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                       Merciful Love by St Therese of Lisieux

 

All the passages below are taken from the book by Patrick Ahern, “Maurice & Therese---The story of a Love,” first published in 1998.

 

By this point in her life, Therese had come to her own deep conviction that "God is nothing but Mercy and Love," and it became the foundation of her Little Way, her definition of God. In the Old Testament He is YAHWEH, which means "I am who I am." In the New Testament John the Evangelist makes the bold statement "God is Love." Therese placed a nuance on his statement by saying He is Merciful Love. It was her most profound intuition: that the very nature of God's Love is to be merciful. The furthest thing from Him is the desire to punish anyone, to cause suffering. Therese once said that when we suffer He shields His eyes so as not to look. He is all tenderness and compassion.

Furthermore, for Therese, it was the nature of God's Love that His Mercy cannot be purchased. He must give it freely. All love is in fact freely given if it is truly love. God loves us with a sovereign freedom, out of sheer benevolence. He loves us for our sake, and He wants us to love Him for His sake, in a relationship that is pure and devoid of calculation. Therese explored this truth to extraordinary depths. She knew for certain that no amount of good works, no matter how heroic, could ever purchase God's love, because He wants to and must give it freely. She even said that our good works are all blemished and make us displeasing to Him if we rely on them. He does not love us because we deserve to be loved but because we need to be loved. The closest comparison in human terms is the love of mother and father for their newborn child. The baby has done nothing to deserve their love. His needs are all he has to give them. He caused his mother pain in being born, he cries in the middle of the night and gives his parents no end of work and inconvenience, robbing them of their independence and turning them into slaves. But they are willing slaves, glad to be at his beck and call. A good father or mother will say of the child in the cradle: "He just pulls the love right out of my heart!"

Therese understood that this is the way God loves us. We pull the love right out of His Heart. He bends low over our weakness with a love that is full of tenderness, as parents bend over their child in the cradle. He does not hate us for our sins. It is the sins He hates for the harm they do to us and to others. They deface the beauty in us, and He longs to destroy them in the fire of mercy that burns in His Heart. Therese was sure of this. She knew it by an intuition which left no room for doubt. With a single blow she broke the chains of Jansenism. Hers was the love that casts out fear. "How can I fear a God," she kept asking, "Who is nothing but Mercy and Love?" The only "payment" God asks from us is that we seek His merciful love with confidence. "Confiance, rien que la confiance" was her battle cry---confidence, nothing but confidence, leading us to love.

In taking the stress off good works and moving it to confidence in God's love, Therese did not deny the necessity of our good works. They remain absolutely necessary, but not as bargaining chips to buy salvation. They are necessary because they are an expression of our love for God and inevitably flow from it. They make us beautiful in the eyes of God. When we fail to perform them, however---and there will often be failure, for we are weak and our nature is skewed---our reaction should not be a craven fear of God's punishment but a confidence which leads us to depend on His mercy and starts us off again in the good life we desire.

This is Therese's "theology," which she was at pains for Maurice to learn. The foundation on which the Little Way is built is the merciful love of God. Only when she was convinced of His limitless mercy could she walk on this joyful "Way of Confidence and Love." This is what would free Maurice from the guilt which plagued him and it would make him the missionary he must become, a preacher of the Good News of God's love to those who have never heard of it.

In this letter, Therese was concerned to bolster Maurice's morale, pointing to all the good that was in him. Had he not, she asked, forsaken everything to follow Jesus, and at the age of eighteen when life beckoned with so much promise? She was remembering her own seventeenth and eighteenth years, when with wide-eyed wonder she read the mystical works of St. John of the Cross and found in them the confirmation of her own insights. They were years of prodigious growth for her. Now Maurice must grow.

She agreed with his director that God was calling him to be a saint and that he could not be one by halves. From the beginning, she said, `I felt that you must have a soul full of energy, and this was the reason I was happy to become your sister." The words must have made him glow with pride. She applauded his hope for martyrdom, never doubting its sincerity. She contrasted him with the young man in the Gospel who, unlike Maurice, counted the cost of discipleship. He would not count the cost. Yet in all her letters to him she never placed burdens on his shoulders which he might not be able to bear. If her expectations were high, they were no higher than his own. All she really demanded was that he grow in his confidence in God.

