From By Way of Grace
When I want to rest my heart, wearied by the
darkness which surrounds it, by the memory of the
luminous country to which I aspire, my torment
redoubles; it seems to me that the darkness,
borrowing the voice of sinners, says mockingly to
me, “You are dreaming about the light.”
Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (1973-1897)
A long-ago wish had come true: I was finally in England, a place I’d wanted to visit since I was a fairy-tale-reading child. It was as lovely as I’d always imagined it would be, with its meandering hedges, its yellow fields of rape, its Jersey cows and bunchy sheep, its great silent stone cathedrals. Britain, with all its historical riches – how easily I could settle down for the rest of my life in a corner of this ancient landscape!
[Husband] Mike was puzzled. We’d done a lot of traveling, after all, and I’d fallen in love with lots of places, but this was different. This, I kept telling him, felt like home, as though I’d been living in a dream until now and had finally woken up to my real life, which was not in California at all, but here. Didn’t it feel that way to him too?
He shook his head, baffled, and kept his eyes locked on our lane of the A12. This was perhaps the tenth time I’d mentioned the subject since we’d arrived, and I could tell by the expression on his face that it was no longer cute. Besides, he was bearing the brunt of the responsibility for getting us around in my new favorite place (I couldn’t imagine taking the wheel of our minuscule Ford Ka and driving on the left, as he’d been doing for the past two weeks), and I knew his patience was beginning to wear thin. Plus, we were headed for Bath, an ancient town featuring no doubt hundreds of twisting one-way roads named Upper and Lower Frog. We would be lost for hours trying to find our bed-and-breakfast.
As it turned out, our elderly landlady, who had not driven a car for years, had given us directions that tranquilly ignored one-way street signs entirely. Apparently she assumed we’d be strolling in from London on foot. By the time we finally got settled in our room, we were hungry and tense, and I suggested we get down to the old part of town to eat and see what we could see before dark.
We headed down the sidewalk, and soon Mike, lollygagging along, was half a block behind, then two. I stood, impatiently tapping my foot until he caught up, then launched off. In no time he was once again dragging behind. After having to wait a third time for him to catch up, I said irritably, “Are you trying to make some kind of point here? I thought you wanted to see the town.”
He gave me a look I couldn’t decipher, then sighed. “You walk too fast. Your whole family walks too fast. I can’t keep up with you.”
Instantly, I flared. “That’s not true! You know it’s not! You’re going slow on purpose.”
“Well, what do you want me to do? You won’t take a hint.”
“You never said a word!”
“How could I? You roared off ahead before I could get my mouth open. As usual.”
“This is nothing new, Paula. You and your family have a lot on your minds. Places to go and people to see. I’m just not as quick as the rest of you.”
“Oh, brother. Are we going down that road again? Leave my family out of it.”
“How can I? We’re going to be spending the next week with them. And they’ll all be walking too fast.”
This silenced me. It was true; we were going to be spending the following week sharing a cottage in Wales with [sister] Gretchen and her family, our first lengthy time together since the marathon weekend at Solitude Ridge. Sure, I was a bit apprehensive, and I knew Gretchen was too. The last thing I needed was Mike’s old anxiety about my high-energy, voluble family kicking in. Though my family did tend to overwhelm its various in-laws, this seemed like a petty concern at the moment, and far beneath his dignity. No, I couldn’t take it seriously. “This is ridiculous,” I said. “Let’s go eat – we’re squabbling because we’re starving.”
We didn’t speak again till we’d found the fish-and-chips shop. Then, possibly to make amends, Mike ordered us each a glass of wine. Before he’d taken three sips, I had mine downed. He glanced at my goblet and raised an eyebrow. “What?” I said.
“Nothing. I’m glad you liked your wine.”
The alcohol was doing its work in me. “What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked belligerently.
He sighed and looked out the window, as though hoping somebody might come to rescue us. “Listen, he said finally, “it’s been a long day. A long couple of weeks. We’re both tired–”
“I’m not tired. I love this trip. But I guess you don’t, do you? I guess you’re wishing we never came, is that it?”
This was a completely different old fight – not my overwhelming family anymore, but money. We were both naturally frugal, but when I got focused on a goal, money became no object, at least in the critical planning stage. Mike had been quite concerned about the scope and length of this six-week trip to the British Isles, a trip that absolutely did not fit within our normal budget. No problem, I’d reassured him blithely – I’ll use my next book advance. Which I had, but it didn’t matter: both of us were secretly horrified at how expensive everything seemed to be – including the small glass of wine I’d just chugged. Neither of us was used to this sort of gushing monetary outflow. And there were four weeks left to go.
We stared somberly at one another across the fish-and-chips. Four weeks, I could hear him thinking. Four weeks alone with her.
