An Introduction: Living the Mystery of Merciful Love

This post is excerpted from Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux by Anthony Lilles and Dan Burke.

You have in your hands a thirty-day retreat that can—and will—change your life. We don’t propose that you spend thirty days off in a cave somewhere. That would be contrary to the spirit of St. Thérèse. Instead, we propose that for thirty days you invite God into the midst of your daily toil and that through the wisdom of St. Thérèse you explore the ways that He desires to meet you in your daily life and in your toil and lead you to heaven through it.

The Act of Oblation to Merciful Love and excerpts of twenty-nine letters authored by St. Thérèse of Lisieux are arranged here for thirty day-by-day meditations. This spiritual exercise intends to prepare you to renew the Act of Oblation to Merciful Love each day. At the end of this retreat, our hope is that this daily self-offering will have become an integral part of your personal prayer and that your heart will discover the dynamism of Divine Mercy.

True devotion is fed by truth. To this end, each one of our thirty meditations brings out a slightly different aspect of the Act of Oblation for consideration and prayer. As we proceed, the beautiful horizons of mercy that Thérèse shared with her contemporaries can become our own. This effort is not merely a mental exercise. The instruction provided in these pages presumes that the battle for the heart is waged in the mind. We seek in St. Thérèse’s spiritual teaching a deeper and more personal encounter with God. Her own words to her closest family members and friends provide the mystagogical content—the spiritual catechesis—for these reflections. We simply provide theological context and highlight autobiographical details that draw out the implications of her teachings. By allowing her to draw you into the beautiful horizons that she invited her friends and family to share, she will prepare you to imitate her as she imitated Christ—by offering yourself for love, by love, and with love.

What is an Oblation? An oblation is an act of giving oneself to God for a sacred purpose. To be an oblation to the Merciful Love of God means to offer one’s own life to God so that through it His Mercy might be revealed. An oblation is more than a momentary act of devotion or a one-time event. It is a total life commitment. The offering is meant to become a spiritual heartbeat that carries us through the day, and one that we renew at every opportunity.

St. Thérèse understood her daily oblation as a pathway to sanctity. For her, it was more than a recitation of words on a page. It outlined a whole discipline of life. She makes her Oblation to Merciful Love because she wants to be a saint. Her self-offering is intended to be nothing other than a participation in Christ’s holiness for the salvation of the world. If Thérèse’s oblation is ultimately ordered to the holiness of God, she also offers it for a more immediate purpose: namely, to live one single act with perfect love.

She offers herself to Merciful Love because she wants to show her love in action, by love and for love alone. St. Thérèse is well aware of her own mixed motives and inadequacies, yet these are not the focus of her oblation. Instead, her offering focuses on the God who can bring to perfection the work that He has begun if only souls surrender to Him and makes space for His love. To make the Oblation is to commit oneself to this divine project. Such an offering requires great courage and determination, but more than that, it requires confidence in and passion for the Mercy of God.

Mercy is love pierced to the heart by the plight of another. Within the logic of mercy, a perfect act of love is offered when nothing holds us back from our effort to remove the misery of our neighbor and affirm his or her dignity. Devotion to Divine Mercy recognizes how God’s excessive love for us has moved Him to relieve the disgrace and alienation that our sin has brought into our lives.

In this devotion, St. Thérèse is deeply moved by a profound mystery. She knows that in God’s omnipotence and authority over all, He knows perfectly the depths of human misery and the mystery of evil. God’s perfection cannot block the perfect tenderness and compassion that He offers to humanity. But unless we freely avail ourselves of this unfathomable love, He cannot force us to receive it. Here, we begin to glimpse the immense mystery that engulfs the existence of St. Thérèse like a drop lost in an ocean. In between the tenderness that God yearns to show broken humanity and the mystery of freedom with which He endows each person, Thérèse recognizes a kind of divine anguish: a love that yearns to be shared but is in a sense frustrated until it is freely accepted. The distress that she perceives does not pose a weakness in God, but rather the dramatic proportion of His perfect love for humanity.

These insights into the merciful love of God help us understand the importance that St. Thérèse places on the oblation in her own time. After the Prussian occupation in the nineteenth century, many believed that God had abandoned France because France had abandoned God. Indeed, with the Industrial Revolution and the rise of secularism, the rich blessings of the faith, once dominant in European culture, were now diminished. Instead, preoccupation with material success and political ideologies defined the self-perception of the people and dictated the way they spent their time. An old fashioned and moralizing Church seemed to be out of touch with their daily concerns. Ecclesial indifference or even defensiveness concerning the pressures of modern life only confirmed these popular impressions.

