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My Vocation Is Love Saint Thérèse’s Way to Total Trust Jean Lafrance

BOOKS & MEDIA Boston


Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Lafrance, Jean.   [Ma vocation c’est l’amour. English]   My vocation is love : St. Thérèse’s way to total trust / Jean Lafrance ; translated by Anne Marie Brennan. -- English worldwide edition.    pages cm   Translated from French. Includes bibliographical references. ISBN-13: 978-0-8198-4901-4 ISBN-10: 0-8198-4901-4   1. Thérèse, de Lisieux, Saint, 1873-1897. I. Title.    BX4700.T5L2213 2012    282.092--dc23    [B] 2011046821 The Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Cover design by Rosana Usselmann Cover photo: © Office Central de Lisieux Cover illustration: istockphoto.com, © PixalEmbargo Translated by Anne Marie Brennan, OCD All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. “P” and PAULINE are registered trademarks of the Daughters of Saint Paul. Originally published in French as Ma vocation c’est l’amour by Médiaspaul, 8 rue Madame, 75006 Paris, France. English Copyright © Jean Lafrance, Editions Mediaspaul, QC, Canada English Worldwide Edition by Pauline Books and Media, Boston, MA, U.S.A. Published by Pauline Books & Media, 50 Saint Pauls Avenue, Boston, MA 021303491 Printed in the U.S.A. www.pauline.org Pauline Books & Media is the publishing house of the Daughters of Saint Paul, an international congregation of women religious serving the Church with the communications media. 123456789

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Contents Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 Abbreviations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13

Part I

“I Will Sing the Mercies of the Lord” Chapter 1

“Show Us the Face of Your Mercy”. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17 Chapter 2

Thérèse Discovers Mercy. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 27 Chapter 3

Thérèse Discovers Her Own Nothingness. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 41 Chapter 4

The Act of Offering to Merciful Love. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 55 Chapter 5

“Confidence and Nothing But Confidence” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 71


Part II

“Now Abandonment Alone Guides Me” Chapter 6

Thérèse Discovers the Road of Abandonment . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 89 Chapter 7

The Movement of Abandonment. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 99 Chapter 8

“What a Great Power Is Prayer!”. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 109 Chapter 9

The Prayer of Abandonment. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 119 Chapter 10

Thérèse Discovers a New Way. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 131 Chapter 11

The Temptation Against Hope and Abandonment . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 145 Chapter 12

At the Foot of the Stairs. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 155 Chapter 13

“To Please God” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 165 Conclusion

“My Vocation Is Love” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 177


Notes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 185 Bibliography. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 193 For Further Reading . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 195


Introduction “To me, he has given his infinite mercy”

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f Jesus Christ rose from the dead and is alive, he must be living somewhere, and we must be able to find his address so that we can meet and make contact with him. If there is no place to contact him, then affirming Jesus’s resurrection can remain on the level of mere discussion. Of course, there are special places where we can meet Jesus—I’m thinking in particular of the Eucharist and the Gospel. But I wonder if I would immediately give these two addresses to someone who expresses the desire to “see” Jesus. Reading the Gospel may not be the first way to find him, but it is by no means the last! I believe that if Jesus is living today he can be met in those men and women we call the saints, persons who can say with Saint Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). So the first step to “seeing” Jesus is to meet the saints and observe how they live. After that we should read the Gospel to understand what makes that person tick, what makes him or her a saint, that is, one in whom the risen Christ is living. If Thérèse of Lisieux were still alive, I would advise all who wish to meet such a saint to go and visit her now and then. Her 1


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life is not that far removed from our own time. In fact, Céline, one of her sisters, died in 1959. But unless you’re very attentive, you can pass by a saint without realizing it. This is what happened with Thérèse. Most of the nuns who lived with her didn’t suspect that they were living with a saint, perhaps the greatest saint of modern times. One of them even wondered what good could be written about her after her death.We don’t have to wait for saints to be canonized before meeting them. There is a crowd of anonymous and “non-commissioned” saints who are living out in the world as well as in convents, but they are so well hidden that God alone knows their beauty. Yet I can assure you that if the Holy Spirit is living in you, he will give you “the eye” to see and meet them.You will have no trouble tracking them down, for they resemble Jesus Christ, and like him they are gentle and humble. Now, if you’re looking for a specific and easy-to-find saint’s address, I recommend that of Thérèse of the Child Jesus. Call her, pray to her, ask her for a grace, or tell her that you would like to meet her. It doesn’t matter how you approach her—the important thing is simply to get in touch with her. As a priest, I can attest that you will never pray to her in vain. You’ll very quickly feel her presence, especially if your prayer is humble, confident, and persevering.

