Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the March 25, 2002 edition of Catholic Exchange.
But I know the infamous “they” say that you have to leave a little room in life for the unexpected, so I tried not to get too flabbergasted when one of the priests from the church near where I work recommended to me one day Story of a Soul, which is the autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux. (It was in the confessional, of all things – an unlikely place, or so I would have thought, to get a hot tip on a good read.)
So now I was in a quandary. I felt a responsibility to take the advice, but I don’t really like autobiographies! To put it like a high school senior, “I’ve always been, like, who really cares about all the gory details of what happened to you?” So I let it go for a while, on the theory that “Where am I even going to find a “specialty” book like that?” Of course, there’s a huge Barnes & Noble right in my town, but let’s just say that I, ahem, support the independents. And the public library (I rationalized) was unlikely to carry it, so I wasn’t even going to try there! I would just wait for St. Therese to come up in Catholic Exchange’s magnificent saint-of-the-day space. After all, the good priest didn’t exactly order me to read anything.
For reasons I have written about in the past, however, and hope to write more about in the future, I’m a big believer in serendipity. Serendipity, that is, as something God-sent. I can’t say that I know how God works (of course), but if I had to guess, I would guess that He works in that sort of way – putting the right thing in front of you at the right time, so that now it’s up to you to approach it or reject it.
One more bit of background. I recently started to attend a program called “Theology on Tap” in the town where I work. It’s sponsored by the local diocese and basically consists of a gathering on every second Thursday evening of the month at a local pub (the Temple Bar in Stamford, CT). It usually gets upwards of about 100 people, and there’s a featured speaker on a Catholic subject, or sometimes an audience-participation discussion with a panel of priests, but accompanied, in any event, by cocktails and good camaraderie. A great idea, which I believe originated out in California somewhere. Anyway, I went one night to listen to a presentation by Father George Rutler (those of you who have access to EWTN will recognize the name) and, at the end of the night, there was an opportunity to make a purchase from among a smallish crate of books that the sponsors brought to the event. I thought I might as well give it a shot, and so I went up at the end of Father George’s presentation to ask if they had Story of a Soul. A collegey-looking person searched in the crate for what seemed like 15 minutes (I had to catch a train) and came up with what she assured me was their “last copy.” Sold!
Of course, as a believer in such things (the last copy?!), all other reading took a lower-tier priority. And the book turned out to be worth every hour put into it! Like reading a prayer, only a truer and better prayer than most of us would be able to think of. The only problem was that for about the first 85 percent of the book, I couldn’t find much in the way of personal access to St. Therese. She was, I don’t know — too holy! Even though she apparently didn’t always realize she was! All of which is great for her (and I wish it on you), but my own life — and I’m not boasting about it — has been much more along the lines of a St. Augustine-type (and I mean pre-change of heart!). So I was reading, and I was hanging in there as best I could, but I was floundering a little. St. Therese’s life was interesting, and something to strive for, certainly, but that level of simplicity and goodness — and I know that God loves it and wants it — was simply way beyond where I could ever reasonably hope to get myself back to (even assuming I was ever there in the first place). Here was a person who prayed for suffering — and even martyrdom — if it would only help other people. I, on the other hand, have to admit that I’m terrified of suffering, and although I realize it’s sometimes necessary, I usually find myself seeking to avoid it whenever I can.
