by Pat Tresselle, OCDS
In my early years as a Carmelite, I was eager to get to know about the lives of all our great Carmelite saints. St. Teresa of Avila, the reformer and foundress of the Discalced Carmelites, I found easy to read and relate to. She was spunky, outgoing, and a determined woman who led a full life and experienced the deepest spiritual relationship with God. Her writings were simple outlining prayer and spiritual paths to God.
St. John of the Cross was not so simple. He was highly educated and his spiritual heights were reached through much adversity. His writings and spiritual guidance were very deep and needed to be read over and over again to fully understand and appreciate his teachings.
Then there is St. Therese of Lisieux, with her short and sheltered life, telling us of her “little way.” I must admit upon first reading of her life and writings I said, “How could this young girl, with little experience of life and a relatively easy and sheltered one at that, really know anything and think she could give anyone else advice?” It took me several years of re-reading her works and getting to know her, and also developing a little more spiritual maturity, that I could truly appreciate the simplicity and innocence that only lay on the surface of her deep spirituality.
I learned we had more in common and experience than I realized and that she does, indeed, teach us more about perseverance and faith through the “dark nights” of our life than the others because she did not have the ecstasies and spiritual consolations as Teresa and John did to help bring her to the heights of union. Her knowledge of God was simply infused into her.
While the teachings of St. Teresa and St John of the Cross were from their own experiences and written as steps or instructions to others, St. Therese and her “little way” is based simply on faith, hope and love. She experienced very few spiritual consolations, yet her prayer was firm in the faith of God’s presence and love for her and all sinners. She experienced her own “dark nights,” even to the very end of her life, but she always had hope in her prayers for God’s mercy and acceptance of her littleness. And love continuously shined through her life in her constant efforts to please her father, her sisters, several nuns in her monastery that seemed to resent her.
She was always praying for the conversions of sinners and missions. In her littleness, she had much devotion to the Child Jesus and to the Holy Face which she took as her religious name. In the final months of her sickness, she tried never to be an inconvenience to the other sisters and always apologized if she was short with them. Love and charity prevailed even when her faith and hope were at the lowest ebb.
But most of all, without her even realizing it, she had so much to teach us. The little flowers she promised to rain from heaven were her simple words about prayer. Those words are so simple, spontaneous, innocent, and precocious, but always from her pure heart. She never provided particular plans or instructions on prayer, but enjoyed simple and direct conversation with Jesus, just as St. Teresa of Avila had encouraged. With Therese, there didn’t need to be a special place to be in. Wherever she was - in bed, at play, on a trip, in company or alone, her thoughts could go quickly to the presence of her “Child Jesus” and tell Him all of what was on her mind or in her heart at a given moment.
In her childlike fervor, she loved to imagine herself as a little ball that the “Child Jesus” could play with. She would correlate different circumstances of her life to what Jesus was doing with his “little toy ball” at the time - either bouncing it around in play, or holding it tight to His heart, or just leaving it alone in the corner. She would imagine that, during the arid times of prayer, Jesus had left her (the ball) in the corner and the he was sleeping and not paying attention to her.
She also liked to imagine herself as a little flower and, every time she did a good deed or accepted a sacrifice, she was placing another little flower at the feet of Jesus. She referred to that often in her Story of a Soul and thus she received the nickname of “St. Therese the Little Flower.”
St. Therese, in her own little way, passed through all the “mansions” of St. Theresa’s Interior Castle and the “dark nights” of St. John of the Cross. She had her share of doubt, aridity, consolation and emptiness in her short lifetime. We cannot compare or judge anyone’s sufferings or trials against another as God gives according to each person’s character and spirituality what they need. A small thing to one individual can be a very big thing to another. What might appear to be a relatively small trial, when experienced by St. Therese, they seemed like huge caverns to her pure and simple soul.
She was just fourteen when she first desired to enter Carmel. No doubt, much of this desire in the beginning was due to her two older sisters already in Carmel, especially since her sister Pauline had been a surrogate mother for Therese when their mother died. But the trials she went through the next whole year to obtain special permission to enter at age fifteen greatly matured her. Then her father, whom she loved dearly, died shortly after she entered the convent.
In her nine short years living as a Carmelite nun, she experienced mostly aridity and the “dark nights” and, even while lying sick before her death, she wrote of her “Trial of Faith.” Because she had tuberculosis and endured a prolonged and agonizing illness, she experienced and accepted this as true martyrdom and sainthood. But to persevere in faith and hope and love when at times it seemed God wasn't listening or seemed to not be there was the hardest of all.
I am sure we have all experienced these feelings and St. Therese gave the greatest example for us- to remain at peace and persevere until the end. Hers is the prayer of simplicity- just speaking directly to God about our deepest longings and complete surrendering as a child to a parent, remaining in faith and the feet of Jesus until He is ready to “play.”
Through her and by her example, many of her sisters in the monastery with her, (including her own blood sisters and many others that followed after,) gained knowledge and hope that through the little trials of life, they could experience union and be close to God, even in the “little ways.” We need not feel that the absence of visions or ecstasies means failure, for we can, without our knowing it, soar to great spiritual heights.
Therese not only experienced great sufferings, but offered even her darkest moments as a sacrifice and holocaust to Jesus on behalf of sinners. We, too, must realize we can offer all our own suffering and struggles to God as our sacrifice (our holocaust) and wait patiently for God’s will to be done. Prayer is the key. Constant persevering prayer, in good times and in bad, both as set down by our Rule and every time our heart feels the tug for spontaneous conversation with Our Lord. Prayer gives us courage and keeps us connected to the Lord of life.
Like her, in childlike simplicity, we place ourselves at Jesus’ feet like a ball or little flowers. We bask in His love and raise our petals in prayer. “Here I am Lord! Accept my life as a sweet fragrance of my love.” But if Our Lord walks past us and our petals are temporarily crushed beneath His Precious Feet, have no fear or feel lost. He’ll be back. Let sweet surrender renew your petals of prayer, for the Son of God will shine on you again. One day, He will stoop to pick us up and place us in His heavenly garden.
(from "Insights from Carmel," coming soon from Carmel Heart Media)