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Posts Tagged ‘St. Therese’

Alas, there was no winner for my first Giveaway Quiz. Maybe I’ll try this again sometime, but for all of you who are dying to know, here are the answers to last Friday’s quiz:

1. The drawing room in the post “the wounds give life” was the drawing room in the old TV version of “Dark Shadows” which ran from the late 60s to the early 70s. I always felt right at home there!

2. My banner photo shows Flirtation Point in Pine Orchard, Branford, Connecticut.

3. The town in the first photo in “no lasting city” is Greenfield, Massachusetts. That’s Main Street, and the current name of the business on the right is Baker Office Supply.

4. The artist of the sketch in “failure” is Vincent Van Gogh.

5. Besides the New Testament, St. Therese always carried a copy of the Imitation of Christ by St. Thomas a Kempis.

6. Three books Branfordgirl likes: see my sidebar for a selection of books I like which are available on Amazon (and Branfordgirl will earn a few pennies if you navigate there from this site and make a purchase). I also listed a number of books in my post “it’s all for you.”

7. What’s so special about Branford, Connecticut? Well, here’s my answer: it’s Branfordgirl’s hometown!

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This might sound spooky, but at times, I feel like a ghost haunting my own house. But that’s not as strange as it may seem. Let me try to explain.

I love funerals. I saw a movie once in which two Irish matrons in black mourning garb took the bus every day from one funeral to another. Whether  it was a spiritual work of mercy or whether they were just a bit nutty, I found their custom appealing. I feel a strange sense of peacefulness at funerals, almost a joy, because it’s a little glimpse beyond the veil, a step into another world from this present world in which I often feel out of place. It’s also a reminder that this life is fleeting, but eternity is forever.

My two sons are altar boys, so when they served at a funeral Mass today, although I did not know the deceased, I stayed.  Father talked about a comment one of the mourners had made about the deceased, a Polish lady named Mary. She had been infirm for awhile, and, the relative remarked, was finally reaching the end of her journey. Father took issue with that sentiment. He told us that Mary was actually just starting out, that one day we would marvel to see the things she is seeing now.

Back to me haunting my own house. For as long as I can remember, wherever I have lived,  I have experienced a strange phenomenon. Like something from the Twilight Zone, I can glance out my window and see the street, the homes,a passing car,  as they might have been 20, 40, 80 years ago. Suddenly there is silence, hardly a leaf rustles, and it is as if I were looking back in time. And yet, it could just as easily be the future. It could be any point in time; that is, there is a sense of timelessness, and I have an awareness that others have been here before me, others will come after me, and the veil between the worlds seems very thin. It is hard to describe.

I’m part Irish and there is a strong streak of Gaelic melancholy in me. It’s a kind of intangible homesickness, a restless longing. I’m a bit like the Little Prince who keeps wistfully thinking of his planet and his special rose. I love a plaintive song by the Irish band the Chieftains called “The May Morning Dew” of which the following are the last two stanzas:

I remember the old folk
All now dead and gone
And likewise my two brothers
Young Dennis and John
How we ran o’er the heather
The wild hare to pursue
And the proud deer we hunted
In the may morning dew

Of the house I was born in
There’s but a stone on the stone
And now all ’round the garden
Wild thistles have grown
And gone are the neighbors
That I once knew
No more will we wander
Through the may morning dew…

Because I am a bit odd, the references to death do not sadden me; they awaken in me a feeling of expansiveness, of timelessness. A sense that when something ends here, it begins in another place. Same with “Danny Boy:”

Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side
The summer’s gone, and all the flow’rs are dying
‘Tis you, ’tis you must go and I must bide.

But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow
Or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow
‘Tis I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow
Oh, Danny boy, oh, Danny boy, I love you so.

And if you come, and all the flowers are dying
If I am dead, as dead as well may be
I pray you’ll find the place where I am lying
And kneel and say an “Ave” there for me.

And I shall hear, though soft you tread above me
And all my grave will warm and sweeter be
And then you’ll kneel and whisper that you love me
And I shall sleep in peace until you come to me.

