection” but as communion with God in faith, hope, and love — the sanctity of the theological virtues laid out in the Rule and St John of the Cross, who through his writings was Therese’s teacher and spiritual father.

Fidelity to our mission and purification of our faith

39.   The gratuitous experience of the paternal and maternal face of God, revealed in Jesus, and fidelity to one’s own vocation and mission, responsibility assumed as sons and daughters of God, enter into the dynamic of the paschal mystery of death and resurrection.  They are subject to purification and to the test of faith.  Therese of Lisieux expressed this by adding to her name, in an inseparable unity, “the Child Jesus” and “the Holy Face”.  The incarnated Word who, in the mystery of his childhood, invites us to trust, to love and to abandonment, is the same suffering servant who introduces us to the mysterious path which he himself trod before us — a suffering arising from fidelity to the Father’s mission.

40.   Therese discovered and understood her vocation through a process of purification of her faith in God.  Her apostolic yeaning to proclaim the Good News of salvation became a martyrdom of love, as she could see no way to combine or realise all of her desires.  God led her to understand, in the light of Chapters 12 and 13 of the First Letter to the Corinthians, that the Church is like a body, and that in this body love is the heart which sets in motion all the other parts and which, for this reason, encompasses all vocations, regardless of age and place.  When Therese understood this, she exclaimed: “My vocation — at last I have found it — my vocation is love!  Yes, I have found my place in the Church and it is You, O my God, who have given me this place; in the heart of the Church, my mother, I shall be love!  Thus I shall be everything, and this my dream will be realised!”[29]

41.   What has been described as “St Therese of Lisieux’s passion”[30] can be seen powerfully in her Last Conversations.  This passion was an experience of purifying darkness, of illness, shadow, doubts and pangs of death.  In her efforts to be faithful to her contemplative vocation, she followed the path to Calvary: “At that time I had many great interior trials of all sorts (I even wondered at times whether heaven existed).[31]  In the last months of her life, this purifying darkness became particularly dense.  Therese drank the cup of pain to its very dregs.  Like Jesus, she offered her life for others.

42.   The paschal dimension of consecrated life also includes the cross and suffering, in fidelity to the fulfilment of the commitment to the Church’s mission;[32] for “a sense of mission is essential to every Institute, not only those dedicated to the active apostolic life, but also those dedicated to the contemplative life.  Indeed, more than in external works, the mission consists in making Christ present to the world through personal witness.”[33]

In the fulfilment of our mission, we are called, like Therese of Lisieux, to experience the purification of our faith — the shield that protects us from the temptations of evil.[34]  In times of hardship, including persecution and martyrdom, we are called to assume the cross as “the superabundance of God’s love poured out upon this world ... the great sign of Christ’s saving presence, especially in the midst of difficulties and trials.”[35]

2.  A God who builds community

The evangelical dimensions of fraternal love

43.   The second aspect of Jesus’ plan is overcoming hatred and division, in order to achieve love and communion with all those to whom he calls us.  This call is closely linked to the discovery of the paternal and maternal face of God which, in Christ, has transformed us into brothers and sisters.  This is the second part of the one commandment of love: to love our neighbour as we love ourself.

44.   In Therese of Lisieux’s experience and doctrine, we find the conviction that the authenticity of our love for God is manifested in the quality of our love for our neighbour.  The dimension of fraternal love gradually expands to encompass wider and wider horizons, in a series of concentric circles — an expansion which has its source in the love of God.  The first circle hold those who are closest to us; the largest one encompasses the entire human race.  For Therese, trust and abandonment to God the Father-Mother, and the knowledge of being loved by him, are the source of fraternal charity and of apostolate — the expression of love for all human beings in the desire to share with them the good news of salvation. 

Fraternal love and life in community

45.   We live the evangelical dimensions of fraternal love through the concrete realities of our human existence: family, religious community, Christian communities, Church, various groups and associations, society as a whole.  In each of these we encounter light and darkness, positive and negative aspects.  Therese teaches us to be a living part of this reality and to begin living evangelical love wherever God has placed us.

