Thérèse and Her Little Way

“Holiness does not consist in this or that practice;
it consists in a disposition of the heart, which makes us always little in the arms of God, but boldly confident in the Father’s goodness.”           Thérèse , 1897

Born into a family utterly devoted to God and Christian holiness, Thérèse Martin was early shown her destiny. Walking one evening with her father, she looked up at the sky where she saw stars in a T-formation. “Look, Papa! My name is written in heaven!”

Her short life of 24 years was one continuously in communion with God. She realized that she could never aspire to a “great” vocation, such as being a priest or a missionary, so she contented herself with what was available to her. She was gifted with a total commitment to divine love that led her to seek constantly little ways of showing God how much she loved Him, and by total abandonment to God’s loving will. She chose to live this life of commitment in the Carmelite monastery in the town of Lisieux, France.

Here she taught herself to accept with joy the many little opportunities to show her love. Here are a few that have always struck me for their unimportance.

During quiet prayer in community, one of the nuns would rattle her rosary beads. At first, Thérèse found this annoying and distracting, but she applied herself to not only accepting this nuisance but even anticipating it with joy. And again, while doing laundry it was not unusual to feel a splash of soapy water on her face. She would refrain from wiping it off!

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The Saint, second from left, 1894

These were the kinds of sacrifices that had the added benefit of being totally unnoticed. There was no way that anyone would realize she was doing anything that could be called good, much less holy.. So hidden were her practices of self-denial that one of the sisters remarked, as Thérèse lay dying, “What ever will we say about Sister Thérèse in her obituary? She hasn’t done anything!”

In this way, Thérèse  was able to maintain a humility that was her  “little” way of spiritual childhood as Christ taught: Unless you become like a little child, you cannot enter the kingdom of God. Pope Saint John Paul validated  Thérèse’s little way to holiness by naming her a Doctor of the Church in 1997. Thérèse’s  Memorial Mass is celebrated October 1.

I will spend my heaven doing good on earth. I will let fall a shower of roses.

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Audio: Chansons des Roses. Words by Rainer Maria Rilke;
Music by Morten Lauridsen

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Taste and See: A Look at Grace.

 As a child, little did I realize how some of my concepts regarding spiritual truths were actually right on target. Grace: what was it? Well, since we prayed, “Pour forth, O Lord, thy grace into our hearts,” I concluded that Grace had the properties of a liquid. But this wouldn’t be just plain old water. It would be sweet to the taste and have some density to make it really important. My conclusion: Grace was something like maple syrup or chocolate fudge. This would ensure that it would be sought after ahot fudge sundaend welcomed by all!

This interpretation was cemented by phrases later learned from the Bible: Taste and see that the Lord is good! (Psalm 34:8) Or,   Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones. (Proverbs 16:24 ); and no fewer than 34 biblical references about the chosen people being led into a land flowing with milk and honey. After all, delicious food is what a caring parent provides.

But as we grew into the upper grades, we learned of totally new characteristics. Grace was sanctifying, actual.  or habitual. Furthermore, we earned it by doing good deeds (even though “Grace” means freely given.) What happened to the sweetness? Couldn’t we have graduated to a concept of Grace that, while in a more adult format, might retain its strong allure?

Finally, after reading probably hundreds of pages on the topic, written by theologians, saints and even by your average laity, and aided by graced prayer and meditation, the meaning of Grace started to emerge slightly from the fog of my childish understanding, even though a great deal of mystery remains.

For example, Thérèse of Lisieux exclaimed, “Everything is a grace!” If, then, it is so widely and indiscriminately dispersed, why is it considered so special? If everyone (even those people who spend most of their lives engaged in crime and living in prisons), if ALL of THEM have total access to grace, why should WE have to work work so hard to get it? Why should we spend our days toiling to follow all the commandments and rules of the Church? Why give up Sunday picnics to go to Mass? Why struggle to get our teenagers to go to Holy Week services?

