Walking the Trail with St. Thérèse is a series of reflections on The Story of a Soul.
The opening paragraphs to St. Thérèse’s manuscript A of “The Story of a Soul,” represent the most profound influence on my Catholic spirituality. The “Story of a Soul,” later so named by a good friend of the Lisieux Carmel after Thérèse’s death, was written under obedience to Thérèse’s sister Pauline who was at that time the Prioress of the monastery.
At times I find it difficult to come to terms with just whose influence on me is greatest: Ste. Jehanne d’Arc or Ste. Thérèse de l’Enfant Jésus. When I feel that way, I know that I am not framing the situation correctly. The truth, the real truth in that matter, is that they have a mysterious and powerful combined impact on me. It was St. Thérèse Who introduced me to St. Joan of Arc, and it was St. Thérèse who brought about my deep devotion to St. Joan. St. Thérèse is my heavenly sister and “little mother” as I like to call her. I carry her spiritual DNA. Therefore, it must be no surprise that I would be nurtured in her own gifts, including foremost, her unyielding devotion to St. Joan. Thérèse “…felt illuminated, filled with enthusiasm; the discovery of Joan affected her deeply: ‘a grace which I have always looked upon as one of the greatest in my life,’ she would recall in 1895.” (The Plays of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, 2008, p. 62). I feel exactly the same way, and that is no coincidence.
The opening paragraphs to manuscript A are a concise summary of my own writings which are themselves no more than my interpretations of Thérèse and Joan’s influence on me. These paragraphs are the pool, the reservoir, of spirituality from which I constantly draw the waters of grace in my own life. They are astonishingly profound in that they are essentially metaphorical interpretations of the sophisticated, scholastic writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, though I am not at all sure that St. Thérèse had Thomas in mind when she wrote them. She was writing about what Jesus had taught her. Nevertheless, I find them to be magnificent interpretations of Thomas’ more difficult writings.
Thérèse begins, however, by revealing first and foremost her deep Marian devotion:
“Before taking my pen in hand, I knelt before the statue of Mary (the one that gave us so many proofs of the Queen of Heaven’s motherly partiality for our family), and I begged her to guide my hand so that I might not write a single line that would not be pleasing to her.” (The Story of a Soul, 2006, pp. 1-2)
In these words we see her deeply rooted devotion to Mary, a devotion with which Thérèse gifted me when I was converted on her Feast Day in 1984. There, in my first yearnings of Marian devotion, Thérèse was beginning her influence on my soul. Rather, we should say the Holy Spirit was working through Thérèse’s motherly and sisterly patronage.
We also see in those opening lines a reference to a key concept on which her following thoughts will turn in a most profound way: heavenly ordained “partiality” in the midst of “equal love for all souls.” Our little sister goes on to write:
“Then, opening the Gospels, my eyes fell on these words: ‘Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to Him those He wanted, and they came to Him’ (Mark 3:13). Now this is the mystery of my calling, of my Whole life, and above all the mystery of Jesus’ privileges over my soul. He doesn’t call those who are worthy, but those He wants, or, as St. Paul puts it; ‘I will have mercy on Whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy (Romans 9:15 – 16).” (The Story of a Soul, 2006, p. 2)
Here, I can see God’s grace in my own life. The gift of a “calling” through Faith is a great grace and one that is not merited by being “good enough.” This was, and is still, very applicable to me. Thérèse understood this through reading scripture. Through loftier medieval scholasticism, St. Thomas points us to the same general idea:
“I answer that, the gift of grace may be considered in two ways: first in the nature of a gratuitous gift, and thus it is manifest that all merit is repugnant to grace, since as the Apostle says (Romans 11:6), ‘if by grace, it is not now by works.’ Secondly, it may be considered as regards the nature of the thing given, and thus, also, it cannot come under the merit of Him Who has not grace, both because it exceeds the proportion of nature, and because previous to grace a man in the state of sin has an obstacle to His meriting grace, viz. sin. But when anyone has grace, the grace already possessed cannot come under merit, since reward is the term of the work, but grace is the principle of all our good works, as stated above (109). But if anyone merits a further gratuitous gift by virtue of the preceding grace, it would not be the first grace. Hence it is manifest that no one can merit for Himself the first grace.” (Aquinas, Summa Theologica, First Part of the Second Part, Question 114, Article 5)
We begin to understand now how Thérèse’s “Little Way” of simplicity and trust is anything but shallow spirituality! It is as if God were pouring the same insight into Thérèse as He did in Thomas Aquinas, though reflected uniquely in each person. This theme of a single principle revealed through a variety of unique particulars will develop before us as we continue our study of these lines in Thérèse’s story and as we get to the hinge-point dealing with “heavenly ordained partiality amidst equal love for all souls.” Thérèse’s way of “simplicity” is more a process of distilling the essence of our great Catholic truths than it is emotionalism or mere sentimentality. We cannot misinterpret her ability to get to the essence of things as shallowness. Thérèse had a powerful intellect and a deeply mature spirituality.