46.   When Therese entered the Carmelite convent in Lisieux it was, in the words of her sister Marie, a small and poor convent.  There were 26 religious; the average age was 47.  It was a poor community in human terms, and spiritually it was influenced both by the rigorous attitudes of the time and by fear of an avenging God, the legacy of Jansenism.  All this created a continual obstacle to the dynamism of love and balance which St Teresa of Jesus sought to protect by her spiritual and human realism.  In this environment, among real people — people with names, qualities and faults — Therese of Lisieux lived out fraternal love and responded to its demands.

47.   Many passages in Manuscript C, addressed to Mother Marie  de Gonzaga, Prioress of the convent, describe Therese’s gradual progress in understanding and living Jesus’ commandment to love others as he loved us.  She learned to tolerate the faults of others; not to be alienated by their weaknesses, to learn from small signs of virtue; to judge everyone with understanding and kindness.  The manuscript also describes a few specific incidents which put her love for others to the test and set obstacles in the path of communion.[36]  In the small efforts, services and sacrifices of fraternal life in community, Therese lived the precept of love.


48.   The dimension of communion which is an integral part of the vocation to consecrated life, stressed also in our Rule, has been recently emphasised by Vita Consecrata in the second part entitled “Signum fraternitatis: Consecrated life as a sign of communion in the Church”.[37]

The paschal mystery helps us to understand that without renunciation, without the cross, without generous devotion, openness and forgiveness, we cannot love others a Jesus did.  Therese of Lisieux teaches and inspires us to live the new communion and fraternity in Christ within the concrete circumstances of our communities, in the midst of all our difficulties. 

3.  A God who asks us to announce the Good News

The missionary dimension: to love Jesus and to make him loved. 

49.   Commitment to evangelisation is an expression of universal love.  To witness to others the new life in Christ and to proclaim Christ’s message of hope, is to love them.  In her life as a contemplative nun, Therese never ceased to live the missionary and apostolic dynamic of the Christian vocation.  From her particular vocation to Carmel, she wanted to cooperate with Christ in the redemption of the world — not only until the end of her life, but until the end of time.[38]

In her letters to her missionary brothers, she emphasised in many ways the apostolic and missionary dimension of the contemplative Carmelite life.  Among other things, she stated: “You know that a Carmelite who would not be an apostle would separate herself from the goal of her vocation and would cease to be a daughter of the Seraphic Saint Teresa, who desired to give a thousand lives to save a single soul.”[39] She therefore wanted to live every vocation, [40] but the effectiveness of evangelisation required her simply to fulfil the task of love; and she begged the saints to obtain for her twice their capacity for love.[41]

50.   We have been called to Carmel, and therefore have been consecrated for mission.  We have “the prophetic task of recalling and serving the divine plan for humanity, as it is announced in Scripture and as it emerges from an attentive reading of the signs of God’s providential action in history.  This is the plan for the salvation and reconciliation of humanity.”[42]  From our sister Therese, we must learn the apostolic orientation of our Christian love; faith in the evangelising power of prayer; and the need for a spirituality that is incarnated in the realities of everyday life. Evangelisation is not merely information.

As children of God, we grow in love and in solidarity; evangelisation is the manifestation of this. We are called to experience, and to assume from this perspective, the pain and the anguish of our brothers and sisters. Therese accepted the trial of experiencing the doubts of unbelievers in order to obtain for them the grace of overcoming these doubts. She sat at the table of sinners and of those who refuse faith, and she suffered with them in their emptiness and in their darkness: “Your child... begs pardon for her brothers. She accepts to eat the bread of sorrow as long as you desire it; she does not wish to rise from this table filled with bitterness, at which poor sinners are eating, until the day set by you.”[43] This, too, is a way of offering a spiritual response to the search for the sacred and to the longing for God which is always present in the human heart.[44]

51.   This love also has a social dimension which obliges us, in the many ways that are specific to each vocation within the Carmelite family, to a service of integral promotion,  fostering justice and peace throughout the world by means of the authentic human development of all people. To be effective, love for others must be expressed in a way that is coherent with the needs of the contemporary world. Thus we are called to have a social aspect in our love because each day the means of expressing individual love are shrinking. Our neighbour in need, is not the isolated individual, but rather the masses oppressed by unjust and dehumanising structures.