These questions are at the crux of the parable about the prodigal son. Why did that wastrel younger son get the royal treatment, while the faithful and hardworking son hardly ever got a pat on the back, much less rings, robes and feasts? Why bother, for heaven’s sake?

Let’s look closely at these two brothers. The elder brother, toiling away, was apparently never concerned about his missing brother, whereas every day their father kept watch for the returning figure. The elder brother took no joy in his brother’s return to sanity. There was no forgiveness in his heart. (I personally think he was sorry to see the brother come back, because now the father’s wealth would have to be shared.) In his arrogance and self-righteousness, he felt he had earned rewards while his brother ought to have been punished and rejected.

But God prefers to be seen as generous, merciful and forgiving. The greater the sin forgiven, the greater His opportunity for love, both given and received.

That’s Grace. And it’s sweeter than honey.

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Music Within

Many of us are extremely sensitive to the beauty of music. I can recall listening to certain pieces of music with so much joy that I’d think: I could die happily if this were played for me on my death bed! “Sensitive” doesn’t quite cover that!

People who are visually attuned have the same feeling when they experience the uncountable beauties, sounds and fragrances of nature: the moonlit sky, sunrises, flowers, waterfalls.

So I was surprised and delighted when my spiritual director told me that such moments of – well really, ecstasy – draw us into a prayer that is truly spiritual and that offers us an experience of God and of heaven.

The composer Franz Schubert understood and expressed this when he set his friend’s poem to one of his loveliest songs, “To Music” (An die Musik).

Oh sacred Art, … you have transported me into a better world!”

Such soul-deep experiences of beauty, approached through our senses, become deep experiences of God-in-us and of God-in-the-world.

Going even beyond this, St. Augustine ecstatically wrote of God’s Beauty that surpassed his senses, reaching into his very soul, not through any of his senses, but directly into the depths of his spirit:

You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. 
You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness.
You breathed your fragrance on me;
I drew in breath and now I pant for you.
I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more.
You touched me, and I burned for your peace.

This dazzling perception surpassed any knowledge provided by his bodily senses. There was no material sight, sound, fragrance, or touch that Augustine perceived, but only the overwhelming spiritual vision of God’s Beauty. For there is a palpable sense of Beauty in just thinking of God without seeing or hearing any outside stimulus.

If we are not yet ready for Augustine’s mystical revelation, we must nevertheless take time to appreciate the beauty accessible through our senses, for these are the stepping stones that lead us to the inmost temple of our soul where God is found. 

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Take a moment to listen to a beautiful rendition of An die Musik by the late Arleen Auger.

Celebrating Mother Teresa

We always knew Mother Teresa was a saint, but now it’s official. This week Pope Francis, representing the whole Church, formally recognized her life of heroic holiness, through her dedication to the poorest of the poor, the abandoned of Calcutta.

Not long after her death, letters to her spiritual director were published, as required to review her cause for canonization. To those unfamiliar with the journey of the the spirit, it was thought that Teresa had “lost her faith” when she described her experiences of  apparent abandonment. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Her persistent service to the poor, in spite of her lack of inner consolation only served to prove her heroism.

There’s an important trait of Mother Teresa’s that we don’t hear much about, but which is, in my humble opinion, an essential aspect of holiness: a sense of humor, the handmaid of fidelity. This anecdote illustrates Mother Teresa’s ready wit.

About 30 years ago, I was watching newswoman Diane Sawyer interview Mother Teresa on TV. By that time, reports written by journalist Malcolm Muggeridge [author of Something Beautiful for God] had brought Mother Teresa to world wide attention. Diane Sawyer was clearly in awe of her. In quite a breathless voice, she asked this question:

“Mother Teresa, is it true that you talk to God?”

With a chuckle and a big smile, Mother Teresa made the motion of picking up a phone and said, “O yes! I say, ‘Hello, God!”Mother Teresa

Poor Diane! I can’t remember a thing that was said after that exchange. May we always joyfully remember that the Gospel is Good news.

To hear Mother Teresa’s acceptance speech of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, follow the link.

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