Who We Are Without God
The fight was over – neither of us had the heart for it – but something inside me felt crushed. This was our twentieth-anniversary vacation, the trip of a lifetime. Had it taken all these years for Mike to realize just how little he really liked me? For it was true, I thought as we trudged silently back to the bed-and-breakfast in the dark, Mike purposely moving briskly and me purposely lagging behind so as to show that all was forgiven and forgotten: I was a profoundly unlikable person, and the only reason he’d stuck it out all this time was that he was good and patient and too kind to tell me the truth. He’d been putting up with me – that was all. I was being borne like a burden, not cherished, as I’d naively believed all these years. Finally the mask had cracked, and I saw the truth. But how could I live with it?
In bed, I smiled damply at him when he asked, concerned, whether we were back to being friends. “Of course,” I said. “Don’t worry. We were just tired and hungry.” I patted his cheek and turned away, hugging the pillow to my chest, hardly breathing till I heard he’d fallen asleep. Then I let the tears come, silent and warm against my ear. I was not loved, I told myself, shocked and sick inside. My true love did not love me after all, did not delight in my presence, as I’d always believed, but bore me year after endless year, a soul-crushing obligation.
It was not his fault he didn’t love me – nobody could. I was a bossy, headstrong, self-centered person who rode roughshod over anybody who got in my way. I bulldozed. I squashed. I unjustly accused. I was oblivious, clueless, heedless. Just look at how I’d torn into poor Gretchen, not to mention my old friend Ken. . . .
By three in the morning, I’d soaked the pillowcase, but the names were still rising up inside me – all the people in my fifty-three years of living who’d come affectionately into my world at some point, only to make their stealthy escape later. They’d discovered the same truth Mike had discovered, but unlike him, who out of love concealed what he knew, they had gotten out as soon as they could.
At 4:00 a.m. I crawled out of bed and sat on the floor in the dark, trying to stop the terrible downward spiral by praying. How can I live with this? I asked God. What can I do? Then I grew still. What if God couldn’t love me either? In fact, who was I kidding? If Mike, a person I loved to distraction, could barely endure my brassy, selfish behavior, how had God put up me all these years?
Fear descended, quite different from the old fear of the abyss and nothingness. The answer to my question was right in the Bible. There were some people God spewed out of his mouth. There were some he did not recognize. I began to shiver.
But Mike had his unlikable side too. Sometimes he was pushy and willful; sometimes he got just as snappy as I did. Ditto for Gretchen, Ken, and all the other supposed victims of my horridness. When it came to human relationships, we were all guilty. Maybe Sartre was right: maybe hell really was other people. If so, how did we Christians dare hope for a new Heaven and a new Earth where the lion would lie down with the lamb? Most of us couldn’t even get through a dinner-table conversation without offending each other. Where was the transformation? Where was the glory?
Maybe Christianity was just a consoling fantasy after all.
My head, which had been buried in my hands, snapped up. I’d been down this path before, and I knew just what lay at the end of it. And I wasn’t going there again. O God, come to my assistance, I prayed. O Lord, make haste to help me.
Moments later, my ragged breathing began to even out. I looked up at the window shade, edged in the faint pink light of dawn. I felt the floor, hard and reassuring beneath my crossed legs. It was going to be okay. He was there. He was listening. He hadn’t spewed me out of his mouth. So, I asked him what do we do?
Love one another as I have loved you, he said as the first narrow beam from the rising sun struck the wall in front of me.
I crawled thoughtfully back into bed and put my arms around Mike, who muttered in his sleep and shifted until we were cuddled safely together. In two minutes, I was gone, not waking again till nearly nine.
Later that week, at the cottage in Wales, I confided some this this to Gretchen, who said, “Every so often we have to stand face-to-face with who we are without God.”
“That’s true,” I said, “but it was so painful! I almost gave up on the whole quest.”
“That’s why hope is a virtue,” she said. “You can have all the faith in the world, but it’s hope that keeps you moving forward.”
A light went on. My sister had put her finger on a grave weakness in my spiritual life. It is one thing to wrestle with doubt about faith – doubt can even serve to keep faith vibrant and free of complacency. It’s another thing entirely to believe and yet despair. It was time to learn more about the second of the great theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.
The Virtue Between Someday and Not Yet
Hope, according to Aquinas, is what fills the gap in the Christian life between “someday” and “not yet.” It points us toward our true home, whose outlines can be faintly discerned in whatever on Earth is beautiful, true, and good; yet at the same time it quietly reminds us that we are merely passing through. As Christians, we remain pilgrim people until the moment of death. Even those of us who achieve mystical union with God – even the great contemplatives – remain in this status viatoris, or “state of being on the way,” until we leave the physical realm behind us.
