The following words of Thérèse, in a message to Father Bellière, very well sum up what we understand by the surrendering of oneself to God:
“I follow the way He is tracing out for me. I try to be no longer occupied with myself in anything, and I abandon myself to what Jesus sees fit to do in my soul, for I have not chosen an austere life to expiate my faults but those of others.”Letter 247 to Father Bellière, in Letters of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, 2:1134.
We sense in what direction the saint from Lisieux wants to lead us, but to experience this rightful surrendering of oneself, it is important to clear the ground.
Self-acceptance is not the defeatist refusal to make progress.
Self-acceptance has nothing to do with the refusal to heal or be reborn.
Thérèse of Lisieux, who was wounded very early on by her mother’s death, did not want to endure this wound all her life. As she revealed it, in relating the grace of her inner healing that she received on Christmas night in 1886, she deliberately worked on performing deeds of virtue for ten years with the intention of countering her wounded nature: “The work which I had been unable to do in ten years was done by Jesus in one instant, contenting himself with my good will which was never lacking.” It is truly an aggressive soul that undertakes the path of confident healing!
The surrendering of oneself does not lead to laxity either. Scripture is confusing about the path of childhood. On the one hand, it invites us to abandon ourselves with the confidence of a child: “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3). On the other hand, it demands great efforts to ascend the mountain of holiness: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48; see Lev. 19:2).
Authentic abandonment confidently and serenely manages the struggle against tendencies and sins. Thérèse really blended this paradox well in one of her last conversations. Mother Agnès of Jesus asked her for explanations on the path she would want to teach souls after her death. Here is Thérèse’s response: “Mother, it’s the way of spiritual childhood, it’s the way of confidence and total abandon.” This is the pleasant aspect of abandonment: the trust of the child.
Without delay, she adds: “I want to teach them the little means that have so perfectly succeeded with me, to tell them there is only one thing to do here on earth: to cast at Jesus the flowers of little sacrifices, to take Him by caresses; this is the way I’ve taken Him, and it’s for this that I shall be so well received.” And this is the more challenging aspect of abandonment, which is inseparable from the first one: struggle, “works,” sacrifices that are done out of love.
Why Is Self-Acceptance So Difficult?
Self-acceptance is not easy for two main reasons:
- (1) our pride has trouble seeing its limits, and
- (2) we fear no longer being loved.
Our pride has trouble seeing its limits
Awareness of our failures and sins will rapidly disturb our self-satisfaction. This is subtle pride, which whispers: “You are still not as bad as that!” Self-acceptance is not overindulgent, for we have to agree to mourn for ourselves to a certain extent. It is not innate. It has to be learned: “I have my weaknesses also, but I rejoice in them. . . . I’m still at the same place as I was formerly! But I tell myself this with great gentleness and without any sadness! It’s so good to feel that one is weak and little!”
We resemble a person who, in his room, has only two things on his wall — a pretty mirror and an icon of Christ. He has spent much of his life contemplating himself in his pretty mirror. One day, the pretty mirror breaks and the beautiful virtues along with it. This poor soul has two solutions. Either he will spend the rest of his life complaining in front of the display of his measly virtues that have been broken into a thousand pieces, or he will accept the breaking of this mirror and choose to look at the icon of Christ, which will never fall off the wall! No, it is not so simple for our pride to see our ideal of perfection shatter.
The fear of no longer being loved
The book of Genesis is a magnificent psychological lesson about the sinner. In Genesis 3:10, we see that Adam and Eve, right after their sin, tried to hide from God. So it is with every sinner. As soon as the sin is committed, man will be overcome by the fear of no longer being loved by Love, who has been wounded by him. Let us be very convinced that if, through our sins, we fell even lower, God’s mercy will go even lower to embrace us: “For every sin, mercy, and God is powerful enough to give stability even to people who have none.”
How Do We Experience a Rightful Self-Acceptance?
Among Thérèse’s words, those to Sister Geneviève in Letter 243 look like an entrance into this legitimate self-acceptance in God:
“Let us line up humbly among the imperfect, let us esteem ourselves as little souls whom God must sustain at each moment. When He sees we are very much convinced of our nothingness, He extends His hand to us. If we still wish to attempt doing something great even under the pretext of zeal, Good Jesus leaves us all alone. . . . YES, it suffices to humble oneself, to bear with one’s imperfections. That is real sanctity!”
Rejecting ourselves is exhausting
We do not realize how much precious time and energy we lose in refusing to accept our limitations or in complaining about what we are not. Not welcoming my own inadequacy is exhausting, simply because it is reality and there is nothing to do to change it in the moment. I can burn away all my strength by refusing this reality. The complexity of who I am will always remind me of my limitations and frailties!
So, embrace Thérèse’s wisdom: “Let us line up humbly among the imperfect.”
God can act only in the reality of who I am
If I spend my time — whether unconsciously or not — refusing to accept who I am and particularly my shadow side and my limitations, with the excuse that it is not a laudatory portrait, I am living, in a way, outside of myself. So, God, the most real Being there is, meets me only in the complexity of who I am, including what is “very complex”!
A little mercy for oneself is, therefore, not a luxury, but the minimum that is required to experience our humanity in a rightful way.
Gently accepting myself by looking at myself through God’s eyes
It is the Most High God who gives a sense of meaning, value, and beauty to our lowliness.
What paralyzes the action of grace in our lives is not so much our sins as our rejection of divine mercy when we fall. Georges Bernanos wrote about a very new postulant in the convent. Her wise superior gave her only these instructions: “Above all, never despise yourself. It is very difficult to despise oneself without offending God in ourselves. . . . If your nature is a subject of struggle or a battlefield, oh, do not be discouraged or sad. I will gladly say: love your poverty, for God dispenses His mercy on it.”
Ultimately, we should look at ourselves not at man’s level but at God’s! Outside of divine mercy, man has every opportunity, at one time or another, to despair about himself. The grace to ask for mercy is to see ourselves in the good Lord’s eyes. Through contemplating His extreme mercy and infinite patience toward us, we will end up having a divine respect for ourselves:
“Yes, it is enough to humble ourselves and gently bear our imperfections. That is real holiness.”
What a connection to the universal call to holiness! But a rightful self-acceptance assumes a kenosis — an emptying ourselves of the unreal ego and all its inner fortresses, which have been built in the form of sand castles to hide our poverty. When offered to the gentle waves of mercy, it will end up falling, making way for Love. What a blessed tsunami!
This article is adapted from a chapter in Fr. Guibert’s Abandonment to God: The Way of Peace of St. Therese of Lisieux. It is available through your favorite bookstore or online via Sophia Institute Press.