Since my longing for martyrdom was powerful and unsettling, I turned to the epistles of St Paul in the hope of finally finding an answer. By chance the 12th and 13th chapters of the 1st epistle to the Corinthians caught my attention, and in the first section I read that not everyone can be an apostle, prophet or teacher, that the Church is composed of a variety of members, and that the eye cannot be the hand. Even with such an answer revealed before me, I was not satisfied and did not find peace.
I persevered in the reading and did not let my mind wander until I found this encouraging theme: Set your desires on the greater gifts. And I will show you the way which surpasses all others. For the Apostle insists that the greater gifts are nothing at all without love and that this same love is surely the best path leading directly to God. At length I had found peace of mind.
When I had looked upon the mystical body of the Church, I recognized myself in none of the members which St Paul described, and what is more, I desired to distinguish myself more favorably 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 realized 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.
St. Therese of Lisieux, Story of a Soul
Reflection – Today is the feast of St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower of Jesus. I have written about her before on the blog; she is really my favorite saint, the first saint who I got to know as a person, and a constant spiritual guide and help for me, as she is for many millions of people.
It never fails to amaze me, that God would pluck someone whose life was so utterly obscure, so thoroughly ordinary in its external details, and elevate her to the status of one of the most well known and well beloved saints of the Church. There is a prophetic quality to this story—Therese stands at the very dawn of the 20th century and presents to us something vitally important about sanctity and the ways of God among men. It is a point of some irony, perhaps, that the vision of sanctity she presents is one especially suitable to the age of the laity in the Church, given that she herself is a consecrated Carmelite nun.
What is this vision? It’s more or less what she presents here, although she says it in different ways in her book. Namely, that it is great love that makes a saint, not great deeds. The vision of sanctity that excusably might emerge from the study of many of the canonized saints of the Church is that of a sort of spiritual Olympics—higher, faster, stronger—filled with people who shed their blood for Christ, founded orders, wrote great works of theology, performed prodigies of service to the poor, traveled to mission lands. Sanctity then, is limited to people of unusual gifts and strengths, or who find themselves in situations allowing for extremities like dying a martyr’s death (me, I’d like to die for Christ, but nobody has shown up who’s willing to kill me just yet!).
Therese, then, corrects this sort of spiritual elitism, by showing us that it is not deeds but love, not extraordinary events but extraordinary faithfulness in whatever events are ours, not prodigies of intellect or body, but a will wholly set on doing everything that is pleasing to God in the real circumstances of our real lives.
And this, then, opens the path to holiness for everyone no matter what. It is both a consoling vision, and a very challenging one. God does not demand what we cannot do—that our lives and our persons be other than what they are, before He can make us a great saint. Instead He asks that we live the lives we are living today, no matter what they consist of, with such love and fidelity, such prayer and devotion, that He can make us into a flame of love right here and right now. And this is the life of the Church, and the life of the world, that which makes everything luminous and joyous and beautiful.
And that is what St. Therese of Lisieux came to teach us.