To Die of Love
John and Thérèse: Flames of Love: The Influence of St. John of the Cross in the Life and Writings of St. Thérèse of Lisieux
By Bishop Guy Gaucher
Publisher: Alba House
Review Author: Elaine Hallett
St. Thérèse of Lisieux related that at the ages of 17 and 18 she “had no other spiritual nourishment” than the works of “our holy Father, St. John of the Cross.” This statement led people to conclude that after these two years, Thérèse turned her attentions elsewhere. Guy Gaucher, bishop of the dioceses of Bayeux and Lisieux, challenges the widely accepted notion that after 1890 and 1891 Thérèse no longer looked to St. John of the Cross for spiritual light. Bishop Gaucher insists that the influence continued throughout her life.
In the introductory chapter of John and Thérèse, Gaucher provides a chronological documentation of the references St. Thérèse made to her “spiritual father” to prove his point. Because, by the end of the 19th century, St. John was little read and rarely quoted (had in fact become largely unknown), Gaucher determines, first, which of St. John’s writings were available to Thérèse. We know that there was a copy of St. John’s works at the Carmel of Lisieux, to which Thérèse had access. She also owned an anthology called The Maxims and Spiritual Advice of Our Blessed Father John of the Cross, published by the Carmelites in Paris in 1895. Sayings of the master were also available in many other forms. Favorite passages were copied out and circulated, both by the Carmel (for example, at retreats) and by individuals (Thérèse’s sister Céline kept a notebook in which she entered passages that she found in books at her uncle’s home — Céline had copied selections from St. John’s poems and letters into that notebook for Thérèse). It was a Carmelite custom to fill a basket with quotations copied from St. John of the Cross on his feast day, November 24th. Apparently, every year on that date, each nun would draw a quotation from the basket. Records show that in 1891 Thérèse drew this message: “My daughter, I leave you my interior annihilation. The soul who wills to possess God totally must renounce all in order to give herself totally to this great God!”
Having identified the variety of resources, Gaucher then attempts to determine which works Thérèse actually read (she quotes most often from The Spiritual Canticle) and when. Certain passages stand out as having so affected Thérèse that they were absorbed into her spirituality. For instance, Thérèse adopted St. John’s prayer, “Lord, what I want you to give me is trials to suffer for You, to be despised and esteemed as of little worth,” as her own. Throughout her writings, this saying reappears — “To suffer and be despised” for Jesus (“what bitterness,” she once added, “but what glory!”). The suffering came, but not without a deep inner peace and not without purpose, for Thérèse knew that suffering is redemptive and she longed to bring souls to Jesus.
What Gaucher makes clear, then, is that throughout her life St. Thérèse felt a special kinship to the thought of St. John of the Cross and fully internalized it. Even in the infirmary as she lay dying, Thérèse had on her bedside table within arm reach The Living Flame of Love and The Spiritual Canticle, along with the Maxims.
The middle chapters of John and Thérèse focus on the theological virtues — Love, Faith, and Hope. Bishop Gaucher quotes 12 passages from St. John of the Cross on love that most attracted Thérèse and collects her commentaries on these, showing not only how deeply she herself lived by them but also how they became the basis of her teaching. Here, for example, is a passage Thérèse herself translated as a gift to one of the novices she was training:
Love, I have experienced it,
Knows how to use
The good and the bad
it finds in me.
It transforms my soul
This Fire burning in my soul
Penetrates my heart forever.
Thus in its delightful flame
I am being wholly consumed
Of supreme interest is Gaucher’s chapter on Faith, which focuses on a source that deeply affected Thérèse, that small anthology of Maxims and Spiritual Advice. Gaucher quotes Maxims 17 to 36 in full, and then gathers from letters and other sources Thérèse’s own comments on this particular subject. St. John’s teaching in these maxims stresses the vanity of desiring special favors and revelations. In Maxim 31 St. John says that “whoever in our day wants to ask for visions or revelations seems to me to offend the Lord by not keeping his eyes solely on his Anointed One.” And again (Maxim 35), “the soul that desires revelations diminishes so much the perfection it has already acquired, by not letting itself be guided by faith alone.” How much better, instructs Maxim 21, to “advance without understanding,” for God is incomprehensible. We can know what He is not, but what He is lies beyond our grasp; thus, “it is better not to see.” Gaucher presents ample evidence that Thérèse internalized these teachings. She made a deliberate choice to sacrifice consolations, desiring to please Jesus more by relying on faith itself, not on its sweet rewards. “Remember,” Thérèse would say, “it’s ‘my little way’ not to desire to see anything.” Because “here on earth we can’t see God and the angels as they truly are,” and because she wanted to travel a way that ordinary souls could imitate, Thérèse “preferred to wait until after my death” to see them. As a consequence, Thérèse was to enter into a long and painful dark night of the soul, which is documented in detail in this profound chapter on Thérèse’s heroic commitment to faith in the light of continued spiritual aridity. What emerges is a description, told in her own words, of Thérèse’s steadfast adherence to faith even when God seemed to hide Himself and she felt as though she were walking alone through “subterranean caverns.”
