As we celebrate the centenary of the death of St. Therese of Lisieux in 1997 we remember that she took her Carmelite identity and gave it to the world in a narrative that reveals depth of commitment to Jesus Christ. For many ordinary people Therese spoke a word of life and of holiness that seemed attainable. Thomas Merton admired her everyday kind of faith. French novelist George Bernanos read her autobiography many times and used her line "everything is grace'1 in his Diary of a Country Priest. He kept a relic of Therese on his night table. Theologian Hans Urs von Baltasar wrote a book length study of her life as did social activist Dorothy Day. Dominican Yves Congar, who played a significant role in the work of Vatican II, wrote that in an age of anxiety and discouragement Therese offers the wisdom of the gospel: live in love and you will be transformed. Or to paraphrase, "Do it right and do it well and you will be changed".
St. Therese's life story has been received within many cultures. Her STORY OF A SOUL has been translated into over 50 languages and dialects. Her "little way" appeared to make God accessible to people as a God of love and mercy. Her doctrine of spiritual childhood modeled the paschal mystery: you give yourself to life, to people, to tasks and to responsibilities with loving care. In the process you learn much about yourself and others. You experience suffering and hurt, joy and peace. And all the time you are being transformed through faith, hope and love into Christ Jesus. As Therese once put it: life is a process of "transforming nothingness into fire".
Let me briefly allow Therese to offer three of her convictions to us. It is our way of being a listening heart to a voice from our past.
Therese would tell us that all Christian and of course Carmelite spirituality is always evangelical. scriptural. When we attend to God's word whether personally or communally in liturgy, meditation or lectio divina, God's word needs to become more and more our word. Our interaction with God's word is critical in shaping our own identity as Christians.
She went to scripture to seek guidance in living out her own faith commitment and from time to time she sought comfort from God's word. Jesus of the gospels shaped her own consciousness in responding to the members of her community in the convent of Lisieux. "The more my life is focused in Jesus Christ the more 1 am able to love the Sisters," she wrote. She relished the Psalms and Isaias and the letters of Paul. She memorized many passages and retrieved them as prayer and consolation.
In MS B of the STORY OF A SOUL Therese recounts how she found direction in the first letter to the Corinthians. She knew that she was filled with many desires; she wanted to be a martyr, a missionary, a doctor of the church, a warrior like St. Joan of Arc, a priest. She sought a way to unify her desires. In reading 1 Corinthians 12 she learned that the body has many parts and all have a place in actualizing the body. She went on to 1 Corinthians 13 and found that love was the greatest of all virtues. Therese captured the center of her own vocation:
"I will be love in the heart of the church!" She had added the heart to 1 Corinthians 12 and had unified her dreams within the vision of love.
Therese would share a second conviction: community life is the setting for loving God and neighbor.
She had lived her nine years in Carmel with the same women. Therese noted in her autobiography that some women with whom she lived lacked social graces, were uneducated and lacked good judgment. Some were quite sensitive and tended to spoil even the amenities of life. Therese stated that the condition was chronic; it was not going to go away. Thus she had to face the question: "what am 1 to do in the midst of these limitations?" They do tend to be aggravating. Therese decided that she would bring to every one in her community and to every situation the commitment to love. She would try to be a good Samaritan reaching out to the roadside casualties. It need not be more at times than a smile or a good word.
Therese would suggest that a community of faith accepts a gospel call to self-emptying love. Self-focus is out of the question. Fulfillment comes in giving oneself away generously. Therese knew also that love cannot stand up straight without the companionship of justice. Justice keeps love from becoming sentimental. And thus Therese became angry when she learned that a superior was thinking of postponing the vows of one Sister for no good reason than an arbitrary exercise of authority. Therese rejected any kind of manipulation as inauthentic. She sought to know the truth and to live it.
Therese's third conviction would state that to be church is to be in mission. We are to be good news and to make good news in our world. She thought of her mission as working for the salvation of souls. That was the vocabulary that she inherited. That was a way to talk about ministry. She knew that priests and all those in ministry get their hands dirty in the ebb and flow of preaching the word, bringing comfort and challenge to people, serving so often when one is out of sorts and tired and on edge. She knew too that there would be failures and opposition.
Within this context Therese saw that she had a role to play. There is no reducing the mission of the church and her ministry to data, techniques or management skills. One who ministers certainly has to work with a knowledge of personal and social climates and people's needs and ways of communication. But bringing about the "kingdom of God" is ultimately God's work and so mission and ministry are rooted in the realm of grace and mystery. Thus, Therese could take her obscure life and give it for the church. Her vocational response in Carmel in prayer and sacrifice and love was offered for the benefit of missionaries and priests and countless others. God could take her life and make it part of a larger story whereby new life comes out of life given away in love in an obscure convent in Normandy. One cannot measure nor trace precisely the sweep and depth and route of grace. She believed that her life affected the outcomes of the missionary endeavor wherever it occurred.
Therese had a profound awareness that faith, hope and love form a surge that is creative of new life and holiness and peace. She chose to center all in love and for her it made all the difference in the world.
Homily at the Eucharist honoring St. Therese June 14, 1996 (Mundelein, IL)