Love, Therese. A little practice goes a long, long way

mona lisa smile of st therese 3 MANILA - Discovery News. Today, I realized I knew of a secret formula that shows how anyone of us at any time can practice the 7 Heavenly Virtues: chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility. You don’t believe me? Have some faith.

And all because yesterday my wife told me - actually, she asked me - to write a review of a book. That’s the first time she asked me in our 43 years of marriage. I mean, to review a book. I did my job, dutifully. I emailed it this morning to be published, hopefully, in the October issue of our Sandigan, the newsletter of our church group, the Bukás Lóob sa Díyos, BLD.

This is the revised version of that book review, and almost 3 times as long; this was prompted by the text of Neneng that said, “Wish I can have your patience and a bit of wisdom to cope with disappointment and frustration. Sometimes irritability is my worst enemy.” Actually, Neneng, we are our worst enemy. I just turned 70, so I should know that by now.

Neneng is in luck. As she will learn in a little while, she has the sympathy of one of the most beloved saints of all time. I just googled for "st therese" OR "little flower" OR "little way" OR "child jesus" OR "holy face" and got 3,190,000 results, English pages only, with strict filtering.

I didn’t know I would meet St Therese again this year. The 31st Manila International Book Fair came and went, 15-19 September at the SMX Convention Center, Mall of Asia, and for a gift to myself, I bought another copy of the New Revised Standard Version, NRSV. Am I doubly religious? No, but I’m a writer and the Bible is a good read, believe it or not, at least the New Testament, and I write about it. The older copy goes to my daughter Ela. And I’m Roman Catholic, so you know which edition I bought.

My wife bought some little books I didn’t care about; she bought one she didn’t know I liked; when she asked me to write a book review of it, I was like, “I thought you’d never ask!”

I had been, you might say, enamored with St Therese since I met her through a book a secular Carmelite in the Philippines kindly lent me: Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St Therese of Lisieux. Since then, I had written 3 essays about Therese, all published in the American Chronicle: “The Audacity of Love. Henry David Thoreau meets little Therese of Lisieux,” 25 November 2008; “The Catholic’s Way. Road not taken in Creative Writing,” 29 April 2009; and “Little Flowers. St Therese of Lisieux & Charice,” 11 May 2010. I also have an unpublished manuscript, UP! ROTC2, 199 pages, in support of the renewing of the mind about ROTC - I remember I gave a preliminary copy to Defense Secretary Gilberto “Gibo” Teodoro when he was a guest speaker of the UP Vanguards in UP Diliman - and the final chapter is about 2 Carmelites: Therese of Lisieux and Luz Buhay-Lorenzo, who is the daughter of one who has been Commandant of the ROTC at the College of Agriculture of the University of the Philippines, a Vanguard.

St Therese has a message different from all the saints I knew, and I was glad to be writing about it again. Think about being asked to do what you would love to do!

The book I was to review had the title/subtitle Under the Torrent of His Love: Therese of Lisieux, a Spiritual Genius, written by Marie-Eugene of the Child Jesus, OCD. This copy was published in 2007 by St Pauls (Makati City, 158 pages). It’s an old book actually, but if it’s the truth, it’s ageless.

The original French manuscript was actually a transcription of audio tapes of informal lectures (not conferences as the book calls them) conducted by Father Marie-Eugene during retreats for priests at Notre Dame de Vie in September 1965.

St Therese of Lisieux, also called St Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, also St Therese of the Little Flower, is popular among Catholics but not her doctrine or theology - she had none! I mean, she did not have any scholarly presentation or did not write a treatise on understanding the mystery of Jesus, who was Christ. She had her “little way,” nothing earthshakingly spiritual, and that was all. But that exactly is why she is popular.

When John Paul II declared St Therese a “Doctor of the Church” in 1997, he signified her as “a model for Catholics that following the Gospel does not require great scholarship or learning, but rather, profound love” (Marilyn Hughes, 24 December 2008, suite101.com). Accepting, trusting love.

01 October is her Feast Day. She was born 02 January 1873 in Alencon, France. She was gifted. The book by Fr Marie-Eugene tries to explain her greatness, and I thank him, even if his book has too much theology for me.

The St Pauls’ translation to English from the original French was done by Sister Mary Thomas Noble OP; the French title was: Ton amour a grandi avec moi: Un Genie Spirituel Therese de Lisieux. I have a problem with that; her translation of “Ton amour a grandi avec moi” into “Under the Torrent of His Love” changes the subject, is a long way from the intent of the French; I believe my free translation “Your Love Grew with Me” is nearer the original sense, and I realize that (my) title sentence translation is a beautiful summary of the life of Marie Francoise Therese Martin, whom we know as St Therese, whose life was short - she died when she was only 24, on 30 September 1897.