There is an urgent need for the presence of Christian love in the work of transforming and changing structures. Charity is stronger than divisions. In the struggle for a more just world, it helps us to overcome hatred which would in the end turn the oppressed into the oppressor. Only the love of Jesus, and the testimony of his life and of his doctrine, can lead to true fraternal reconciliation. The doctrine of the path of spiritual childhood is a tremendous force for social change in the face of the abuses of power in society.

Close to Mary of Nazareth

52.   For us, Mary is the model of consecration and of discipleship, reminding us of the primacy of God's initiative and teaching us to accept grace. She teaches us “unconditional discipleship and diligent service”.[45]  In keeping with the purest Carmelite tradition, Therese of Lisieux lived in the close presence of the Mother of Jesus. Long before the Second Vatican Council, she discovered the simple woman of Nazareth, pilgrim of faith and of hope, Mother and model. She can be said to have lived her life by Mary's side.

53.   Therese rejected those images of Mary which exalt her greatness without taking her earthly life into account: "For a sermon on the Blessed Virgin to please me and do me any good, I must see her real life, not her imagined life.  I am sure that her real life was very simple.  Preachers show her to us as unapproachable, but they should present her as imitable, bringing out her virtues, saying that she lived by faith just like ourselves ... She is more Mother than Queen.” [46]

Therese’s last poem, dedicated to Mary, is titled “Why I love you, Mary”.  It is a journey through the pages of the gospel, where Therese discovered Mary’s love for God and for others, her poverty, her contemplative silence, her simplicity, her faith, her hope, her receptivity and obedience in accepting the will of God.  The gospel tells us who Mary was, and Therese’s heart revealed to her, in her experience of daily life in communion with the Virgin, Mary’s true personality.[47]

54.   In the teachings of Therese of Lisieux, we find a path which leads us to a deepened and renewed Marian life, in the light of the gospel and of intimacy with Mary.  The rediscovery of Mary, in the mystery of Christ and of the Church, gives a more solid base to our devotion, our witness and our preaching.  The entire history of our Order, from its earliest days on Mount Carmel, is imbued with Mary’s presence.

Above all, Mary is the model of discipleship in faith and contemplation.  As Therese experienced, Mary teaches us, most of all, the attitudes of Prayer: discernment, availability (the Annunciation); praise and gratitude for all that God does throughout history for the poor and the simple (the Magnificat); faith (the wedding at Cana); patient and contemplative expectation, keeping all things in her heart without the need to understand, until light dawns (finding Jesus in the temple); fidelity in times of trial (at the foot of the cross); communion and a sense of Church (praying with the disciples).

Prophetic witness in the face of challenge

55.   Christians, and especially those in consecrated life, are called to give prophetic witness by proclaiming the gospel values and denouncing all that is opposed to them.  Pope John Paul II, highlighting the prophetic character of consecrated life “as a special form of sharing in Christ’s prophetic office, which the Holy Spirit communicates to the whole People of God” recalled the figure of Elijah, “courageous prophet and friend of God,” as a model of the authentic prophet.  In his description of Elijah, John Paul II says that Elijah lived in the presence of the Lord, “and contemplated his passing-by in silence; he interceded for the people and boldly announced God’s will; he ... came to the defence of the poor against the powerful of the world.”[48]

56.   Seen from this perspective, Therese can be called a prophet of the new times.  She has been described, and with good reason, as the “prophet of youth”; a “sign of hope”; the “prophet of holiness as a vocation offered to everyone”; a “prophet of the actuality of redemption”, emphasising the invisible power of love.[49]  Therese, whose powerful desires marked her paschal journey, has much to say to a searching and dissatisfied humanity.

