The Audacity of Love.

Henry David Thoreau meets Therese of Lisieux


When a man meets a woman, something’s got to give?

How can I unite Henry David Thoreau, 37 years old & smart & a complex man himself, with Therese Martin, 15 years old & beauty & brains & lively & virgin & stubborn & naughty, one an American philosopher who did not believe in a personal God, the other a French Carmelite whose God was very personal? I hope to catch them in the coincidence of their own words.

I like to make things simpler. ‘Simplify, simplify!’ I remember Thoreau saying (I have written about this in my ‘Birth of Hope,’ 2006, frankahilario.blogspot.com). Thoreau, also a poet and essayist, was born 191 years ago; he published Walden, Or Life In The Woods, in 1854. I first read him about 100 years later, as I was already a voracious reader while still in high school at Rizal Junior College growing up in the village of Sanchez in my hometown of Asingan, Pangasinan in northern Luzon in the Philippines. Yes, I grew up in American and English literature in school and at home (I was always reading).

Now, I can connect Thoreau with little Therese of Lisieux only if I can simplify Christianity so that it can be lived in the cities as well as the villages. I don’t see why Catholic and Protestant charismatics have to go throw a series of spiritual-growth seminars to be able to practice their faith successfully: what about those who can’t attend events, and there are millions of them? I say all they need is a central theory, and then they can practice on their own.

As it is, when priests preach and ministers moralize, in the United States or the Philippines, they make Christianity all too difficult, complicated. I have to memorize all those books, chapters and verses? I want Christianity simplified!

Now, I Francisco of Sanchez, an Ilocano with an encyclopedic mind, a walking dictionary, a writer who has a knack for metaphors, a Catholic who has attended many a prayer meeting and participated in many a Bible sharing of BLD (Bukas Loob sa Diyos), can I simplify Christianity? No, I can’t. Words fail me. My metaphors fail me! I’ve been trying to, you know, for the last 18 years. I’m a failure.

Notwithstanding, it’s Good News today I bring you. I have just discovered I don’t have to simplify Christianity – little Therese of Lisieux, in her own little way, has already done it for me. In fact, for all of us Christians out there and in here. If you’re paying attention, or if your mind is open.

Marie Frances Therese Martin was born 02 January 1873 in Lisieux, Normandy, France. She entered the cloistered Carmelite convent at age 15 and took the name ‘Therese of the Child Jesus of the Holy Face’ (Fr John Dear, fatherjohndear.org).

I came to know and read little Therese herself only last month when my (new) good friend Luz Buhay-Lorenzo lent me her copy of Way Of Confidence & Love, a compilation by Conrad De Meester, a Carmelite.

After this, I’d like to borrow and read the book that launched a thousand saints: The Story Of A Soul, the one that made the sprite called Therese Martin the holy one called St Therese. She is worth a thousand saints, as you will see. With the publication of The Story Of A Soul, first in French in 1898, St Therese imploded into the Catholic Church. Stephen Sparrow writes (catholiceducation.org): ‘Therese’s reputation and popularity soared as the so-called ‘storm of glory’ she started gathered speed and garnered thousands upon thousands of miracles and favors attributed to her holiness and intercession.’ Hers is ‘no doubt the greatest modern book of spirituality,’ Sparrow says. She was canonized against the rule that the Church had to wait 50 years after the death of someone before the process of canonization can begin; she was declared Saint in 1925, only 28 years after she died.

The Way Of Confidence & Love was published in 1998 by the Mother of Life Center, Novaliches, Quezon City (226 pages, plus preliminaries, including Pope John Paul II’s proclamation of little Therese as Doctor of the Church on 19 October 1997). Why was this young girl proclaimed as such? The Pope said:

When the Magisterium proclaims someone a Doctor of the Church, it intends to point out to all the faithful, particularly to those who perform in the Church the fundamental service of preaching or who undertake the delicate task of theological teaching and research, that the doctrine professed and proclaimed by a certain person can be a reference point, not only because it conforms to revealed truth but also because it sheds new light on the mysteries of the faith, a deeper understanding of Christ’s mystery.