As for his sins, they were to be forgotten, save for the humility they could teach him. She spoke of her own sins. "The memory of my faults humiliates me and prompts me never to rely on my own strength, which is nothing but weakness, but this memory speaks to me even more of mercy and love. . . . My brother, you can sing as I do of the mercies of the Lord." As I do. She never stood over him, never lectured him. It is characteristic of Therese that she counted herself a sinner, not from false humility but simply because she recognized the fact that she was one. If her sins were not serious, she understood that this was due to God's mercy, not to her own virtue. It was His mercy that spared her from committing grave sins. For Therese, sins forgiven and sins avoided seemed virtually the same. "There but for the grace of God go I," people often say. Therese meant it.

As she came to the end of her letter, she had second thoughts about its clarity: "I have just reread this brief word that I've written you and I wonder if you're going to understand me, because I've explained myself very poorly. ... Forgive me, dear little brother, I don't know what's the matter with me today, for I am not saying what I would really like to say." She was within three months of dying and growing weaker by the day. It was during this month that she had also been writing Manuscript C at the direction of Mother Gonzague, the final section of her autobiography. It is a vitally important work in which she recorded the experience of her trial of faith. Therese can be excused if she did not have her thoughts in order as well as she might like. But reading her letter all these years later, we may rightly feel they were in better order than she thought.

She closed with the assurance of prayers for Maurice's parents-still unaware that his father was alive in Paris. [138-141]

 

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The paragraph (below) is vintage Therese. It goes to the heart of her understanding of God and is to be ranked as one of her finest declarations. She fiercely believed every word she said in this passage, about God and about sins committed through human frailty. Her words place the Church's teaching on the Communion of Saints in a clear and realistic light.

"I have to tell you, little brother, that we don't understand Heaven in the same way. You think that, once I share in the justice and holiness of God, I won't be able to excuse your faults as I did when I was on earth. Are you then forgetting that I shall also share in the infinite mercy of the Lord? I believe that the Blessed in Heaven have great compassion for our miseries. They remember that when they were weak and mortal like us, they committed the same faults themselves and went through the same struggles, and their fraternal tenderness becomes still greater than it ever was on earth. It's on account of this that they never stop watching over us and praying for us."

Maurice must never again worry about the sins which darkened his past, nor about the faults into which he would fall in the future through weakness. What a strange idea he must have of heaven, she wrote, if he felt that those who are there do not look with pity on the failed humanity of those coming after them. Did they not themselves commit the same sins during their lifetime? And what a twisted idea of God, to imagine that He who is Merciful Love could ever turn away from us because of our weakness and failures. It is impossible for God to hate anyone because God is Love, and the Love that is His very Being is exactly the same as His mercy. For Therese there is an equal sign between love and mercy in God. He turns away from sin but never from sinners. Sin grieves God, preventing His love from finding its way into the hearts of sinners. It was crystal clear to Therese that God not only wants our love but needs it. The reason He created us was that we should love Him. We are the only ones in the universe who can love Him, because we are the only ones who are free. Love can in no way be forced out of us because if it could be, it would not be love. The hallmark of all love is that it is free, given willingly, gladly, joyously, and as joyously received.

Her will and testament to Maurice was the simple and sublime truth that God is nothing but mercy and love, and with her last breath she would convince him that it was the one thing he needed to know. Therese knew that once she reached heaven she would be able to excuse his faults even more readily than she could as she was writing this letter, because she would share in the infinite mercy of the Lord---she underlined the words to take away any doubt he might have.

This last of her letters was an expression of the kindness that filled her heart for someone she loved as a brother. But in addition to her love for Maurice, it reflected her worldview. Therese illuminated the world beyond the grave, enabling us to envision it in a new way, as the eyes of her faith saw it. Heaven, she knew, is filled with joy and compassion and bustles with activity on behalf of those left behind to walk the hard road of their earthly life. Those in heaven have been purged of all selfishness, and their love has become the love of God Himself. They watch over us with eager care and pray that we shall come to a good end. In the long view of Christian faith, the other world is more real than this one, for it never passes away.

The darkness through which she was passing was torture, but it never obscured her nocturnal vision of the glory of God's love. She could feel nothing, no consolation at all from her faith. Her trust in God was blind. But it grew stronger as her trial of faith went on. “Ah, how good it is to let yourself go in His arms, with neither fears nor desires!" Therese could get along without religious comfort. She could not do without religious faith. [214-217]

 

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