The pilgrim nature of Christian life is what sets it apart from the religions and philosophies of enlightenment. There is no Christian equivalent to Plato’s vision of the sun, despite the mystical heights reached by saints such as Basil, Gregory, Bernard, and Teresa. For as Paul says in 1 Corinthians, “We know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. . . . Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known;” (13:9-10, 12).
According to Saint Aelred of Rievaulx, we humans are like the prodigal son who has deliberately abandoned his loving father. Like the miserable prodigal, we wander in the “land of unlikeness,” seeking the place we truly belong. If we hold on to this faint but radiant vision of our true home and do not give up the quest, “peace, quiet, happiness await us in the homeland of our hope.” But not yet. Not in this world.
The magnetic attractiveness of this distant homeland makes our Earthly lives an endless pilgrimage, fueled by a “holy longing” for what is to come. “Inside of us something is at odds with the very rhythm of things,” says Ronald Rolheiser, “and we are forever restless, dissatisfied, frustrated, and aching. We are so overcharged with desire that it is hard to come to simple rest.”
We are condemned to suffer this otherwise inexplicable restlessness until the moment we fully grasp the implications of the Christian story and its promise of eternal life. G. K. Chesterton speaks of his relief at discovering the true nature of his dissatisfaction: “The modern philosopher had told me again and again that I was in the right place, and I had still felt depressed even in acquiescence. But I had heard that I was in the wrong place, and my soul sang for joy, like a bird in spring. The knowledge found out and illuminated forgotten chambers in the dark house of infancy. I knew now why grass had always seemed to me as queer as the green beard of a giant, and why I could feel homesick at home.”
Yet we cannot skip this Earthly part of the spiritual journey. We must travel through time until, at the moment of death, we step out of temporality and into eternity. And in between we must grapple with the challenge of maintaining forward momentum, despite our unsatisfied longing. To stop, to lose hope, is to sink toward the antithesis of human fulfillment, which is nothingness. The difficult way of the pilgrim, says Pieper, even when it involves great suffering and doubt, leads in exactly the opposite direction – “toward being and away from nothingness; it leads to realization, not to annihilation.” The danger that attends the status viatoris is that we are “not yet” safe from the fall into nothingness as long as we are in this Earthly life. The virtue of hope saves us from this disastrous end.
We are born with a natural hopefulness. When we are young, we hope for love and success. When life becomes difficult, we hope for the best. When we are old, we hope for a good death. Deep within this natural hope of ours lies the aspiration to great things. Also known as magnanimity, this deep-seated urge to achieve is what “decides in favor of what is, at any given moment, the greater possibility of the human potentiality for being.” Without natural hope there is no impetus for growth and change; yet too much natural hope can lead to psychological inflation. Humility tempers this inborn impulse to greatness and keeps us focused on the reality of who we are.
However, hope becomes something more than a common human urge when it is oriented toward a “fulfillment and a beatitude that are not ‘owed’ to natural man” – in other words, when hope is focused on our end in God. This is where natural hope is transformed into a virtue. Like faith, the theological virtue of hope is not self-generated; it comes to us through grace, and we can only cling to it. We can understand the nature of this hope and its supernatural goal only through divine revelation via the gospel story.
What we discover here is that “Christ is the actual foundation of hope.” Isaiah prophesies of the Messiah who will spring from the root of Jesse that “the Gentiles will hope in him;” (see Romans 15:12). Paul urges new Christians to trust in “the God of hope” so that they may “overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit;” (Romans 15:13). Paul urges new Christians to trust in “the God of hope” so that they may “overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit;” (Romans 15:13). He reminds them that it is the Christ within who constitutes their “hope of glory,” (Colossians 1:27), and uses the same message to reassure the Thessalonians, who are confused about why Christians are continuing to undergo physical death despite the promise of eternal life: “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him; (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14).
This hope in the Christ who has conquered death and promises life is the “anchor for the soul,” (Hebrews 6:19), giving us the stability to live for God instead of for ourselves. John talks about this critical link between hope and Christian transformation: “Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure;” (1 John 3:3). Adds the author of Hebrews, “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds;” (10:23-24). Hope in the “lasting elevation of man’s being” thus depends entirely on the incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ.”
Even during physical life, the theological virtue of hope offers us such a lengthy future that the past seems brief in comparison. We become like young people looking forward with eager eyes, rather than old people bleakly dwelling on lost health and vitality. Says Pieper, “It seems surprising how seldom the enchanting youthfulness of our great saints is noticed; especially of those saints who were active in the world as builders and founders.” Hope is a true fountain of youth.
Yet we can lose this anchor for the soul in two ways: through presumption and through despair. In presumption, we become convinced that we have already arrived. The anxiety-producing “not yet” of the pilgrim journey is set aside for the more comforting notion that the trip is over and all is well. We have no more to learn, no more to suffer, and no more changes to undergo; we are now perfected beings and the process is done. Presumption may be the great temptation of the New Age and other philosophies of enlightenment in which the way of knowledge (gnosis) and not the way of Christ is seen as the path to deification.
