Transformation Into Christ
The Power of Confidence: Genesis and Structure of the "Way of Spiritual Childhood" of St. Thérèse of Lisieux
By Conrad De Meester, OCD
Publisher: Alba House
Review Author: Elaine Hallett
Fr. Conrad De Meester and Fr. Frederick Miller, from different but deeply illuminating vantage points, demonstrate how totally Thérèse Martin was in effect transformed into Christ after she entered the Carmelite convent at Lisieux. Fr. De Meester concerns himself with the process, Fr. Miller with the result. Fr. Marie-Eugène stresses St. Thérèse’s ability “to comprehend ‘the divine furnace of love.'” All of the extraordinary favors Thérèse received, he says, “were deeper and deeper penetrations into Love.” These three books lead one into the highest realms of human endeavor and leave one in awe and wonder at what the human will can achieve when it determines to use all its faculties to will nothing but what God wills for it.
Anyone who has read and been moved by St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s autobiography, The Story of a Soul, or wishes to learn more about Thérèse’s Little Way of Spiritual Childhood should seek out De Meester’s book. Originally written in French in 1969, this indispensable book has been revised and updated by the author and fully translated into English. De Meester’s work, with its well-chosen title, The Power of Confidence, is by far the best commentary on the teachings of St. Thérèse. In it De Meester traces the development of Thérèse’s own understanding of the doctrine that is associated with her name and, in so doing, provides the reader with a sensitive and coherently ordered picture of the salient elements of the Way of Spiritual Childhood.
In an early chapter, De Meester describes what many readers of The Story of a Soul sense for themselves — that is, the immense difficulties of identifying points at which Thérèse first became conscious of individual components of the spiritual doctrine she was being called to teach. Discerning how the doctrine developed is no simple matter. When St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus obeyed the directive of her older sister, Mother Agnès, that she record her recollections of her life, Thérèse wrote in the most informal style. The manuscripts, now formally known as Manuscript A, Manuscript B, and Manuscript C, were written in three stages, the first in 1895 addressed to Mother Agnès of Jesus, the second in 1896 as a letter to Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart, and the third, containing further clarification about Thérèse’s final year of life, dedicated to Mother Marie de Gonzague, in 1897. Because Mother Agnès and Sister Marie were both Thérèse’s own sisters, Manuscripts A and B assume shared knowledge of the Martin family life, and all three manuscripts assume intimate knowledge of daily life lived together in the Carmel. Further, as De Meester notes, Thérèse left no formal tract describing the Way, only this seemingly simple collection of memories. The manuscripts are full of flashbacks. Various time periods are present in Thérèse’s mind at any given time and not specifically distinguished by date. Her thoughts at the time of writing include what she learned later on in life, so that what happened earlier is often colored by more mature reflection. Finally, various editions of the manuscripts, some heavily edited, employ conflicting terminology. For all of these reasons, while in The Story of a Soul we experience at first hand the mind and thought patterns of Thérèse, we are not confronted with a logical “scientific” presentation of the Way. The reader who would understand the totality of the Way of Spiritual Childhood must extract and order its elements.
De Meester’s introductory segments establish the sensitivities one has to have in order to date each new development in Thérèse’s spiritual journey. To insure an accurate reconstruction, De Meester gathered information from all possible sources, extending and annotating The Story of a Soul with material he culled from Thérèse’s letters, from reports of her conversations, and from statements made about her during the canonization proceedings — thereby clarifying points that were confusing or undeveloped in the original text. By bringing together and comparing all of the extant records of each event in Thérèse’s life, De Meester was able to work out a chronology of the stages of her spiritual development that provides a comprehensive, sensitive, delicately nuanced, and convincing account of the way that Thérèse’s understanding of the doctrine of Spiritual Childhood developed.
