Reflection by Anthony Lilles and Dan Burke
From Thérèse to Sr. Agnes of Jesus
March 18, 1888
OH! PAULINE, it is very true that a drop of gall must be mingled in all chalices; I find that trials help very much in detaching us from this earth. They make us look higher than this world. Here below, nothing can satisfy us. We cannot enjoy a little rest except in being ready to do God’s will.
My little boat is having a lot of trouble reaching port. For a long time, I have seen the shore and I always find myself far off; but it is Jesus who is guiding my little boat, and I am sure that on the day when He wills it, it will be able to approach the port safely. Oh, Pauline, when Jesus will have placed me on the blessed shore of Carmel, I want to give myself totally to Him, I want to live no longer but for Him. Oh, no, I shall not fear His strikes, for, even in the most bitter sufferings, I always feel that it is His gentle hand that is striking. I really felt this at Rome at the very moment when I would have believed the earth could have given way beneath my steps.
I desire only one thing when I shall be in Carmel, and it is to suffer always for Jesus. Life passes so quickly that really it must be better to have a very beautiful crown and a little trouble than to have an ordinary one without any trouble. And then for a suffering borne with joy, when I think that during the whole of eternity I will love God better. Then in suffering we can save souls. Ah! Pauline, if at the moment of my death I could have a soul to offer to Jesus, how happy I would be; it would be a soul that would have been snatched from the fire of hell and would bless God for all eternity.
Sr. Agnes is St. Thérèse’s older sister. They share a very special bond, almost like a mother and daughter. St. Zélie Martin, their mother, died when Thérèse was very young and Pauline (which is Sr. Agnes’ baptismal name) took over running the household and became an important maternal figure for her younger sister. Now, as St. Thérèse pursues her desire to become a Carmelite, she relies on the good counsel she receives from Sr. Agnes’ spiritual maternity. In this letter, Thérèse confides how she interprets the difficult struggles that she is facing in trying to follow the will of the Lord.
Among the spiritual works of mercy, the Church lists patient endurance of hardship and praying for the living and the dead. This letter plunges into both of these expressions of God’s love in us and points us to their inner connection. The witness of Thérèse invites us to view suffering not as a mere inconvenience to avoid or manage. In her letter, prayer and long-suffering converge in love. She proposes that the hardships we suffer can be offered to the Lord for the salvation of those whom He entrusts to us.
Several months before this letter to her sister, St. Thérèse had gone on a pilgrimage to Rome with her father, her sister Céline, and other pilgrims from her diocese. She was able to have an audience with Pope Leo XIII and, with a little prodding from Céline, boldly asked him to allow her to enter the Carmelite Monastery in Lisieux even though she was technically too young. She later realized that he was too elderly and enfeebled to understand her request. Yet she believed that she had been obedient to God in presenting herself. Her bishop did give the permission needed in the weeks that followed her trip to Rome. Even still, her desire to enter Carmel was not realized instantly. After a couple months of patient waiting, she begins to see that her “trouble reaching port” is “a drop of gall.” God is offering her a chalice just like the chalice Christ accepted in Gethsemane. Her disappointment was crucifying, and like a drop of gall detaching her, helped to fix her gaze on those things that are from above. For Thérèse, the goal is not to avoid suffering or even to manage this difficulty until at last she is able to live her Carmelite vocation. The goal is to love. And in this life, love is revealed through the suffering we endure for it. Her ultimate goal is to suffer with Christ Jesus—to renounce herself, pick up her cross, and follow Him.
In this life, things often fail to work out the way we want. If we allow disappointment to pull us down into bitterness or anxiety, our lives risk a certain banality.
St. Thérèse is not simply resigned about her situation. She has made a decision to bear it with joy. Thérèse is not pretending to be elated or making sure that others are not aware of her disappointment; nor does she try to work herself into a positive emotional state. Instead, she seeks in her disappointment the mysterious way that God is at work in the situation. More than resignation, seeking out His will in this difficult ambiguity allows her to surrender to His loving work. Suffering with this kind of joy is a “beautiful crown.”
When our plans run amiss, it takes faith to believe that Divine Providence is still at work. Assenting to this does not completely diminish the hardship, but it does allow us to choose to accept what God is doing in both the desires of our hearts and the circumstances that befall us. With hope, we keep the true goal in mind and deepen our dedication to the designs of God’s heart.
When we choose to live by faith in difficult circumstances rather than succumbing to the emotions of the moment, suffering can become an offering on behalf of the spiritual needs of our brothers and sisters. When this happens, we realize, like Thérèse, the convergence of long-suffering and prayer, two works of mercy so intimately connected.
Anthony Lilles is an author and theologian who serves in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles as academic dean of St. John’s Seminary and academic adviser to Juan Diego House. Dan Burke is the executive director of EWTN’s National Catholic Register. Together they compiled reflections on the letters of St. Therese of Lisieux in Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux.