Reflection by Anthony Lilles and Dan Burke
From Thérèse to Céline
April 4, 1889
JESUS! . . .
Dear Little Céline,
Your letter gave great sadness to my soul! Poor little Papa! . . . No, the thoughts of Jesus are not our thoughts, and His ways are not our ways. . . .
He is offering us a chalice as bitter as our feeble nature can bear! . . . Let us not withdraw our lips from this chalice prepared by the hand of Jesus. . . .
Let us see life as it really is. . . . It is a moment between two eternities. . . . Let us suffer in peace! . . .
I admit that this word peace seemed a little strong to me, but the other day, when reflecting on it, I found the secret of suffering in peace. . . . The one who says peace is not saying joy, or at least, felt joy. . . . To suffer in peace is enough to will all that Jesus wills. . . . To be the spouse of Jesus we must resemble Jesus, and Jesus is all bloody, he is crowned with thorns! . . .
“A thousand years in your eyes, Lord, are as yesterday, which has passed”! . . .
“On the banks of the river of Babylon, we sat and wept when we remembered Sion. . . . We hung up our harps on the willows in the fields. . . . Those who led us into captivity said to us: ‘Sing for us one of the pleasant songs from Sion.’ How could we sing the song of the Lord in a foreign land!” . . .
No, let us not sing the canticles of heaven to creatures. . . . But, like Cecelia, let us sing a melodious canticle in our heart to our Beloved! . . .
The canticle of suffering united to His sufferings is what delights His Heart the most! . . .
Jesus is on fire with love for us . . . look at His adorable Face! . . . Look at His eyes lifeless and lowered! Look at His wounds. . . . Look at Jesus in His Face . . . . There you will see how He loves us.
Like her little sister, Céline also wanted to enter Carmel. With maternal affection, she put St. Thérèse’s vocation ahead of her own and spiritually accompanied Thérèse through all the trials she endured in order to enter Carmel early. Now, Céline was having to deal with a very difficult situation. This letter is offered to encourage Céline not only in her vocation but also her faith. Their father, Louis Martin, suffered from several strokes and cerebral arteriosclerosis, a hardening of the arteries of the brain. The condition caused hallucinations, anxiety, and forgetfulness. Although he was a loving father and would eventually be canonized a saint, he suffered from bouts of moodiness and irritation. After St. Thérèse entered Carmel, Céline stayed behind to care for him. Not always capable of distinguishing between reality and fantasy, Louis soon walked off without a word. With the help of her uncle, Céline eventually found him, but realized that her father would need special care for the rest of his life. He was committed to a mental hospital, where he made some progress for a time. Then, when doctors decided to discontinue his medications, his condition worsened. Since his physiological condition was not understood, his mental breakdown was attributed by many to the stress of having been abandoned by his daughters.
Even before all this unfolded, Céline’s vocation was put to the test. On top of the stress of attempting to care for her ailing father, a young man had proposed to her. The life she had imagined for herself was now turned upside down. The decision to decline this generous offer could not have been easily made. The marriage would have allowed her to attend to her father. It might also have allayed some of the gossip about the family. With his worsened state, it would have been normal for her to question her earlier decision. But, instead of relying on a natural answer to her family’s plight, Céline had chosen to give herself to God. Her resolve not only about her vocation but about how to live her faith was under fire. In the face of these doubts, Thérèse gently proposes a supernatural way forward.
To offer her counsel, Thérèse places herself in solidarity with Céline. She spiritually joins herself to Céline’s humiliation and makes it something that they endure together with and for their saintly father. This particular suffering is a chalice, like the chalice that Christ received in the Garden of Gethsemane. By the mystery of their union with Christ, the two of them will spiritually accompany their father in the agony and humiliation of mental illness, a mysterious kind of crucifixion.
In order to deepen their solidarity in love and prayer, St. Thérèse proposes her secret to suffering in peace. Some believe that the secret of suffering in peace is to pretend to be joyful. This is not St. Thérèse’s counsel. She does not ask Céline to act as if she felt joyful about their father’s illness or about their humiliations. Instead, Thérèse implies there is another kind of joy besides the kind that is felt. Instead of trying to expound on this spiritual joy, she draws Céline’s attention to a related fruit of the spirit: peace. The peace that comes from God is not based on feelings or psychic states. The Holy Spirit produces spiritual fruits in the very depths of our being and they transform the way we deal with sorrow. Sorrow can weigh upon our existence and emotionally paralyze us. But if we give the Holy Spirit space to act in us, He infuses our sorrow with confidence in the love of the Lord. A desire to do something that delights the Lord is born in the heart as it becomes more confident in His love. Christ’s love is what helps us find a mysterious joy and peace in the midst of difficult trials.
What gives the Holy Spirit this room to act in us? Mental prayer. It is an important effort of the Christian life. Mental prayer searches the face of Christ, not only with one’s imagination, but with one’s real awareness by faith of His presence and His saving mysteries. The Holy Face of Christ helped St. Thérèse keep the eyes of her heart fixed on the Lord. And this way, His will for her became the ground on which she was able to stand firm. If we do not spend time seeking out the Lord “on fire with love for us,” we will not find the firm ground on which to live our lives in peace. Rather, through silent reflection on His loving presence, His Holy Face can reveal the eternity that frames this present moment and alleviate the hardships and trials we must endure.
Faith re-orients our perspective on the difficult moments of life. These moments are not absolute. They pass. They are part of the transition from one eternity to the next. God who is eternal has called us into eternal life, and through the suffering of Christ is sanctifying this present moment, setting it aside so that it can be one more moment that brings us closer to Him.
St. Teresa of Ávila, the Carmelite reformer and spiritual mother of St. Thérèse, wrote in her breviary, “All things are passing, God never changes.” Difficult times come and go, but God remains. God created us in peace and He invites us into the peace of His life and love. For us to freely move from eternity to eternity in the present moment, we must go by the same peace from which we came and toward which we are ordered: the peace of the Lord. To lose our peace by allowing ourselves to be stirred up by contention or anxiety will not help us make progress from one eternity to the next. The only path of peace is a pathway of greater and greater union with the will of God.
What does St. Thérèse mean when she invites Céline to will what Jesus wills? She is offering a challenge to rise above trials and hardships, especially when they involve those whom one loves in a particular way. It is a call to patiently endure all difficulties out of love, to delight His Heart. As we live this moment between two eternities, our likeness—and our nearness—to the crucified and humiliated Christ increases.
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.