I was really unbearable because of my extreme touchiness; if I happened to cause anyone I loved some little trouble… I cried like a Magdalene, and then when I began to cheer up, I’d begin to cry for having cried…
God would have to work a little miracle to make me grow up in an instant, and this miracle he performed on the unforgettable Christmas day. On that luminous night which sheds such light on the delights of the Holy Trinity, Jesus, the gentle, little Child of only one hour, changed the night of my soul into rays of light…
Since that night I have never been defeated in any combat, but rather walked from victory to victory, so to speak, to ‘run as a giant.’ The source of my tears was dried up and has since re-opened rarely and with great difficulty…
We had come back from Midnight Mass where I had the happiness of receiving the strong and powerful God. Upon arriving at Les Buissonets, I used to love to take my shoes from the chimney-corner and examine the presents in them; this old custom had given us so much joy in our youth that Celine wanted to continue treating me as a baby since I was the youngest in the family…
However, Jesus desired to show me that I was to give up the defects of my childhood and so He withdrew its innocent pleasures. He permitted Papa, tired out after the Midnight Mass, to experience annoyance when seeing my shoes at the fireplace, and that he speak those words which pierced my heart: “Well, fortunately, this will be the last year!”
I was going upstairs at the time, to remove my hat, and Celine, knowing how sensitive I was and seeing the tears already glistening in my eyes, wanted to cry too, for she loved me very much and understood my grief. She said, “O, Thérèse, don’t go downstairs; it would cause you too much grief to look at your slippers right now!”
But Thérèse was no longer the same; Jesus had changed her heart. Forcing back my tears, I descended the stairs rapidly; controlling the poundings of my heart, I took my slippers and placed them in front of Papa, and withdrew all the objects joyfully. I had the happy appearance of a Queen… Thérèse had discovered once again the strength of soul which she had lost at the age of four and a half, and was to preserve it forever!..
The work I had been unable to do in ten years was done by Jesus in one instant, contenting himself with my good will which was never lacking. I could say to Him like His apostles: ‘Master, I fished all night and caught nothing.” More merciful to me that He was to His disciples, Jesus took the net Himself, cast it, and drew it in filled with fish.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Story of a Soul
Reflection – One more passage from my favorite saint. This of course is her great conversion, the grace of Christmas 1886 when she was fourteen years old. Her tearfulness, her utter inability to master her own emotions was not, in my opinion, ‘neurosis’ exactly (I have always disliked the characterization of the Little Flower as a neurotic). It was, simply, grief that she could not shake off.
Left motherless twice in succession, by the death of Leonie Martin when she was four and the entry to Carmel of her sister Pauline when she was nine, she simply had a wound of grief, severe and prolonged, that was more than a sensitive little girl could handle, and that had brought her to that sad state of tearful over-sensitivity.
And so there is this beautiful moment of grace, when Jesus, all unexpected, does something she never could have and truly sets her on this giant’s course of love and sacrifice and prayer. The ‘turn on the stairs’, the moment when all of the sudden Thérèse is no longer bound by her weakness and wounds but breaks through to selfless love, to living not from herself but living for the other and from the Other.
It seems to me that, while every one of us is so different, and certainly the specifics of Thérèse’s life are not at all what most people experience, some version of this has to happen in all our lives. We all have to have that ‘turn on the stairs’, that graced moment when we mysteriously pass from living by our own lights to living in the Light of Christ.
It is such a strange and mysterious passage in all our lives—notice that Thérèse herself can give no explanation of exactly what transpired here, what made the difference at that moment, how she changed instantaneously and became, essentially, the woman of faith she was meant to be. It is, in the proper and technical sense of the word, a mystical grace, entirely accomplished by God in a manner that is unaccountable.
But mystical is not a synonym for ‘unusual’ or ‘exceptional’, you know. We all have to get there, somehow, on the stairs, turning around, choosing to receive this gift of overcoming ourselves to simply love, simply serve, simply move towards the other out of a great freedom of spirit. God needs to set us on that wide open space of freedom, but of course it is our tottering feet that need to walk out into it.
It seems to me that, with all the troubles in the world, troubles in the Church, troubles in our lives, and all the complex and endless snarls and snags and genuine problems and dilemmas we face individually and communally, the hidden dynamic that determines much of how things go in this world is precisely this turn on the stairs, this decision every human being has to make between self and God, self and love. There is no way around it; all of us stand on the stairs on that Christmas night when (in a sense) God turned around towards us in a definitive way, choosing whether we will swallow our tears, our pride, our grief, our pain and go back down to love, or run upstairs to wrap ourselves in ourselves.
It really is the essential point, the basic decision, the turn on which the fate of the world, and our own individual fate, is settled.