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  • Writer's pictureDr. Anthony Lilles

St. Paul and St. Therese - the true nature of holiness

In Colossians 1:24, St. Paul speaks of rejoicing because through his own trials he participates in Christ's salvific work for the Church, making up what is lacking in Christ's suffering. While the sufferings of Christ are sufficient for our salvation, the way He suffered allows the Church to share in his work and participate in it through the trials of each of her members. The Church is in fact a mystical reality, the Body of Christ in which the Lord's whole mystery is present. Although all Christians are invited to take up this work, the great saints like St. Paul or else closer to our time St. Therese, share in this mysterious work of love in an intense, pure and extremely fruitful manner. St. Therese of Lisieux faced a terrific struggle with her faith while dying of tuberculosis. She describes in her autobiography how her life, which up to that moment had been like a fairy-tail (a remarkable statement when we consider many of the difficult things she had already endured in her life of faith), had become a prayer. The thought of heaven which had been a consolation to her all her life suddenly left her dry. It was not the article of faith—that is, that there is a heaven—that she doubted. Rather it was the fear and uncertainty over whether heaven was actually a possibility for her personally. This experience so close to her death after years of joyful devotion to the Lord puzzled theologians: was she simply weak in faith when push came to shove or was there something deeper going on? The more theologians discerned her life, the more certain they became that there was something deeper, something like the experience which St. Paul bears witness to in his letter to the Colossians. Leading up to this moment, St. Therese had asked for all the graces that everyone else rejects, the ones God offers so generously and that we often turn our backs on. She had asked for these rejected gifts because she understood a mysterious sorrow that the Lord had over the rejection of his gifts. She asked for these gifts out of a sincere desire to console the heart of God. (One can only wonder what God thought of such audacity with the smiling desire to imitate it!) One of the gifts she received from praying in this way was a special love for souls who were far from God, a compassion for those people who did not believe God loved them if they believed He existed at all. This love even included those who were hostile to God and religion. (If you know anyone like this, ask St. Therese to pray for them.) For their sake, she offered her life to the merciful love of God and asked God to allow her to share their plight so that they might know his mercy. When she asked this, she was asking to share in the passion of Christ, to make up in her body what was lacking in the suffering of Christ - just like St. Paul. Though she was fatally ill, it was not physical suffering that bothered her but the deep mental anguish of wondering about God's plan. When she says the thought of heaven was no longer a consolation to her, this indicates that she was tormented by whether God's plan was really a loving plan for her personally. Paradoxically, it was in the experience of this anguish of heart that she became most Christ like - that is most like Christ when He prayed, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me." It is possible to face intense questions about our faith but remain faithful. This is what she chose to do. In this kind of trial, the intellect is thrown into a terrific darkness. One simply does not want to think about the things of God because the thought of them is mysteriously painful and the temptation not to trust God becomes overwhelmingly acute. What she did and what we must do in these moments is to cleave to God by a loving act of trust even though trusting in these circumstances is so difficult. This means living by love even when love feels absent. This also means trusting in God's virtue when we do not feel we have any of our own. It is a curious thing that the greater our devotion to God, the more normal we become. Saints are extraordinary precisely because their struggles are so ordinary. It is their faithfulness that sets them apart - a faithfulness beyond which frail humanity can account for, a faithfulness that witnesses to the power of God. Thus, even in the midst of these spiritual trials, Therese continued to struggle with all the other ordinary weaknesses we all suffer - like pride. She even complains to God that despite all her resolutions to be humble in the morning by evening she has a long list of failures to confess and with this is continually realizing in new ways how she needs to trust in the Lord even more (See Pri 20). In this, she has left us a sign about what the perfection of Christian holiness is all about - the freedom to rely on the Lord in our weakness. We can do this because God never tests us beyond our strength and always gives us exactly what we need, when we need it, when we rely on Him. No matter the the intensity of our trials or confusion, He gives us the grace to choose Him, and in choosing Him to believe in his love, and in believing to live by his love even when - perhaps especially when - we feel we have run out of love. All that is left is trust - and trust in the midst of trials allows Christ to renew his whole mystery.

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