In other words, when a new Doctor of the Church appears, out of faith we come to know more.

And little Therese teaches ‘all the faithful in a living, accessible language’ – that is to say, she puts old eternal truths in a new language, that of the living – not in some esoteric, philosophical, metaphysical, abstract idiom. Her writing is vibrant, youthful, personal, frank, honest, encouraging, full of metaphors of the everyday. She spoke in the language of the French peasants.

‘I will look for some means of going to heaven by a little way which is very short and very straight, a little way that is quite new,’ she said (quoted by Catholic Online, catholic.org/saints). She discovered it. That is why she is also known as St Therese of the little way (I like it like that, not the usual cap & lower case, Little Way, because I want to emphasize the lower case).

What did she discover? ‘At last I have found it,’ she exclaimed, ‘My vocation is Love!

That is to say, we have the same vocation; we have to be saints, all of us, and the way to sainthood is Love, capitalized. This is little Therese’s ‘little way of love’ (Mark & Louise Zwick, cjd.org). The little way of love to perfection.

It’s not easy to accept her, but it is easy to understand her, as she talks in the metaphors of the everyday. Like this, referring to her First Communion: ‘Ah! How sweet was that first kiss of Jesus! It was a kiss of love; I felt that I was loved, and I said, ‘I love You, and I give myself to You forever!’

Note that that was only her First Communion. Her joy is full; she will fill your soul, if you allow her. Very heart-warming, intimate to the reader as she was intimate with Jesus. She signed her letters ‘Therese of the Child Jesus’ (ewtn.com).

She doesn’t begin by asking: Does God exist? She begins by believing. ‘What reason can Jesus give us? Alas! His reason is that He has no reason!’

‘Ah! Let us be adorned by the Sun of His love! … This sun is burning … Let us be consumed by love!

‘The science of Love, oh! Yes, this word resounds sweetly in the ear of my soul. I desire only this science.’

‘Oh! Happy recklessness! Oh! Blessed intoxication of love!’

Is it all joy?

Her little way is ‘sacrificial love’ (Fr John calls it):

She dedicated herself to the daily practice of sacrificial love toward those around her, perfecting the art of responding to coldness, rudeness, gossip, and insults with active loving kindness and inner compassion. She aimed those small acts of unconditional love at Christ in the other person and for the redemption of the human race – a spirituality she called her ‘little way.’… She understood this spirituality not as childishness, but as a profound trust in God through confidence in God’s love, not just despite our littleness, poverty, weakness and brokenness, but precisely because of them.

The first time I read the book I borrowed from Luz, when I reached page 144, little Therese said something about God giving St Teresa of Avila more suffering even as she was sacrificing more for Him. What little Therese quoted St Teresa was saying made me laugh I had to share my delight and I had to text Luz (yes, I text in complete words, observing punctuations):

Lord (Luz), I am not surprised that You have so few friends; You treat them so badly! 144

Luz texted back (almost) immediately: Welcome to Carmel! (Luz is a secular Carmelite.)

Since then, I have read the whole book, word for word; right now, I’ve read it again from beginning to end, this time selecting and typing text to make an electronic file (Word 2003), so now I have 39 single-spaced pages of excerpts, 17% of the whole book. I always do this with a book I really like and in which I feel I can discover more.

‘Don’t belittle the little,’ I imagine little Therese telling me. ‘I would like you to be simple with God,’ she actually tells a Brother. She tells us all: ‘The smallest actions done out of love are the ones which charms His heart.’