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I find these songs soothe my soul. Maybe it’s similar to the way scary fairy stories are calming to children; they put into words a nameless something that haunts them beyond their own powers of expression. And it’s because of what Father was saying at the funeral today: death is not an ending, it is the beginning. It is not a closed door but a doorway from one world into the next. I remember when my father died after an aortic aneurism, I felt closer to him than ever, because at last, we were not bound by the limits of time and space. He had entered the infinite, and there I would always find him. When I am feeling sad because of the finite limitations of this life– for example, how rarely I see my family whom I love, or old friends, or travel to cherished places from my past, or when I reflect on mistakes I’ve made or roads not taken– I console myself with this thought:

For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come. (Hebrews 13:14)

In one of my Bibles (see my post “My Bible Problem”) I wrote that everything we have ever lost will be waiting for us in heaven. This life is not the end, so nothing is ever truly lost, for every departed loved one, every broken dream, every cherished memory, all the people and things that seem lost forever will be restored to us in the Fatherland in ways we cannot even imagine.

I love that term, “the Fatherland.” I first started pondering it after I read The Story of a Soul by St. Therese. In one scene, someone came upon her in her cell while she was praying the Our Father, and with tears of deep emotion she said “It is so sweet to call the good God our Father!” Therese and her family spoke the language of heaven in their everyday discourse from her earliest childhood. In his last gesture to Therese in the parlor of the Lisieux Carmel, shortly before his death when he had lost the power of speech, Therese’s father pointed to heaven with a look of tearful longing. She understood him perfectly: Heaven is where we will meet again. We have here no lasting city.

And so, when I sometimes stand at my window lost in time, that’s okay. This is no lasting city, and I don’t really live here. I’m only visiting awhile before I go home to the Fatherland.

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You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. –Confessions of St. Augustine

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For a long time, although I believed that God loved me, I thought this love was more along the lines of “tolerating.” That is, I knew God loved everyone with an infinite love, but me He sort of included as an afterthought: noblesse oblige. I have a weekly holy hour at our local adoration chapel, and at times I’ve entered that room wondering if maybe Jesus wouldn’t rather someone else was there to keep Him company, someone better, someone holier, someone whose prayers were more worthy of being heard.

All that is changing. Don’t misunderstand me; before God I am a sinner, full of faults, and deeply in need of his mercy. And yet, the amazing thing is, I am learning that’s not what God is focusing on when He looks at me.

You’ve probably seen this Far Side cartoon by Gary Larson:
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The dog’s master is saying a mouthful, but the dog hears only “blah blah blah GINGER blah blah blah.”

What does this have to do with God, you ask? Well, at times I have thought: God is looking at me, He is listening to me, everything about me is revealed to Him completely, but all He notices are my sins, while everything else, any little trace of goodness, fades into the background leaving my faults standing out in stark relief. Have you ever feared that, no matter your virtues or efforts or acts of charity, God looks at you and the only thing that matters is “Blah blah blah IMPATIENT blah blah blah…” or “Blah blah blah SELFISH blah blah blah.” Maybe it’s “Blah blah blah ALCOHOLIC,” or “Blah blah blah DIVORCED” or “Blah blah blah HYPOCRITE.” Whatever it is, we somehow come to believe that all our little hidden acts of kindness, our sacrifices, our generosity, our moments of self-control or patiently bearing with suffering are all filtered out, and all God sees, all He hears, all He notices are our failures.

Where does this condemning voice come from? This voice that says “All you are is (insert negative adjective)”? Perhaps from childhood hurts and rejections when we were teased or labeled…. from broken hearts or failures in adulthood, when people who mattered to us found us wanting…from any time a voice that was not God’s made us believe that nothing about us counts but our sins, our faults, the times we blew it. Satan knows exactly where our wounded places are, and he makes it his business to try to keep those scars from healing. Worse yet, he wants to make us believe that those negative messages come from God. Yes, Satan wants us to turn away in shame from the very God who longs to console us, to embrace us, to tell us we are precious, beautiful, and chosen from all eternity. We were created by a God who knew exactly what we would be, and He wanted us. He who is all-knowing couldn’t imagine this world without us. You might say, He who is all-powerful has a weakness for us.

Should we fear that this discovery of God’s loving acceptance will lead us to be complacent about our sins? To rest on our laurels and stop trying? In her autobiography The Story of a Soul, St. Therese of Lisieux wrote something of the vast difference in the way her soul responded to a harsh view of God versus the God of love:

I’d never before heard it said that one’s faults did not distress God, and I was overwhelmed with joy at this assurance. It gave me patience to endure this life of exile. It was, too, the echo of my own inmost thoughts. For a long time I had realized that Our Lord was more tender than a mother– and how well I knew the depths of tenderness in more than one mother’s heart! …With my temperament, fear makes me shrink back, but love makes me come forward– or rather, I fly!