Her presence and her mission You will probably not see her physically, as did some soldiers at the front, but I can guarantee that those who begin to discover Thérèse’s presence in their lives and in their hearts will


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be drawn to love her, pray to her, and sense her spiritual nearness. She had only one great desire, to see Jesus living in her, and that very desire intensifies love. I say this not only because of the experience of those who pray to her, but also because of the conviction Thérèse herself had before she died. She was convinced that “her premature death would not mark the beginning of an early retirement.” 1 She knew that she would come back to earth because she was not dying, but entering into life. Thérèse wrote to Father Roulland, a missionary in China, “If I am going to heaven soon, I will ask Jesus’s permission to visit you in Su-Tchuen, and we will continue our apostolate together.” 2 And on February 24, 1897, she wrote to Abbé Bellière, her other spiritual brother: I do not know the future. However, if Jesus grants my presentiments, I promise that I will still be your little sister in heaven. Our union, far from being broken, will become deeper. Then there will be no more enclosure, no more grilles, and my soul will be able to fly with you to the distant missions.3

Furthermore, she was very keenly aware of her posthumous mission; not only was she certain that she would come back to earth, but she felt that she would spend her heaven making Love loved. During the night of July 16–17, 1897, at two o’clock in the morning, after another hemorrhage, she said: I feel that I am about to enter into my rest. . . . But I also feel that my mission is going to begin, my mission to make God loved as I love him, to give my little way to souls. If God grants my desires, my heaven will be spent on earth, until the


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end of time. Yes, I want to spend my heaven doing good on earth. This is not impossible, since from the very heart of the beatific vision, the Angels watch over us.4

She went even further in her presentiment of her mission, since she was also convinced that she would answer those who would pray to her by allowing them to experience the power of her intercession with the Father. Some time before she died, a life of Saint Aloysius Gonzaga had been read in the refectory of the Carmel. It told how he had cured a dying priest by strewing a shower of roses on his bed. Coming out of the refectory, Thérèse had leaned on a piece of furniture and said to Sr. Marie of the Sacred Heart, “And I too, after my death, will let fall a shower of roses.” 5 Such a statement, some might say, borders on the absurd, or could be taken as a sign of delirium.This was not the case with Thérèse, who had her feet firmly planted on the ground. She knew that God is all-powerful and that nothing is impossible for him. Besides, having refused him nothing on earth,Thérèse was sure that God would refuse her nothing in heaven. This is why everyone would love her. On September 14, 1897, after she had unpetalled some roses over her crucifix, she noticed that a few petals had fallen from her bed onto the infirmary floor. Thérèse directed very seriously, “Gather up these petals carefully, my little sisters; they will help you perform favors later. Don’t lose any of them.” 6

“To make you loved” (Act of Offering) So what, exactly, is this mission of Thérèse? I will reply with the very words of her Act of Offering: “O my God! Blessed


Introduction

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Trinity, I desire to love you and to make you loved” 7 As we have said, she herself described that mission: To make God loved. If you are not afraid of paraphrasing Saint Augustine: “I loved Love before loving what it was,” 8 you could say that Thérèse’s passionate desire had been “to make Love loved.” She tells us that on June 9, 1895, “I was given the grace to understand more than ever before how much Jesus wants to be loved.”9 Thérèse believed in love and surrendered herself to it with absolute confidence. But it was not just a question of any love. She said: To me he has given his infinite mercy, and in its light I contemplate and adore the other divine perfections. .  .  . Then everything seems to me resplendent with love. Even Justice (and perhaps this even more than all the others) seems to me clothed in love.10

For Thérèse, love is above all mercy—that is, the foolish love of the Father, who looks for his prodigal child because it is wounded, sick, and even sinful. Usually when we speak about love, we think immediately of our efforts to love. “If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,” said Saint Paul, who hastens to add, “but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor 13:3). We therefore must have, receive, and welcome love, and not only give it. Thérèse understood perfectly that “love does not mean our love for God,” for as Saint John says, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us” (1 Jn 4:10). When it comes to explaining the love of the Trinity and the Incarnation of the Word, this is surely the most important line in the New Testament. If this is not too trite, Father Molinié