Presumption also shows up in various forms of Christian triumphalism. Catholics, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Calvinists, and countless other Christians have throughout the centuries too often embraced the dangerous notion that their particular doctrine and practice are perfect. Christ has no more to teach them; on the contrary, they themselves have been chosen as his personal mouthpieces. For example, Christians who focus almost solely on atonement and salvation can fall into the presumptuous notion that just because they’ve accepted Christ as their personal savior, their job is done and Heaven is assured. On the other hand, Christians who focus on charitable works can be trapped by the presumption that their goodness is all God requires of them. Finally, those who practice the virtues can slip into a presumptuous vision of themselves as perfected creatures. In each of these cases, the sin against hope lies in substituting the “not yet” of the status viatoris with the “already” of life after death.
Despair, the other sin against hope, is an anticipation of nonfulfillment. In despair we do not simply claim that the quest is too difficult; we claim that it is doomed. Despair used in this sense does not refer to the psychological state of discouragement or depression; it is not a mood but a decision of the will. We choose, despite the promises of Christ, to privately believe that the project will never work. This attitude then determines our conduct. Says Pieper, “The despair of which we are speaking is a sin. A sin, moreover, that bears the mark of special gravity and of an intensity of evil.” Why? Because for the Christian, “despair is a decision against Christ. It is a denial of the redemption.” It is also an anticipation of damnation – the same anticipation Frances de Sales suffered through during those six weeks of believing himself predestined to hell. Finally, despair directly contradicts the basic premise of Christian anthropology: that we are made for God and meant to be supernaturally fulfilled.
The root of despair is acedia, or spiritual sloth. This particular form of sloth, says Mary Margaret Funk, is not about laziness but “weariness of the soul”: “I hear in my head the constant refrain, What’s the use?” The core thought, unexpressed, is that the quest is ultimately doomed anyway, so why keep at it? This sense that effort is useless becomes an insidious destroyer of the spiritual life as a whole.
I thought back to that long dark night on the floor of the bed-and-breakfast and how quickly the discouragement about my own seemingly intractable sinfulness led me to the threshold of despair. I went back over the steps of my middle-of-the-night argument against hope – both for myself and for the rest of humanity. And I saw how inexorably despair leads to outright denial: in my case, the bitter thought that Christianity might be only a consoling fantasy.
Saint Thérèse of Lisieux: Whose Shot Life Was a Journey of Suffering — and Hope
Whose story could I read? It had to be someone who had walked through the valley of the shadow and never relinquished hope. It had to be someone who’d truly suffered, with little reward to show for it. Then I remembered Thérèse of Lisieux, who died an agonizing death of tuberculosis in a small Carmelite convent at the age of twenty-four. Her religious life was conducted in almost total obscurity, yet within a hundred years of her death she had been not only canonized but also declared a doctor of the church.
Thérèse was born in Alençon, France, on a cold winter night in 1873, the last of nine children of Louis and Zélie Martin. Her parents had already lost three infants and a five-year-old, so Thérèse was welcomed by the whole family as a gift. The sisters who stood around the bed of Zélie and the new baby ranged in age from four to nearly thirteen. The oldest, Marie, was declared godmother at the baptism, which took place two days later.
The infant Thérèse soon fell seriously ill, and Zélie despaired of saving her. The family doctor advised that the baby be given over to the care of a wet nurse in the country, where fresh air, sunshine, and a hearty diet might stop the steady decline. Two-month-old Thérèse was sent to live with Rose Taille on a farm eight miles away and remained there for nearly a year. She grew into a big, strong baby, blond and tanned and happy. As her mother wrote some months later, “Her nurse brings her out to the fields in a wheelbarrow, seated on top a load of hay; she hardly ever cries. Little Rose says that one could hardly find a better child.”
In time, the toddler was deemed healthy enough to come home, where she was once again welcomed with great joy and thanksgiving. As Thérèse later wrote at the beginning of her famous spiritual autobiography, The Story of a Soul, her life was destined to be short but intensely lived from the very start: “God granted me the favor of opening my intelligence at an early age and imprinting childhood recollections so deeply on my memory that it seems the things I’m about to recount happened only yesterday. Jesus in his love willed, perhaps, that I know the matchless mother he had given me, but whom his hand hastened to crown in Heaven.
Zélie also cherished the brief interlude between the birth of her youngest child and her own death, from cancer, when Thérèse was only four. As she wrote to her daughter, Pauline, “The little ones [Thérèse and Céline] don’t disturb me since both of them are very good; they are very special, and certainly will turn out well. You and Marie will be able to raise them perfectly. Céline never commits the smallest deliberate fault. The little one will be all right too, for she wouldn’t tell a lie for all the gold in the world and she has a spirit about her that I have not seen in any of you.” Later in the same letter she adds poignantly, “The little one is our whole happiness. She will be good; you can already see the germ of goodness in her. She speaks only about God and wouldn’t miss her prayers for anything.”
