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The Second Conversion of St. Therese

June 24, 2011


Today, Heather King writes once again on one of the Patron Saints of Word on Fire, St. Therese of Lisieux, using her example to demonstrate the true meaning behind the phrase, “putting oneself first.” 

For weeks now, at the suggestion of my spiritual director, I’ve been carrying around a yellow Post-It in my wallet. On it are written: 

–Make sure I’m putting myself first.

–I’m not responsible for making people happy or always doing what they need.

–I need to have a life first.

–I need to be sure my needs are being met.

I cannot begin to describe how thoroughly, absolutely, horribly each of those grate against my very identity. I was raised to believe that to be good is always to put the other person first, that love consists in ignoring your own needs, that your job is to make other people happy. This may come as news to many of those who are closest to me. Because what happens, it’s taken me almost 59 years to figure out, is that when you try in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons to make other people happy, they end up rebelling. You end up resenting. And the whole thing—your sacrifice, your martyrdom—blows up in your face.

Also, if you try in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons to make other people happy, you tend to think, often rightfully, that people are taking advantage of you, because it is human nature to take advantage of someone who has, however inadvertently, placed him or herself in a position of weakness and victimhood. Which tends to make me, for one, come out fighting, often at what seem to the other person like completely random and unpredictable times, and in wildly out-of-proportion ways. The other person thinks everything’s going along fine and suddenly they show up at quarter to five instead of four-thirty and I’m ready to call 9-1-1. “What’s the matter?” they innocently ask. “YOU. WERE. LATE!!!” I shriek. I’m not proud of it, but I am bound to report I have actually done that a few times in my life.

I have certainly made inroads, and I have done massive amounts of inner and outer work in this area through the years, but I’m being called upon to make way more.

Which brings me to one of the most interesting and useful books I’ve read in a long time:Everything is Grace: The Life and Way of St. Thérèse of Lisieuxby Joseph F. Schmidt, FSC, a lecturer, spiritual director, and counselor at the international renewal center of the Christian Brothers located in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains near Sante Fe.

A little background: Thérèse (1873-1897) was sickly as an infant and had to be farmed out to a wet nurse from whom she was later separated. Her mother died of breast cancer when Thérèse was 4 ½. Her two beloved older sisters left fairly soon after for the cloistered convent at Carmel. Major abandonment issues, in other words. Thérèse herself entered the same convent at the age of fifteen, lived a hidden, outwardly unremarkable life there, and died at the tender age of twenty-four of TB.

She might have remained entirely unknown had she not left behind her autobiography, written under orders from her superiors: The Story of a Soul. She was canonized as a saint a mere twenty-eight years later. In 1997, she was named a Doctor of the Church (one of only three women upon whom the honor has been bestowed). Her “little way” continues to inspire, challenge, invite, and confound. And people, including me, continue to write books about her.

Anyway, one of Joseph Schmidt’s central theses is that Thérèse’s path to holiness took place largely around her struggle with, to put it in contemporary terms, “co-dependency.” Here are some excerpts from his wonderful Everything is Grace leading up to the famous Christmas eve during which Thérèse’s “second conversion” took place, and she turned a corner, never to return, with the wrong kind of people-pleasing.

She began to develop a style of feeling secure and bonded by pleasing others… 

Over the years, however, with the grace of insight, Thérèse came to see that while pleasing others could be a good thing, the motive of calming her disturbing feelings might not be a worthy one. If that motive fully replaced the motive of real love, then her feelings would be dictating her behavior, and that could become a serious personal weakness, undermining her authentic sensitivity and loving spirit. It could move her to compromise her personal integrity and to lose her true self for the sake of feeling good, and then she would be living out of sham love. But, from her earliest memories, it was out of real love that she wanted to live. 

These disturbances flowed from the early difficult feelings of insecurity and separation…

She became aware [even as child] not only that her willpower could be misdirected in terms of what she actually chose, but that even by choosing good she could be on the wrong path if she willfully chose good in a self-centered or self-righteous way. The very act of willpower even directed toward sanctity, she understood, could be tainted by the self-love that could drive her to try to make herself the saint she wanted to be rather than allowing God to make her the saint she was created to be. She recognized that in the use of her willpower she could sometimes be self-serving or even violent to herself or others in her efforts to be good. She was beginning to glimpse that holiness, while needing her cooperation, was really a matter of God’s doing.