How much more would I, as a parent, prefer to feel that my children tried to please me out of love, rather than out of fear of punishment? Which motivation is healthier, more likely to be effective over the long haul? The image of a harsh and condemning God only discouraged Therese and did nothing to help her overcome her faults or advance spiritually. She responded only to love; it was love that enabled her heart to expand, love than enabled her to suffer peacefully, and ultimately, made her a saint. In fact, love became the leitmotif of her entire existence. She even wanted to become love itself; in attempting to define her vocation amid so many great desires, she concluded that in order to embrace them all, since the Church was a living body, she would be love in the heart of the Church. In the Jansenist spiritual climate of nineteenth-century France, when her fellow Carmelite sisters were offering themselves as sacrificial victims to God’s justice, Therese knew it was God’s love that wanted to pour itself out on mankind, and she composed her beautiful Act of Oblation to the Merciful Love of God which she carried close to her heart for the rest of her life. In her heart, God’s love found a refuge, one that would have been refused Him if she shrank away in fear of condemnation.

It’s not that we’re not sinners. It’s that God sees beyond that. He looks at you and at me and sees His Beloved. That’s why He made us. And even our lowliness only makes room in our soul for His merciful love to make its dwelling in us. Image

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I always have a series of books going at once and they usually fall within predictable categories: herbal medicine books, books I am reviewing for the Amazon Vine program, history books, classic novels, and spiritual reading. For some time, I have noticed that my spiritual reading leans more and more toward books in which I seek consolation for being a failure at all endeavors great and small, and especially, for just not being the woman, the person, I long to be, that I hoped I’d be, that I expected to be, that I ought to be, at this point in life. For continually being a spiritual beginner, falling every day from the first step on what St. Therese called “the rough stairway of perfection.”

The latest in this series is Descending Fire: The Journal of a Soul Aflame by Jean Petit, and on page 14 I was taken aback to read:

I am not successful in any undertaking; if I render a service, it is turned against me, and all effort ends clumsily in failure. Far from being discouraged by these things, I find my joy in them.If I were so unlucky as to succeed, I would have to ask whether God loved me less or whether He wished to punish me.

“All effort ends clumsily in failure.” How I resonate with those words! In my own life, whenever I seem to be achieving some success, circumstance calls the endeavor to a halt and pulls me to a lower place. Major efforts into which I pour time, money, and passion ultimately come to nothing. Even in small ways, I am always “off” somehow: I burn the pancakes. I see a woman in church who appears sad, I attempt to console her, and it turns out she is fine and I have caused offense by implying she looked upset. I read a book with my children in our home school, a book we all love and discuss together and look forward to each day for weeks, and when I pull it off the shelf a year later to revive the happy memory, they have forgotten it. I try to solve a problem for someone and am completely misunderstood. Major sacrifices are deemed to be nothing, useless, even selfish. Nothing on this list is intended as a criticism of others; on the contrary, they are confessions of my perennial inability to “get it right.”

But after the part about failure and clumsiness, what’s this about joy? Jean Petit answers:

This is because we cannot obtain the fullness of God without first recognizing our nothingness…For my part, I know that all fruit must fall heavily to the ground before reaching maturity. Nothing has succeeded for me in the past; nothing will succeed for me in the future. It will be an unhappy day for me when I feel satisfied by some result of success. …I must flow like water, vanish like the wind, melt like snow, be consumed like a candle, wither like a flower on the altar. It is my way; it is my path; it is my route. It is my whole past. It is my whole future.

“It is my route.” That is, annihilation is my private, chosen, royal road to God. To feel satisfied in some achievement would be to substitute that paltry success for the emptiness that leaves room for God in our soul. No wonder success (in a worldly or self-satisfied sense) would be experienced like a punishment, like a loss of God’s love! I feel an almost intoxicating feeling of freedom in those words. They call to mind other words by St. Therese:

If you are willing to bear with serenity the trial of being displeasing to yourself, then you will be for Jesus a pleasant place of shelter.

When all your plans come to nothing, when you don’t have “what it takes,” when you think you have something to offer and it is rejected, when you are not chosen, when any task you take up crumbles in your hands and even your prayers come out in awkward, fumbling words, be at peace, dear heart. When you are nothing but emptiness, then and only then you are for Jesus a pleasant place of shelter. Then, you will have everything.

