Pure Love: The Feast of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux

Today is the feast of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (1873 – 1897), the great Discalced Carmelite nun, Doctor of the Church, mystic, and prophet of Love.  Along with Saint Francis of Assisi, Thérèse is my favorite saint and the one whom I most desire to emulate.

In Story of a Soul, her autobiography written as she was dying of tuberculosis at age 24, Thérèse wrote, “See, then, all that Jesus lays claim to from us; He has no need of our works but only of our love, for the same God who declares He has no has no need to tell us when He is hungry did not fear to beg for a little water from the Samaritan woman.  He was thirsty.  But when He said: ‘Give me to drink,’ it was the love of the His poor creature the Creator of the universe was seeking. He was thirsty for love” (Story of a Soul, Chapter IX, p. 189).

One can read this and surmise that Thérèse was advocating for a passive, sentimental spirituality that favored affective, saccharine expressions of faith rather than an active engagement and solicitude with the world.  However, that would be wrong.  For Thérèse, love was not merely a soft affectation that one lavishes on the Divine; Love was fire. She wrote, “I understand that the Church had a Heart and that this Heart was BURNING WITH LOVE. I understand it was Love alone that made this Church’s member act, that if Love ever became extinct, apostles would not preach the Gospel and martyrs would not shed their blood.  I understand that LOVE COMPRISED ALL VOCATIONS, THAT LOVE WAS EVERYTHING, THAT IT EMBRACED ALL TIMES AND PLACES… IN A WORD, THAT IT WAS ETERNAL! (Story of a Soul, Chapter IX, p. 194).

Thérèse stressed the primacy of Love over all other actions. Again, this is not to excuse one’s self from actively engaging in the hard, gritty work of Kingdom building – to say that one need not participate in justice or charity simply because one “loves” misses the point entirely.  Rather, it was a recognition that the works we are called to as Christians, the works of justice and charity that is the calling of people of God, must stem forth from Love and not willfulness, anger, or any other source.  For Thérèse, “the smallest act of Pure Love is of more value to her than all other works together” (Story of a Soul, Chapter IX, p. 197).  Love is the ultimate virtue; it is the apex to which our faith calls us and to which all other characteristics of Christian discipleship aspire.  “For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, virtue with knowledge, knowledge with self-control, self-control with endurance, endurance with devotion, devotion with mutual affection, mutual affection with love” (2 Peter 1:5-7).

But what exactly is “Pure Love”? Thérèse recounted her conversion from what many of us have been taught as the golden rule (“You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” Matthew 22: 39) to a more perfect Love, which was the new commandment given by Christ to His disciples at the Last Supper.  “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another” (John 13: 34).  But Thérèse realized that this imitation of the Divine Love is an impossibility for one as broken and flawed as herself.  “You know very well that never would I be able to love my Sisters as You love them, unless You, O my Jesus, loved them in me.  It is because You wanted to give me this grace that You made your new commandment.  Oh! How I love this new commandment since it gives me the assurance that Your will is to love in me all those You command me to love!” (Story of a Soul, Chapter IX, p. 221).

Thérèse’s way of “Pure Love,” also know as her “Little Way” has inspired countless people since her autobiography was made public.  However, because of its ubiquity and the piety that often accompanies “love” language, the fiery radicality of her message and its continued relevance in our day and age is often way too easy to take for granted.  This need not be the case.  The import of Thérèse’s message of perfect, evangelical Love was not lost on the twentieth century greats such as Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day.

Of the urgent relevance of Thérèse’s message of Love, Dorothy Day wrote, “She speaks to our condition.  Is the atom a small thing? And yet what havoc it has wrought. Is her Little Way a small contribution to the life of the spirit?  It has all the power of the spirit of Christianity behind it.”  Dorothy Day realized that only the singular act of Pure Love can remedy the violence, injustice, and threat of destruction that seems to characterize our world today.  “At a time when there are such grave fears because of the radioactive particles that are sprinkled over the world by the hydrogen bomb tests and the question is asked, what effect they are going to have on the physical life of the universe, one can state that this saint, of this day, is releasing a force, a spiritual force, upon the world to counteract that fear and that disaster.  We know that one impulse of grace is of infinitely more power than a cobalt bomb.”

Thérèse’s insistence on the primacy of Love above all then becomes an antidote to our increasingly violent world, where polemicized language, brutality, and vicious sensationalism seem to be the norm.  The immensity of the violence we encounter on a daily basis – for instance from one of our presidential candidates who hurls racist and sexist comments as if they are inspirational quotes, or from the current president of the Philippines who views Hitler as someone to be emulated and who threatens to kill three million Filipinos without concern of a backlash – can only be met with a Pure Love that rejects that same violent paradigm in favor of something more, something truly transformational.

Our Brother Mychal Judge, OFM often asked, “Is there so much love in the world that we can afford to discriminate against any kind of love?”  Indeed, in an age when people are fired from their jobs, discriminated against, or even martyred because of who they love, let us ask ourselves – does our faith promote within us a springing forth of Love, or does it instead motivate us towards a rigidity that exudes violence and division when we come across anyone who is other?  Does our faith in the God of Love call us to fire gay music directors simply because they love another man, or does it call us to embrace and to welcome them?  And how do we respond to those who persecute us, those who fire us, or those who actively work to diminish our dignity before others?  Thérèse’s radical insistence on Love would challenge us to love them anyway.  It is a Love that refuses to return violence for violence and instead chooses to rely on God to love within us, those whom we are unable to love.

Thérèse realized that Love, when channeled and brought forth from our own personal encounter with the Divine, can do wonders to quell the damaging effects of hate and violence in our hearts, in our lives, and in our world.  John Dear wrote, “This little way of nonviolence is revolutionary for it demands steadfast inner determination to confront the selfishness and violence within us, to open our hearts to be consumed by God’s love, and to overwhelm those we do not like with good deeds, kindness, and loving service” (You Will Be My Witnesses, 2006).  And so, it is only with Pure Love that the violence, hate, and injustice that currently inflicts our world will finally be erased.

When Thomas Merton was still at St. Bonaventure University in Olean, NY, there is a legend that he once prayed in front of a statue of St. Thérèse on campus. Searching for guidance and meaning, he said, “You show me what to do.  If I get into the monastery, I will be your monk. Now show me what to do.”  The rest of course is history…

Saint Thérèse, in our day of violence and grave injustice, show me what to do.  I will be your friar.  Now show me what to do.

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