When Thérèse experienced herself as weak, she thought that she needed the support, recognition, and praise of others. What she really needed was the inner strength—the strength of soul—that was founded on her own conscience and her relationship with her loving Father. “God would have to work a little miracle to make me grown up,” she recognized, “and this miracle He performed on that unforgettable Christmas day.”

The custom at the time was for the children of the house to leave their empty shoes by the fire for the parents to fill with Christmas candy. Thérèse, the youngest of five daughters, was the last to keep up the custom. Upon returning from Mass that night, her usually kind and pious father, uncharacteristically cranky, passed the shoes and remarked, “Well, thank heaven, this will be the last year.” Thérèse, 13, overheard him. Ordinarily she would have burst into tears and made a scene, devastated at the thought of having displeased her dear Papa. She began running upstairs to her room, choking back sobs. But on the moment, something changed…

Thérèse’s sensitivity had been offended, but what of that? Could she not bear the pain of having inadvertently displeased her father, if enduring that pain was necessary to remain true to herself? Originally, in conformity with the family pattern, she had felt that if she did displease her father, she would not survive as the person she was. Her feelings had made her believe that failing to please her father would mean that she was not the good person on which she had staked her identity. Who would she be if she were not the sensitive, pleasing little Thérèse? She felt that she would surely die; it was as simple as that. Her feelings told her that she would simply no longer exist; that she would dissolve, as it were, into nothingness.

The threat of the feelings of separation and being abandoned attendant on Thérèse’s displeasing her father were so intimidating that they raised the specter of annihilation. The movement from the path Thérèse had been on with its dimension of falseness to the path of deeper truth to which she was called—a movement of profound transformation—felt like death.

But she did not die. She gathered herself, allowed herself to experience but not be overwhelmed by the feelings of hurt, and marched downstairs like an adult to open her presents with gratitude, good cheer, and joy.

Thérèse was pleasing her father, but not because she needed to please him in order to make herself feel connected and good. She was pleasing him now because, from the depths of her true self with a deepened sense of inner freedom, she could act in whatever compassionate, creative, and free way she was called to. And pleasing her father was exactly what, on this Christmas night, she was called to do and wanted to do.

[F]rom the time of her complete conversion she would never walk on the path of accommodating others at the expense of her own true self. That is, she would never please others because in a self-indulgent way she needed to please them for her own sense of security, or closeness, or fear of separation. Now she would accommodate others in a spirit of freedom and creativity, and as an expression of real love. In pleasing others, she would never again act in violence to her own integrity.

By the time Thérèse had entered Carmel, she had become so skilled at pleasing others and accommodating situations that she never insisted on her own way…

She never afterward had to insist on her own way because in a sense she always got her own way, which was to love, and to be loved by, God in total freedom.

We put ourselves first, in other words, in order to put ourselves last.

To put ourselves first doesn’t mean that we never allow ourselves to be inconvenienced, or that we’re not constantly stretching ourselves, trying to go beyond ourselves, trying to give the other person the benefit of the doubt. It means we refrain from committing to more than we can give. It means refusing to be manipulated, guilt-tripped, or forced into an obligation or relationship we don’t want. It means maintaining our integrity even when everyone around us seems to have lost theirs, or not to value integrity. I never want to be a lone wolf in the wrong way. But to value integrity sometimes means being a lone wolf in the right way.

This is never going to come naturally to me. The way of least resistance always seems to be to “put the other person first,” to not make waves, to “go along.” I need a lot of guidance and every time I make even the smallest stand in the other direction I do feel as if I’ll be annihilated.

And yet God, in his infinite mercy, somehow contrives, as we stumble along the path, to eventually make the pain of not changing the one form of pain that’s worse than the pain of actually changing.

Whether we’re changing or not, God is with us.

And as Elizabeth Leseur observed: “Silence is sometimes an energetic act, and smiling is, too.”