Next, Thérèse demonstrates an unusually powerful capability for insight and an admirable, courageous demand for intellectual honesty. While accepting that Jesus calls “those He wants,” she pondered the most logical next question that is so sublimely hidden in the Mark 3:13 scripture passage. Most of us would walk right past without even noticing it. That question is: Why? Why does God, Who loves everyone, show partiality? Is there not a contradiction between love and partiality?
“For a long time I wondered why God showed partiality, why all souls don’t receive the same amount of graces. I was astounded to see Him lavish extraordinary favors on the Saints Who had offended Him, such as St. Paul and St. Augustine, and Whom He so to speak forced to receive His graces. Or when I read the life of saints Whom our Lord was pleased to embrace from the cradle to the grave, without leaving in their path any obstacles that might hinder them from rising toward Him, and granting these souls such favors that they were unable to tarnish the immaculate brightness of their baptismal robes, I wondered why poor primitive people, for example, were dying in great numbers without even having heard the name of God pronounced…” (The Story of a Soul, 2006, p. 2)
The teaching that Thérèse gives us in response is, without exaggeration, the seed from which my entire spiritual vision of Le Royaume developed. This vision of devotion to the mystical Kingdom of Catholic France as an expression of my True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary prescribed by St. Louis de Montfort took root in Thérèse’s own mystical insights. She, as my “little mother,” proffered this gift of grace she received from Jesus to me in such a way as to found my own spirituality on the premise of “To Jesus through Mary in the friendship and sisterly care of Sts. Joan and Thérèse!”
“Jesus consented to teach me this mystery. He placed before my eyes the book of nature; I understood that all the flowers that He created are beautiful. The brilliance of the rose and the whiteness of the lily don’t take away the perfume of the lowly violet or the delightful simplicity of the daisy… I understood that if all the little flowers wanted to be roses, nature would lose its springtime adornment, and the fields would no longer be sprinkled with little flowers…
So it is in the world of souls, which is Jesus’s garden. He wanted to create great Saints Who could be compared to lilies and roses. But He also created little ones, and these ought to be content to be daisies or violets destined to gladden God’s eyes when He glances down at His feet. Perfection consists in doing His will, and being what He wants us to be…” (The Story of a Soul, 2006, pp. 2-3)
How often have I written in my own spiritual journals of this metaphorical landscape where everything and everyone retains its own magnificent uniqueness while at the same time all coming together in the Divine Order toward one Principle End, Who is God, to create a masterpiece of life giving beauty. The landscape is perfectly oriented through the beauty and majesty of the particular flowers, trees, meadows, and distant mountains. Everything is as it should be, and, in being so, creates perfection in the Divine Order. The Holy Spirit, through Thérèse, brought all of this to my spiritual senses that I might begin to discover it for myself.
