October 2013

What Therese and Joe have taught me about love

You can’t love a generic humanity while being indifferent to the family or community member who rubs up against you, writes Good Samaritan Sister Patty Fawkner.

BY Patty Fawkner SGS

What is it about October and Teresas? October 15 is the feast of that heavyweight mystic and Doctor of the Church, St Teresa of Avila. Ten years ago on October 19, Mother Teresa of Calcutta was beatified, and October 1 is the feast of St Thérèse of Lisieux, one of that rare species – female Doctors of the Church.

It is the “little” Teresa, Thérèse of Lisieux, who has captured my imagination, not on her own, but aided and abetted by American religious brother Joseph Schmidt. Through his books and as my one-time spiritual director and retreat-giver, Joe – perhaps Thérèse’s number one fan – has influenced my conversion from one who dismissed Thérèse because of a perceived saccharin spirituality (schmaltzy “Little Flower” holy cards didn’t help), to one who genuinely appreciates this woman and her profound teaching on love. Tough love at that.

I find myself in good company with other Thérèse enthusiasts – Pope Francis, Richard Rohr, Ronald Rolheiser, Mother Teresa, Edith Stein, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton – who discovered that Thérèse was “not just a mute pious little doll”, but had a depth of spiritual wisdom and disarming honesty.

Thérèse’s (and Joe’s) first lesson is that another name for love is non-violence. This gives me a fresh take on that abused and overused word, “love”. Thérèse’s central thesis is that true love, the love Jesus proclaims in word and deed, is a love totally devoid of any trace of violence. No violence, even violence that attempts to overcome evil, has a place in true Gospel spirituality.

Daily we’re assaulted by violent words and images. “Kick this mob out” screamed the headline on the first day of this year’s federal election. We seem to exist in a vortex of violence both within and without. I’m all for making peace and not war, but I recognise inner war-like tendencies in my feelings of hostility and self-righteousness. Labelling, verbal put-downs, blaming and so-called “idle” gossip are common weapons in my repertoire of violence. This colleague’s a drama queen, that politician’s a megalomaniac, and did you hear how so-and-so stuffed up? And on we go.

The Carmelite convent where Thérèse lived for nine short years until her death from tuberculosis at the age of 24, was not immune to the violence of small-mindedness, rivalry, resentment and even occasional cruelty. Such a climate inevitably left Thérèse feeling hurt and hostile. She discovered, however, that if she “harboured” her negative thoughts and feelings to keep them alive, if she allowed “the feelings to have her, rather than she have the feelings” (Joe’s words), she engaged in violence. She did violence to the offending sister, casting her as the adversary or enemy, and she did violence to herself by wallowing in her victim status.

I do that. The person who talks over me, the colleague who avoids me and the friend who disagrees with me, becomes an enemy created by my own hostile (read violent) thoughts and feelings.

Thérèse’s advice is simple but requires real courage. Acknowledge the hurtful feelings, even befriend them, but don’t brood over the feelings or the injury that triggered them. This only fuels violence.

Thérèse came to see that love had little to do with feelings of affection and attraction, and much to do with consciously letting go of any hostile thought or natural feeling of antagonism. She took to heart Jesus’ injunction to love one’s enemy, realising that the most unlovable of her sisters was the one with the greatest need for the greatest love. “Charity,” she said, “consists in bearing with those who are unbearable… not being surprised at their weakness, [but] being edified by the smallest acts of virtue we see them practise.” This, of course, is reminiscent of St Benedict, who encourages his followers to support “with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behaviour” (RB, 72).

A second lesson is that love has to be active and creative, not static and self-serving. As a very young sister I remember a retreat director asking me if I loved God. Brash, yet honest, was my reply: “I vaguely love and want God”. The priest leant over and wrote on a sheet of paper: “Vague wanting = 0”. I was chastened. Thérèse concurs: “Love cannot remain inactive”. It can’t be vague and “remain hidden in the bottom of the heart”, she says. She knows that you can’t love a generic humanity while being indifferent to the family or community member who rubs up against you.