A Personal Connection
But then I finally got to it, something in this remarkable woman’s life that in all my manifold imperfections I could latch onto. (This is an article about faith, remember?) This extraordinary — literally “saintly” — woman, who died at 24 of tuberculosis, actually had profound spiritual and religious doubts! And right up to near the end of her brief life! It seemed almost impossible in her. But I feel constrained to have to quote her at length on the subject (she’s talking about heaven):
[B]ut I felt in the bottom of my heart real longings for this most beautiful country. Just as the genius of Christopher Columbus gave him a presentiment of a new world when nobody had even thought of such a thing; so also I felt that another land would one day serve me as a permanent dwelling place. Then suddenly the fog that surrounds me becomes more dense; it penetrates my soul and envelopes it in such a way that it is impossible to discover within it the sweet image of my Fatherland; everything has disappeared! When I want to rest my heart fatigued by the darkness that surrounds it by the memory of the luminous country after which I aspire, my torment redoubles; it seems to me that the darkness, borrowing the voice of sinners, says mockingly to me: “You are dreaming about the light, about a fatherland embalmed in the sweetest perfumes; you are dreaming about the eternal possession of the Creator of all these marvels; you believe that one day you will walk out of this fog that surrounds you! Advance, advance; rejoice in death which will give you not what you hope for but a night still more profound, the night of nothingness.” …
My dear Mother, I may perhaps appear to you to be exaggerating my trial. In fact, if you are judging according to the sentiments I express in my little poems composed this year, I must appear to you as a soul filled with consolations and one for whom the veil of faith is almost torn aside; and yet it is no longer a veil for me, it is a wall which reaches right up to the heavens and covers the starry firmament. When I sing of the happiness of heaven and of the eternal possession of God, I feel no joy in this, for I sing simply what I WANT TO BELIEVE. It is true that at times a very small ray of the sun comes to illumine my darkness, and then the trial ceases for an instant, but afterward the memory of this ray, instead of causing me joy, makes my darkness even more dense.
And this from one of God’s all-time, number-one All-Stars! How consoled I felt, up in my bedroom, when I read those words! I guess I never knew what the word “faith” really meant! I mean if even she could feel that way!
So What Is Faith?
And so I looked a little deeper into it – what we Catholics really mean by “faith,” anyway. Do we really have to “feel” it all the time (or even most of the time) in order to truly have it? And if so, what then about St. Therese? Saint Paul says that faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). St. Augustine talks about that faith in which “we walk forward without fear of stumbling,” this “perfectly certain faith.” (City of God, Book XIX, Chapter 18) But is that what St. Therese is talking about in the quotation above (or what I contend with day by day)?
The answer, it turns out, is “Yes,” and it’s because faith is not (at least not necessarily) a so-called “warm, fuzzy feeling.” (I used to think that it was, and therefore that I did not really possess it fully.) But the new Catechism of the Catholic Church sets the matter, and the record, straight. Yes, it states that “Faith is a gift of God, a supernatural virtue infused by him.” (Paragraph 153) But it teaches and emphasizes, also, that faith is a human act! It’s not a subjective feeling that drops down on me and makes me “comfortable,” so that I know (in the sense that I know that I have to go to work tomorrow) that everything is just exactly like I’ve been taught.
Rather, faith is a voluntary act of the intellect and of the will! (And certainly I have those, even if I all-too-often lack that particular state of mind I have referred to as the “warm, fuzzy feeling.”) The Catechism (at Paragraphs 155 and 156) states:
In faith, the human intellect and will cooperate with divine grace: “Believing is an act of the intellect assenting to the divine truth by command of the will moved by God through grace.” [St. Thomas Aquinas]
What moves us to believe is not the fact that revealed truths appear as true and intelligible in the light of our natural reason: we believe “because of the authority of God himself who reveals them, who can neither deceive nor be deceived.” [Dei Filius 3] So “that the submission of our faith might nevertheless be in accordance with reason, God willed that external proofs of his Revelation should be joined to the internal helps of the Holy Spirit.” [Id.] Thus the miracles of Christ and the saints, prophecies, the Church’s growth and holiness, and her fruitfulness and stability “are the most certain signs of divine Revelation, adapted to the intelligence of all”; they are “motives of credibility” (motiva credibilitatis), which show that the assent of faith is “by no means a blind impulse of the mind.” [Id.]
So the extent of my faith (and yours) is the extent of our will and our decision-making (helped, of course, by God himself). Little Therese says, during her time of crisis:
Ah! May Jesus pardon me if I have caused Him any pain, but He knows very well that while I do not have the joy of faith, I am trying to carry out its works at least. I believe I have made more acts of faith in this past year than all through my whole life. At each new occasion of combat, when my enemies provoke me, I conduct myself bravely.
Bravely, indeed, St. Therese. Braver far than we are, but thank you for showing to us also your frailty, that we, too, may carry out our own works of faith with as much bravery as we can muster — and even at those times when we don’t necessarily have the “warm, fuzzy feeling.”
Image: Santa Teresa di Lisieux, Giuseppe Frascaroli, 4 March 2015, Wikimedia Commons CCA 4.
John Allen is an attorney in Stamford, CT. His brother Tom is editor-in-chief of Catholic Exchange. You can email John at firstname.lastname@example.org