Confidence in Merciful Love
Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face, Doctor of the Church, is one of several heralds of Divine Mercy sent to quicken and warm the Church of the 19th and 20th centuries with a message of confidence in the merciful love of God. Among the other heralds of Divine Mercy would be, of course, Saint Faustina (1905-1938), and Mother Yvonne-Aimée de Jésus (1901-1951).
Saint Thérèse spoke of the merciful love of God (l'Amour miséricordieux); Mother Yvonne-Aimée disseminated her miraculous little invocation of the merciful goodness (miséricordieuse bonté) of Jesus, the King of Love; and Saint Faustina, a contemporary of Mother Yvonne-Aimée, became the Apostle of Divine Mercy to the whole world.
On this Feast of Saint Thérèse, the co-patroness of Silverstream Priory, I thought it fitting to post (again) my commentary on her Act of Oblation to Merciful Love.
June 9, 1895 was the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity. In the Carmel of Lisieux in Normandy, France, twenty-two year old Sister Thérèse de l'Enfant Jésus et de la Sainte Face received a very special grace during Mass: she felt compelled to offer herself as a victim to Merciful Love.
After Mass, Thérèse went to her prioress (her own sister Pauline), Mother Agnès de Jésus, accompanied by Sister Geneviève de la Sainte Face (her own sister Céline). Visibly under the sway of the grace she had experienced, she asked Mother Agnès if both she and Céline might offer themselves as victims to Merciful Love. Mother Agnès was disconcerted. She didn't quite understand what exactly Thérèse wanted to do. She trusted the discernment of Thérèse nonethless and allowed her to follow the inspiration she had received.
Saint Thérèse composed the following "Oblation to Merciful Love" and, until the end of her life, carried it next to her heart. The commentary in italics is my own.
The Act of Oblation to Merciful Love
Offering of myself as a victim of holocaust to the Merciful Love of God
Thérèse recognizes that God, mysteriously, "needs" souls upon whom He can freely pour Himself out as Merciful Love. She gives herself over as a holocaust, that is, as a living fuel to be entirely consumed in the fire of Merciful Love. Thérèse, being a Carmelite, was a daughter of the Holy Prophet Elijah at whose prayer the holocaust on Mount Carmel was utterly consumed. "I will call on the name of the Lord I serve; and the God who sends fire in answer shall be acknowledged as God" (III Kings 18:24).
O My God! Most Blessed Trinity, I desire to Love You and make you Loved, to work for the glory of Holy Church by saving souls on earth and liberating those suffering in purgatory. I desire to accomplish Your will perfectly and to reach the degree of glory You have prepared for me in Your Kingdom. I desire, in a word, to be saint, but I feel my helplessness and I beg You, O my God! to be Yourself my Sanctity!
Thérèse writes with theological density and mystical intensity. Hers is the language of desire and of love. She doesn't shrink from her "work" as a Carmelite. There is nothing small or subjective here. This is about "the glory of the Holy Church." It is about saving souls on earth and liberating them from purgatory. Thérèse seems to gaze, like Saint Stephen the Protomartyr (Acts 7:55), into the open heavens. There she sees the will of God and the degree of glory prepared for her. Her desire corresponds perfectly to the desire of God: her sanctity. Her helplessness is no obstacle to this; it constitutes, on the contrary, a claim on the divine munificence of Merciful Love.
Since You loved me so much as to give me Your only Son as my Savior and my Spouse, the infinite treasures of His merits are mine.
This is the simple logic of the saints. Thérèse echoes John 3:16 in a personal way: "God so loved me that He gave up His only-begotten Son" to be my Savior and my Spouse. All that is His is mine. I seem to hear Saint John of the Cross: "Mine are the heavens and mine is the earth. Mine are the nations, the just are mine, and mine the sinners. The angels are mine, and the Mother of God, and all things are mine; and God himself is mine and for me, because Christ is mine and all for me."
I offer them to You with gladness, begging You to look upon me only in the Face of Jesus and in His Heart burning with Love.
The Face of Jesus and His Heart burning with Love! For Thérèse the Holy Face of Jesus reveals the secrets of His Heart. Thérèse takes her contemplation of the Holy Face even further; she asks the Father to look upon her in the Face of Jesus and in His Heart. The psalmist says, "Thy Face is a sanctuary, to hide away from the world's malice" (Psalm 30:21) and, in another place, "Look upon the Face of Thy Christ" (Psalm 83:10).
