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Thérèse of Lisieux, Part I

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Mysticism: Week 2

Thérèse of Lisieux, Part I
Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897) has long been an important teacher for me. The French Catholic Church of her time emphasized an ideal of human perfection, which took the forms of legalism, perfectionism, and immense self-preoccupation. Yet Thérèse humbly trusted her own experience, as mystics must always do, and taught the spirituality of imperfection instead. She called it her “Little Way.”

Thérèse is one of my favorite mystics, perhaps because I am an Enneagram Type One. The trap for the One is a self-created perfectionism, which makes us always dissatisfied and disappointed in just about everything, starting with ourselves. Our inner critic is quite well-trained and practiced, and it takes years of inner work to recognize how completely this critical worldview impairs our perception and keeps us from our natural compassion. We eventually see that we are not really loving God or others, but merely our own self-image.

Thérèse has often helped me in this inner work. As Brother Joseph Schmidt writes:

Thérèse shifted her focus more and more from attaining perfection or acquiring holiness to the attitude of the publican (see Luke 18:9-14): She let God’s mercy be her perfection, her holiness. “I desire, in a word, to be a saint,” she prayed, “but I feel my helplessness and I beg you—Oh my God!—to be Yourself my Sanctity!” [All true holiness is mirrored and reflected, and Thérèse allowed herself to enjoy that.]

“Jesus, draw me into the flames of your love,” she wrote. “Unite me so closely with you that you live and act in me.” [1]

These prayerful sentiments expressed her solution to the problem of perfection. Thérèse came to a complete reversal of her original idea of what it means to be on the path of holiness and undid centuries of Catholic legalism. And against all odds, this 24-year-old, formally uneducated French woman, has now been declared a “Doctor of the Church” (meaning her teaching is entirely trustworthy). She showed many of us that Gospel holiness has little to do with moral achievements or the elimination of defects (those are ego needs). It is almost entirely about receiving God’s free gift of compassion, mercy, and forgiveness. We know God by participation in God, not by trying to please God from afar. Please think long and happily about that! “Let the one who would boast, boast in God,” as Paul says (1 Corinthians 1:31). It is our faults and our weakness that bring us to God, not our perfection and our strength. What a surprise for most people! I believe this is the heart of the Gospel.

Gateway to Silence:
We are all one with You.

[1] Joseph F. Schmidt, “Perfection: A Problem and a Solution,” “Perfection,” Oneing, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2016), 29. Emphasis mine. These prayers of Thérèse are from her Offering to God’s Merciful Love (June 9, 1895), and from her final notebook (June 1897).

Adapted from Richard Rohr, “The Trap of Perfectionism: Two Needed Vulnerabilities,” “Perfection,” Oneing, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2016), 73.

Image credit: 4th and Walnut Streets, Louisville, Kentucky, looking south, 1956.
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