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says, “Love consists in the fact that we do not love.” As long as we haven’t grasped this by experiencing our own incapacity to love, as long as we aren’t at home with this truth, charity won’t be able to find a home in our hearts or flow freely within us. First of all, we have to accept the fact that we do not love, that we are incapable of breaking the circle that closes us in on ourselves. We must be absolutely convinced of this; otherwise, charity will remain for us just a good desire, a sterile seed incapable of producing genuine fruit. Fortunately, there is a sequence to Saint John’s words: “He loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 Jn 4:10). In order to be consoled by the second part of the sentence, we have to have interiorized the first. But to take the first to heart, we need to have been helped by the second! We then begin “to love God and our neighbor with a love which is an infinitely poor, wavering, and insufficient response to the infinite Love surrounding our hearts of stone.” 11 This was Thérèse’s secret in her discovery of merciful Love. We still stand in awe of the summit of love that she attained, but we can scarcely fathom the depths of nothingness into which she descended in order to be raised to such heights. She lived out what Saint John of the Cross says, “I went down so low, so low . . . so that I could be lifted up so high, so high.” 12 In her letter to her godmother, Sr. Marie of the Sacred Heart, Thérèse describes clearly this exercise which consists in a rebound from the depths of her own nothingness to the heights of merciful Love: My dearest Godmother . . . if all weak and imperfect souls felt what the smallest of souls feels—that is, the soul of your little


Introduction

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Thérèse—no one would despair of reaching the summit of the mountain of Love, since Jesus does not ask for great deeds, but only abandonment and gratitude.13

Some days we will be tempted to say, “If I had just a fraction of Thérèse’s willpower, I could achieve the same acts of love!” And Thérèse would answer us as she did her sisters who admired her heroic patience during her last illness, “Oh, it’s not that!” Thérèse knew only too well that she was as weak as we are, and as poor as were her sisters. But she possessed a strength that didn’t come from herself and that was the very power of the resurrection—the power of merciful Love—that is poured into our hearts by the Spirit of Jesus. She could have said with Saint Michael Garicoïts, who was reproached for falling into ecstasy, “How could I do otherwise?”

“A giant’s course” Thérèse understood in a wonderful way that God can only apply the remedy of love to those who realize they are sick. Because she had plumbed the depths of her own powerlessness, she was able to receive the Savior’s healing.Those who wish to love without knowing the humiliation of being poor and in need of love will be bitterly deceived. They are under an illusion. Although they think that they are performing deeds of love, they are incapable of doing so. To illustrate our point we must draw from Thérèse’s life some “miracles”—it’s the word she herself uses14—which brought about the successive healing of her wounds. All the pain caused by her mother’s death vanished in “the Virgin’s ravishing smile.” She experienced real healing from her mysterious


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childhood illness at the moment Mary’s statue smiled at her. But there still remained other wounds, which kept her in “the swaddling bands of infancy” and made her cry over trifles. God would have to work a small miracle to make me grow up in an instant, and this miracle he performed on that unforgettable Christmas day (1886). . . . That night when Jesus made himself subject to weakness and suffering for love of me, he made me strong and courageous. He clothed me with his weapons, and since that blessed night I have not been conquered in any battle, but on the contrary have marched from victory to victory and started out, so to speak, on “a giant’s course.” 15

I had thought of calling this introduction “A giant’s course,” for these words from Psalm 19:5 describe so well Thérèse’s journey from the point where she discovered merciful Love, a love that kindled her confidence and abandonment.16 To understand just what Thérèse means when she says that she had “such confidence in Jesus’s infinite Mercy,” 17 we have to understand that she needed healing, and that what she “had not been able to bring about in ten years, Jesus did in an instant, content with [her] good will which was never wanting.” 18 Then “I felt charity come into my heart, the need to forget myself and to please others, and since then I have been happy.” 19 This is the prelude to the ultimate invasion of merciful Love, after the Act of Offering of June 9, 1895: “Ah! Since that blessed day, it seems that Love possesses and surrounds me; it seems that at each moment this merciful Love is renewing me, purifying my soul, and not leaving there any trace of sin.” 20 This love, which makes Jesus cry out on the


