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Lessons from St. Therese
I first read "Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Therese" as a young girl of eight or nine. My mother had a deep devotion to St. Therese and encouraged both my sister and I to emulate her. At that age, I dreamed of a life in a cloister devoting my life to being a bride of Christ. Therese's "little way" seemed so easy, so simple. I was a child myself and knew no other way!
Life has a way of changing us, however, and while I reread "Story of a Soul" as a teenager and again as a young adult in college, I had lost my childlike sensibilities. Reading Therese's words were like visiting an old friend, but my dreams of a cloistered life had been replaced by dreams of a career, a husband, and children. While I frequently turned to her in prayer, Therese's brand of spirituality no longer seemed to have particular relevance for my life.
Returning to her autobiography now as a thirty-something married mother of two, I wondered what insights a twenty-four year old Carmelite who had lived over a century ago might offer to my life. I was pleasantly surprised. These are five of the lessons St. Therese had to offer:
1) The Importance of Bringing up Children in a Loving and Faith-Filled Environment
Therese was no doubt chosen by God for the particular role she was to play in history. The faith of her family, however, nurtured the seed and brought it to fruition. She was raised in an environment of love. Therese recalls that "the first memories I have are stamped with smiles and the most tender caresses." (1)
After her mother's untimely death when Therese was only four, her father and older sisters took over her instruction. Therese had a deep love of God and her sisters were patient in explaining the mysteries of heaven. At one point, her eldest sister Pauline had Therese get her father's large glass and her own small thimble and fill them both with water. "She asked me which one was fuller. I told her each was as full as the other and that it was impossible to put in more water than they could contain. [She] helped me understand that in heaven God will grant His Elect as much glory as they can take, the last having nothing to envy in the first." (2)
How important it is that we teach our children about God, how to pray, and patiently answer their questions! In that way, we can help them become the people God wants them to be.
2) The Power of Persistence
Therese felt called by Jesus to enter the cloistered order of Carmel at the young age of fifteen, yet many obstacles stood in her way. Her uncle, the Superior of Carmel, and her local Bishop all voiced their opposition. It happened that she was making a planned pilgrimage with her father and many other travelers to Rome to have an audience with the Pope. Although forbidden to speak, she threw herself at the feet of the Holy Father Leo XIII to ask his permission to enter Carmel. Even he, however, would not give his consent, merely giving her the encouragement that "You will enter if God wills it." (3) Therese was carried away by two guards! How many of us would have continued to persevere in the face of such odds? Even though she was heartbroken, she continued to believe, and her faith was rewarded. While she did not get her wish to enter Carmel by Christmas of that year, a miracle did occur, hearts were changed, and the Bishop granted her permission to enter after Lent.
It is sometimes so hard to continue in the midst of opposing forces. Yet if we truly believe that we are doing what God wills, we need to put one foot in front of the other and trust that God will take care of the outcome.
3) The Value of Small Sacrifices
Therese states that she "applied [herself] to practicing little virtues, not having the capability of practicing the great." (4) She made small sacrifices such as sitting in her chair without leaning back or being extra kind to a sister she didn't particularly like, or biting her tongue when some object that belonged to her was missing.
We have so many opportunities to do the same in our daily lives. A mother's life is full of sacrifice, but do we perform these sacrifices grudgingly or do we offer them up to God with joy and gratitude? The attitude makes all the difference. We can choose to be kind to those we live with or work with, even when we may not feel like it. We can sacrifice our time, our money, our desires, and offer them to God as a simple gift.
4) How to Trust God when He is Nowhere to be Found
We all go through dark nights of the soul when God seems to be among the missing. Therese was no exception. As she waited to hear if she would be allowed to enter Carmel, "bitterness filled [her] soul, for Jesus was silent. He seemed to be distant, nothing served to reveal his presence." (5) Near the end of her life, Therese had a crisis of faith in which she doubted the existence of heaven. She tells us "when I sing of the happiness of heaven and of the eternal possession of God, I feel no joy in this, for I sing simply what I WANT TO BELIEVE." (6) At those times when we have no feeling of faith, we need to make the intellectual decision to believe anyway.
5) Be Happy Being the Person God Made You
Therese looked at gardens and noticed all the different varieties of flowers God had created. "And so it is in the world of souls, Jesus' garden. He willed to create great souls comparable to lilies and roses, but He has created smaller one and those must be content to be daisies or violets destined to give joy to God's glances when He looks down at his feet. Perfection consists in doing His will, in being what He wills us to be." She goes on to instruct us that "our Lord is occupied particularly with each soul as though there were no others like it." (7)
While considering herself one of the "little flowers," Therese celebrates her uniqueness and so should we celebrate. We are special in God's eyes and should rejoice in that fact. Our quest should not be to be different from what we are, but rather to make the most of who we are and the gifts God has given us. Then, we shall bring Him joy!
1) "Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Therese," trans. John Clarke, OCD, Washington, DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1975, 17.
2) ibid, 45.
3) ibid, 135.
4) ibid, 159
5) ibid, 136
6) ibid, 214
7) ibid, 14.
Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur is editor of Spiritual Woman. Visit her blog at http://spiritualwomanthoughts.blogspot.com.