Zélie died in the middle of the night in August 1877. This first experience of loss had a major impact on her most sensitive child. Says Thérèse, “The touching ceremony of the last anointing is deeply impressed on my mind. I can still see the spot where I was by Céline’s side. All five of us were lined up according to age, and Papa was there too, sobbing.”
After Zélie’s death, the sisters drew even closer, particularly Céline and Thérèse, who were nearest each other in the family lineup. On the day of the funeral each of the younger girls selected her own substitute mother. Thérèse choosing Pauline, and Céline designating Marie.
Soon their father decided to move the household from Alençon to Lisieux, where his dead wife’s family lived. He thought the girls would be better off living closer to relatives. Thérèse in particular had become extremely shy, sensitive, and tied to her siblings in the months since her mother had died, and she immediately opened up in the presence of her cousins and aunt. But it was the young teenager Pauline who took most of the responsibility for Thérèse’s upbringing. “In the morning,” wrote Thérèse to her sister years later, “you used to come to me and ask me if I had raised my heart to God, and then you dressed me. While dressing me you spoke about him and afterward we knelt down and prayed and said our prayers together. The reading lesson came later and the first word I was able to read without help was ‘Heaven.’”
In the afternoons, the little girl took a walk with her father, visiting a different church each day. “It was in this way that we entered the Carmelite chapel for the first time,” recalls Thérèse in her autobiography. “Papa showed me the choir grille and told me there were nuns behind it. I was far from thinking that nine years later I would be in their midst!”
The two of them would often go fishing, though Thérèse preferred to spend the time sitting on the grass alone with her thoughts. “Without knowing what it was to meditate,” she says, “my soul was absorbed in real prayer. I listened to distant sounds, the murmuring of wind, etc. At times, the indistinct notes of some military music reached me where I was, filling my heart with a sweet melancholy. Earth then seemed to be a place of exile and I could dream only of Heaven.”
In time her beloved sisters began to enter the Carmelite convent, the Carmel, as novices – first Pauline, then Marie. The third, Léonie, went to a Visitation convent instead. Thérèse suffered the loss of her substitute mother, Pauline, almost as much as she had the death of Zélie, for a Carmelite profession meant complete withdrawal from the world. Of the day Pauline entered the Carmel, Thérèse says, “I believe if everything crumbled around me, I would have paid no attention whatsoever. I looked up at the beautiful blue skies and was astonished to see the sun was shining with such brightness when my soul was flooded with sadness!”
Her profound grief led quickly to physical illness. “Believing I was cold, Aunt covered me with blankets and surrounded me with hot water bottles. But nothing was able to stop my shaking, which lasted almost all night.” Months later when Pauline took the habit, Thérèse fell ill again, this time nearly unto death. “I can’t describe this strange sickness,” she says, “but I’m now convinced that it was the world of the devil. For a long time after my cure, however, I believed I had become ill on purpose and this was a real martyrdom for my soul.” During the many months this sickness lasted, Thérèse suffered many fears, spoke deliriously, fainted, and at times found it impossible to open her eyes. She was tended lovingly by Marie, who had not yet left for the convent.
The illness finally lifted during prayer before a statue of Mary. “All of a sudden the Blessed Virgin appeared beautiful to me, so beautiful that never had I seen anything so attractive; her face was suffused with an ineffable benevolence and tenderness, but what penetrated to the very depths of my soul was the ‘ravishing smile of the Blessed Virgin.’ At that instant, all my pain disappeared, and two large tears glistened on my eyelashes, and flowed down my cheeks silently, but they were tears of unmixed joy.”
Marie, who observed the sudden cure, carefully questioned her little sister, who described what had happened to her. Marie then asked for permission to repeat the story at the Carmel, and the next time they went to visit Pauline. Thérèse was interviewed by the nuns. This confused her and convinced her that somehow she had invented the whole thing. Both episodes – the inexplicable sickness and the miraculous interaction with Mary – were to haunt her later when she became a member of the same community. These events seem to have contributed to a profound self-doubt regarding both her fatal illness and her extraordinary spiritual experience.
Then it was time for Marie to enter the Carmel, and Thérèse went through yet another deep loss. “I was really unbearable because of my extreme touchiness; if I happened to cause anyone I loved some little trouble, even unwittingly, instead of forgetting about it and not crying, which made matters worse, I cried like a Magdalene and then when I began to cheer up, I’d begin to cry again for having cried. All arguments were useless; I was quite unable to correct this terrible fault. I really don’t know how I could entertain the thought of entering Carmel when I was still in the swaddling clothes of a child!”
