Heather King, author of the blog "Shirt of Flame," offers more of her signature wisdom regarding the life and spirituality of St. Therese of Lisieux and the idea of "incarnational mysticism." Read her blog post here.
The other day I wrote that you don't have to believe in God or Jesus in order to pray. If we sincerely pray with all our hearts I believe the prayer will inevitably lead to him. But we don't have to believe in him for him to shower his gifts on us. To me when Christ said, “No-one comes to the Father except through me” [John 14:6], he meant that if we don't know him, we won't KNOW he is showering us with gifts. We will not SEE they are gifts.
To me, Christianity is never about that those of us who know how to pray or know to pray through Christ or who participate in the Eucharist are "saved" and the other poor slobs are cast into the fire. If that were the case, how could any person of conscience seriously want to join in? Christianity to me is that if you don't follow Christ, eat his Body, drink His Blood, you do not have abundant life. You do not have full joy. You do not fully understand that your entire existence is an insane gift. And our entire job is to radiate such love and joy that people will get curious about, will feel compelled to explore, will be attracted by the gift...
I am squarely, you could even say devoutly, Catholic. Love Mass, believe passionately in the value of Confession, pray the Office, read the Desert Fathers, the desert mystics, the saints, the scholars, the philosophers, the contemplatives. Live in some kind of marginal poverty, chastity, obedience. Make retreats, seek spiritual direction, worship, worship, worship Christ. Lately, like a reverse of the cradle Catholics who grow up with novenas and holy cards and rosaries and then discard those practices as hopelessly childish, I've started GOING to novenas. Sure! Litanies to the saints, prayers to Michael the archangel, bring it on.
But what this has given me is not a sense that the structure of worship, the teachings of the Church, and the centuries of tradition constitute my faith; rather, those things inexorably guide me to faith. Everything I am I am because I have prayed, sought, trudged to Mass, sang the crappy post-Vatican II hymns, heard the boring homilies. Which of course means I was also there to hear the stellar homilies, drink in the beautiful churches, sing the splendid hymns ("The King of Love My Shepherd Is,” “Come Thy Fount of Every Blessing,” “O Sanctissima”).
And because I was there with love, and with total, total gratitude, I have gotten to see that whether the outside is personally and aesthetically pleasing to me doesn't much matter. I have gotten to see that everyone is doing the best they can; everyone has a shattered heart in this world. What matters it that I participate in the Eucharist, the intersection of heaven of earth, of this realm and the realm from which we came and to which we will go when we die, of the spirit and the flesh. What matters is that I kneel, pray, and lift my voice in song with people I have not hand-picked. What matters is that I confess my weakness and brokenness and ask my brothers and sisters to pray for me and that I pledge to pray for them. What matters is that I open my heart and imagination to see that Christ is in the middle of all of it: all of what happens inside church, and all of what happens outside of it.
Because everything that I am I also am because of my fellow alcoholics and addicts who for twenty-four years have saved my life, given me life, shown me what abundant life is. And if that is not Christ in action, I sincerely don't know what would be.
"God is greater than God," said 13th-c. mystic Meister Eckhart and I truly think this is one of the things Thérèse was saying and one of the things we need to ponder, hear, and disseminate far and wide.
Because when Christ said "No-one comes to the Father except through me" I'm thinking he also didn't mean that your kindness and generosity and compassion and suffering and joy are not wanted and don't "count" unless you're a confirmed and in good-standing (whataver that means) Catholic. I'm thinking he meant ALL true kindness and generosity and compassion and suffering and growth and forgiveness and self-examination and creativity and joy are accomplished through, pleasing to, done with and by and beside him. Even if we don't recognize him, in other words, healways recognizes us. This is a God who, truly, is greater than God. This is a God, as Hans Urs von Balthasar observed, "so intensely alive that he can afford to be dead."
So this is the backdrop with which I came to Bro. Joseph F. Schmidt's retreat last week. (For the record, I asked, and he gave the green light, to post the substance of his remarks and if I say something that is not in complete accordance therewith I hope he or a devotee will correct me post-haste).
If you're interested, you can read up on her at one of her many "official" sites or at wikipedia, but briefly, she lived from 1873-1897, was the youngest of four sisters originally from Alençon, France, all of whom entered a cloistered convent, led an outwardly completely unremarkable, obscure life, died at the age of twenty-four of TB, and on the way developed an inner life and a spirituality known as "The Little Way" that is at once so revolutionary and so true to and reflective of the Gospels that this essentially unschooled bourgeois French girl was canonized a mere twenty-eight years later and in 1997, made a Doctor of the Church (one of only three women to date upon whom the title has been bestowed).
