I’ve had a very busy workweek and a spouse sick with a cold, so this may be a “day late and a dollar short,” as they say, but this past week we celebrated the feast of St Therese of Lisieux. I have a special devotion to St Therese so this is always a day that I relish.
I am a convert to Catholicism, and when one of the priests that I’d been working with for confirmation told me that I was to choose the name of a saint as a confirmation name, I instantly knew what it was supposed to be.
Ignatius of Loyola (my other favorite saint) speaks of three ways of making a decision in the Spiritual Exercises, and one of them is when God communicates directly some kind of decision. The experience is one where reflective consideration isn’t really necessary; I just “knew” that it was to be Therese. The first person that I told seemed a bit confused by my choice, and recommended that perhaps Teresa of Avila was the one I wanted, since she was more scholarly of the two Teresas. But I went ahead with Therese, knowing that it was right. I had read her Story of a Soul in the years that I was considering conversion, and I felt that she had a deep spirituality that might look, at first glance, simpler or more superficial than it really is.
St Therese is best known for her “little way,” the idea that love is shown in the simplest of acts. This is a beautiful side to her spirituality, and reflects an attitude of humility that is helpful for any of us to bring to our own lives. But it would be a mistake to think of Therese as just a sweet and pious soul, happily sitting and praying in the convent.
Therese had a great depth of passion of soul, a desire to please God that also extended into a desire that she somehow could live out the life of many different vocations. She felt deeply restless:
“To be your Spouse, O Jesus, to be a Carmelite, by my union with you to be the mother of souls, should content me… yet it does not… Without doubt, these three priviliges are indeed my vocation: Carmelite, spouse, and mother. And yet I feel in myself other vocations—I feel myself called to be a soldier, priest, apostle, doctor of the church, martyr. Finally, I feel the need, the desire to perform all the most heroic deeds for you, Jesus… I feel in my soul the courage of a crusader, of a soldier for the Church, and I wish to die on the field of battle in defense of the Church…
I feel in me the vocation of a priest! With what love, O Jesus, would I bear you in my hands, when at the sound of my words you came down from heaven! With what love would I give you to souls! But alas, just as much as I desire to be a priest, I admire and envy the humility of St. Francis of Assisi, and feel the call to imitate him in refusing the sublime dignity of the Priesthood.”
Here, Therese is expressing a desire to be able to be in union with God in multiple ways, and to serve and love others in multiple ways. Of course, none of us can do it: no one can be a mother and father, and also be a religious. No one can be a missionary while also building up a home for others. We also choose different vocational paths and careers that allow us to love God and love others in one way and not in other ways. Eventually, Therese discerns that this desire for many vocations is actually about something deeper: a vocation to love: “My vocation is love!”
At a theoretical level, I take Therese’s insight to be that the true call of any vocation is to love. No matter where we are called, what kind of vocations we have in our relationships and work, the heart of what we do is to love others. And,even though no single vocation captures all the ways that we can love, such a life of love is “complete.” It’s enough to love well: enough for God, enough for us.
At a practical level, this freed up Therese to love others where she was, in her vocation as a Carmelite, as a contemplative, a vocation that connected her not only to her Carmelite sisters, but also to others. For example, she prayed and wrote letters regularly to missionary priests, and so participated in their missionary work through a union in prayer with them. Both the prayer and the letters allowed her to pursue this vocation of a more universal way of loving, by supporting others in their vocation. Thus, Therese (along with St Francis Xavier) is a saint of missionaries, even though she remained as a cloistered Carmelite all of her life.