I offer You, too, all the merits of the saints (in heaven and on earth), their acts of Love, and those of the holy angels. Finally, I offer You, O Blessed Trinity! the Love and merits of the Blessed Virgin, my Dear Mother. It is to her I abandon my offering, begging her to present it to You. Her Divine Son, my Beloved Spouse, told us in the days of His mortal life: "Whatsoever you ask the Father in my name he will give it to you!" I am certain, then, that You will grant my desires; I know, O my God! that the more You want to give, the more You make us desire. I feel in my heart immense desires and it is with confidence I ask You to come and take possession of my soul.
One sees how much Thérèse has been formed by the eschatology of the Mass and Divine Office; she offers the merits of the saints in heaven and on earth, and of the angels. Then, at the very heart of her Oblation, she speaks of the Blessed Virgin, her "dear Mother." She abandons her offering into the hands of Mary, discretely evoking the Virgin Mother's mystical priesthood at the altar of the Cross.
Thérèse has a very personal way of expressing her relationship with Mary. Whereas most souls readily speak of going "to Jesus through Mary," Thérèse sees herself as bound to Mary through Jesus. The Son of Mary is the Spouse of Thérèse. Thérèse is certain of being loved by the Blessed Virgin because she is the spouse of her Son.
Thérèse anchors her confidence in the inexhaustible largesse of God in the promise of Jesus, "You have only to make any request of the Father in my name and He will grant it to you" (John 16:23). The Doctor of Merciful Love articulates here one of the key principles of her spirituality: "I know, O my God, that the more You want to give, the more You make us desire." God Himself is the Cause of the soul's deepest, highest, and truest desires. In spiritual direction -- it seems to me, at least -- this is the fundamental question: What do you really desire? Every desire that comes from God leads to God. As a rule, the desires that come from God are immense; they cause a certain dilation of the soul, a stretching Godward. Paradoxically, there is nothing more spacious than the "Little Way" of Thérèse. "Thou hast set my feet in a spacious place" (Psalm 30:9).
Ah! I cannot receive Holy Communion as often as I desire, but, Lord, are You not all-powerful? Remain in me as in a tabernacle and never separate Yourself from Your little victim.
Frequent Holy Communion had not yet found its place in Carmel. Thérèse was not daunted by this. Merciful Love is Omnipotent Love. Thérèse is confident that her "communions of desire" are met with desire on the part of Our Lord. Did He not say, "With desire have I desired to share this pasch with you before my passion" (Luke 22:15)? Thérèse offers herself as a tabernacle to Indwelling Love. She desires to hold the Eucharist within herself, to be a living Tent of Meeting wherein every human misery might encounter Merciful Love. She wants to remain a victim in the hands of Christ the Priest. More than anything, Thérèse desires sacramental Holy Communion; deprived of it, she is content to trust in the designs of the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus, for she knows they cannot be thwarted.
I want to console You for the ingratitude of the wicked, and I beg of you to take away my freedom to displease You. If through weakness I sometimes fall, may Your Divine Glance cleanse my soul immediately, consuming all my imperfections like the fire that transforms everything into itself.
Where there is love there will be the desire to console the Heart of God, the need to make reparation. Thérèse would be the slave of God rendered by grace incapable of displeasing Him for the sake of those who rebel against Him and spurn His Loving Mercy. Then, in the next breath, she speaks of weakness and of falls! (You have to love her!) Her profound devotion to the Holy Face makes her add, "May Your Divine Glance cleanse my soul immediately, consuming all my imperfections like the fire that transforms everything into itself." Do I hear an echo of Psalm 89:8? "Thou hast set our iniquities before thy eyes: our life in the light of thy countenance."
I thank You, O my God! for all the graces You have granted me, especially the grace of making me pass through the crucible of suffering. It is with joy I shall contemplate You on the Last Day carrying the sceptre of Your Cross. Since You deigned to give me a share in this very precious Cross, I hope in heaven to resemble You and to see shining in my glorified body the sacred stigmata of Your Passion.
After reparation, Thérèse turns to thanksgiving. She is grateful, above all else, for suffering because suffering has made her most like her Spouse; "despised, and the most abject of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with infirmity: and his look was as it were hidden and despised, whereupon we esteemed him not" (Isaiah 53:3). She identifies her own sufferings as a share in the precious Cross of Jesus. Astonishingly, she wants to resemble Him in heaven by bearing in her own flesh His holy and glorious wounds. Whereas, more often than not the wounds of those marked by the grace of the stigmata disappear at death, Thérèse claims them for herself in heaven!
