St. Thérèse is a French saint we hear about often, but don’t really stop to think about much. She was a cloistered nun, who even in her writings talked about how she desired to live out the spirituality of Joan of Arc in her daily life. She only wrote one book, and that’s her autobiography – and yet she was elevated to becoming a Doctor of the Church—on the level of Thomas Aquinas, Theresa of Avila, and Augustine of Hippo.
How could a saint who even criticized herself for “easily grasping the meaning of things I was learning, but I had trouble learning things word for word” (Story of a Soul) end up standing with some of the greatest writers and theologians the Church has produced?
It’s very simple: her simplicity. “I have suffered very much since I was on earth, but, if in my childhood I suffered with sadness, it is no longer in this was that I suffer. It is with joy and peace. I am truly happy to suffer.” St. Thérèse coined her Little Way not as something to make us feel good, or to take away our suffering. Oftentimes, believers are accused of treating religion as ‘opium’ to make our wounds feel better; much of the history of modern psychology going back to Sigmund Freud has either accepted that religion is a good thing because it makes us feel good and socially accepted, or that it is a bad thing for those same reasons.
In Western society, we oftentimes forget about how remarkable Christian charity is. It’s something that’s just there – we’re not looking to gain anything from being charitable. It’s not something that’s mandated by law (because that’s not charity) or something that’s a matter of judgment. This radical giving applies to everyone – no matter how much we’re persecuted by those same people. Sometimes this giving is found in a stern attitude, as there are instances when we ought to defend the true, good, and beautiful.
“When I am charitable, it is Jesus alone who is acting in me, and the more united I am to Him, the more also do I love my fellow Sisters… Ah! What peace floods the soul when she rises above natural feelings. No, there is no joy comparable to that which the truly poor in spirit experience. If such a one asks for something with detachment, and if this thing is not only refused but one tries to take away what one already has, the poor in spirit follow Jesus’ counsel: ‘If anyone takes away your coat, let go your cloak also’. To give up one’s ultimate rights, it is considering oneself as the servant and the slave of others.”
This long quote from Story of a Soul doesn’t show a dynamic between oppression or the entitlement to “rights.” Today, we hear everyone clamoring about what they’re entitled to, whether that’s social security, food, or even the ability to live comfortably. What St. Thérèse shows is that the world before us is a gift; each and every part of it. Instead of demanding “more” from God and the world, St. Thérèse makes the radical claim that we must be open to suffering through real and authentic charity, not entitlement. Voluntary charity must be voluntary, not compelled.
What does this look like? Christ said “But when thou dost alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doth.” (Matt 6:3 DRV). Oftentimes it’s easy to get caught up in the spectacle of giving. For instance, I have many friends who go out on mission trips to faraway lands, and post their pictures all over the place for the world to see. We like to share everything we’re doing with everyone – in today’s world, we’re encouraged to do that. It helps further our career, it helps us get the dopamine rush from Facebook likes, or it’s just “fun” – but that’s not the point of charity, according to St. Thérèse and Jesus Christ.
I wanted to give an example of a friend of mine who I admire greatly in his work as a missionary. Let’s call him Tim. My friend Tim doesn’t go out seeking attention everywhere for his mission work and works in the inner city, places that are dirty and not exactly full of the most ‘gentrified’ of people. Yet that’s the communities he serves, and from what I’ve seen and heard from him, he’s been able to see the fruits of his work in the people he’s been working with – not because the work makes him feel good, but because he’s engaging with those who are suffering and fulfilling real needs. Tim is worthy of emulation.
There are so many souls out there yearning for something more. I’m not just talking about evangelization. Suicide rates in recent years are higher than they’ve ever been. People don’t have meaning in their lives anymore; yet we’re often told that fulfilling every desire that’s within the scope of what’s socially acceptable and legal is the most fulfilling thing. Religion’s supposed to make us feel good because we’re entitled to feel good; struggling and suffering are far too difficult. Even when we individually we’re prepared to suffer and even die for Christ, have we really stopped to think what that might look like? I often hear people – fellow Catholics – complain about “too much suffering” or “why won’t God do this in my life.”
True and authentic charity guarantees that our giving is a little more meaningful than just making ourselves and others feel good or fulfills all the desires we want. There’s such a thing as eating too much candy. “… a child, whom a doctor wants to perform a painful operation upon, will not fail to utter loud cries and to say that the remedy is worse than the sickness; however when he is cured a few days later, he is very happy at being able to play and run. It is exactly the same for souls; soon they recognize a little bit of bitterness is at times preferable to sugar and they don’t fear to admit it.”
Charity isn’t feely and attention grabbing. It’s directed at a person’s true needs, and not necessarily their wants. It’s something that can only really be achieved after struggling for it interiorly, and rather then feeling “weak” – it’s liberating and strong. In short, that’s the importance of St. Thérèse of Lisieux – she brought the idea of a strong, free, and sacrificial charity all together in her life; and lived out her faith and ideas rather than just writing them down on paper because she was intellectually gifted.
Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Pray for Us!