God is Love by Fr. Marie-Eugene of the Child Jesus
(He was a French Discalced Carmelite priest, now he is in process
ST THÉRÈSE OF THE CHILD JESUS AND THE HOLY FACE
God is Love: certitude in times of darkness
A little later her sister, Mother Agnes, now Prioress, gave her to
Mother Marie de Gonzague as an assistant in the formation of the
novices,28 among whom in 1894 was her sister Celine. Assigned to
the novitiate, Thérèse found an opportunity to explain her
teaching, which otherwise she would never have formulated. Obliged
to speak to her sisters, she told them what she felt and
experienced. When they questioned her, she quoted by heart
passages from St. John of the Cross - as she often did at
recreation - for that was her life.
Thérèse thus explained a little of her doctrine, but always in the
midst of distress, because of the opposition of her surroundings
and the sermons she had to listen to. Her teaching was quite
different from all this. In her obscure contemplation she had made
the discovery of the God who is Love, an obscure discovery but one
which she grasped almost by second nature and which created
certitude in the depths of her soul. God is Love. She could say:
"I contemplate and adore the other divine perfections ... through
Mercy. All of these perfections appear to be resplendent with
Love." There was nothing but this in God.
The searching went on in darkness. Thérèse only explained what she
had to explain, either for the novices or when asked to write the
story of her life later. Habitually she lived in the dark. We
might say that she found herself bogged down in what is often
called the purification of the spirit. This consists far less in
keen sufferings marked by distinct stages - some of these there
were indeed - than in a muddled fog or kind of quicksand in which
one becomes enmired and unable to move." This trial continued in
anguish, but with upward thrusts toward God and convictions that
she had found him. There was an apparent contradiction between her
progressive discovery of sin and of sinful tendencies in herself
and others, and her discovery of God.
The God whom Thérèse 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 Thérèse, 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.
The Council of Trent declared that God bestows his gifts in two
ways: out of justice, that is, as a reward for merits, and out of
Mercy, that is, surpassing all merit. Thus he is true to his own
nature, for he is Love, Goodness which pours itself out. He has a
need to give. Therein ties his joy.
Thérèse read the Gospels. What did she find there? Mary Magdalen:
God had forgiven her much, and therefore she loved much." Thérèse
also contemplated the prodigal son and the fathers joy in
receiving him back: joy, for this was his opportunity to give
himself. There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner
repenting than over ninety-nine upright people who have no need of
repentance. What glorifies God and "delights him' is to be able to
give himself, and give himself freely. This was Thérèse's
discovery: what gives God joy is the power to give more than what
is required by strict justice, freely, based on our needs and the
exegencies of his nature which is Love, and not on our merits.
Thérèse felt acutely the tension of her surroundings, the
opposition between her light, her needs, and what she saw being
practiced around her . People kept score with God. When you stood
before the eternal Father who was to judge you, he would look at
your list of merits. You would have obtained so many indulgences,
you would have so many merits, and your place would be assigned.
For her part Thérèse said: I shall take care not to present any
merits of mine, but only those of our Lord. As for me, I shall
have nothing, I do not want to present anything, I prefer to let
God love me as much as he wants." Then she added, "It is because
of this that I shall get such a good reception." Here we have the
heart of her teaching.
Surrender to Love
Seeing that God was not loved, she, Thérèse, would 'make
reparation' too. The Love of God, Merciful Love, was not known. So
seldom did people have recourse to Mercy; everyone appealed to
Justice. They kept accounts with God, while he wished to give
himself according to his own exigencies. Thérèse said to herself.
"God has so much Love to give, and he can't do it; people present
only their own merits, and these are so paltry." She therefore
presented herself before God, saying: "Give me this love; I accept
to be a victim of Love that is, to receive all the Love which
others do not receive because they will not let you Love them as
you wish. Such was her confidence in the Mercy which exceeds
She then dreamt of making her offering to Merciful Love. But it
was not directly in order to receive Love, it was 'to please God"-
, it was so that God might have the opportunity to give himself as
intensely as he desired. She would be a victim of Love, she
accepted to be consumed by Love, if only God could have his way.