As I was writing this, on my way to the john, I was interrupted by the TV set in the living room where two of my daughters (Neenah and Ela) were watching a movie that I immediately liked, and so I stopped and watched and it has just ended happily ever after. I like fairy tale endings. We didn’t catch the title; I just surfed the Internet – “The Rock” Kingman movie – and it’s The Game Plan, a Walt Disney movie released November 2007 in the Philippines, starring Dwayne Johnson (aka The Rock, who plays Joe Kingman) as the Boston Rebel’s #1 football star (quarterback), with his bachelor ways. One day, an 8-year old girl shows up on his doorstep, claiming to be the daughter he never knew (Madison Pettis, who plays Peyton Kelly). He doubts her at first, and then remembers a fling with one of his girl friends. With this little girl around, there is a delightful distraction in Joe’s life, and he begins to enjoy being a father. That was in the beginning.

Towards the end of the movie, the Rebels are losing because Joe is injured – his heart is not in his game anyway, as his wife’s sister has claimed back her daughter (his wife had died 6 months earlier in a car accident, and had entrusted Peyton to her), and she has been taking care of her – away from him. And then there is only 1 minute 4 seconds left in the game. Win or lose? Peyton suddenly appears at the dugout, and she tells him that his daughter believes in his father who is not a quitter. Back to the game. Of course, the Rebels win the championship game.

In his review, James Gannon says ‘Kingman wins something even more important, and that’s a family’ (jamesgannon.blogspot.com). I agree. Joe wins the affection of his wife’s sister too, that’s why. Overall, the movie reviewers I have read rate it D, for Dull. I disagree. They are the dull ones. Doubting father Joe says to believing daughter Peyton, ‘You are the best thing that ever happened to my life.’ I also disagree. Family is the best thing that ever happened to the new Joe Kingman, his new wife and old daughter Peyton.

Walt Disney always loved family. I have the impression that the United States of America doesn’t love family. That’s why it’s so easy to tell the children to ‘Move out!’ of the house (it’s not a home) when ‘they come of age.’ The family disintegrates when the children reach maturity and the parents reach immaturity. That explains the very American habit of individual human-rights thinking, the appeal of abortion, the cult of choice. That’s why it’s so easy to get a divorce, and it’s shocking but not surprising that spouses gloat over their infidelities, and indeed many of their published memoirs become million-dollar bestsellers.

Notwithstanding, even in the Philippines where we love family, we do not fully understand love. And yet most charismatic Catholics and Protestants know by heart and can recite word-for-word 1 Corinthians 13, which is all about love.

1 Corinthians 13 tells us what is love. ‘Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.’ And: ‘Love never ends.’ This is the one that ends thus: ‘And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, but the greatest of this is love.’ Beautiful.

My personal favorite is Romans 12. This is the one that speaks of different gifts with which, I understand, to dispense love: in prophesying, in teaching, in preaching, in giving, in leading, in encouraging. One is theory, one is practice. Where 1 Corinthians 13 is a description of love, Romans 12 is a prescription of it. Romans 12 tells us how to love. ‘Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.’ This is the one that ends thus: ‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.’

Romans 12. A river runs through it; it’s called Love.

Why do we need love? Don’t we ourselves do good already as an expression of love? Little Therese writes:

From a distance it appears all roses to do good to souls, making them love God more and molding these according to one’s personal views and ideas. At close range it is totally the contrary; the roses disappear, one feels that to do good is as impossible without God’s help as to make the sun shine at night.

Love is what little Therese discovered as her vocation in 1895. It should also be our own. She has been meditating on 1 Corinthians 12 and 1 Corinthians 13 and had gotten more out of those than we ever did, when she wrote:

I understood that if the Church had a body composed of different members, the most necessary and most noble of all could not be lacking to it, and so I understood that the Church had a Heart and that the Heart was burning with Love. I understood it was Love alone that made the Church’s members act, that if Love ever became extinct, apostles would not preach the Gospel and martyrs would not shed their blood. I understood that love comprised all vocations, that love was everything, that it embraced all times and places. In a word, that it was eternal!

