Sunday March 12, 2017
4:00 pm - Saint Thomas Church
Preacher: Fr Turner
"To be nothing else than love, deep down in the heart of Mother Church."
Lenten series on Praying with Holy Men and Holy Women.
Saint Thérèse of Lisieux was born Marie Françoise-Thérèse Martin on 2 January 1873 in Alençon, in the North of France. Her mother was a lace-maker and her father a jeweler and watchmaker. One of five sisters, four of the girls entered the religious life. In Thérèse’s case she was only 15 years old but her sense of vocation was strong and powerful. One of her sisters asked Thérèse about being a nun and what she might expect and, without hesitation, she answered:
· Love in action.
In her short life (she died of Tuberculosis at the age of 24) she touched many people and has left a lasting legacy of encouragement in the spiritual life. She was prolific in correspondence, she wrote numerous plays and, most importantly, she wrote an autobiography ‘The Story of a Soul’ that continues to inspire people in their journeys of faith and across many church traditions. Because of that, she has been described as one of the most popular saints of the 20th century and in 1997, Pope John Paul II said she would be known as one of the Doctors of the Church – the youngest ever to be named thus and only the third woman to be given that title in the Roman Catholic Church – a title she shares with St Teresa of Avila, who reformed, renewed and re-invigorated the Carmelite order that she joined.
The Carmelite order is a contemplative religious community dedicated to constant prayer and intercession. There are Anglican sisters who follow this tradition and, in particular, the Community of the Sisters of the Love of God at Fairacres in Oxford who have long worn the traditional Carmelite habit. Like most religious orders in the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican traditions, religious men and women often take a name in religion, but one of the distinctive aspects of profession in the Carmelite order is the taking of a dedication added to that name or the Christian name. As a seminarian in Oxford I knew Sr Mary Magdalen of the Resurrection and Sr Elfreda of the Cross. They told me that it is generally felt that sisters will live out their dedications during their lives. In Thérèse’s case, she took as her dedication Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face. The convent in Lisieux had a shrine to the holy Face in the garden and Thérèse loved the garden, its flowers and this shrine. The holy face, of course, refers to the legend of Veronica who wipes the face of Jesus as he walks the road to Calvary, leaving the imprint of his face on the cloth. This linking of the Child Jesus with the holy face brings together a desire to love the child within and to seek for the face of that child in all people. This is no psycho-babble! Loving the child within demands an understanding of the difference that the incarnation has made to the world and to our salvation. Thérèse is also known as ‘the little flower,’ not only because she loved the garden but because she had a dream that if she were in heaven she would shower the earth with beautiful roses.
Thérèse only spent nine years in the convent but her child-like simple way of faith and prayer began to inspire many. She was devoted to praying for missions and priests in particular. Perhaps more important is that her ‘little way’, her childlike trust in God, and her ability to see the importance of the transforming love of Jesus at the center of the church, is what can help so many of us today. Thérèse searched for the holy face of Jesus in the people she met; she yearned to make a difference; in her autobiography she expresses a desire to be a priest, to be a martyr, to be a teacher; she expresses her frustration; she wanted to make a real difference and encourage people in their faith. Instead, the convent asked her to look after the sacristy and help the novices.
Her greatest revelation was that love was the key to everything. We live in an age where words and actions are often stripped of their power. The word love is so overused and so inappropriately attached to every aspect of human life and commerce that it can seem shallow when spoken in the pulpit. Thérèse knew that the love of Jesus could transform the world because it was molded through sacrifice – his sacrifice on the cross. She was dedicated to the child Jesus but the holy face bore the scars of the crown of thorns. In Story of a soul she writes:
“Love is nourished only by sacrifices.... To love is to offer oneself to suffering, because love lives only on sacrifice; so, if one is completely dedicated to loving, one must expect to be sacrificed unreservedly.”
In her own life she suffered. Wrongly diagnosed, and with antibiotics not yet invented, she suffered with tuberculosis and her death was not easy. But even her dying was an opportunity to love, for she united her suffering with the love flowing from the heart of Jesus on the cross.
It is significant that Jesus sometimes used children to make an important point. When the disciples argued over who was the greatest, he placed a child in their midst and told them to model themselves on such. When the disciples were deciding who should come to Jesus, he rebuked them for keeping the children away. Thérèse’s child-like faith is, in actual fact, deep and mature; she is a doctor of the church not because she was a scholar – she is a doctor of the church because her ‘little way’ allows people to become more like Jesus who will change their lives and help them change the world.
To end, let me read to you my favorite part of her autobiography; it continues to inspire me; perhaps it may inspire you to find out more about her ‘little way’ – perhaps it might encourage us to be a center of love here in midtown Manhattan:
“I was still being tormented by this question of unfulfilled longings for martyrdom and it was a distraction in my prayer, when I decided to consult Saint Paul’s epistles in the hope of getting an answer. It was the twelfth and thirteenth chapters of First Corinthians that claimed my attention. The first of these told me that we can’t all of us be apostles, all of us be prophets, all of us doctors, and so on; the Church is composed of members which differ in their use; the eye is one thing and the hand is another. It was a clear enough answer, but it didn’t satisfy my aspirations, didn’t set my heart at rest. Reading on to the end of the chapter, I met this comforting phrase: ‘Prize the best gifts of heaven. Meanwhile, I can show you a way which is better than any other.’
What was it? The apostle goes on to explain that all the gifts of heaven, even the most perfect of them, without love, are absolutely nothing; charity is the best way of all, because it leads straight to God. Now I was at peace; when Saint Paul was talking about the different members of the mystical body I couldn’t recognize myself in any of them; or rather I could recognize myself in all of them. But charity—that was the key to my vocation. If the Church was a body composed of different members, it couldn’t lack the noblest of all; it must have a heart, and a heart burning with love. And I realized that this love was the true motive force which enabled the other members of the Church to act; if it ceased to function the apostles would forget to preach the gospel, the martyrs would refuse to shed their blood. Love, in fact, is the vocation, which includes all others; it’s a universe of its own, comprising all time and space—it’s eternal. Beside myself with joy, I cried out: ‘Jesus, my love! I’ve found my vocation, and my vocation is love.’ I had discovered where it is that I belong in the Church, the niche God has appointed for me. To be nothing else than love, deep down in the heart of Mother Church; that’s to be everything at once—my dream wasn’t a dream after all.”
Two Prayers of St Thérèse:
In the evening of this life, I shall appear before you with empty hands, for I do not ask you, Lord, to count my works. All our goodness is stained and imperfect in your eyes. I wish, then, to be clothed with your own goodness, and to receive from your love the eternal possession of yourself. I want no other throne, no other crown but you, my beloved!
Lord, even if my conscience were burdened with every sin it possible to commit, I would throw myself into your arms, my heart broken with contrition. And, I know how tenderly you welcome any prodigal child of yours who comes back to you.
I want O my Beloved, at each beat of my heart to renew this offering to you an infinite number of times, until the shadows having disappeared I may be able to tell you of my love face to face in eternity.