The argument of The Power of Confidence goes like this: Most people assume that the “Little Way” and the “Way of Spiritual Childhood” are identical; but in reality the first develops into the second. From the very beginning, Thérèse saw the value of being little. She chose a way of humility, in which she gave her all to God and desired to be a saint — not a heroic saint like Joan of Arc but a weak, ordinary, “hidden,” and unrecognized saint, someone not noticed by others and not famous — her sacrifices, her mortifications, her sufferings, each a small act of pure love offered in a spirit of surrender and gratitude to Jesus, were to be seen only by Him. She aspired to conquer her own will so thoroughly that nothing was left of it — she would make Jesus’ will her own and live entirely to love Him. In the early stages she used the symbols of childhood. She viewed herself as a toy that the baby Jesus could carry around — and drop or abandon if He tired of it. She would accept His will, whether He chose to show her attention or whether He seemed to ignore her and leave her in a corner, forgotten. By this diligent practice of humility and acceptance, Thérèse hoped to progress in holiness and become a saint. But later on, she had a deeper realization that beyond the state of humility is the state of confidence: One progresses to where one has absolute faith and knowledge that Jesus will never abandon one’s soul. He never inspires one to desire a spiritual goal that He will not grant and fulfill. So the very little soul is not, after all, like a forgotten toy, but like a child carried in His arms, caressed and loved, and ultimately lifted up to a state of perfection and sanctity. God is infinitely merciful and will perfect you; you need only be totally acquiescent to the methods He uses to bring you to your goal. For Thérèse, confidence is the key.
Highly dramatic are the pages in which De Meester describes Thérèse’s discovery of this secret of “confidence.” Not only does De Meester discern the two biblical passages that on September 14, 1894, struck Thérèse in a deep and lasting way and transformed her understanding. He also, in true detective fashion, tracks down the source of the passages — how and when God communicated them to her.
When Céline, the favorite sister of Thérèse, entered the convent at Lisieux, she brought with her a notebook into which she had copied biblical passages that had moved her. Reading through Céline’s notebook at a time when she was seeking an answer to a question that was burning in her heart, How do I, in my weakness, become a holy saint?, Thérèse found her attention arrested by two passages that struck her as divine pointers. From these two fragments of Scripture, accidentally yet providentially brought together for Thérèse to encounter simultaneously, the second acting upon her as a confirmation of the first, Thérèse ultimately formulated the Way of Spiritual Childhood. It is a stunning example of how God speaks through Scripture: Through two very short passages He communicated a whole lifetime’s mission.
One can appreciate De Meester’s remarkable facility for breaking subjects down into their component parts in this quintessential chapter entitled “Discovery.” In presenting Thérèse’s account of the “shock of recognition” produced in her by the two passages of Scripture, he discusses the significant moment under five headings, each representing an aspect of the total experience. First, Thérèse expresses a desire: “I have always wanted to be a saint.” Second, there is hesitation — De Meester calls it distance — because Thérèse perceives how far she is from her goal. Third, in Thérèse he finds an interior certitude that overcomes this obstacle of distance: “God cannot inspire unrealizable desires; I can, therefore, in spite of my littleness, aspire to holiness.” Perfection may seem out of reach, but the means for attaining it must exist. Thus comes the fourth element, the search: “I want to seek out a means of going to Heaven by a little way, a way that is very straight, very short, totally new…. I would like to find an elevator which would raise me to Jesus, because I am too small to climb the rough stairway of perfection.” The fifth element in the discovery is God’s response. Thérèse conceived the symbol of the elevator, which she opposed to time-honored symbols like the stairway to Heaven or the ascent of a mountain. But how was the elevator to be powered? “I searched, then, in the Scripture for some sign of the elevator, the object of my desires, and I read these words: Whoever is a LITTLE ONE let him come to me” (Prov. 9:4). And what would God do with the very little one who answered his call? “I continued my search,” writes Thérèse, “and this is what I found: — As one whom a mother caresses, so will I comfort you; you shall be carried at the breasts, and upon the knees they shall dandle you!” (Isa. 66:12-13). (It should be noted that St. Thérèse is not being a proto-feminist here. She is not saying that God is our mother [a metaphor], but rather that God, just as a good earthly father, can be like a mother [a simile] in His tenderness, a concept that can be found in Scripture. There’s a big difference between a metaphor and a simile.) De Meester, having parsed out the experience so as better to explain it, then summarizes the whole, as Thérèse understood it: I am “to have confidence that divine love will fill me in spite of my misery,” and I will “embody this confidence in an act of surrender, through which I express my love.”
Convinced that Thérèse’s discovery of the secret (indeed, the power) of confidence marks a significant moment in the accomplishment of her goals, De Meester starts his book at this point, then goes back to her earliest years and traces the development of her thought as she perfects this “method” of achieving holiness and begins to comprehend that her mission is to teach it to others.