Yet once again God cured her through a miracle. It had long been the habit of the Martin family to hide gifts in the shoes of the youngest child on Christmas Eve. After midnight Christmas Mass in 1886, Thérèse, Céline, and their father returned home, with the thirteen-year-old Thérèse as usual anticipating her presents. “Papa had always loved to see my happiness and listen to my cries of delight as I drew each surprise from the magic shoes.” This time, however, he was tired and uncharacteristically irritable. As Thérèse climbed the stairs to put away her hat so that the opening of presents could begin, she overheard him say something in regard to the cherished family custom that pierced her to the soul: “Well, fortunately, this will be the last year!”
Thérèse’s normal response would have been a flood of tears. Amazingly, “Thérèse was no longer the same; Jesus had changed her heart!” She recounts what happened next: “Forcing back my tears, I descended the stairs rapidly; controlling the poundings of my heart, I took my slippers and placed them in front of Papa and withdrew all the objects joyfully. Thérèse had discovered once again the strength of soul which she had lost at the age of four and a half, and she was to preserve it forever!”
This little episode became a true turning point. “I felt charity enter my soul, and the need to forget myself and to please others. I experienced a great desire to work for the conversion of sinners, a desire I hadn’t felt so intensely before. The cry of Jesus on the cross sounded continually in my heart: ‘I thirst!’ These words ignited within me an unknown and very living fire.”
Soon she heard about a “great criminal” who was about to be executed. “I wanted at all costs to prevent him from falling into hell, and to attain my purpose I employed every means imaginable.” Eventually she discovered her prayers had been answered: “Pranzini had not gone to confession. He had mounted the scaffold and was preparing to place his head in the formidable opening, when suddenly, seized by an inspiration, he turned, took hold of the crucifix the priest was holding out to him and kissed the sacred wounds three times! Then his soul went to receive the merciful sentence of him who declares that in Heaven there will be more joy over one sinner who does penance than over ninety-nine just who have no need of repentance!”
Thérèse had long ago determined she would enter the Carmel like her sisters, but when at fourteen she made her wishes known at the convent, the superior informed her she had to be at least twenty-one to be accepted as a novice. In hopes of receiving a special dispensation, she and her father visited the bishop of Bayeux; this mission also failed. Louis Martin then declared that he would take his youngest on a pilgrimage to Rome to meet with the pope himself if that was what it took. In November 1887, Louis, Céline, and Thérèse took the train to Paris, then on through Europe to Rome.
At the Vatican, while they waited in line for their papal audience, they were told that it was forbidden to speak to the pope, as this would hold up the crowd of pilgrims. Thérèse hesitated, then turned toward Céline for advice, who told her to go ahead and make her petition anyway. She did so. The pope listened carefully then “lowered his head toward me in such a way that my face almost touched his, and I saw his eyes, black and deep, fixed on me and they seemed to penetrate to the depths of my soul. He gazed at me steadily, speaking these words and stressing each syllable: ‘Go. Go. You will enter if God wills it!” Two guards touched her politely to make her rise, but she remained in the supplicant’s position, her joined hands on the knees of Leo XIII. She was bodily lifted by the guards, and at this moment “the Holy Father placed his hand on my lips, then raised it to bless me.” Afterward, she was carried to the door in tears, despite a new feeling of peace in the depths of her heart. By presenting herself at the Vatican, she’d done all she could; the rest was up to God.
Back home, she wrote again to the bishop, who had promised to talk with the Carmel superior on her behalf. Finally she received her answer: she would be accepted as a postulant after Lent. On April 9, 1988, at the age of fifteen, Thérèse entered the once-forbidden enclosure door and found herself, as she says in her autobiography, perfectly at home. “With what deep joy I repeated those words: ‘I am here forever and ever!’” Significantly, “this happiness was not passing, I found the religious life to be exactly as I had always imagined it, no sacrifice astonished me.”
During one of her first confessions as a postulant, the priest told her, “Thank God for what he has done for you; had he abandoned you, instead of being a little angel, you would have become a little demon.” Thérèse “had no difficulty believing it.” She knew herself and her weaknesses, and it was during these early months at the Carmel that she began to follow a pattern that eventually evolved into her famous “little way.” The first step was to not make excuses when accused, whether justly or unjustly. As the cherished and in some ways coddled baby of the Martin family, Thérèse had never experienced strictness or harsh words. To be wrongly accused, even if it was only in regard to a small broken vase, was agonizing for her, yet she trained herself to accept with humility all rebukes as her due.
