I take personal retreats regularly at a center named after Saint Therese. So it seemed only right that at some point I should read her autobiography.
It is personal narrative with a single thread throughout: Therese’s intense love for Jesus that was a consequence of her great confidence that she was greatly loved by Jesus. It is this love, even more than the fact that two of her sisters had preceded her in entering the monastery, that moved her from an early age to long to be “wed” to Christ.
She confesses at times that her writing is “muddled” and indeed it has something of a “stream of consciousness” flow to it moving from an event in her family to reflections to a narrative on caring for novitiates. Yet the theme of the love of Christ and her love for Christ weaves throughout and gives the narrative an underlying coherence.
The book speaks of her earliest spiritual memories in her awareness of the love of God for her manifest both in nature and in the Catholic mass. She describes her confirmation and chrismation and the joy of knowing herself sealed by Christ’s Spirit. She recounts her pleas with her priest, bishop, and finally on pilgrimage, the Pope to be allowed to enter the Carmelite order early. At last, all relented and she entered at age 15.
She describes the vicissitudes of monastic life and how she learns through each of these to see them as loving gifts from God to form her more deeply in the love of Christ. She discovers that this is a love that is greater than all her weaknesses. We see her embrace of caring for others in her novitiate beginning with her prayers. With that love, we see a growing passion for “lost souls” expressed in prayer both for missionary priests and the people they sought to win.
We hear this love burning more brightly as her death at age 24 approaches. Toward the end of this narrative (and her life) she wrote this, which expresses well the recurring theme of this narrative:
“O eternal Word, my Saviour, You are the Eagle I love and the One who fascinates me. You swept down to this land of exile and suffered and died so that you could bear away every soul and plunge them into the heart of the Blessed Trinity, that inextinguishable furnace of love. You re-entered the splendours of heaven, yet stayed in our vale of tears hidden under the appearance of a white Host so that You can feed me with Your own substance. O Jesus, do not be angry if I tell you that Your love is a mad love…and how can you expect my heart, when confronted with this folly, not to soar up to You? How can there be any limit to my trust?(p. 158).
The Catholic context in which this love is expressed may seem foreign to the non-Catholics like me who read this account. But one cannot help but ask oneself in reading Therese’s narrative, “do I love Jesus with anything like the longing of this woman who died so young?” As one who believes in the grace of God in Christ, I must ask whether I have anything like the confidence of Therese in the greatness of God’s love to overcome my lesser and greater sins?
Good questions for my next retreat, it seems.