Thérèse’s profound insights on the desire of God to create with distinction and inequality, that is, with “partiality,” fit precisely into the explanation given by St. Thomas:
“Therefore it must be said that as the wisdom of God is the cause of the distinction of things, so the same wisdom is the cause of their inequality.” (Aquinas, Summa Theologica, First Part, Question 47, Article 2)
Not yet finished with her sublime contemplative outpouring, Thérèse refuses to yield until she has fully connected the metaphor to her developing “Little Way” of simplicity, trust, and love:
“I understood that our Lord’s love is revealed as well in the simplest soul who doesn’t resist His grace in anything, as in the most sublime of souls. In fact, since the essence of love is to bring oneself low, if every soul were like the souls of the holy Doctors Who have shed light on the Church through the clarity of their doctrine, it seems that God wouldn’t come down low enough by coming only as far as their great hearts. But He created the child Who doesn’t know anything and only cries weakly, He created poor primitive persons Who only have natural law as a guide – and it is to their hearts that He consents to come down: Here are wildflowers Whose simplicity delights Him…” (The Story of a Soul, 2006, p. 3)
What insight from our heavenly sister and little mother! Note that she does not imply that those who are weak should excuse their weakness as might an unrepentant sinner. No, we must all become what we are intended to be, whether that be a small daisy or a beautiful rose. We cannot play our part in completing the landscape without becoming who we are. To remain unrepentant is to remain incomplete.
Her point is, though, that those Who are weakest in their sincere desire for the Kingdom where this landscape subsists, can look to the goodness and love of our Lord Jesus Christ to draw them with His own strength to be Who they are in that landscape. One need not be discouraged by the large, beautiful roses (those who appear to have mighty graces working wonderful deeds for God) when one feels like nothing more than a dried up daisy. Our Lord shows even more magnificently His love and power when He raises the little dried up daisy to its proper substance in the Kingdom of God.
Yet, finally, does God, Who shows partiality in His distribution of graces in order that the landscape might be created just right, therefore love each flower in that landscape differently? Does He, then, love the roses more than the daisies? Here, Thérèse closes the loop on her beautiful imagery which exposes the error in the false dichotomy of the “partiality in graces versus loving all creatures equally” paradigm and does so with more Aquinas-type sublimity:
“By bringing Himself low in this way, God shows His infinite greatness. Just as the sun shines at the same time on the tall cedars and on each little flour as if it were the only one on earth, in the same way our Lord is concerned particularly for every soul as if there were no other like it. And just as in nature all the seasons are arranged in such a way as to cause the humblest Daisy to open on the appointed day, in the same way all things correspond to the good of each soul.” (The Story of a Soul, 2006, pp. 3-4)
St. Thomas says something similar:
“I answer that, since to love a thing is to will it good, in a twofold way anything may be loved more, or less. In one way on the part of the act of the will itself, which is more or less intense. In this way God does not love some things more than others, because He loves all things by an act of the will that is one, simple, and always the same. In another way on the part of the good itself that a person wills for the beloved. In this way we are said to love that one more than another, for whom we will a greater good, though our will is not more intense. In this way we must needs say that God loves some things more than others. For since God’s love is the cause of goodness in things, as has been said (2), no one thing would be better than another, if God did not will greater good for one than for another.” (Aquinas, Summa Theologica, First part, Question 20, Article 3)
St. Thérèse understood all of the above with astonishing clarity, even though her sister Carmelites considered her to be merely a simple girl Who became a good nun. (The Story of a Soul, 2006) All of this she places before us to contemplate, and she has not even begun her actual task at hand, which is to tell us the “story of her soul”!
We have many miles yet to travel with this young saint! Let us walk continually, faithfully, and devotedly with St. Thérèse on the Trail of the Dogmatic Creed as we read her manuscripts. She has much, much more to tell us as we journey toward that beautiful landscape in the Kingdom of God. We might even meet Joan of Arc along the way…