Her superior, Mother Marie de Gonzague, required that she kiss the floor when they met in the corridors. Mother Marie announced in front of the entire community that Thérèse had missed a cobweb when she swept the cloister. On one of the days when Thérèse was sent by the novice mistress to weed the garden at 4:30, she was once again noticed by her superior, who commented, “Really, this child does nothing at all! What sort of novice has to take a walk every day?” Over and over, Thérèse faced these humiliations with the determination not to defend herself and with gratitude for the strict formation she was undergoing.
On the eve of her solemn profession, however, she experienced a sudden, profound loss of hope. “In the evening, while making the Way of the Cross after Matins, my vocation appeared to me as a dream, a chimera. I found life in Carmel to be very beautiful, but the devil inspired me with the assurance that it wasn’t for me and that I was misleading my superiors by advancing on this way to which I wasn’t called. The darkness was so great that I could see and understand one thing only: I didn’t have a vocation.” Crushed, she confided in her novice mistress, who “completely reassured” her. Still fearful, she went to Mother Marie, who “simply laughed” at her. The profession ceremony went on as planned, and Thérèse found herself “flooded with a river of peace” after all.
Near the end of the following year, a flu epidemic swept through the Carmel, infecting everyone but Thérèse and two other nuns, who then bore the brunt of nursing the sick. One by one, sisters began to die – the oldest first. Says Thérèse:
My nineteenth birthday was celebrated by a death, and this was soon followed by two other deaths. At this time I was all alone in the sacristy because the first in charge was seriously ill; I was the one who had to prepare for the burials, open the choir grilles for Mass, etc. One morning upon arising I had a presentiment that Sister Magdalene was dead; the dormitory was in darkness, and no one was coming out of the cells. I decided to enter Sister Magdalene’s cell since the door was wide open. I saw her fully dressed and lying across her bed. I didn’t have the least bit of fear.
She continued to grow spiritually, confiding in her beloved Pauline (now Mother Agnes) that she had always wanted to be a saint but could have easily become discouraged if God had not shown her another path. “I said to myself: God cannot inspire unrealizable desires. I can, then, in spite of my littleness, aspire to holiness. It is impossible for me to grow up, and so I must bear with myself such as I am with all my imperfections. But I want to seek out a means of going to Heaven by a little way, a way that is very straight, very short, and totally new.” She compares this route to the recently invented elevator and says that her method is for people who cannot possibly climb the ladder of perfection.
The little way is the way of a child (“Let the little children come to me” says Christ). Thérèse maintains that only the very small in spirit can aspire to this particular recourse, for the “elevator which must raise me to Heaven is your arms, O Jesus!” Those who are highly educated or spectacularly good or heroically brave cannot rest so easily in the arms of Christ; theirs is a different path. For Thérèse, God’s greatest gift to her was the revelation of her own impotence, which allowed her to naturally and easily rely on his strength rather than her own. “For a long time I have not belonged to myself since I delivered myself totally to Jesus, and he is therefore free to do with me as he pleases.”
Shortly after this realization, following Lent “observed in all its rigor,” Thérèse coughed up blood for the first time. The assistant infirmarian, Marie of the Trinity, describes the event: “That Good Friday she fasted on bread and water like the rest of us. Besides, she continued to take part in the house-cleaning. When I saw her washing a tiled-floor, looking so pale and worn out, I begged her to let me do her work for her, but she would not hear of it. Then, returning exhausted to her cell, she had another ‘coughing up of blood’ at bedtime as she had had the night before” Thérèse was but twenty-three, yet this unmistakable sign of a fatal disease flooded her with secret joy. She was going home!
However, she did not yet know what lay ahead of her. The tuberculosis, which would become agonizing before she finally died, was nothing compared to the spiritual darkness that now invaded her life. She speaks of her longing from childhood for a “most beautiful country” not of this Earth. But now, “it seems to me that the darkness, borrowing the voice of sinners, says mockingly to me: ‘You are dreaming about the light, about a fatherland embalmed in the sweetest perfumes. You believe that one day you will walk out of this fog that surrounds you! Advance, advance; rejoice in death which will give you not what you hope for but a night still more profound, the night of nothingness.’”
The unrelenting darkness went on for months. Thérèse writes, “When I sing of the happiness of Heaven, of the eternal possession of God, I feel no joy in this, for I sing simply what I WANT TO BELIEVE.” Meanwhile, the disease progressed. For four long weeks, between July 6 and August 5, 1897, she steadily lost blood. On the evening of July 30, she reached a crisis point: “She was suffocating and given ether to help her breathe, but it brought little relief.” Believing she would not survive the night, the canon gave her the last rites, and everything was set out in the next room for her burial. But she did not die, and on August 6 her condition unexpectedly stabilized. Nine days later, however, the tuberculosis attacked her left lung (her right was already destroyed). The pain was excruciating, as was the continual sense that she was suffocating.
