We celebrate the feast of St. Thérèse, a Doctor of the Church, October 1. Saints are antidotes to the poisons of their times, G.K. Chesterton once wrote. They reveal what’s wrong in their world and counteract its poison by their own lives. Mother Theresa, for example, saw a world poisoned by its neglect of the poor. She not only pointed out the evil but did something to remedy it.
What poison does St. Thérèse reveal? She lived in France as the 19th century was coming to a close, when the poison of unbelief, which first infected French intellectuals like Voltaire, had spread to the country’s ordinary people. Many rejected faith in God and traditional religion. In their place they put their trust in reason and their own lights. As the psalmist said of his own time, “There is no thought of God in them.”
Raised in a family of firm faith and traditional beliefs, Thérèse’s childhood was nourished by a sheltered life. Her faith grew in the Carmel of Lisieux, which she entered at 14. There she lived a life of prayer, with people of faith inspired by the spiritual wisdom of the Carmelite tradition. Yet limitations of sickness and unrealized dreams challenged her.
In her last days, she was plunged into a darkness that brought her an experience of the poison of unbelief. God permitted her to be “invaded by the thickest darkness,” she said, and “the thought of heaven, up to then so sweet to me, was no longer anything but a cause of struggle and torment.”
In her experience she saw herself as a voice for those who do not believe.
“Your child, however, O Lord, has understood Your divine light, and she begs pardon for her brothers. She is resigned to eat the bread of sorrow as long as You desire it; she does not wish to rise up from this table filled with bitterness at which poor sinners are eating until the day set by You.
Can she not say in her name and in the name of her brothers, “Have pity on us, O Lord, for we are poor sinners!” Oh! Lord, send us away justified. May all those who were not enlightened by the bright flame of faith one day see it shine. O Jesus!
if it is needful that the table soiled by them be purified by a soul who loves You, then I desire to eat this bread of trial at this table until it pleases You to bring me into Your bright Kingdom. The only grace I ask of You is that I never offend You!” (Manuscript C, chapter 10)
Sharing the darkness that comes with unbelief, Thérèse prayed in their name, “’Have pity on us, O Lord, for we are poor sinners!’ Oh! Lord, send us away justified. May all those who were not enlightened by the bright flame of faith one day see it shine. O Jesus!” Her “struggle and torment” linked her to unbelievers “ not enlightened by the bright flame of faith.”
Mother Theresa seems to have had a similar experience of that darkness. Do other believers today share, in different degrees and different ways, that experience of darkness, that “dark night”, so that “those not enlightened by the bright light of faith may one day see it shine?” It seems so.
Here’s a description of how Thérèse saw herself:
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 recognised myself in none of the members which St Paul described, and what is more, I desired to distinguish myself more favourably 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 realised 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.