Her object was to please him, no to be a saint; it was not even
directly to give him to others, but only to please him. Her
offering was God-centered. Thérèse looked only at God and she
lived by this Love. She wanted to delight God, to give him joy, to
let him Love.
In the Gospels she also pondered the scene with the children. To
enter God's kingdom, one must be a child. True, one must also be a
saint. But who is greater? The smaller, because it is the weaker.
Not by reason of any merits, but because the child, in its
weakness and poverty, offers God the widest vessel, capable of
holding all. Here we have the essence of St. Thérèse of the Child
Jesus' mystical theology.
She also found in St. John of the Cross the most distant horizons
of Love, In the Living Flame and the Spiritual Canticle he
describes in a rich and comprehensive way the working of God's
Love in the soul. These descriptions correspond clearly to
God is Love, Goodness pouring itself out.
A new spirituality
The teaching of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus was based on this
central experience. The greatest grace of her life was her
understanding of Mercy. The theology she elaborated flowed from a
personal insight, something which came naturally to her. At times
she experienced suffering so intense that she said, "When I am in
heaven, if I have been mistaken about this, I will come and let
you know. But in the depths of her being she was certain. Her
entire teaching flowed from this light in the next talk I shall
try to enlarge on this, but now I should like to show how this
doctrine has changed our spirituality, so to say. She was not the
only one, there had been other messages of Love through the ages,
but I believe that Thérèse's is still the most important one from
a theological and spiritual point of view.
In the years following her death Pius X recommended frequent
Communion, which points us toward positive holiness. The holiness
and asceticism of the 19th century were negative: people sought
above all to purify themselves and make reparation to God. The
characteristic note of spirituality in our times is the positive
aspect of love which has become a part of our way of life. This is
why it succeeds. in each era we follow the grace and light God
gives us. Formerly the stress was more on sacrifice; today it is
on presence and contact. There was a grandeur about former times,
but people did not have the same understanding of Love and Mercy.
Their spirituality did not appeal to the majority, since few were
strong enough to live by it. Now, on the other hand, as the
concept of divine Mercy has been brought to the fore, it has been
a powerful influence in opening up the mystical life to the many.
Two periods can be distinguished here. I believe St. Thérèse of
the Child Jesus is the herald of the new one. She has exemplified
and modernized, in a certain sense, the spirituality of St. Paul,
who said, "Through the grace of God I am what I am, and the grace
he gave me has not been without result"
Thérèse's greatness lay in her discovery of Mercy. On one occasion
she said to her infirmarian, "You know well that you are taking
care of a little saint." They cut her finger nails. 'Keep them,'
she said, "some day someone will treasure them." She also
remarked: 'They say I have virtue but that isn't true; they are
mistaken. I do not have virtue. God gives me what I need at each
instant. I have only what I need for the present moment. These
paradoxes are extraordinary and disconcerting. There is a certain
quality of greatness in St. Thérèse. I assure you that I have
studied her in depth for forty years and her greatness has often
overwhelmed me. She has renewed our understanding of the gifts of
the Holy Spirit, as we see them operating in her contemplation. It
harmonizes with the teaching of St. Thomas. It is not a matter of
sentimentality or of novelties. It is a rediscovery, an
illustration of the traditional doctrine. I believe this is one of
the great graces granted to our times.
In her surroundings, Thérèse was unique. I have known Mother Agnes
since 1927. I loved and revered her deeply. She was a very holy
soul, and the same was true of Sister Genevieve. But St. Thérèse
of the Child Jesus was a giant in comparison and far surpassed
them. She is the only one, we could say, to have read and
perfectly understood St. John of the Cross. In spite of her
superior intelligence and spiritual knowledge, however, she showed
perfect submission - a sure proof that her understanding was
To be practical, we should exploit this theological knowledge of
God, of Mercy. St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus has left her mark on
our times. She has, so to say, popularized contemplation and
(c) 1997 Discalced Carmelite Friars/Oklahoma-USA