In reference to herself, she wrote: ‘How will she prove her love since love is proved by works? Well, the little child will strew flowers.’ The child and the savage, God created them; ‘these are the wild flowers whose simplicity attracts Him.’ That is why little Therese is better known as the ‘Little Flower of Jesus’ (newadvent.org)

What did she mean by the metaphor of the flowers? She wrote to Jesus:

This is how my life will be consumed. I have no other means of proving my love for you other than that of strewing flowers, that is, not allowing one little sacrifice to escape, not one look, one word, profiting by all the smallest things and doing them through love. I desire to suffer for love and even to rejoice through love, and in this way I shall strew flowers before Your throne.

The little way is doing ordinary things with extraordinary love. Like saying ‘Thank you’ for the littlest thing. Like bearing with the faults of others. Like saying a good word to someone who makes you suffer. Like giving more when in fact you don’t feel like giving. Like greeting with an amiable smile someone you dislike. Like singing when you don’t like to sing at all. Like folding a blanket forgotten by somebody else. Like trusting more. Like not throwing a tantrum. Like not postponing doing something for somebody. Like giving up your free time to make others happy. Like not making trouble out of everything. Like no ifs and buts in helping others. Like studying more. Like not sleeping during a lecture. Like not taking the car when you can walk.

Jesus does not look so much at the grandeur of actions or even their difficulty as at the love which goes to make up these actions.

We must be ‘Living in Love’ without being concerned about the results. ‘We must sow the seed of goodness on all sides, but if it does not spring up, what matter! Our lot is to work; the victory is for Jesus.’

‘It isn’t necessary to perform striking works but to hide oneself and practice virtue in such a way that the left hand knows not what the right hand is doing.’ Practicing virtue to please God, not oneself.

Love without works is dead; works without love is deadly.

‘I understand and I know from experience that ‘the kingdom of God is within you.’’ Therefore, within you is the first proper place to show love.

No, I don’t believe I’m a great saint. I believe I’m a very little saint; but I think God has been pleased to place things in me which will do good to me and to others.

Little Therese’s little way is Christianity simplified. The way to love is the littlest way. This is what she called ‘the science of Love.’

The science of Love, oh! Yes, this word resounds sweetly in the ear of my soul. I desire only this science. Having given all my riches for it, I look upon this as having given nothing, just as the spouse in the sacred canticles.

When man meets woman, I like that something’s got to give: Love. And now that we are aware, interested, and desirous to act, where do we begin to adopt and practice the Science of Love in the littlest way? Within the family, I say. Your family, my family.

The lesson of ‘The Game Plan’ is family. Family is where to begin to practice Christianity simplified in the United States. In the Philippines. In every Christian country.

As a matter of fact, ‘Therese always emphasized the importance of love of family,’ say Mark & Louise Zwick.

Fr John writes that little Therese’s little way is ‘revolutionary,’ simply because ‘it demands steadfast inner determination to confront the selfishness and violence within us, to open our hearts to be consumed by God’s love, and to overwhelm those we do not like with good deeds, kindness, and loving service.’

Also: To overwhelm those who do not like us.

‘My way is all confidence and love.’ All love. Even, or especially, to love the unlovable, I’ve heard that before. Now I remember, the Beatitudes. Ah, it was Jesus who looked at his disciples and said:

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. Luke 6: 32-34 NRSV

Can we begin to do the little way with members of our own family? Of course not! No. The little way is impossible. Welcome to Carmel! Of course, true love is impossible. You’re not a saint. That is why you need the audacity of faith.

Little Therese wrote this:

I see what I believed I possess what I hoped for I am united to Him whom I loved With all my power of loving.

And this:

Living on Love is banishing every fear, Every memory of past faults.

One night when little Therese was sick, very sick, this was the conversation between two blood sisters:

Sr Genevieve: ‘What are you doing? You should try to sleep.’ Therese: ‘I can’t sleep. I’m suffering too much, so I am praying.’ Sr Genevieve: ‘And what are you saying to Jesus?’ Therese: ‘I say nothing to Him, I love Him.’

‘Live in Love,’ she told us. ‘Don’t wait until tomorrow to begin becoming a saint.’

For that, we need the audacity of love. *

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