Among many of the devout, there was a desire to rectify France’s standing with God. Some religious offered themselves to divine justice in an effort to make reparation for the sins of their countrymen against God. Their effort was to bridge the gap between the demands of divine justice and the mediocre piety of their contemporaries by making sensational penitential acts and sacrifices on behalf of the ungodly. Over and against this effort, St. Thérèse explicitly acknowledges that she was not capable of this kind of spiritual feat. She seems to have intuited a hubris inherent to this approach that lacked an authentic spirit of reparation and intercession. The problem was not that the world was unjust or filled with misery—it tragically was and even more tragically is today. Her saintly genius was to see the problem instead as a lack of humble openness in the Church to the graces that God yearned to give.

Some attempt to seek union with God by great acts of piety, spiritual achievements, and religious accomplishments. While these efforts may not be intrinsically evil, they are detrimental to the spiritual life to the degree that they orient us towards self-sufficiency and a lack of dependence on the Lord. It is a pursuit of justice animated by a dangerous expectation of a return on a personal investment. In its worst expression, it is similar to treating God like a divine vending machine. I put in my quarter and wait to see if God gives me what I want. This attitude fails to make us humble and vulnerable to the will of the Lord and can even lead us away from the obedience His blessings require.

St. Thérèse makes the starting place of her self-offering her twofold awareness of her own inadequacy and the immense desire to give herself to God. Her awareness of inadequacy places her in a humble posture before the Lord. Her immense desire to console God’s merciful love gives her confidence in what He can do in her life. She knows that only God could put such beautiful desires in her and because of His great goodness, He would never stir any desires except those that He intends to fulfill. In the desire to do something beautiful and purely for Him—not despite her weakness but in the very midst of it—she finds reason to hope that she can make an offering of herself to Him.

St. Thérèse believed it was possible to be a living instrument of God’s merciful love in the world, especially for those who most need the Lord’s mercy, because He has made it so. In this mystery of His rejection and humiliation, the Lord has made space for us to share in His work of mercy. In this place our misery and the misery of Christ, His sorrows and our sorrows, coincide. St. Thérèse’s oblation expresses her decision to stand with the Lord in this sacred place by bearing her own sorrows with faith and in the midst of them choosing to love just as He does.

She found through this solidarity the secret power of God was at work, accomplishing great wonders in the lives of those for whom she offered herself. It was as if her feeble efforts to surrender to the mercy of God made space for the Lord to do great things. In this way, she was convinced that her own love in the midst of difficult trials relieved Christ’s misery in a very real, if imperfect, way. Her frail but repeated efforts allowed the Lord to do something beautiful. The love that moves her to offer herself to Merciful Love informs the spiritual wisdom that she has to share with the Church today.

The writings of this Doctor of the Church are filled with powerful insights into the inexhaustible mystery of Divine Mercy. Our reflections on St. Thérèse’s words attempt to highlight her insights in a way that evokes the radical dedication to Merciful Love that she herself embraced. As a method for using this work in prayer, rather than reading several chapters in one sitting, we invite you to prayerfully read one of the selected passages from St. Thérèse’s letters and then the reflection that we provide each day. After reading the passage and the reflection, underline phrases that strike you. Then, take at least a few minutes in silence to consider those truths. If the Lord pierces you to the heart through the wisdom of this great saint, take a moment to thank Him for that grace and for the gift of St. Thérèse. If your heart reaches a resolution about your way of life, consider writing it down so that you can go back to it throughout the day. Finally, to seal this time of prayer, we invite you to intentionally pray the Act of Oblation out loud at the end of each meditation as a way of preparing yourself for the mission of Divine Mercy that the Lord has entrusted to you for that day.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux wants to help you become a saint. Her letters were written to help those she loved realize this very purpose. Periodically throughout these thirty days, we encourage you to review your journal and think about how the Lord is speaking to you through this spiritual exercise. You might make some discoveries about God’s will for you to bring to your spiritual director or to discuss with a spiritual friend. We hope that the entries you develop in your journal—whether your own insights or resolutions that you feel prompted to make—will become an important part of the story of your soul, an encouragement for yourself as well as those you love.

We believe that those who will allow St. Thérèse to teach them to make this oblation a part of their daily life of prayer will discover spiritual healing for themselves and for their loved ones. An indulgence was attached to this prayer as early as 1927. This means that whenever this oblation is offered with sincere devotion either for oneself or for someone who has gone before us in faith, Christ uses this prayer to help heal the wounds that sin has caused. The other conditions for the indulgence include going to Confession, receiving Communion, and praying for the intentions of the Holy Father. In addition to the wonderful grace offered through the Church, at the end of this thirty-day period of prayer, we hope that you will notice a deeper inclination to spend time with the Lord in silence and to extend the merciful love of God to others as part of your everyday life long after you have completed these reflections.


This post is excerpted from Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux by Anthony Lilles and Dan Burke.