Tuesday, October 1, 2013

St. Thérèse, Little Flower, pray for us

Today is the liturgical Memorial of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, more affectionately known as the Little Flower. Just this past week, re-reading the opening chapter of Josef Ratzinger's Introduction to Christianity, specifically the first section of the first chapter, which is about what it means to be a believer in the (late-) modern world, I was struck by his invocation of Kierkegaard's description of the believer (i.e., a circus clown warning a village of an impending fire, which warning is mistaken for the clown's act and so the village burns). I was more moved by his exposition of Rodrigue, the Jesuit priest, in Paul Claudel's Le Soulier de satin, who finds himself afloat on the ocean tied to the mast of a destroyed ship. As Ratzinger describes it, Rodrigue is "Fastened to the cross - with the cross fastened to nothing, drifting over the abyss."

In between these two striking and dramatic literary images, Ratzinger points to the real-life experience of St. Thérèse:
That lovable St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who looks so naïve and unproblemtical, grew up in an atmosphere of complete religious security; her whole existence from beginning to end, and down to the smallest detail, was so completely molded by the faith of the Church that the invisible world became, not just a part of her everyday life, but that life itself. It seemed to be an almost tangible reality that could not be removed by any amount of thinking. To her "religion" really was a self-evident presupposition of her daily existence; she dealt with it as we deal with the concrete details of our lives.



Yet this very saint, a person apparently cocooned in complete security, left behind her, from the last weeks of her passion, shattering admissions that her horrified sisters toned down in her literary remains and that have only now come to light in the new verbatim editions. She says, for example, "I am assailed by the worst temptations of atheism". Her mind is beset by every possible argument against the faith; the sense of believing seems to have vanished; she feels that she is now "in sinners shoes"
As with revelations about Bl. Teresa Calcutta's interior desolation, this endears the Little Flower to me more than before. She is someone to whom I can easily turn, with whom it is easy to seek fellowship and from whom I gain courage and comfort.

Among the temptations that assailed Thérèse in her consumptive suffering, which led to her excruciatingly slow death at age 24, were thoughts of suicide. About a week before she died, her biological sister, who was Mother Superior of her Carmelite convent, Mother Agnes, commented on how much the Little Flower had suffered and how well she had borne her suffering. In response, Thérèse said, "Yes! What a grace it is to have faith! If I had not any faith, I would have committed suicide without an instant's hesitation." Testifying during the proceedings for the Little Flower's canonization, another nun said, "Three days before she died, I saw her in such pain that I was heartbroken. When I drew near to her bed, she tried to smile, and, in a strangled sort of voice, she said: 'If I didn't have faith, I could never bear such suffering. I am surprised that there aren't more suicides among atheists.'" She was not being, even if inadvertently, glib, let alone smug, and certainly not naïve when she uttered these words because she knew from her own experience the crushing desolation of unbelief.

St. Thérèse, Little Flower, pray for us, especially those who find themselves in despair and desperate circumstances.

Let's not forget that, like St. Bernard of Clairvaux, about whom I have recently written so much, St. Thérèse is recognized as a Doctor of the Church. Peter Herbeck's Fire on the Earth program for today contains an important message on the significance of the witness of the Little Flower. Listen here.

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