In keeping with Carmelite tradition, Therese saw the prophet Elijah as a model for life.  Not only was she drawn by the prophet’s experience of God in the “gentle breeze”,[50] but also by his struggle against the prophets of Baal: “After having shown us the illustrious origins of our Holy Order, after having compared us to the Prophet Elijah fighting against the priests of Baal, he declared ‘Times similar to those of Achab’s persecution are about to begin again.’  We seemed to be flying already to martyrdom.”[51]

57.   In fidelity to our Carmelite vocation, we are called to bear prophetic witness, through lives that emphasise the primacy of God in the experience of his presence at the heart of the world.  We are called to an openness which enables us to discover his presence in ways that are always new and surprising — as Elijah did in the gentle wind — and which will motivate us to commit ourselves to the service of our brothers and sisters to help them in their struggle for integral liberation.  Fraternal life “is itself prophetic in a society which, sometimes without realising it has a profound yearning for a brotherhood which knows no borders.”  Moreover, “prophecy derives a particularly persuasive power from consistency between proclamation and life.”[52]

 A living and guiding presence

58.   The evangelical quality of Therese of Lisieux’ experience and doctrine gives them permanent relevance.  The simplicity, the trust, and the abandonment to God which Therese lived and proclaimed are capable of inspiring a commitment to justice and peace in the world.[53]


59.   Therese’s’s influence on the Church and on the world of today cannot be doubted.  She knew this intuitively when she affirmed before dying, “I feel, especially, that my mission is about to begin, my mission of making God loved as I love him, of giving my little way to souls.  If God answers my desires, my heaven will be spent on earth until the end of the world.  Yes, I want to spend my heaven in doing good on earth.”[54]

 Conclusion

Renewing our contemplative and apostolic life with our sister Therese

60.   The centenary of our sister Therese’s death is an invitation from God to renew ourselves in the light of her experience and her doctrine.  As Pope John Paul II said to all religious, we have “not only a glorious history to remember and to recount, but also a great history still to be accomplished.”[55] We must look to the future, “where the Spirit is sending us in order to do even greater things.”

Our sister Therese points to the path that we must follow — the path of going back to the gospel as the only way to live in true creative fidelity to our charism.

61.   Therese teaches us the central importance of love, which simplifies and communicates the genuine freedom and liberation which lead to a mature Christian, religious and Carmelite identity.  In a world filled with anguish and fear, she guides us towards trust and abandonment in the Lord who overcomes all difficulties.  To our disembodied idealisms, she opposes a spiritual and evangelical realism, so that we may be true prophets of a God who is present, near and liberating.

As has been pointed out — not only by those consecrated to contemplation, but also by those who work in the field of an evangelisation committed to human growth, development and liberation[56] — Therese’s message is a challenge to the spirituality of today’s Church.  Spiritual childhood is an evangelical concept, which implies both awareness of the gift we have received of being sons and daughters of God, and the response that lead us to communion.

62.   Brothers and sisters in Carmel, let us give thanks to the Lord for the gift of our sister Therese of Lisieux to the Church, to the world, and to Carmel.  Let us experience her presence and her nearness as we celebrate the centenary of her death and as we continue witnessing to the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Rome, 16 July 1996

Feast of Our Lady of Mt Carmel 

Fr Joseph Chalmers    - Fr Camilo Maccise

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[1]     VC 57. The following abbreviations are used in the text: VC = Vita Consecrata; GS = Gaudium et Spes; DV = Dei Verbum; R = The Carmelite Rule (article numbers refer to the O.Carm numeration first, followed by the OCD numeration in brackets).

[2]     L’Osservatore Romano, 5 January 1995, p.4.

