Over the past while, I’ve been going through The Story of a Soul, that famous autobiography by St. Therese of Lisieux. And the more I read of St. Therese, the more I have to shake my head in disbelief.
She is clearly off her rocker. Just look at some of these outrageous quotes:
“Our Lord allowed Reverend Mother to treat me with great severity, sometimes unconsciously. […] She always treated me like this. How I thank God, my darling mother, for such a virile and valuable training. What a priceless grace!” (86-87)
“Later on, in heaven, we will love to recall the dark days of exile, and indeed, even now, Father’s three years of martyrdom seem to me the most desirable and fruitful years we have ever had, and I would not exchange them for the most sublime ecstasies.” (93)
“My desire for suffering was fully realized!” (93)
I look at these words, written with such gushing enthusiasm and passion, and I just about can’t stomach it. How could she actually want suffering this much?
Having now come through the other side of Lent, into the glorious season of Easter, I can say I have had quite enough of suffering. It’s been a wonderful relief to cast away all that talk of sacrifice, mortification, fasting, and the rest. Lent been a long, hard slog, a frustrating journey of trying to grow in virtue and realizing just how far I have to go, just how much mercy I need, and what a selfish sinner I really am. And I am done and tired of all of it. So – Easter season! Finally! Bring on the chocolate!
Am I right? …am I right?
Well… not exactly. The Joy of Easter, that Joy in which we exult over these fifty days of the Easter season, isn’t just the high of Lent being over and the fasting being done. Far from it! True Easter Joy is that of being newly united to Christ, the Joy of a new life in His self-giving love! That kind of Joy is a Joy that remains, underlying and constant, through all we do and go through, and that radiates and grows in our own continued acts of self-emptying love.
If we’ve been approaching Lenten penances as an exercise in self-discipline, or even as an opportunity to grow in virtues, we’ve missed the point. (And we’ve probably overdone it on the Easter chocolate by now as well.) Lent has culminated in Easter, the desert has made way for the Tree of Life, and Christ, crucified and risen, now pours out His grace, mercy, and new Divine life upon us. The Joy of this new life in Him is the Joy of loving one another as He loves. It lies in joining ourselves to His merciful self-emptying. Jesus calls us to unite ourselves to His mission, our love to His love, and our sufferings to His own redemptive suffering.
And that’s where we come back to our crazy St. Therese. In her own words:
“As Jesus had made me realize that the Cross was the means by which He would give me souls, the more often it came my way, the more suffering attracted me.” (87)
Her own sufferings, outrageously overboard if only seen as sacrifices made for the goal of self-help and self-discipline, actually make sense when seen as acts of a bride and a lover, desiring to be united with the Bridegroom in all He does and desires. Her own radiant Joy comes from loving as He loves, by His grace.
Lent is over.
Easter has begun.
So let’s live that new life in Christ – that life that rejoices even in suffering, because it loves like nothing else can.
St Therese of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul, (Charlotte, NC: Saint Benedict Press, TAN Books, 2010)