St. Thérèse is one of the most celebrated saints of the last fifty years. Her “Little Way” as it is known, has become a spirituality that has invigorated the old and young alike. Two of her greatest gifts she bequeathed to our modern age is her understanding of prayer as an action and the need for divine love.
Ora et Labora or Ora est Labora – That is the question!
St. Benedict gave us the famous maxim, Ora et Labora – Pray and work. During the sixth century, St. Benedict of Nursia spent a great deal of time teaching his monks the holiness of work. He taught that monastics should full-heartedly participate in the divine command given to Adam in the garden. Our Lord told Adam, and all mankind to adovah. The first meaning is to work or toil. The second, but not secondary meaning is to pray. Man vocation is to both pray and work.
By the nineteenth century, St. John Bosco reflecting on the culture, adjusted Benedict’s maxim to Ora est labora – Prayer is work. Don Bosco battled a the Enlightenment and Humanism which viewed prayer as an excuse for not acting. They saw the cloisters as an escape from the world to a life of ease while but hiding from the work that needed to be done. The culture of the nineteenth century believed that mankind itself was the answer to all the world’s woes; once it had shed its primitive naivete of believing in God.
St. Thérèse: Scourge of Humanism and Activism
In the life of St. Thérèse, we see the nexus of both maxims. Her witness is the scourge of Humanism and the joy of all who are cloistered. Today’s society continues to promote Humanism under the new banner of activism, “I must do otherwise nothing will ever change!”
Pope John Paul II recognizing that the witness of St. Thérèse’s life would be a worthy nail into the coffin of activism, declared her to be the Patroness of Missionaries. To drive home the point, she never left her convent. He saw that her thirst for souls led her to pray for the foreign missionaries and priests. It was her ardent prayers that obtained the salvation of a man named, Pranzini, who had murdered two women and a girl in Paris. He had no desire of repentance, but Saint Thérèse’s prayers touched Heaven and on his way to the guillotine for execution, he asked to kiss the crucifix, which he kissed three times.
Prayer is an action even though it is always passive on our part. We, quickened by the Holy Spirit, cooperate in the economy of salvation through our prayers and hidden works of virtue for the Divine Lover. If the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church, then the prayer of the cloistered is the till that breaks the fallow ground of our hearts. A seed cannot grow if the Living Water cannot seep into the soil.
Prayer is not the excuse of the lazy or idleness but the very heart of all evangelistic activity. As St. Thérèse knew, we should not move until the Lord of Hosts has given us our marching orders.
At the Heart of the Matter
Currently, there is much confusion in the Body of Christ. In a sort of frenzied amnesia, many question there role and function in the Church. Laity want to be priests, priests want to be laity, Pastors handover their “birthright” to Pastoral Councils and committees believe they run the Church. In her writings, St. Thérèse search to discover her role and function in the Body of Christ. To her surprise, she discovered she was to become a ferocious fire of Divine Love:
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. (Source: Office of Readings, Oct. 1 – excerpt from Story of a Soul)
A body without love withers and dies. Thérèse became love and infused it into the Body of Christ. Not just a filial love a joyful, ecstatic, passionate and intimate love. A love that makes the heart beat faster and the soul grow stronger. It is a love that instills in a person the audacity to ask the Father of Lights anything and then walk away knowing that He will do it.
Her example compels us to remember that love is the foundation of all ministry. Her gift of intercession is a ministry of the heart. It says to the Lord, “Break my heart with the things that break yours!” Then with a zeal for souls and a love that empowers, she floods the heart of God with affections and requests that a lover cannot refuse. If love and intimacy was the goal and core of our prayer and relationship with the Blessed Trinity, what could the Body of Christ not do?
Where the Rubber Hits the Road
Over the last twenty-four years of my Christian walk and ministry, two people have particularly inspired me by their witness to live a life of ferocious love with our Lord. Both are daughters of St. Thérèse and exemplify all that the Little Flower desires to teach us. Their lives of unwavering commitment to the truth and unfettered love for our Lord and His Bride, the Church, are a rare combination in our culture. They continue to persevere in their ministries and families through prayer that gives way to action – and they never settle for second best.
Dawn and Kelly, thank you for incarnating St. Thérèse teaching for me. On your Feast day, may she continue to pour out the sweet fragrance of her Lord’s grace into your lives! You continue to be an example to the many young women (and men) who have no idea how to love, what love means and how only truth can yield love. Your mentoring (even from a distance) continues to teach me that Thérèse was a true romantic and a passionate lover for our Lord and His people.
Grasping at Love
Finally, a note on a culture that demands love on its own terms. Many of the young women that my wife and I have ministered to over the years have been blinded by a romantic sentimentality of what the culture – and fanciful fairy tales – define as love and romance (Frankly, the men are no better). As my wife shared with me the other day, “Romance is not a bouquet of flowers or poetry quoted over a candle-lite dinner. Romance is when your husband has to wake up every hour on the hour for days at a time to force a cracker down her throat in hopes that the Vicodin he just made her take is not puked up back on him” (I would provide you with my example but I can neither top hers nor figure out who her husband is).
It is not that they [we] do not have a passion to love one another and the Lord, it is just they do not have enough. I think that C.S. Lewis explained this phenomena the best when he wrote in, The Weight of Glory, that the problem is that we settle for the immediate arms-length good instead of pushing through the pain and heartbreaks for the good we cannot see. We grasp and take hold of the love we want instead of waiting for the Lord to deliver the love (and lover) He desires to provide for us. We are satisfied with the mediocrity of our imaginations that the blazing truth and reality to true love.
I believe that St. Thérèse and the other twentieth century Teresa (Mother Teresa) holds the key to heal this wound in our culture. After suffering for 18 months of darkness in her soul, Thérèse claimed her prize of eternal glory. Mother Teresa who lived 50 years of interior darkness never experienced the consolation of our Lord’s love this side of heaven but poured out His love on every person she met. These examples are not to say that the answer to our culture grasping for love is perseverance until death. The answer is not settling for anything less than the Lord’s love first. Love is not only passion but purifying correction, loneliness and unexciting burdensome routines – all carried with love for Him that is steeped in a life of prayer. Once we are consumed by the torrents of His love – sometimes unexciting, THEN all other loves will fall into place.
St. Thérèse, intercede for us that we might learn to receive and become love.