St. Thérèse teaches us that we not only have to surrender ourselves in prayer but that we will also be led to “surrender” our prayer.
Surrendering Our Prayer
Of course, this is not a question of abandoning prayer, in the sense of stopping prayer, but of surrendering our prayer to God, as it is, and not as we would absolutely want it to be.
The temptation to grade our prayer
At the end of our prayer, we often assess ourselves, and the grade is sometimes bad: “I missed my prayer”; “My prayer was useless. My mind was completely elsewhere”; “Since being sick for months, I have the impression of no longer being able to pray”; “Poor Jesus, what can He do with my prayer, I do not stop nodding off every five minutes!”
Of course, this has nothing to do with putting up with prayer because God begs for a response of personal and generous love on my part. But may God preserve me from judging my prayer, as if it were mainly my affair.
When I pray, it is definitely my prayer, but only as it actively surrenders itself to the prayer of the Spirit, who precedes and supports it. While I was in the seminary, a preacher pronounced these simple words: “The most active one in your prayer is God. You only enter into the prayer of the Spirit, who precedes you!” This word made me, in an instant, go from being tense to being lovingly attentive.
Thérèse’s sleep in her prayer
Father Combes, one of Thérèse’s specialists, had this very keen formula to qualify the prayer of the saint of the little way: “Thérèse’s prayer is the meeting of two sleeps: Jesus’ sleep and Thérèse’s sleep.”
Sister Mary of the Trinity, long after Thérèse’s death, confided to a Carmelite father: “Thérèse fell forward during Mass; she slept almost unceasingly during her prayers of thanksgiving, while on her knees, with her head on the floor. She spent her life craving her sleep.” In fact, Thérèse, during her lifetime, made this tormenting observation about her powerlessness to pray, but she did not get discouraged:
Really, I am far from being a saint, and what I have just said is proof of this; instead of rejoicing, for example, at my aridity, I should attribute it to my little fervor and lack of fidelity; I should be desolate for having slept (for seven years) during my hours of prayer and my thanksgivings after Holy Communion; well, I am not desolate.St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Manuscript A, 75v, in Story of a Soul, 165.
We often think that our prayer is useful only when we are in top shape. Thérèse reassures us that even sleep can become a form of prayer if it is not, of course, cultivated for itself. She relinquished her prayer, welcomed this sleep that imposed itself on her, and did not try to judge her prayer. She serenely accepted this limitation, which was due to her nature, and offered it as a delightful gift to the Lord.
In prayer, Jesus is more touched by our abandonment to His will than by our qualms of the moment:
I remember that little children are as pleasing to their parents when they are asleep as well as when they are wide awake; I remember, too, that when they perform operations, doctors put their patients to sleep. Finally, I remember that: “The Lord knows our weakness, that he is mindful that we are but dust and ashes.”St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Manuscript A, 75v–76r, in Story of a Soul, 165.
We, of course, have to adjust our day so that our prayer does not habitually become transformed into a nap. But if our health or the hazards of age cause us to take an undesirable “nap,” we should joyfully value that prayer time too.
A prayer that offers a profound calm is as joyful as a lively one: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26).
Surrendering Ourselves in Prayer
Jesus’ sleep in prayer
Many people wrongly imagine that little Thérèse’s prayer was simply an easy experience of the tenderness of the Father’s heart. The words of her faithful confidante, Sister Geneviève, help us face reality again. “Her entire life flowed in stark prayer. Nobody was ever less consoled in prayer; she revealed to me that she had spent seven years in the driest of prayers; her annual and monthly retreats were an ordeal. Nonetheless, we thought that she was flooded with spiritual consolations because her works and words were so anointed and because she was so united with God.”
Not only did Thérèse experience the physical limitations of her health, which plunged her into the deepest sleep, but Jesus Himself seemed to be ignoring her during her prayer.
Surrendering ourselves to the Lord’s will in prayer
Here are some paths for abandonment to affect our prayer more deeply and, in this way, to help us experience a freer, more loving prayer.
In prayer, welcoming God’s silence and our powerlessness.
Thérèse was very sensitive to the image of Christ’s Holy Face and, for her, Jesus’ eyes, which were half-lowered, really conveyed His apparent sleep in her prayer. She patiently accepted that Christ kept His eyes closed during her prayer, which gave her the painful impression of not feeling His loving gaze on her: “Jesus took me by the hand, and He made me enter a subterranean passage . . . where I see nothing but a half-veiled light, which was diffused by the lowered eyes of my Fiancé’s Face!”
Keeping faith in Christ’s presence and action when prayer seems fruitless.
This ordeal of almost continual dryness did not stop Thérèse’s desire to unite herself to Christ. It was with a look of pure faith that Thérèse prayed. She knew with her whole being that it is not because God seemed silent that He did not lovingly act in the depths of her being: “I understand and I know from experience that: ‘The kingdom of God is with you.’ . . . Never have I heard Him speak, but I feel that He is within me at each moment; He is guiding and inspiring me with what I must say and do.”
Surrendering oneself to Jesus and allowing oneself “to rest.”
Does Jesus seem to sleep in the middle of prayer? Thérèse said that this was very good; she wanted to offer Jesus a resting space in her soul by asking Him nothing except to be there in the way that He felt like being: “I see very well how rarely souls allow Him to sleep peacefully within them. Jesus is so fatigued with always having to take the initiative and to attend to others that He hastens to take advantage of the repose I offer to Him.”
Surrendering oneself to Jesus to please him.
All the saints teach that an authentic prayer life must purify what we are sensitive to. We must learn to prefer Jesus to our problem. “Many serve Jesus when he is consoling them, but few consent to keep company with Jesus sleeping on the waves or suffering in the garden of agony! . . . Who, then, will be willing to serve Jesus for Himself?”
Most of us sincerely want to pray, but it is sometimes with the secret intention of receiving consolations and of “being well”! The aim of this emotional weaning, which is created by dryness, is to heal us of our grasping love. If, in our prayer, God consoles us, so much the better. If He does not console us, that is fine, since it is Jesus and only Jesus that we are looking for:
I can’t say that I frequently received consolations when making my thanksgivings after Mass; perhaps it is the time when I receive the least. However, I find this very understandable since I have offered myself to Jesus not as one desirous of her own consolation in His visit but simply to please Him who is giving Himself to me.St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Manuscript A, 79v, in Story of a Soul, 172.
This article is adapted from a chapter in Fr. Guibert’s book, Abandonment to God: The Way of Peace of St. Therese of Lisieux. It is available as an ebook or paperback from your local Catholic bookstore, or online at Sophia Institute Press.