She left behind poems, plays, letters and an autobiography, written under orders from her superiors at the convent, called The Story of a Soul. What I love about her is that she seemed to be and in fact was humble, meek (in the true sense of the word), and mild, and she also was fierce, hard-core, and determined unto death. Because Thérèse's vocation, she discovered, was love. And authentic love is hard-core. Non-violent love is as hard-core as you can get--Christ on the Cross being the clearest possible demonstration...
One way to describe Thérèse's spirituality is INCARNATIONAL MYSTICISM, an attitude characterized by:
1. Seeing Through the Eyes of God:
Christ comes to re-vivify our spirit. Christianity is not a matter of taking on extra pain. It's a matter of taking on the pain of being who we are, and patiently bearing with ourselves and the SLOW work of God.
To be loving means that we never make ourselves or others into an adversary. To try to fix things, ourselves and others up is adversarial. One weakness is failing to respond to God's mercy and love. God “loves us into” boundaries. Boundaries are to be made lovingly, for our good and the good of others.
We are welcoming of the world and of our experiences. We deal with our experiences through God's point-of-view.
2. Doing Everything with the Intention of Pleasing God:
"The great saints worked for the glory of God, but I'm only a little soul; I work simply for His pleasure," said Thérèse.
This requires an awareness of our motivations. Before we take an action, we ask ourselves: What does this look like from the standpoint of eternity? To be present to our motivations without fear requires great spiritual discipline. We don't want to get hooked into retaliation. We want to do good to those who hate us (which is often ourselves).
But the point is that we do everything with the intention of pleasing God. Not with the intention of pleasing ourselves (though if our intentions are pure, that comes along the way). Not with the intention of pleasing others if the pleasing is so that they'll approve of us or give us what we want. And definitely not with the intention of appeasing God or placating God or hoodwinking God or earning God's love. Because God already loves us. And now we simply get to please him.
3. Receiving Everything from God:
Self-love is letting God love us. Our spiritual journey is accepting our life as God's providence. It's not to become "moral" and "gain" virtue. Virtue is the capacity for non-violence. Virtue is to realize we are loved.
Thérèse spoke often of surrender and gratitude. Surrender doesn't mean passively accepting violence. Surrender means staying with our painful memories and feelings, bringing them into God's presence.
One major way we experience God is through our feelings (an area that to date we have not much talked about in the Church). Thoughts drive us, but feelings precede thoughts chronologically, so this is a significant issue. In a former post, I set forth some of Br. Joe's insights on the subject.
Our feelings of shame and guilt are real. They come from way back, from our childhoods. The feelings are so intense because they have a physiological basis to them. We're not crazy to have them, but as adults we don't need them. And in spite of the fact that we don't need them, they don't go away. We'll still have them on our deathbeds. But we do have a responsibility to treat the feelings so that what remains is more a tendency to have them, and/or to be triggered and then react to them with violence toward ourselves or others.
The thing to remember here is that nobody gets what they need as a kid. Even under the best of circumstances (and most of us come from far from the best), we are left unsatisfied; fretful for the transcendent. So whose fault is it that none of us get what we need? Nobody's. And especially not yours. So don't blame yourself.
|Thérèse as Joan of Arc
in the convent at Carmel
Lisieux, France, c. 1895
Thérèse's great gift was to integrate the psychological and the spiritual. Her life experiences and her teachings are integral to each other. She addressed these childhood feelings directly and in that sense (among many others) she is radical. In a former post—Co-dependent No More—I wrote of her “Christmas conversion,” in which an offhand remark from her father catapulted her in an instant into the next level of spiritual maturity.
So we all need this contemplative spirit, this "incarnational mysticism" by which we begin to see through the eyes of God. As children, we see through the eyes of hurt, fear, and confusion. But as we work on these childhood feelings—through prayer, inventory, sharing with a trusted friend or spiritual director—we begin to develop a more mature point-of-view. We begin to heal our "original sin," in the sense of original sin as not trusting in God's goodness for us. We begin to see that God blesses all our experiences, even the most painful.
We do not get RECOGNIZED for living in incarnational mysticism (I, personally, think this is very unfair). No-one will even notice. We will, however, become the saints we were meant to be. Not the saints we wanted to be. The saints God wants us to be.
Read more of Heather's posts by visiting her blog, Shirt of Flame.