Pope John Paul II said (vatican.va) of St Therese: her Carmel thoughts were “in providential harmony with the Church’s most authentic tradition, both for its confession of the Catholic faith and for its promotion of the most genuine spiritual life, presented to all the faithful in a living, accessible language.” Borrowing from beloved John Paul II, I say her Carmel acts are presented to all the faithful in her own living, doable language of love. His love can grow with me.

The personal title “St Therese of the Little Way” reflects St Therese’s single, simple contribution to the greatest concept the world has known: people loving people in every little way as they can - and should.

“My vocation, at last I have found it,” she exclaimed one time, “my vocation is Love!” (page 108). But how was this little girl in the Carmel convent to “love” when she could not love anyone, boy or girl?

My title translation “Your love grew with me” means she applied the love of God to everyday life in the convent of Carmel and thereby multiplied it a hundredfold on Earth. The book gives examples of Therese’s little acts of love, her little flowers offered to Jesus. Martin Barrack says (secondexodus.com), a little differently, “If she could not do magnificent deeds, she would do small deeds magnificently.”

The Society of the Little Flower says (littleflower.org):

The world came to know Therese through her autobiography, “Story of a Soul.” … She lived each day with an unshakable confidence in God’s love. “What matters in life,” she wrote, “is not great deeds, but great love.” Therese lived and taught a spirituality of attending to everyone and everything well and with love. She believed that just as a child becomes enamored with what is before her, we should also have a childlike focus and totally attentive love. Therese’s spirituality is of doing the ordinary, with extraordinary love.

Beautiful language, but I have another way of putting it. Therese was special in that she did the extraordinary thing with ordinary love. It’s a love you and I can give. To give you examples:

There was this Sister who was melancholy and she would overwork herself to drive away her sadness. In the evening, she would be very tired, and Therese could not comfort her because there can only be silence after Compline. Therese had an idea. She waited for her to pass by her cell and when she did, she gave her her beautiful smile. When Therese died, that Sister said, “Oh, that smile of Sister Therese! It seemed to me as if all my troubles vanished!” (page 52)

And there was this difficult Sister who wanted everything done her way all the way - sit like this, hold like that - that soon no Sister would volunteer to help her. Therese volunteered. She went to her and sat down very pleasantly. She held the needle exactly like she was told. Whenever she felt annoyed, Therese would give the Sister a beautiful smile! When Therese died, this Sister said, “Oh yes, Sister Therese was so kind, so good, so loving. As for me, I have no regrets in her regard, because whenever she worked with me, I always seemed to make her so happy.” In fact, Therese was trying to make this Sister happy. (page 53)

Therese did more for this difficult Sister. She noticed that with crippled hands, she had “difficulty … arranging the bread in her bowl” and she volunteered to do it for her (cjd.org). Not only that. In her own words, Therese said, “There was something even more important, though I only heard about it later; when I’d finished cutting her bread I gave her, before I left, my best smile.”

Therese was now handling the novices. “One day the novice provoked Therese for an entire morning, but never succeeded in making her lose patience. In the end, she threw herself at Therese’s feet: ‘How did you ever become so patient?’ Therese answered, ‘At first I was like you, but one fine day God picked me up and set me there.’ This was her whole secret: desiring perfection, she simply awaited this gesture of God, and he picked her up and set her there.” (page 29) God serves those who only stand and wait.

There is more where that came from.

When she was 10, her father Louis offered her sister Celine painting lessons, and then asked Therese if she wanted the same (traditioninaction.org). Her other sister Marie interjected that “Therese did not have the same gift for it as Celine.” Therese said nothing. Later, in her autobiography The Story of a Soul, she said, “I still wonder how I had the fortitude to remain silent.” You can if you will.

At the washroom of Carmel in Lisieux, one of the Sisters would splash her with dirty water while washing handkerchiefs. She said and did nothing. “This may seem very small, but the self-will is as well denied and curbed in small things as in great things, and sometimes more so when they go against the grain” (traditioninaction.org). You will if you will.

In my unsaintly way of putting it, Therese willed herself to love. She offered her little acts of love to God.

Marie-Eugene writes: “The God whom Therese discovered was the God of Love. At the same time, she saw that around her, and even in her Carmel, God was not known. The God who is Love was not known! They knew the God of Justice, quid pro quo, and they tried to acquire merits. But, thought Therese, this was not the way to win him. God is Love, God is Mercy. But what is Mercy? It is the Love of God which gives itself beyond all demands and rights.” (page 23)

In contrast, when Therese was very young, she was the “spoiled little Queen of her father” and she wouldn’t do housework; “she thought if she made the beds she was doing a great favor!” (catholic.org).

When she was a child, she did childish things; when she grew up, she put away all those. She was now thinking not of herself but of others: “The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love” (Catholic Online, catholic.org).

She had discovered True Love. She had discovered “the science of love” (pathsoflove.com): “I understand so very well that it is only through love that we can render ourselves pleasing to the good Lord, that love is the one thing I long for. The science of love is the only science I desire.”