On August 19, she received communion for the last time. The coughing continued unrelentingly. Then the disease attacked her intestines. Her attendant recorded her words: “People do not know what it is to suffer like this. No! They would have to experience it.” Fearing gangrene, her caregivers gave her enema after enema, to no avail. In her extreme state of emaciation, two small bones pierced her skin, and she felt as though she were sitting “on iron spikes.” It was at this time that Thérèse advised the people around her not to leave poisonous medicines within a suffering patient’s reach: “If I had not the faith, I would have committed suicide without a moment’s hesitation.”
On August 27, she experienced sudden relief. Her death was still a month away, and during this unexpected respite from severe suffering, she seemed rejuvenated, craving all sorts of food, including a chocolate éclair. As an austere Carmelite, ascetically disciplined and used to a life of voluntary mortification, she was profoundly embarrassed by these overpowering urges for forbidden foods. The community, however, provided whatever she requested, and she ate chicken and artichokes with guilty delight.
The nineteen-day remission ended, and the disease resumed its inexorable progress through her remaining lung. She could hardly breathe any longer and prayed continually to the statue of the Virgin in the infirmary: “I prayed fervently to her! It is sheer agony without any consolation!” According to Sister Marie of the Trinity, at one particularly bad moment, “Thérèse cried out in a voice rendered loud and clear by the acuteness of her pain: ‘My God, have mercy on me! Mary, help me! My God, how I am suffering! The chalice is full, full right up to the brim. I’ll never be able to die!”
The temptation to despair was enormous: “The devil is around me, I do not see him, but I feel his presence. He torments me, he is holding me, as it were, in an iron grip to prevent me from taking the smallest relief, he increases my pains in order to make me despair. And I cannot pray!” Her birth sisters, Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart (Marie) and Mother Agnes (Pauline), both fled the infirmary at different points because they were temporarily unable to bear the agony they were witnessing. Each prayed that their youngest sibling and fellow nun would not fall prey to despair.
At one point, sitting propped up in bed, Thérèse stretched out her arms in the shape of a cross, holding on to the shoulders of her beloved Mother Agnes and another nun. The sister she had known as a mother witnessed her final hours: “I was alone by her side. It was about half past four. Her face changed all of a sudden and I understood it was her last agony. She smiled but did not speak again until just before she died. Her face was flushed, her hands purplish, she was trembling in all her members and her feet were cold as ice.”
Then “her breathing suddenly became weaker and more labored. The infirmary bell was rung and, to allow the nuns to assemble quickly, Mother Marie de Gonzague said in a loud voice: ‘Open all the doors.’ Hardly had the nuns knelt at her bedside when [Thérèse] pronounced very distinctly her final act of love: ‘Oh! I love him,’ she said, looking at her crucifix. Then a moment later: ‘My God, I love you!’” Says Mother Agnes, “We thought that was the end, when, suddenly, she raised her eyes, eyes that were full of life and shining with an indescribable happiness ‘surpassing all her hopes.’” The ecstasy lasted “for a space of a Credo,” and then Thérèse closed her eyes and turned her head to the right and died. As the nuns prepared her body for burial, the luminous smile remained: “We thought she was only asleep and having a happy dream.” She was buried five days later on a hill overlooking Lisieux. Thérèse had finally arrived in the homeland of her hope.
The Choice That Is Hope
After I read this story, it was tempting to dismiss my own dark night of near-despair as inconsequential, yet I knew it could not be dismissed. It does not matter how we lose hope; the result is the same. Oddly enough, our best guard against doing so is what the Old Testament refers to as “fear of the Lord.” This does not mean we fear God with a slave’s cringing fear of punishment; instead, we fear the very real possibility, present up until the moment of death, that we will indeed make the turn away from God and toward nothingness.
The Bible calls this kind of fear “the beginning of wisdom” because it connects us to the reality of our situation as creatures faced with a life-determining choice. Says Pieper, “There is only one possible way in which man’s natural anxiety in the face of nothingness can penetrate his intellectual and psychic life without immediately destroying it. This one way is the perfecting of natural anxiety by the fear of the Lord.” Thérèse’s monumental but nearly silent struggle with impending despair in the face of overwhelming physical agony provides an example: what she feared more than pain and death itself was letting go of God.
Ultimately, hope is not an emotion or a mood; it is a choice. We choose in the face of terrible discouragement to reject nothingness and to struggle on toward being, our life in God. It has ever been so. As Moses once announced to the ancient Hebrews, “This day I call Heaven and Earth as witnesses against you that I have set before life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord, your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life;” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20).
Choosing to hope means choosing to live. When we hope, our lives begin to partake of eternity. No longer confined in our vision by the temporal span of physical existence, we joyfully await the new Heaven and new Earth that have been promised to us; (Revelation 21:1). We look toward the future with eager eyes, assured that God will someday make his dwelling place with us. When this day finally comes, “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things [will have] passed away;” (Revelation 21:4).