“God is Love”
by Fr. Marie-Eugene of the Child Jesus French Discalced Carmelite priest, now in process of beatification.
ST THÉRÉSE OF THE CHILD JESUS AND THE HOLY FACE
God is Love: certitude in times of darkness
A little later her sister, Mother Agnes, now Prioress, gave her to Mother Marie de Gonzague as an assistant in the formation of the novices,28 among whom in 1894 was her sister Celine. Assigned to the novitiate, Thérèse found an opportunity to explain her teaching, which otherwise she would never have formulated. Obliged to speak to her sisters, she told them what she felt and experienced. When they questioned her, she quoted by heart passages from St. John of the Cross – as she often did at recreation – for that was her life.
Thérèse thus explained a little of her doctrine, but always in the midst of distress, because of the opposition of her surroundings and the sermons she had to listen to. Her teaching was quite different from all this. In her obscure contemplation she had made the discovery of the God who is Love, an obscure discovery but one which she grasped almost by second nature and which created certitude in the depths of her soul. God is Love. She could say:
“I contemplate and adore the other divine perfections … through Mercy. All of these perfections appear to be resplendent with Love.” There was nothing but this in God.
The searching went on in darkness. Thérèse only explained what she had to explain, either for the novices or when asked to write the story of her life later. Habitually she lived in the dark. We might say that she found herself bogged down in what is often called the purification of the spirit. This consists far less in keen sufferings marked by distinct stages – some of these there were indeed – than in a muddled fog or kind of quicksand in which one becomes enmired and unable to move.” This trial continued in anguish, but with upward thrusts toward God and convictions that she had found him. There was an apparent contradiction between her progressive discovery of sin and of sinful tendencies in herself and others, and her discovery of God.
The God whom Thérèse discovered was the God of Love. At the same time she saw that around her, and even in her Carmel, God was not known. The God who is Love was not known! They knew the God of justice, quid pro quo, and they tried to acquire merits. But, thought Thérèse, this was not the way to win him. God is Love, God is Mercy. But what is Mercy? It is the Love of God which gives itself beyond all demands and rights.
The Council of Trent declared that God bestows his gifts in two ways: out of justice, that is, as a reward for merits, and out of Mercy, that is, surpassing all merit. Thus he is true to his own nature, for he is Love, Goodness which pours itself out. He has a need to give. Therein ties his joy.
Thérèse read the Gospels. What did she find there? Mary Magdalen: God had forgiven her much, and therefore she loved much.” Thérèse also contemplated the prodigal son and the fathers joy in receiving him back: joy, for this was his opportunity to give himself. There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner repenting than over ninety-nine upright people who have no need of repentance. What glorifies God and “delights him’ is to be able to give himself, and give himself freely. This was Thérèse’s discovery: what gives God joy is the power to give more than what is required by strict justice, freely, based on our needs and the exegencies of his nature which is Love, and not on our merits.
Thérèse felt acutely the tension of her surroundings, the opposition between her light, her needs, and what she saw being practiced around her . People kept score with God. When you stood before the eternal Father who was to judge you, he would look at your list of merits. You would have obtained so many indulgences, you would have so many merits, and your place would be assigned. For her part Thérèse said: I shall take care not to present any merits of mine, but only those of our Lord. As for me, I shall have nothing, I do not want to present anything, I prefer to let God love me as much as he wants.” Then she added, “It is because of this that I shall get such a good reception.” Here we have the heart of her teaching.
Surrender to Love
Seeing that God was not loved, she, Thérèse, would ‘make reparation’ too. The Love of God, Merciful Love, was not known. So seldom did people have recourse to Mercy; everyone appealed to Justice. They kept accounts with God, while he wished to give himself according to his own exigencies. Thérèse said to herself. “God has so much Love to give, and he can’t do it; people present only their own merits, and these are so paltry.” She therefore presented herself before God, saying: “Give me this love; I accept to be a victim of Love that is, to receive all the Love which others do not receive because they will not let you Love them as you wish. Such was her confidence in the Mercy which exceeds justice.
