Thursday, 1 October 2009

Therese of the Child Jesus

I have mixed feelings about the "Little Flower". Though I must say it's not her fault. The saccharine quality of some of the devotion surrounding her leaves me terribly cool. I blame the Victorians. In her own writings, Therese comes through quite differently.

"When I had looked upon the mystical body of the Church, I recognised myself in none of the members which St. Paul described, and what is more, I desired to distinguish myself more favourably within the whole body. Love appeared to me to be the hinge for my vocation. Indeed I knew that the Church had a body composed of various members, but in this body the necessary and more noble member was not lacking; I knew that the Church had a heart and that such a heart appeared to be aflame with love. I knew that one love drove the members of the Church to action, that if this love were extinguished, the apostles would have proclaimed the Gospel no longer, the martyrs would have shed their blood no more. I saw and realised that love sets off the bounds of all vocations, that love is everything, that this same love embraces every time and every place. In one word, that love is everlasting.

Then, nearly ecstatic with the supreme joy in my soul, I proclaimed: O Jesus, my love, at last I have found my calling: my call is love. Certainly I have found my place in the Church, and you gave me that very place, my God. In the heart of the Church, my mother, I will be love, and thus I will be all things, as my desire finds its direction."

From the Autobiography of Therese of Lisieux.

And also this snippet from the Universalis website.

What makes St Thérèse so special?

We have grown used to the idea that just as there are people with talents for sport or scholarship, and the rest of us can only admire them without trying to keep up, so there are people with a talent for holiness and heroic virtue, and the rest of us can only bumble along as best we can. We can’t do better because we’re not designed to do better, so there’s no point in trying. We sink into a consoling mediocrity.

Thérèse wrecks this. She was physically weak and psychologically vulnerable. For her the great saints were giants, they were inaccessible mountains, and she was only an “obscure grain of sand;” but she was not discouraged. St John of the Cross taught her that God can never inspire desires that cannot be fulfilled. The Book of Proverbs told her, “If anyone is a very little one, let him come to me.” If you only look, Scripture is permeated with images of our littleness and weakness with respect to God, and of his care for us in our insignificance.

Thérèse’s “Little Way” means taking God at his word and letting his love for us wash away our sins and imperfections. When a priest told her that her falling asleep during prayer was due to a want of fervour and fidelity and she should be desolate over it, she wrote “I am not desolate. I remember that little children are just as pleasing to their parents when they are asleep as when they are awake.”

Today, Therese's relics are on a tour of England and Wales. Again, venerating relics leaves me very cool indeed (the forearm of St Francis Xavier in the Gesu in Rome really made me squirm), but the very fact that on her this her Feast day they are in the great Anglican Cathedral of York Minster and that pilgrims are thronging there is truly marvellous. After a long chill in Anglican RC relations, it is good to feel a bit of a thaw. Perhaps that thaw is due to the moves of the ABC to bring about a more centralised Anglican Communion through Covenant and Instruments. Which poses the interesting question: "Does the end of Unity justify a means which changes the essential nature of Anglican Polity?" With my Anglo-Papalist leanings, I feel a degree of division in my own mind about all this. Unity yes, but Rome has to budge too. It cannot be totally about conforming to her. That is Conversion, not the convergence Geoffrey Fisher suggested to John XXIII.

But Therese remains a reminder ultimately to me of the truth of the Magnificat:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour;
he has looked with favour on his lowly servant.

From this day all generations will call me blessed;
the Almighty has done great things for me
and holy is his name.

Therese of Lisieux, pray for us.


  1. Therese is an amazing figure. You can get bogged down by the sentiment of the language, but if you look at the events of her life, you see that Therese was really pretty tough. Her health was not good, and she set out to be nice even to those who were not very nice. Life in a cloistered convent is not easy, and she did very well. I see here as a Little Tough Flower. May her fellowship be with us always.


  2. Yes, the French equivalent of a steel magnolia.