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All sorts of people give us advice about love—television gurus, newspaper columnists, friends, and preachers.
Like me, you might be surprised to learn that one of the most profound modern mentors on “the science of love” wasn’t any of these. It was a French Carmelite nun who died at the age of twenty-four: Thérèse of Lisieux.
Thérèse, of course, is one of the most beloved Catholic saints. But she is so often misunderstood! While some admire her for showing ordinary people how to live the “little way” of love, others dismiss her as a sentimental young woman whose kindness looks a lot like weakness. Yet Pope John Paul II named Thérèse a Doctor of the Church in 1997, placing her in a very small company of saints whose teachings illuminate the gospel in every age.
So who was the real Thérèse? A submissive young woman or a model of mature love? There is no mistaking the answer to this question in the new book by Brother Joseph Schmidt, FSC, Walking the Little Way of Thérèse of Lisieux.
In Weakness, Strength. In this examination of Thérèse’s life and writing, Brother Joseph shows how Thérèse grew in wisdom and was shaped by her experiences. Quoting from her autobiography and letters, he “translates” Thérèse for our more psychologically aware times. As a result, we can see in her life journey our own struggles with mixed motives, insistent egos, and unhealthy patterns.
For example, there is the story of what Thérèse called her “complete conversion,” when she was fourteen. Until then, she knew herself to be “practicing virtue in a strange way,” with motivations tinged with her need for affection and appreciation. She was aware that she was dominated by an excessive need to please others, but felt powerless to change. Then early one Christmas, she received a transforming grace:
Jesus . . . changed the night of my soul into rays of light. On that night when he made himself subject to weakness and suffering for love of me, he made me strong and courageous.
Jesus had done it all, Thérèse knew, and from then on she relied on him. At the end of her life, she wrote:
The remembrance of my faults . . . draws me never to depend on my strength which is only weakness. But this remembrance speaks to me of mercy and love. . . . It is easy to please Jesus. . . . It is necessary only to love him, without paying too much attention to our own faults. A glance at Jesus and recognition of our own weaknesses makes all well again.
Road Markers. Walking the Little Way describes Thérèse’s insights in terms of six qualities of the heart that can act as road markers for our own path: 1) a sense of inner freedom; 2) a capacity for a creative response; 3) a spirit of empathy and compassion; 4) an attitude of willingness rather than willfulness; 5) a spirit of self-surrender; 6) a pervasive and enduring sense of gratitude.
Far from being naïve or simplistic, these are strikingly modern insights. In the section about inner freedom, for example, Brother Joseph describes how Thérèse tackled the challenge to be kind to her sister Carmelites without compromising her own integrity:
She could not reject the energy of her feelings, nor could she simply reject the community members. . . . Thérèse gradually became more capable of assessing her inner strength . . . and establishing personal boundaries. . . . Following St. Paul’s teaching, Thérèse learned that patience and kindness, essential to love, flowed into and flowed out of inner freedom.
Walking the Little Way. I can’t help but bring my perspective as a woman to this story of Thérèse. I am struck by her emotional courage and humility as she stood alone before God in the sanctuary of her heart.
In fact, “little way” is a deceptively simple description of this path to holiness. Few people credit the enormity of the dramas that take place in the inner journey of our souls—terror, bravery, grief, confusion, and joy.
Thérèse was an unusually self-reflective person with the courage to look honestly at her feelings and actions. As she prayed her experiences, she grew in her awareness of the ways that we all subtly turn from the path of love.
Maybe the strongest yet gentlest advice I take away from this book are the words Thérèse used to encourage a sister who was prone to blaming herself for not being good enough or holy enough to succeed in her will to do good: “If you are willing to bear serenely the trial of being displeasing to yourself, then you will be . . . [for Jesus] a pleasant place of shelter.”
Thérèse was asking the sister . . . Can you be patient with yourself until God gives you the grace to be patient with the sisters? Can you accept and love yourself and not become your own adversary? Can you bear serenely the distress and personal trial of knowing that you have the weakness of impatience? . . .
Success in virtue is not the point. Love—love of the sisters in their weakness and love of yourself in your inadequacy— that, Thérèse was trying to say, is the point.
Brother Joseph Schmidt, a spiritual director, psychologist, and longtime student of Thérèse, has done an immense service by “translating” her short life. As we see connections between her journey and ours, we can more easily take her as a mentor and companion on the little way. n
Marisa Guerin is a consultant and leadership advisor to religious communities and nonprofit organizations.
Walking the Little Way of Thérèse of Lisieux: Discovering the Path of Love, by Joseph F. Schmidt, FCS (softcover, 272 pp.), is available from The Word Among Us at 1-800-7759673 or online at www.wau.org. If you’d like to read an excerpt, visit our website and click on “Books.”