After earth's Exile, I hope to go and enjoy You in the Fatherland, but I do not want to lay up merits for heaven. I want to work for Your Love alone with the one purpose of pleasing You, consoling Your Sacred Heart, and saving souls who will love You eternally.
The heaven of Thérèse is not one of eternal rest in the sense of inactivity. Heaven is the full expansion of her life work. She remains the strong-willed girl from Normandy: "I want to work for Your Love alone." She has but one purpose in this: to please Jesus, to console His Sacred Heart, and to save souls who, in turn, will love Him eternally. Thérèse is the tireless missionary, labouring in the harvest until the end of time.
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 justice is stained in Your eyes. I wish, then, to be clothed in Your own Justice and to receive from Your Love the eternal possession of Yourself. I want no other Throne, no other Crown but You, my Beloved!
"With empty hands": this expresses in Theresian language the first beatitude: "Blessed are the poor in spirit; the kingdom of heaven is theirs" (Matthew 5:3). For Thérèse, at the end of this life, there will be no meticulous bookkeeping of works and of merits. She will present to God the one thing His Loving Mercy cannot resist: the sight of empty hands, outstretched, and ready to receive from Love the eternal possession of Himself. Thérèse dares to critique -- with a subtle smile, I am sure -- the received imagery of the celestial throne and crown. Heaven is not in these "things" -- Thérèse has played her all for no-thing. She wants only her Beloved.
Time is nothing in Your eyes, and a single day is like a thousand years. You can, then, in one instant prepare me to appear before You.
Here Thérèse quotes Psalm 89:4. "For a thousand years in thy sight are as yesterday, which is past, and as a watch in the night." The purifying Love of God can prepare a soul to appear before Him in a single instant. Was she thinking of the Good Thief? "Then he said to Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said to him, I promise thee, this day thou shalt be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:42-43). Thérèse dares to imagine a "purgatory" of one instant. She measures purgatory not in terms of time, but rather in terms of the infinite intensity of the fire of Merciful Love that burns to make souls entirely pure.
In order to live in one single act of perfect Love, I OFFER MYSELF AS A VICTIM OF HOLOCAUST TO YOUR MERCIFUL LOVE, Asking You to consume me incessantly, allowing the waves of infinite tenderness shut up within You to overflow into my soul, and that thus I may become a martyr of Your Love, O my God!
The essence of monastic holiness, which reflects and images the singleheartedness of Jesus, Beloved Son and Eternal Priest, for the sake of the whole Church, is the unification of one's whole life in a single act of perfect love. Thérèse understands that this can be realized not by straining and striving, but only by offering oneself as a victim to the Merciful Love of God. She casts herself, willingly, into the flames of the Furnace of Burning Charity that is the Heart of Jesus. There her desire for union will be realized. The waves of infinite tenderness will find in her a vessel made ready to receive them and to pour them out over other "little souls." This is the Theresian martyrdom. It evokes the death of her model and heroine Joan of Arc, but here the wood of the pyre is that of the Cross, and the consuming flames are those of Merciful Love.
May this martyrdom, after having prepared me to appear before You, finally cause me to die and may my soul take its flight without any delay into the eternal embrace of Your Merciful Love.
Thérèse wants to die, like Saint Joan of Arc, a martyr amidst the devouring flames of Merciful Love. Death will be the passage from Love into Love. I feel here something of the ardour of Saint Ignatius of Antioch. "Consign not to the world one who yearns to be God's; nor tempt me with the things of this life. Suffer me to receive pure light. When I come thither then shall I be a man indeed. Suffer me to be an imitator of the passion of my God" (Letter to the Romans).
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 in an Eternal Face-to-Face!
The leit-motif of the Holy Face returns. For Thérèse, life beyond the shadows of death will be the exchange of Love in an Eternal Face-to-Face. On August 6, 1897, less than one month before her death, Thérèse asked that the image of the Holy Face of Jesus be attached to her bed curtain in the infirmary. " We see now through a glass in a dark manner; but then face to face. Now I know I part; but then I shall know even as I am known. And now there remain faith, hope, and charity, these three: but the greatest of these is charity" (1 Corinthians 13:12-13).
Marie, Françoise, Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face,
unworthy Carmelite religious.
This 9th Day of June,
Feast of the Most Holy Trinity,
In the Year of Grace, 1895