On September 30th, 1897, a young Carmelite nun living in France succumbed to the effects of tuberculosis, dying in obscurity, known only to her sisters in religious life.
Like many Carmelite nuns before her, Thérèse’s death should have meant the culmination of a life of obscurity, freely chosen, so that one might disappear fully into the mission of the Church. Yet this particular Carmelite would prove different in this respect. Within years of her death, the spiritual autobiography of Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus of the Holy Face would captivate the Church. Miracles attributed to her intercession began to be reported. In just a few decades after her death, the image of Thérèse of Lisieux would be immediately recognizable in the Catholic world. Canonization would soon follow. At the hundred year anniversary of her death, Pope John Paul II declared this formally obscure Carmelite nun to be one of the Doctors of the Church, a title given to only a privileged few of the Church’s saints. This title established Saint Thérèse as one of the Church’s great authorities in regards to the meaning and purpose of the Christian spiritual life.
At the heart of Thérèse’s understanding of the spiritual life is the principle that holiness can be appreciated and accomplished not only in the performance of mighty deeds but in a willing surrender to the purposes of God as we engage the seemingly ordinary experiences of life. This means that the possibility of communion with the holiness of Christ will be found for most not in accomplishments worthy of the world’s or even the Church’s attention, but in a hidden, unnoticed practice of receptivity to how Christ presents himself to us in the day to day circumstances of our lives.
This might sound so obvious that one might dismiss it as being trite. However, think carefully about the implications.
The great test of the spiritual way is coming to terms with the startling truth that we don’t get to choose on what occasion that Christ might meet us. We don’t get to decide for ourselves just where and when Christ will make his presence known.
Our mission is to prepare ourselves to receive Christ on his terms and in accord with his purposes. It is in our willingness to do this that his holiness is accomplished in us. Because this is one of the great truths of the spiritual life, we discover that one does not have to journey into the desert as a hermit to know the challenges of asceticism. One does not have to journey to lands hostile to the Faith and suffer martyrdom to know what it means to suffer for the sake of the Gospel. Opportunities to know and serve the Lord will find us, wherever we are, and when they do, will we rise to the occasion seek to serve the Lord?
Saint Thérèse’s personal appropriation of her spiritual way culminated in the manner in which she experienced suffering and death. Beset by physical discomfort, she was overtaken by an intense, spiritual darkness. She accepted these as being opportunities to know the Lord and to grow in faith, hope and love.
What spiritual lesson does the witness of St. Thérèse offer us?
Perhaps we might consider whether too much of our prayer is dedicated to pleading for exemptions from the hard facts and difficult circumstances of life. We tell the Lord what we do not want to face, what we just couldn’t accept, rather than coming to terms with the truth that God delivers and redeems us not from the reality of human existence, but through it. God will not take us anywhere that he didn’t go himself, this much we know from the revelation of Christ. St. Thérèse shows us that it is within an embrace of the reality of our existence that the Lord reveals himself and teaches us his truth.
May St. Thérèse intercede for us and help us to be attentive to the presence of Christ in all the experiences of life.