Does this lifelong commitment Gaucher traces out make a significant difference to our knowledge of Thérèse? Indeed, yes! In revealing how profoundly Thérèse understood the teachings of the great mystic, Gaucher demonstrates not only how she followed John, but also how she differed from him as she traversed her own unique path to holiness. Awareness of these differences, which suggest that in certain ways Thérèse seems to have expanded or extended John of the Cross, helps us to see more clearly why “little” Thérèse was made a Doctor of the Church.
Gaucher’s last chapter, a detailed comparison of the insights of the two saints at the ends of their lives, focuses on two aspects of Thérèse’s holiness, both derived from St. John of the Cross — “two great realities,” as Gaucher puts it: (1) the Consuming Fire of Love and (2) the privilege, granted to a few, of Dying of Love. Here we are shown how Thérèse adopted concepts she learned from St. John to fit the “Little Way of Spiritual Childhood” that God was calling her to teach.
The first concept is best illustrated by St. John himself, who wrote that “God in the omnipotence of His fathomless love absorbs the soul in Himself more efficaciously and forcibly than a torrent of fire would devour a drop of morning dew that usually rises and dissolves in the air.” To show how ardently Thérèse desired to achieve this sublime union, Gaucher cites words drawn from the Last Conversations of Thérèse: “With what longing and what consolation I repeated from the beginning of my religious life these other words of St. John of the Cross: ‘It is of the greatest importance that the soul be exercised much in Love so that, being consumed rapidly, [the soul] may be scarcely retained here on earth but promptly reach the vision of God face to face.'” What follows is a fascinating discussion of the fire of consuming love, of the imagery Thérèse herself used to describe effects of this fire upon the soul, and of Thérèse’s burning desire to communicate this love to “the souls who will approach me.”
Gaucher concludes by explaining the connection between the living flame of love and the love that can cause death. He illustrates Thérèse’s desire to die of love with quotations from her poetry. Here is but one of many:
Your love is my only
The more I feel it burning
The more my soul
Jesus, make me die
Of love for you!!!
What does Thérèse mean, “to die of love”? This is a mystery beyond our comprehension, but it was closely associated in Thérèse’s mind with the belief that only a thin veil separated the soul from experiencing the fullness of God’s love.
At some point in her life Thérèse had come across the words of St. John of the Cross, “Tear through the veil of this sweet encounter!” In one of her last conversations with her sister, Mother Agnès of Jesus, Thérèse remarked that “I’ve always applied these words to the death of love that I desire. Love will not wear out the veil of my life; it will tear it suddenly.” Just so did the sacrificial love of Jesus cause the veil of the Temple to be rent in twain, destroying forever the division between the inner sanctuary — the Holy of Holies and dwelling place of God — and that outer part of the Temple that was the domain of the faithful. For Thérèse, writes Gaucher, “the most beautiful death of love is that of the Crucified,” and she took the death of Jesus as her model. It was Thérèse’s belief that it would not be tuberculosis that killed her. Rather, her love for Jesus would be so perfected that she would die, as Jesus did, of the intensity of her love for God. Her mission fulfilled, her soul perfected, she would die of the very desire, the total readiness, to be fully united to God in Heaven. And that “death of love” would be like the tearing of a veil.
This is a book filled with quotations, and — especially in the final chapter where the quotations all have to do with the furnace of divine love — one is overwhelmed, being, as one soon realizes, in what Bishop Gaucher rightly calls “the highest vocation of man created in the image of God.” One finds here Paul Claudel’s poem on the apotheosis of Thérèse, whom Claudel describes as “this little girl burning like a Pentecost.” Would that I had space to include all that Gaucher gives us from Claudel or the passages on Thérèse from Bernanos and Maritain. Let me conclude instead with an eminently quotable line from Gaucher himself: “A short life can live love to a white-hot degree.” Read this book to see how.
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