Reflection by Anthony Lilles and Dan Burke
From Thérèse to Céline
January 25, 1889
CÉLINE . . . JESUS must love you with a special love to be trying you in this way. Do you know that I am almost jealous of you? To those who love more He gives more, and to those who love less He gives less! . . .
But you don’t feel your love for Your Spouse. You would like your heart to be a flame that rises up to Him without the lightest smoke. Don’t forget that the smoke that surrounds you is only for yourself in order to remove you from the sight of your love for Jesus, while the flame is only for Him. At last, then He has this love entirely, for if He were to show it to us just a little bit, swiftly self-love would come like a fatal wind which extinguishes everything! . . .
You give me the impression, at this moment, of a person who is surrounded by immense riches . . . the sight of them is lost over the horizon. . . . This person wants to turn her back because, she says, too many riches embarrass her, she does not know what to do with them; it is better to lose them, or that another take them! . . . That other will not come, for these riches are prepared for the fiancée of Jesus . . . and for her alone! . . . God would turn the world upside down to find suffering in order to give it to a soul upon whom His DIVINE glance has rested with an indescribable love! . . .
The things of the earth . . . what do they mean to us? . . . Should this be our homeland, this slime, so unworthy of an immortal soul . . . and what does it matter that cowardly men harvest the mustiness that grows on this slime? The more our heart is in heaven the less we feel these pinpricks. . . .
But believe that this is a grace and a great grace to feel these pin-pricks, for, then, our life is a martyrdom, and one day Jesus will give us the balm. To suffer and to be despised! . . . what bitterness but what glory.
St. Thérèse’s reflections on suffering as “immense riches” and humiliation as a “pinprick” present us with unconventional judgments. They seem to oppose the basic tenets of earthly happiness and jar our sensibilities. It would be easy to reduce her musings to a vaguely religious but unhealthy attitude not in touch with the real world. Yet, what she is trying to express to her sister Céline in this letter is a real word of encouragement.
The foundation for her judgments is the Gospel of Christ. In particular, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount holds up this same paradox of suffering and blessedness. Christ declares that the poor, the sorrowing, the meek, those who thirst for justice, the pure of heart, those who work for peace, and those persecuted for righteousness’ sake are all are blessed and great in the kingdom of heaven. This order of things is not part of our tangible experience. It is something mysterious and spiritual that we cleave to by faith. It is within this Gospel context that we must situate her message to Céline. This letter represents a word of hope to someone whom St. Thérèse believes the mysterious blessedness of the Gospel fully applies.
From this perspective, suffering, humiliation, hardships, and difficulties are not obstacles to happiness. They are God-given opportunities waiting for our generous response. God permits those He loves to suffer only because He has transformed human misery by entering into it and sharing it with us. When we seek Him in the midst of trial, He communicates spiritual riches that we could not have received in any other way. Through the Passion of Christ, human suffering has become a medium for divine blessing.
Like Thérèse, Céline was also undergoing a trial in her vocation. Even as they sought to enter Carmel, St. Louis Martin, their father, had declined under the weight of mental illness. The girls were accused of being more concerned with becoming nuns than they were with taking care of their widowed father. It was a double trial. Thérèse and her sisters experienced not only the stress of a surviving parent’s poor health, but also faced the humiliation of gossip and detraction.
Such was the mysterious blessing of persecution and sorrow for their father, together with their patient endurance concerning the desires of their hearts. Thérèse’s basic message is that the suffering and humiliation were great because God loved Céline with a very uncommon love. Rather than be overwhelmed by the Lord’s generosity, Thérèse counseled her to be grateful, to respond with an excess of love for the love that she was receiving. This example provides us with a new perspective when we are misunderstood and when we face difficult circumstances over which we have little control. More than merely resisting the temptation to lose heart or indulge in some form of self-pity, Thérèse’s judgment about suffering and humiliation beckons us to courage and gratitude. Rather than identifying as victims of circumstance, she helps us find dignity in the way the Lord has chosen to love us.
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.