Thérèse of Lisieux often gets a bad rap for being one of the most sentimental and girlish of saints. And the syrupy sweetness of much of the Catholic devotion for "the Little Flower" no doubt contributes to this impression. However, as I've tried to show in this series there is a toughness to Thérèse's spirituality. The Little Way is no easy or sentimental journey. It'll turn your life upside down if you let it. It's messing with mine for sure.
But beyond the Little Way, Thérèse is also of interest to us for another reason, something that also pushes against the stereotype that she is an overly sentimental saint. We are speaking here of Thérèse's dark night of the soul.
You'll recall that Thérèse was asked to write Manuscripts B and C of Story of a Soul--the spiritual heart of her memoir--because she was dying.
In 1896 on the evening before Good Friday, and this timing seems apt given what was to follow, Thérèse awoke in the night to find her mouth filled with fluid. It was too dark to know what it was, but the morning light confirmed her suspicions that it was blood. She had contracted tuberculosis. Thus began her slow, protracted, and painful walk toward death.
During this time Thérèse experienced a profound spiritual darkness that, as best we can tell, never resolved itself. Some of this darkness finds its way into Story of a Soul and some of it was captured in things she shared with sisters and novices at Carmel.
The root of it was this. Now facing death Thérèse began to doubt that there was a heaven. What once seemed so certain to her had evaporated in the aftermath of her Good Friday awakening:
[God] permitted my soul to be invaded by the thickest darkness, and that the thought of heaven, up until then so sweet to me, be no longer but the cause of struggle and torment. The trial was to last not a few days or a few weeks, it was not to be extinguished until the hour set by God Himself and this hour has not yet come. I would like to be able to express what I feel, but alas! I believe this is impossible. One would have to travel through this dark tunnel to understand its darkness.Thérèse says that she was plunged into a darkness "far from all suns." Looking for heaven she says, a "fog surrounds me and becomes more dense; it penetrates my soul and envelops it in such a way that it is impossible to discover within it the sweet image of my Fatherland; everything has disappeared!"
She goes on to say that while she continues to obey Christ that obedience has lost its joy: "[Jesus] knows very well that while I do not have the joy of faith, I am trying to carry out its works at least." And when she sings of heaven it's more from hope than conviction:
I must appear to you as a soul filled with consolations and one for whom the veil of faith is almost torn aside; and yet it is no longer a veil for me, it is a wall which reaches right up to the heavens and covers the starry firmament. When I sing of the happiness of heaven and of the eternal possession of God I feel no joy in this, for I sing simply what I WANT TO BELIEVE. It is true that at times a very small ray of the sun comes to illumine my darkness, and then the trial ceases for an instant, but afterward the memory of this ray, instead of causing me joy, make my darkness even more dense.What we find here is one of the most extreme dark nights of the soul from the lives of the saints. And it's a startling and unexpected discovery given the sweet sentimentality associated with "the Little Flower." But there is nothing sweet or sentimental about Thérèse's faith struggles in the face of death.
Again, as best biographers can tell, this dark night lasted to the very end. In fact, as discussed by Tomáš Halík in his book Patience with God, a recent biographer of Thérèse's, Thomas Nevin, argues that Thérèse died without faith.
That's a shocking conclusion. And, of course, we'll never really know. But the interesting thing I'd like to draw your attention to is how Thérèse transformed her dark night into love. Thérèse might have died struggling with doubts, but she was firm in her commitment to die in love. In the very last line of the section where Thérèse describes her dark night she concludes with this:
I no longer have any great desires except that of loving to the point of dying in love.In other conversations and writings she echos this sentiment:
My will is to endure, by Love,I am left with love alone. One interesting example of this, one discussed by Halík, is how Thérèse's dark night brought her into loving communion with atheists and non-believers. Before her own trials Thérèse didn't really think it was possible to be an atheist. She felt that God was so present in every heart that, deep down, atheists really knew there was a God:
The Darkness of my exile here.
If you only knew what darkness I am plunged into...Everything has disappeared on me, and I am left with love alone.
...I was unable to believe there were really impious people who had no faith. I believed they were actually speaking against their own inner convictions when they denied the existence of heaven...But after her dark night Thérèse understood, intimately so, what non-believers were experiencing. She found herself in loving solidarity with these non-believers, forced through the grace of God to eat at the shared table of non-belief. And in this solidarity Thérèse sees herself as intercessor. In her doubting Thérèse becomes the priest of non-believers. More, in her doubt she offers herself as a loving sacrifice to purify and save her non-believing brothers:
Your child, however, O Lord, has understood Your divine light, and she begs pardon for her brothers. She is resigned to eat the bread of sorrow as long as You desire it; she does not wish to rise up from this table filled with bitterness at which poor sinners are eating until the day set by You. Can she not say in her name and in the name of her brothers, "Have pity on us, O Lord, for we are poor sinners!" Oh! Lord, send us away justified. May all those who were not enlightened by the bright flame of faith one day see it shine. O Jesus! if it is needful that the table soiled by them be purified by a soul who loves You, then I desire to eat this bread of trial at this table until it pleases You to bring me into Your bright Kingdom.I'm not sure I can track, with my rationalistic mind, the mystical flight Thérèse is taking here in this passage. But the general idea is clear enough. Thérèse finds herself at the bitter table of unbelief in solidarity with non-believers. And there she intercedes for her brothers, calling out for their justification and salvation, and offers her own life of doubt as a ransom for theirs.
In all this we see Thérèse sacrificing faith for love. Her last act isn't faith. It's love. As she says, "I am left with love alone." Faith is irrelevant (or gone missing). All she wants to do is love "to the point of dying in love."
Here's how Halík summarizes the dark night of Thérèse and her comments about the relationship between faith and love:
At the gates of death, did Thérèse perhaps experience something of that final state of which St. Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians--that ultimate state when everything will come to nothing? Perhaps his words also apply to faith and hope, for they will have "fulfilled their task" of accompanying us in the valley of shadow of this ambiguous world--but love will endure? Was the hell of Thérèse's suffering and inner darkness paradoxically the entrance to a "heaven" where just one of the three divine virtues survives?Beyond faith and hope there is only love....Man does not fall into boundless darkness but returns home, into the full light of true: faith has already fulfilled its pilgrim task; only love reigns here and now. This will not cancel faith but fulfill it; if faith "dies," it does so only by being dissolved in love--but even this death may be experienced as a passage through the dark chasm of nothingness.
Christian faith--unlike "natural religiosity" and happy-go-lucky religiosity--is resurrected faith, faith that has to die on the cross, be buried, and rise again--in a new form. This faith is a process--and it is possible for people to find themselves at different phases of this process at different moments of their lives.
I have often heard the ironic statement that faith is simply "a crutch" to help those of us who are weak and lame, whereas the strong have no need of it. It is not "a crutch," but it might be compared to a pilgrim's staff that assists us on our journey through life. Maybe when someone is just about to cross the threshold of home, when the staff won't be needed anymore, it falls from his hands; it's not surprising if he loses his balance for a moment. "Seen from the other side"--from the viewpoint we can only experience here as an assurance, as hope--beyond that threshold, at the moment we lose all supports and certainties, there awaits us an embrace of love that will not let us fall into emptiness.
Faith is converted into love--sometimes not until the last gate, sometimes earlier, perhaps. Where faith dies, love continues to burn so darkness cannot have the final victory. Is it our love or His? It's a pointless question. There is only love.
Thérèse, I think, would agree.