[3]     VC 46.

[4]     ID. 77.

[5]     ID., footnote 72.

[6]     GS 22.

[7]     Puebla Document 196.

[8]     VC 57-58

[9]     puebla document 1142

[10]   DV 25.

[11]   cf. R7 (8)

[12]   See The Book of Her Life 26:5

[13]   Ascent II Ch 22:5

[14]   Story of a Soul VIII (Manuscript A, 83V); cr. catechism of the catholic church, 127

[15]   Ib.

[16]   Ib.

[17]   cf. Story of a Soul, X (Manuscript C 4r).

[18]   VC 94.

[19]   Id. 94.

[20]   cf. Rule 14 (16).

[21]   Story of a Soul VIII (Manuscript A 83v)

[22]   See The Book of her Life, Ch. 8:5: “For mental prayer, in my opinion, is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us.”

[23]   cf. St Teresa, The Book of her Life, Ch. 8:5; The Way, Ch. 31:9.

[24]   Story of a Soul XI (Manuscript C 24v).

[25]   Story of a Soul XI (Manuscript C 25r-v). This definition of prayer opens the section on Prayer in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2559.

[26]   Story of a Soul IX (Manuscript B 1r-v).

[27]   Letter 197, to Sr Marie of the Sacred Heart, 17/9/1896.

[28]   VC 17.

[29]   Story of a Soul IX (Manuscript B 3v).

[30]   Title of a book by Guy Gaucher.

[31]   Story of a Soul VIII (Manuscript A 80v).

[32]   cf. VC 24.

[33]   Id. 72.

[34]   cf. R 14 (16).

[35]   VC 24.

[36]   cf. Story of a Soul X-XI (Manuscript C 11v-22v).

[37]   Earlier, in February 1994, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life published a document on “Fraternal Life in Community”, which contains concrete and realistic directions for growth and development, as families gathered in the name of the Lord.

[38]   cf. Story of a Soul IX (Manuscript B 3r).

[39]   Letter 198 to the Abbé Maurice Bellière, 21/10/1896.

[40]   cf. Story of a Soul IX (Manuscript B 2v).

[41]   cf. Story of a Soul IX (Manuscript B 4r).

[42]   VC 73.

[43]   Story of a Soul X (Manuscript C 6r).

[44]   cf. VC 103.

[45]   VC 28

[46]   Last conversations, 21/8/1897

[47]   Poems, 49 (p. 152)

[48]   VC 84.

[49]   cf. j.m. lustiger, La petite Thérèse, “la plus grande sainte des temps modernes,” Homélie à Lisieux pour la fête de sainte Thérèse, 25 September 1983.

[50]   cf. Story of a Soul IV and VIII (Manuscript A 36v; 76v).

[51]   Letter 192 to Mme Guérin, 16/7/1896.

[52]   VC 85.

[53]   In connection with this, we have the testimony of a North American priest who was imprisoned for protesting against the fact that troops in El Salvador were being trained in the USA to kill their brothers and sisters.  In 1985 he wrote, from his prison cell: “As a modern soul, struggling for union with God, I feel that the spirituality of St Therese (of Lisieux) is as valid today as it was in 1897.  A spirituality for all times, for all ages.  I wonder what transformation would take place in my own heart, and in the heart of the world, if simplicity, trust and self-surrender to God were taken seriously.  The more clearly this ‘modern’ soul (his own) sees the reality of the modern world hie is living in today, the more convincing is St Therese’s way of seeking union with God and justice and peace in the world.” (roy bourgeoise, Maryknoll priest: letter from a federal cell, 1985.  Quoted by C. Ackerman and J. Haley, in Reinterpreting Therese of Lisieux for Today, in Spiritual Life, v.35, n.2, Summer 1989, pg.98.)

[54]   Last Conversations, 17/7/1897; cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 956.

[55]   VC 110.

[56]   VC 110

 

     
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