What De Meester distinguishes for us is the difference between the general concept of the Little Way present throughout the life of Thérèse and the characteristics that specifically define the final doctrine to which the name Way of Spiritual Childhood truly belongs. It is a difference between active work and passive receptiveness, between love and confidence. For De Meester the big difference is between a focus on love and a focus on mercy. In the first of these, Lover and Beloved (Jesus and Thérèse) were conceived of as equals. The means of achieving holiness was, for her, to “love more.” The soul must be active. In the second, the soul has perceived the great inequality between itself and its Spouse and becomes more fully conscious of the element of God’s merciful condescension in the relationship: God “is like a mother filled with condescension for His very helpless little child.” The soul, in this instance, can only be receptive. From this point on, Thérèse prefers the term mercy to the word love. What has happened is that there is “a new inner vision, which, for Thérèse, virtually excludes all other ways of seeing things.” Thus, “while many of the ascetic elements of her previous life will remain the same, they will be seen in a fresh light.”
I have said that the books being reviewed here lead one into the highest realms of human endeavor. To recognize how deeply aware De Meester is of the heights to which Thérèse’s “elevator” lifted her, the reader will want to pay careful attention to two recondite areas which the author brings forward for special attention: first, his exploration of the paradoxes of the situation of one who attempts to “love God as He loves us” — only to find that the more one loves, the more there is to love, so that the goal is continually receding even as one’s capacity to love increases — and second, his discussion of what Thérèse means when she asks God for the grace “to die of love.”
A similar sense of awe and wonder at what the will can achieve when it strives to “be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect” can be gained from reading Fr. Frederick Miller’s book, the second book listed above, which takes up where De Meester’s book leaves off, that is, at a point where Thérèse has already been in essence transformed into Christ. Miller’s subject is the trial of faith to which Thérèse was subjected during her last 18 months of life (1896-97).
Miller’s book confronts a paradox. Classic patterns and stages of the spiritual life established by Thérèse’s Carmelite mentors (St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross) describe the mystical life as a progress through three stages: (1) the way of purgation, (2) the way of illumination, and (3) the way of unity. Of the unitive way (the highest attainable state of mystical achievement because the soul at this stage is mystically wedded to Christ, the bridegroom), St. John says: “The soul in union enjoys all peace, tastes all sweetness and delights in all delights insofar as this earthly state allows…so little of this is describable that we would never succeed in fully explaining what takes place in the soul that has reached this happy state…. This sometimes takes such an inward hold on her [the soul] that nothing painful can reach her…the delight of this union absorbs the soul within herself and gives her such refreshment that it makes her insensible to the disturbances and troubles mentioned.”
Thérèse, on the other hand, experiences an agonizing “trial of faith.” In the last days of her life, this young nun was inflicted with the temptation to doubt the goodness of God: Her mind was filled with mocking voices proclaiming that for her there would be no Heaven, that Heaven did not exist. According to her accounts of this trial, all the materialistic arguments that were circulating among some proponents of what we now call the Modernist heresy assaulted her mind continuously and obsessively and could not be driven out. Thérèse described those mental sufferings as a greater torment than all of the physical sufferings she was undergoing as a result of the deterioration of her lungs. This is clearly not what St. John had in mind when he said of the soul in union that “nothing painful could reach her.”
How does one resolve the seeming contradiction between St. John’s assurance that joy is the dominant emotion of the unitive way, and the excruciatingly painful experience of St. Thérèse? Many students of the life of Thérèse, Hans Urs von Balthasar among them, explain the paradox by denying that St. Thérèse achieved transforming union. Such theologians assert that her trial was a trial of purgation, a trial that marks an early stage in the progress of a mystic. This, of course, is to deny that Thérèse achieved the highest state, that of transforming union, in which the soul is so intensely united with Christ that the individual becomes in effect another Christ, as did Francis of Assisi or Padre Pio.
Fr. Miller protests against this scholarly misconception. He argues that not only did Thérèse attain the mystical marriage well before her trial of faith began but that “this trial, far from indicating a need for purification in Thérèse, manifests an intensity of union with Christ acknowledged intuitively by the Church but not fully recognized in the field of spiritual theology.”
Miller makes it a priority to amass evidence that Thérèse had achieved the state of transforming union at least as early as June of 1895. His documentation of the mystical experiences with which St. Thérèse was graced gives credibility and substance to his argument and is among the most illuminating parts of his book. Having proved that Thérèse had progressed far beyond the way of purgation, Miller can then proceed to explain the special way in which the union between Thérèse and her beloved Jesus was realized.