She then dreamt of making her offering to Merciful Love. But it was not directly in order to receive Love, it was ‘to please God”-, it was so that God might have the opportunity to give himself as intensely as he desired. She would be a victim of Love, she accepted to be consumed by Love, if only God could have his way. Her object was to please him, no to be a saint; it was not even directly to give him to others, but only to please him. Her offering was God-centered. Thérèse looked only at God and she lived by this Love. She wanted to delight God, to give him joy, to let him Love.
In the Gospels she also pondered the scene with the children. To enter God’s kingdom, one must be a child. True, one must also be a saint. But who is greater? The smaller, because it is the weaker. Not by reason of any merits, but because the child, in its weakness and poverty, offers God the widest vessel, capable of holding all. Here we have the essence of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus’ mystical theology.
She also found in St. John of the Cross the most distant horizons of Love, In the Living Flame and the Spiritual Canticle he describes in a rich and comprehensive way the working of God’s Love in the soul. These descriptions correspond clearly to Thérèse’s experience”
God is Love, Goodness pouring itself out.
A new spirituality
The teaching of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus was based on this central experience. The greatest grace of her life was her understanding of Mercy. The theology she elaborated flowed from a personal insight, something which came naturally to her. At times she experienced suffering so intense that she said, “When I am in heaven, if I have been mistaken about this, I will come and let you know. But in the depths of her being she was certain. Her entire teaching flowed from this light in the next talk I shall try to enlarge on this, but now I should like to show how this doctrine has changed our spirituality, so to say. She was not the only one, there had been other messages of Love through the ages, but I believe that Thérèse’s is still the most important one from a theological and spiritual point of view.
In the years following her death Pius X recommended frequent Communion, which points us toward positive holiness. The holiness and asceticism of the 19th century were negative: people sought above all to purify themselves and make reparation to God. The characteristic note of spirituality in our times is the positive aspect of love which has become a part of our way of life. This is why it succeeds. in each era we follow the grace and light God gives us. Formerly the stress was more on sacrifice; today it is on presence and contact. There was a grandeur about former times, but people did not have the same understanding of Love and Mercy. Their spirituality did not appeal to the majority, since few were strong enough to live by it. Now, on the other hand, as the concept of divine Mercy has been brought to the fore, it has been a powerful influence in opening up the mystical life to the many.
Two periods can be distinguished here. I believe St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus is the herald of the new one. She has exemplified and modernized, in a certain sense, the spirituality of St. Paul, who said, “Through the grace of God I am what I am, and the grace he gave me has not been without result”.
Thérèse’s greatness lay in her discovery of Mercy. On one occasion she said to her infirmarian, “You know well that you are taking care of a little saint.” They cut her finger nails. ‘Keep them,’ she said, “some day someone will treasure them.” She also remarked: ‘They say I have virtue but that isn’t true; they are mistaken. I do not have virtue. God gives me what I need at each instant. I have only what I need for the present moment. These paradoxes are extraordinary and disconcerting. There is a certain quality of greatness in St. Thérèse. I assure you that I have studied her in depth for forty years and her greatness has often overwhelmed me. She has renewed our understanding of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, as we see them operating in her contemplation. It harmonizes with the teaching of St. Thomas. It is not a matter of sentimentality or of novelties. It is a rediscovery, an illustration of the traditional doctrine. I believe this is one of the great graces granted to our times.
In her surroundings, Thérèse was unique. I have known Mother Agnes since 1927. I loved and revered her deeply. She was a very holy soul, and the same was true of Sister Genevieve. But St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus was a giant in comparison and far surpassed them. She is the only one, we could say, to have read and perfectly understood St. John of the Cross. In spite of her superior intelligence and spiritual knowledge, however, she showed perfect submission – a sure proof that her understanding was indeed supernatural.
To be practical, we should exploit this theological knowledge of God, of Mercy. St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus has left her mark on our times. She has, so to say, popularized contemplation and sanctity itself.