Thérèse loved her sisters according to their particular need. She responded to members of her community with creativity and in a unique way, often ever so simply. “A word or a smile is often enough to put fresh life in a despondent soul.” She reminds me again of Benedict, who encourages the community leader “to love as he [or she] sees best for each individual”, and to “so arrange everything that the strong have something to yearn for and the weak nothing to run from” (RB, 64). Thérèse and Benedict know that in regard to love, one size doesn’t fit all.

Thérèse loved her sisters on their terms, not on hers. “Be careful not to seek yourself in love” nor cultivate your own preferences, she says. Haven’t we all met good-willed, good-deed-doing people whose mission in life seems to be correcting people “for their own good”, making us wonder whose need and whose “good” is being met?

Loving yourself means accepting your weakness. This third lesson in love flies in the face of the soulless Jansenism which was rife during Thérèse’s life and the narcissism which infects so much of contemporary society. The spirituality of Thérèse’s day tried but failed to convince her that weakness, sin and human frailty were incompatible with holiness. Jansenism preached that one became good and holy by climbing with unflagging determination the stairway – the ever-so-steep stairway – of perfectionism, prolonged prayer and heroic virtue.

Thérèse understood holiness very differently. Holiness was having confidence in a merciful God rather than brooding over her own failures. “It is necessary only to love Jesus,” she counselled her novices, “without paying too much attention to our own faults.” Thérèse knew that straining for perfectionism and then berating herself for failing to meet the mark, was self-absorbing and intrinsically violent. She refused, in Joe’s words, to “beat up on herself”. She refused to make herself into the enemy. She was never phased, for example, when she dozed during prayer times, realising that God, like any loving parent, loved her whether she was awake or asleep.

She walked the talk with her novices, never scolding them, rather encouraging them to acknowledge any mistake but to eschew self-criticism and self-reproach. Loving yourself means being “willing to bear serenely the pain of doing displeasing to yourself”. Such advice displays an incredibly mature emotional and spiritual intelligence. I pray for this grace.

When one loves, one does not calculate. This is lesson four. Thérèse rather whimsically believed that “there is a science God doesn’t know – arithmetic”. A prevalent image of God that lurks in our subconscious is God the accountant who keeps score of our virtues and defects, weighing these on the scales of justice. God is not a God of retribution, wrath and vengeance – a God to be feared.

During her fatal illness, Thérèse endured her own “dark night”. She was riddled with doubt and had no consoling experience of the presence of God. Yet she clung to the fundamental truth Jesus revealed about God, that God is love. God, the extravagant and compassionate lover, does not calculate, compare, nor keep score. If I genuinely love neither do I.

This leads to a fifth and final lesson. Holiness is essentially about love: God’s love for us and our response in love. “Merit,” says Thérèse, “does not consist in doing or giving much”. Holiness has little to do with performing devotions. “It consists in loving much.” “It is love alone that counts.” Holiness is God’s work and hers was simply to believe that “Jesus does not demand great actions from us but simply surrender and gratitude”.

Joe Schmidt says Thérèse has “democratised” holiness, making it clear that holiness is within the reach of anyone who is willing to love and to love again when one fails, and to love yet again. Hers is not a childish spirituality, but a mature and profound confidence in God’s love. God loves me not despite my sin and weakness. God loves me because the “me” is sinful and weak.

Thérèse lived a “little” life in terms of time, distance and experience. Yet life in a small Carmelite convent in rural France at the end of the nineteenth century is a microcosm of the dynamics that challenge societies, cultures and nations. Love can flourish internationally and personally if it is non-violent, if it is creative and active, if it is not self-serving, if it acknowledges one’s failures, and if it doesn’t keep score.

“My vocation is love!” Thérèse wrote toward the end of her life. May it also be ours – all of us.

Patty Fawkner

Sister Patty Fawkner is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She is an adult educator, writer and facilitator with formal tertiary qualifications in arts, education, theology and spirituality. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality.

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