The seeming incompatibility between the joys described by St. John of the Cross and the sense of futility experienced by Thérèse can be explained, argues Miller, if we heed the parallels that exist between the death of St. Thérèse and the death of Jesus. What Miller suggests is that the particular way in which Thérèse became united with Christ is that she was allowed to undergo the same agonies that Christ experienced in His passion, at the moment when He said, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus takes upon himself the sins of all mankind at Gethsemane, with the result that in the normal course of things He would, like the unrepentant and thus unredeemed sinner, be separated from God forever. Thérèse shared this same trial. In the intensity of her desire to see sinners redeemed, she suffered from their thoughts, their doubts, their sense of separation from God, and her suffering was offered as reparation: “I offer up these very great pains to obtain the light of faith for poor unbelievers, for all those who separate themselves from the Church’s beliefs.” The trial, writes Miller (following out a truth observed by R. Garrigou-Lagrange) was not for her own soul’s purification but rather for the salvation of the human race. Thérèse desires to be as unremitting in her sacrifices as Jesus was in His. Thus was Christ’s sacrifice, His redeeming love, carried forward through her life into the present.
That Thérèse was subjected to a satanic and agonizing temptation is not to say that her faith itself was shaken. She herself tells us that to counter the unwanted thoughts, she made more acts of faith in those last months than in all of her previous lifetime. She also assures us that at the core of her heart dwelt a deep and holy peace. Her last words, addressed to Jesus, were “My God, I love You.” And, far from succumbing to despair, she had distinct aspirations for her eternal life. Her desire was “to spend my heaven in doing good on earth. I can’t make heaven a feast of rejoicing; I can’t rest as long as there are souls to be saved. But when the angel will have said: ‘Time is no more!’ then I will take my rest….”
In the books of De Meester and Miller, the authors’ information derives from written sources — from what Thérèse wrote and from what others wrote about her. Fr. Marie-Eugène of the Child Jesus has a more transcendent experience of Thérèse. True, Thérèse died within three years of his birth. Yet when, in Under the Torrent of His Love, Marie-Eugène speaks about Thérèse’s intimacy with God, he seems to speak from direct knowledge.
Marie-Eugène was a lifelong disciple of Thérèse, one of her saintliest followers, and has himself been proposed for canonization (his life has been described as “a lived Pentecost”). Alba House makes available three lectures prepared for priests by Marie-Eugène, collectively entitled Under the Torrent of His Love. This book approaches the Way of Spiritual Childhood with the simplicity and directness of Thérèse herself. Less scholarly in tone and organization than the books of Miller and De Meester, Under the Torrent is nevertheless as authoritative and profound. It too sets before its reader the essence of the teachings of Thérèse of Lisieux, but where De Meester and Miller explain Thérèse, Marie-Eugène experiences her. The first two authors talk about her; the third seems to speak with her voice.
In his list of the graces Thérèse received, Marie-Eugène includes these observations: “The grace of zeal and a thirst for souls…made her penetrate divine Love itself in order to experience its profound needs and sufferings.” She had “experiential knowledge of Love’s need to expand and its disappointment in the face of hatred and indifference.” Her prayer, he remarks, “consists in gazing at God from an ever closer vantage point, trying to get to know Him better through the gestures and words reported in the Scriptures.” Hers was “the gaze fixed unswervingly on God beyond all clouds and images.” Thérèse “looked at his face that she might see his sentiments and ways, might know his taste and conform to it. This was not for the sake of self-fulfillment but in order to give him pleasure.” Thérèse, he says, “entered into and came to understand the inner life of God.”
In Fr. Marie-Eugène one finds evidence of how Thérèse’s wish to spend her Heaven making Jesus loved on earth is being effected. Born in 1894 (his childhood coincided with that time when Thérèse’s posthumous fame was spreading throughout France), Marie-Eugène fell under her influence at an early age, enjoyed her protection during his tenure of service in the First World War, later joined the Carmelite order, and eventually became its Definiter General. It was he who, in 1953, authorized the publication of the Autobiographical Manuscripts of St. Thérèse, the authentic Thérèsian texts in which distortions resulting from earlier editing were eliminated. He is also the author of a two-volume work on Carmelite spirituality, I Want to See God and I Am a Daughter of the Church. Marie-Eugène was a great friend of Mother Agnès, Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart, and Sister Geneviève (Céline), the three sisters of St. Thérèse who lived with her in the Carmel at Lisieux. This, along with the great kinship he experienced with Thérèse, who seems to have been his teacher and to have used him to further her mission of instilling divine love in souls, has rendered Marie-Eugène a particularly valuable interpreter of the Way of Spiritual Childhood. In Under the Torrent of His Love, the reader will find all of the points analyzed in The Power of Confidence and The Trial of Faith, distilled to their essence and presented with a clarity that is deceptively simple but deepens with each repeated reading.
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