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Many people own several Bibles.  Teachers, scholars, theologians, prayerful folk who want to compare translations and word meanings, commentaries and concordances, Greek and Latin, may own a few or even many different editions of the Bible for these or any number of perfectly legitimate reasons.

Then there’s me.  To be fair, each new Bible acquisition represents a renewed effort to grow closer to God, to comprehend His word, to understand his personal message to me in an ever deeper way. And yet, each new Bible also signals something of a spiritual identity crisis. Here are a few examples from the vault, and the phases they represent in my spiritual life:

The “Write down every word Scott Hahn says” phase:

(This was followed by an upgrade to “Write Down Every Word Scott Hahn Says in a Nicer Leather Bound Edition” phase).

The “Buy the New Jerusalem Bible because Mother Angelica uses it, and cover it with folksy needlepoint” phase:

The “Everyone says the Douay-Rheims is the only Bible to read, Made Easy with Handy Tab Indexing” phase:

The “I’m going to carry Around the New Testament just like St. Therese (but can’t decide which edition to use so I’ll get two) Phase:

The “color code every blessed word” (with big margins for all my deep insights) Phase:

The “my Bible is a portable shrine” Phase (including pasted-in flowers, holy cards, poems, and St. John of the Cross’ diagram of the Ascent to Mt. Carmel):

The “this time I’m really not going to write in my Bible” phase (includes Meditative Icons so God can speak to me wordlessly and directly):

I know, I know, it’s all a bit much.  But I like to think of all my jottings and decorations as my way of writing back to God after I read his love letters to me. Maybe I buy too many Bibles. Or maybe I’m just a crazy girl in love, searching for her Beloved wherever she might find him.

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The longer I am alive, the more I come to realize that the whole purpose of growing up is to get back to who you were when you were a child.  The whole path to peace of heart is realizing that we aren’t spiritual grownups but God’s beloved children whom he carries in his tender arms. I think of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, whose  final words tell us something about what it must be like to arrive in heaven and meet Jesus, Mary, the saints and angels, and everyone we ever loved:

“Well, I… I think that it… that it wasn’t enough to just want to see Uncle Henry and Auntie Em… and it’s that if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard; because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with…Oh, but anyway, Toto, we’re home – home! And this is my room – and you’re all here – and I’m not going to leave here ever, ever again, because I love you all! And… oh, Auntie Em, there’s no place like home!”

My favorite book of late is Interior Freedom by Fr. Jacques Philippe. He tells of the time the brothers of his religious community, the Community of the Beatitudes, were asked to help transport the relics of St. Therese of the Child Jesus, the French Carmelite saint, to one of the cities where they were to be displayed and venerated:

   “I volunteered for this delightful job, and it gave me the unexpected chance of going into the enclosure of the Lisieux Carmel and discovering, with joy and emotion, the actual places where Therese lived: the infirmary, the cloister, the laundry, the garden, and the chestnut-tree avenue–all places that I knew from the saint’s description of them in her writings. One thing struck me: these places were much smaller than I could have imagined. For example, at the end of her life Therese gives a good-humored account of the sisters dropping by to have a little chat with her on their way to make hay; but the great hayfield I had pictured to myself is in reality a mere pocket-handkerchief!

…I realized what a tiny world, in human terms, she inhabited: a little provincial Carmelite convent, not outstanding for its architecture; a miniscule garden; a small community of religious sisters whose upbringing, education, and manners often left much to be desired; a climate where the sun shines very little….However, and this is the paradox that struck me, when you read Therese’s writings you never get the impression of a life spent in a restricted world, but just the opposite…Therese lives in very wide horizons, which are those of God’s infinite mercy and her unlimited desire to love him. She feels like a queen with the whole world at her feet, because she can obtain everything from God, and, through love, she can travel to every point in the globe where a missionary needs her prayers and sacrifices!”

   These are the themes that keep coming back to me in my spiritual life: allowing myself to be a spiritual child and discovering a hidden secret:  the amazing freedom that comes from abandonment to God. As Jesus tells us in Matthew 16:25:

“For he that will save his life, shall lose it: and he that shall lose his life for my sake, shall find it.”

Sometimes I forget the spot where I buried this treasure and I have to go digging for it again before I regain a sense of peace. But every time I discover it, every time I lose myself in God, I find that I seem to recover a little bit more of who I really am. And my life has no limits at all.

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