Introduction

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cross, “I thirst,” resounds in her heart, and impels her to pray for sinners. We can’t dwell at length on what Thérèse says of the effects of Love in her heart, but we do know that several days later she made her Act of Offering to Merciful Love. While she was making the Way of the Cross in choir on June 14, 1895, she was seized with such an overwhelming love for God that had it lasted a few seconds longer, she would have died.We have here the key that enables us to understand why merciful Love could engulf her.This key also opens the door to the wound in Jacob’s hip and the thorn in Paul’s side. We must have great patience and compassion toward those who desire to love but who experience their incapacity because of wounds caused by their sins, or because of the bruises dealt by their fellow human beings, or, quite simply, because of their heredity. We must not discourage them but, above all, invite them, like Thérèse, to set out on this “giant’s course.” We must advise them, “Go to the hospital for treatment before wishing to run Love’s errands.” To those who suffer from this lack of confidence—because it is confidence and nothing but confidence that leads to Love, as Thérèse again says—there is one word that we must avoid. That word is “courage,” because it is precisely courage that they are lacking. It would be like saying to someone who has no money, “Pay! Pay!” We should rather say, “Go to the source where you will receive bread and water . . . without paying for it, freely. Go and be consoled and nourished.” Or as the Prophet Isaiah said, “Come and buy without money.” There is a source that is free: it is merciful Love.


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Conclusion: Pray for mercy . . . In concluding this introduction centered on Mercy, and before entering into the contemplation of merciful Love, I’d like to invite the reader to the prayer of humble petition. And I could do no better than go back to Pope John Paul II’s words at the end of his encyclical Dives in Misericordia (On the Mercy of God). He says that all his teaching must be transformed into a cry that “implores God’s Mercy.” Everything that I have said in the present document on mercy should therefore be continually transformed into an ardent prayer: into a cry that implores mercy according to the needs of man in the modern world. May this cry be full of that truth about mercy, which has found such rich expression in Sacred Scripture and in Tradition, as also in the authentic life of faith of countless generations of the People of God. With this cry let us, like the sacred writers, call upon the God who cannot despise anything that he has made, the God who is faithful to himself, to his fatherhood, and his love.21

Faced with God’s mercy, we have nothing to offer but the cry of pleading poverty, which alone can touch the heart of the Father’s mercy. “To pray for mercy” (it is the Holy Father’s expression) for ourselves and for all humanity should be the background of our prayer, which is, according to Thérèse, the lever that lifts up the world in love.22 In her Act of Offering, Thérèse allows us to glimpse the essence of her prayer, which consisted of praise, abandonment, and petition. When she contemplated merciful Love bending over each individual and humbly asking to be received, Thérèse began to pray that this Love might desire to overflow into her heart. We


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see then the humility of God, who begs human consent before pouring himself into the soul, and Thérèse’s prayer, made in response to God’s initiative: In order to live in one act of perfect Love, I offer myself as a victim of holocaust to your merciful Love, humbly asking you to consume me unceasingly, allowing the waves of tenderness shut up in you to overflow into my soul, so that I may in this way become a martyr of your Love, O my God.23

This is why Thérèse’s autobiography ends with the humble prayer of the publican, who is, with the good thief and Mary Magdalene, the great master of prayer for our Eastern Christian brothers and sisters. May Thérèse obtain for us a heart broken with repentance—the only disposition capable of touching the heart of the God of mercy—even if God has preserved us from sin. Then the real love of the Trinity, incarnate in the heart of Christ and become for us merciful Love, will flow freely in us: I am not dashing to the first place, but to the last; rather than go up with the Pharisee, I repeat, full of confidence, the publican’s humble prayer. But most of all I imitate Mary Magdalene. Her astounding, or rather her loving, boldness, which delighted Jesus’s heart, captivates mine. Yes, I know that even if I had on my conscience all the sins that could be committed, I would go, my heart broken with sorrow, to throw myself into Jesus’s arms, for I know how much he loves the prodigal child who returns to him. It is not because God in his anticipatory mercy has preserved my soul from mortal sin that I go to him with confidence and love . . . .24

My Vocation Is Love  

This spiritual biography, which emerges from the Carmelite tradition, includes rich commentary on Thérèse’s reflections. Drawing upon transl...

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