Knowing and loving God

SAINT THERESE OF LISIEUX: HER FAMILY: HER GOD, HER MESSAGE. ByFather Bernard Bro, O.P. (Ignatius Press, P.O. Box 1339, Ft. Collins, CO 80522, 2003;1-800-651-1531), 253 pp. PB $15.95.

How does a woman who lived only twenty-four years become a saint? How does a woman without a college education or a university degree become a doctor of the church? How does a simple French girl from a provincial background who lived only at home and at Carmel acquire worldwide, universal recognition? Father Bro’s biography offers special insight into the depths of Saint Therese’s heart and soul that illuminates her sainthood, explains her title of doctor, and captures the secret of her attraction and irresistible appeal.

One of the great truths and profound mysteries of God’s love that informs St. Therese’s writings is the depiction of Christ as a beggar. When Christ says to the woman at the well, “Give me to drink,” he thirsts for man’s love: “It was the love of His poor creature the Creator of the universe was seeking.” Portraying Christ as “Le DivinMendiant d’amour” (the divine beggar of love), St. Therese writes, “Ah! I feel it more than ever before, Jesus is parched, for He meets only the ungrateful and the indifferent” and “finds few hearts who surrender to Him without reservations, who understand the real tenderness of His infinite love.” This subject recurs in her writing: “How much Jesus desires to be loved,” a theme that Christ’s question to Peter especially stresses: “Peter, do you love me?” The mystery of God as a beggar of man’s love lies in the paradox of almighty God beseeching mortal man for the gift of human love: “He places Himself, so to speak, at our mercy, He does not want to take anything unless we give it to Him, and the smallest thing is precious in His eyes.” With exceptional delicacy and beauty Father Bro touches this depth of Christ’s love.

Thus St. Therese realizes her vocation to say yes to the divine beggar who only asks one question: “Will you?” As Father Bro poignantly explains, saying yes to God’ s simple question of “Will you?” entails repenting like the prodigal son, shedding tears of love like Mary Magdalen, suffering for justice and for souls, welcoming the poor, and living with Christ. In begging and asking, God petitions man for small favors that amount to noble deeds; “The Creator of the universe awaits the prayer of a poor little soul to save other souls redeemed like it at the price of His blood.” Christ begs for only the simple, only the essential: “I await only a prayer, a sigh from your heart!” Through his most meticulous, lucid, and discerning explanation of St. Therese’s understanding of God’s sensitive, personal love for each soul symbolized by his “begging,” Father Bro also illuminates St. Therese’s famous “little way.”

St. Therese’s vocation to say “yes” to God when he asks “will you?” means to please her divine spouse, “to answer his expectations,” as Therese says—to treat her Lord as a gracious queen responds to her honorable king, to be the beloved’s special source of happiness, to reassure the Lord who says “You are what counts” with the reply “No, Lord, you are what counts”—the reciprocity of love’s mutual giving and receiving. The “little way” of St. Therese’s love, Father Bro explains, lies not in “pious ideas” but in “small everyday actions”—gestures such as eating the leftover food which the other nuns refuse, never offering an opinion without being asked, lending a belonging to one of the sisters and never asking for its return, never complaining about anything because of touchiness, never excusing herself when criticized because Mary never defended herself to Martha who complained before the Lord. The little way practices such virtues as controlling the tongue and tempering anger. In Therese’s words, “Take silence, for example, what good it does to the soul, what failures in charity it prevents, and so many other troubles of all kinds.” The little way, however, not only demands all these considerate, humble, selfless acts of sacrifice in the small matters of ordinary life but also requires—not the suffering of heroic or “great souls”—but the hidden suffering Therese endured in her infirmary bed during the last months of her life. In Therese’s words, “Sanctity consists in suffering and suffering everything.” Her little way neither complained about the annoyances of unpleasant people or the irritating habits of others nor protested the crosses she endured. Suffering “everything,” as she said, Therese always showed the virtue that Father Bro calls “keeping the sweetness of love, the peace of love through everything.”

In short, this is a heart-searching biography that reads the beautiful, burning soul of pure, simple love in a sweet, charming French girl who is also a warrior, soldier, and queen of God, one who can say to her Lord, “I know your secrets, for I am your spouse”—secrets such as “God cannot inspire unattainable desires” and “O my God! That the more you want to give, the more You make us desire.” The biography illuminates the great truth about God that saints discover: the more one knows God, the more one loves him, and the more one loves him as Therese does, the more one knows him, even his “secrets”.

Mitchell Kalpakgian, Ph.D.
Mt. Royal Academy
Warner, New Hampshire

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