01 Oct Feast of St. Therese
St. Therese is generally regarded as a cute saint. She happened to be a very cute little French girl, who wrote with the boldness of someone who just didn’t seem to care what anyone else thought. She said the types of things that make adults look and go, “kids say the darndest things, isn’t she adorable?” She said she wanted to spend her time in heaven sending roses to people on earth. Cute.
If you take a few minutes to look past the flowers though, cute little Therese becomes kind of troubling. “You are wrong to criticize this or that, to desire that everybody should adopt your view of things. Since we want to be little children, little children do not know what is best. Everything seems right to them.” That sweetness is starting to bite.
How about, “I know now that true charity consists in bearing all our neighbors’ defects–not being surprised at their weakness, but edified at their smallest virtues.” How cute does that sound? That actually sounds really hard.
We can do this all day, and go to points of real severity: “Holiness does not consist in saying beautiful things, it does not even consist in thinking them, or in feeling them! It consists in suffering and in suffering everything. Holiness – it has to be conquered at the point of the sword, one has to suffer… one has to agonize!… ”
Where did the little flower go? More like a sharp thorn. So what’s the point? Volumes have been written to try to explain what it is about this saint that makes her so intriguing, and why she was made a Doctor of the Church. She taught a path to holiness and happiness called the “Little Way.” It can be summed up with a line from her autobiography: “In Your eyes all our justice is blemished.”
From this line come the innumerable insights that make up the rest of Therese’s work. This realization is the antidote to the disease of self-love.
We live in a scary world. There are constant threats to our safety and happiness. It takes only a second to look around and see how many ways we can lose what we consider important. The economy is terrible, our culture is not exactly seeking Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, and even if someone is happy, death or disease can strike at any time. The human condition is a devastating one. It is no wonder that good and honest people question the existence of a loving God in the midst of all this.
How do we typically overcome the darkness of our reality? Some people ignore how bad it is and find comfort in temporary and passing pleasures. Most people develop the delusion from a very young age that “we can handle it.” Ego-development means that the “I” becomes the strong center of our universe, and our happiness rests on ourselves. I can do anything I set my mind to. I can overcome this obstacle. I can make it on my own.
What small minds we have to imagine these statements are true! We have to limit ourselves to imagining only very small obstacles in order to hold onto the delusion that we can actually overcome them! It only takes a split second for the cold, hard reality to hit that we are, in fact, very powerless. Disease and death, natural disasters, terrorism, job loss, or a thousand other adversities can hit that make us drop to our knees hoping there is something bigger than us.
What would life be like if we had that realization all the time? Why is it so hard to admit it? When we need to ask for help, it means we can’t do it all ourselves. When we acknowledge someone bigger than us, it means we didn’t do it all ourselves. The fact is, we really aren’t all that good! “In Your eyes all our justice is blemished.” Even our absolute best is nothing compared to the goodness of God.
If you look into the cycles of religious sentiment throughout history, interesting patterns emerge. Periods of callousness and debauchery give way to intense guilt. Fire and brimstone sentimentality turns into extreme acts of self-denial. St. Therese was living during a time that people still thought they could earn their way into Heaven. The battle between “Faith and Works” raged on, and the French Catholic position at the beginning of the 20th century had the flavor of ashy food and hair-shirts. She was taught as a young girl to count how many rosaries she said and somehow equated that to souls being saved.
But Therese learned that “In Your eyes all our justice is blemished.” So are we doomed to a life of misery because we aren’t good enough? The Little Way means realizing we aren’t more than we are – we can provide no more for ourselves than dependent children. But it also means trusting that our Father is good and loving. She finished her prayer with, “I wish, then, to be clothed in your own justice and to receive from your love the eternal possession of yourself.”
Cognitive dissonance is a fancy term for the discomfort that comes from trying to hold onto two opposing ideas at the same time. We grow up feeling that we are in control of everything because some things go our way, and yet we get glimpses of just how little control we really have. In order to avoid cognitive dissonance, we invent a different reality for ourselves – either by maintaining a false reality that we really are in control, or suffering the anxiety of feeling like everything is falling apart. There is another way. Our justice is blemished, but God gives us His. The fact is that God is our loving father, and if we let him, he takes care of us.