“Oh! how I wish I could make you realize what I mean!
…It is trust, and nothing but trust, that must bring us to Love.”
∼ St. Therese of Lisieux
In that wonderful Pre-Raphaelite painting by Holman Hunt, called “Light of the World,” in which Jesus is shown gently knocking on a door so that he might rouse the sleeping soul from within, the handle on the outside is missing. Why is that? Because, if the door is to be opened at all, it will depend on the disposition of the one for whom Christ has come knocking. Our willingness to receive is really the decisive datum. The painting is an allegorical depiction of the famous passage from Revelations 3:20:
Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.
The image became so popular, so far-reaching, that copies began to appear almost everywhere, including an obscure Carmelite Monastery in Lisieux, where a young girl by the name of Therese Martin spent the last nine years of her life, before dying of consumption in 1897. Somehow she had gotten hold of an 8” x 5” charcoal reproduction that adorned the wall of her cell, where every day she would speak confidingly to Jesus, sharing the secrets of her heart. Secrets that, in due course, would extend far beyond the limits of Lisieux, the fixations of her heart having in the meantime captured much of the outside world. (Only an accountant could keep track of the number of copies her Story of a Soul have sold since 1898, when a first printing appeared, two short years after her death.)
Visiting Lisieux with my wife and our youngest daughter recently, I saw that charcoal reprint, along with other memorabilia celebrating her life, and was much moved by it. And not merely because it reminded me of the ease and depth of her relationship with Christ, of which there is already an avalanche of evidence taken from her life and writings. But because here was the thing itself, the very medium through which she actually spoke to Jesus every single day of her life. It served as a sort of sacramental for her, so that anyone seeing it today, set down amid the larger mysteries of her life in Carmel, would feel as if he were eavesdropping on a conversation between two very old and dear friends. It certainly gave me the most vivid and tactile sense of her presence. And, then, close by the picture, I could see the breviary she used alongside the holy card given to her by her sister Genevieve, showing Jesus serenely asleep on the boat in the midst of the storm that left his disciples prostrate with fear.
These two images have been jostling about in my mind ever since. How well they telescope the great theme of her life, which was trust. “I will teach you,” she wrote in a letter to Celine, her sister, “how to sail the world’s tempestuous sea with the self-abandonment and love of a child who is aware his father cherishes him.”
You see, for St. Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, the great sea of hope on which she first set sail as a young girl, was always at high tide. Those waters would never recede. Not even in the last crucifying weeks of her life when, wracked by pain, the awful struggle to breathe amidst the collapse and disintegration of her body, she felt herself shorn of every possible consolation, her soul left to hang seemingly suspended above a blind and bottomless abyss. Where only the night of nothingness seemed real. (“Everything has disappeared,” she cried out. “I can’t take anymore!… I can’t take anymore!… I am reduced.”) Still she clung to holy desire, untethered by any possible sense of limit. It was then that sheer naked trust bore the signature of her sanctity. Trust in the unending mercy of divine love. “They are waiting to see,” she said, meaning God and all his angels and saints, “how far I will go in my trust. But not in vain was my heart pierced by that saying of Job’s, that ‘even if God were to slay me,’ I would still have hope in him. We can never have too much trust in our dear Lord.”
And, as she well knew, the reach of one’s hope, the holiness of one’s desire, will exactly determine how much is given. God, who is the source of all the good that we desire, does not intend that any of it remain unfulfilled. Why would he bother to give what he does not wish us to get? It was this teaching that she imparted to others, her novices in particular, to whom she would often recall that saying from St. John of the Cross, the great master of the spiritual life: “The soul obtains from God all that it hopes to receive from him.”
Are we not, after all, made in God’s own image, lacking only the perfect likeness to the Son? Why else would we pine for that which we do not yet possess, unless we were to feel some hidden, yet profound kinship for it? Chosen from all eternity to commune with God himself, we remain homesick for heaven. Which is why Therese, in describing herself as a tiny bird, a mere fledgling whose feathers have scarcely begun to form—yet filled with longings of flight far, far beyond the stars—was entirely confident that God would certainly enable her to do so. How so? By giving her his own wings, which are those of an eagle.
Indeed, so confident was she of God’s answering response (this helpless little bird without wings, filled with the most childlike expectancy that he would swoop right down and gather her up), that she disdained to wear the veil Moses himself put on to hide his face before God. There was no longer any need for it, she insisted, now that God had fully shown himself to us in the face of Jesus. And while even the angels cover themselves before the face of God, she would not do so. “If I go among the Seraphim, I shall not do as they do! All of them cover themselves with their wings before God; I will be very careful not to cover myself with my wings.”
What Therese represents in the Christian life—indeed, it is the quality of her soul that so impressed itself upon the Catholic world that in 1997 she was declared a Doctor of the Church—is the always more aspect of divine love and mercy, whose application, especially in the case of the hardened sinner, appears even to overmaster the demands of divine and unalterable justice.
This was given stunning confirmation very early on in her life when, to everyone’s surprise, she stormed heaven on behalf of the depraved killer Pranzini, whom she would not suffer to perish until he’d shown repentance for his sins. Which, in point of fact, he does at the very last moment before the blade falls, laying hold of the crucifix to evince a final sorrow before the world.
She is in excellent company for believing such things, by the way. No less an authority than the Common Doctor himself, Saint Thomas Aquinas, tells us that it is more fitting for God to forgive than to condemn, since mercy belongs to him by dint of his very being, whereas the exercise of justice is but a function of the world’s sin. There is no proportionality between the two. Which is why the sin of despair is far deadlier than that of presumption. Because to presume on God’s mercy is at least a more natural thing to do than to go to hell convinced that one’s condition is so hopeless that not even God himself can save me now. The cataracts of divine compassion, if we but permit God to unleash them, are ready to sweep away every possible consideration of justice.
So avid was Therese for God, so ardent her desire for the company of Jesus, that when asked in the last days of her life what she could possibly be saying to him, she answered very simply, “I say nothing to him, I love him.” And that even amid the awful torments she was made to endure right to the end, there was but this single note of triumphant hope which she played over and over again: “I am not sorry for delivering myself up to Love.”