She had written:

“I understood that Love comprised all vocations, that Love was everything, that it embraced all times and that it was eternal! Then, in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out, ‘O Jesus, my Love … my vocation, at last I have found it … my vocation is Love! Yes, I have found my place in the Church and it is You, O my God, who have given me this place; in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I shall be Love.” (pages 108-109)

It is not necessary that as a Christian you live a mystical life. It is necessary only that you live a practical life. You just have to practice love in every little way you can.

Looking at herself as being the “little flower of Jesus” among other little flowers in God’s garden is her analogy for ”little ways of holiness.”

Do you need a childlike attitude to practice love? No. Otherwise, seniors like us are hopeless! Yes, Therese love is achievable at any age.

“In all her duties she experienced that without love all works are nothing” (Fr Camilo Macisse OCD, helpfellowship.org). Did Therese live an ordinary life in Carmel? She did, and she did not.

Fr John Dear says (fatherjohndear.org):

Life in a (convent) is difficult. 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 these 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.”

Vilma Seelaus, OCD says (carmelitesofeldridge.org) Therese spoke “a language of littleness,” speaking of “little souls” and “a soul weaker and littler than mine” and “a legion of little Victims of Your Love!” In science and technology, I think this is not unlike Ernest Schumacher’s mantra, “Small is beautiful.”

Are you irritated? Learn from Therese! Do a paradigm shift. Like, there was one time (littleflowers.clubs.com):

During meditation in the choir, one of the Sisters continually fidgeted with her rosary, until Therese was perspiring with irritation. At last, “instead of trying not to hear it, which was impossible, I set myself to listen as though it had been some delightful music, and my meditation, which was not the ‘prayer of quiet,’ passed in offering this music to our Lord.”

Did you know? Therese at Carmel, ANN says, “was known for falling asleep during prayer hours in the chapel, but she noted that ‘God loved her even though she often slept during the time of prayer’” (sttherese.webhero.com). “The Church would recognize a profound and valuable teaching in ‘the little way’ - an awareness of one’s limitations, the wholehearted giving of what one has no matter how small the gift.” Like a smile.

In 1896, she coughed up blood, but she kept it a secret. A year later, she was so sick everyone knew. “Her pain was so great that she said that if she had not had faith she would have taken her own life without hesitation. But she tried to remain smiling and cheerful - and succeeded so well that some thought she was only pretending to be ill” (catholic.org). She died the next year.

Therese said, “I prefer the monotony of obscure sacrifice to all ecstasies. To pick up a pin for love can convert a soul” (americancatholic.org).

She also said, “We love God in the measure in which we practice it” (page 121). Her little way is doing a small thing with a little act of love. Like a smile.

Here is a little tip from Therese, quoted by TG Morrow (cfalive.org): “In the matter of practices, it is better to take on only what you think you can persevere in.”

Therese was not to be discouraged at all by her littleness, her imperfections, her faults. Paul Marie de la Croix says (ewtn.com):

Moreover, having learned from experience about this "motherly" goodness of God, and knowing that the smaller the child, the more it can count on merciful help and attentive care, Theresa intended to remain little, that is to say, she would no more be concerned about her powerlessness; on the contrary she would rejoice in it. "How happy I am to realize that I am little and weak, how happy I am to see myself so imperfect." She (did) not count on her works, or on her merits, she "(kept) nothing in reserve" and she (was) not to be discouraged even about her faults.

If I understand her right, Therese’s “Little Way” was not a way to Heaven; it was a way to Heaven on Earth. A spiritual genius? She was more a practical blithe spirit to me.

Canon Francis Ripley says (sttherese.com), “It is not easy to find one word in English which expresses exactly what St Therese of Lisieux regarded as the heart of her Little Way of Love.” Me, I’ll take Love anytime.

So, inspired by the little girl with her little way of love, let us all:

Go, go and will, will ourselves to practice love, love!

So, how do you practice the 7 Heavenly Virtues of chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility in a simple way? Practice love, for “love covers all (the multitude) of your offences” (Proverbs 10: 12, NRSV). How about praying unceasingly for these virtues to come to you? I don’t think that will help; virtues are DIYs, do-it-yourself things.

I wanted to love, to love Jesus with a passion,” Therese said, “giving him a thousand proofs of my love while it was possible” (quoted by Ernest E Larkin, OCarm, carmelnet.org). While you live, it is possible.

So, can you do it? “St Therese’s ‘little way’ is cherished by millions of people around the world,” Stephanie Paulsell says (hds.harvard.edu), “because it is a way of holiness that anyone can pursue.” Anyone. “Love. More love.” Have a little more faith.

So, how are you going to start? You begin with this thought from the baby Jesus in St Therese’s Christmas play of 1894:

Don’t you know that faithful souls always give me consolation in the face of the blasphemies of the unfaithful by a simple look of love?

Well! Look at Therese again and start with a Mona Lisa smile.

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