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Divine Mercy in the Autobiography of St. Therese

DM 101: Week 37

By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Mar 31, 2006)
Divine Mercy is so central to the spirituality of St. Therese that she literally begins and ends her autobiography in praise of God's merciful love:

It is you, dear Mother, to you who are doubly my Mother, to whom I come to confide the story of my soul. The day you asked me to do this, it seemed to me it would distract my heart by too much concentration on myself, but since then Jesus has made me feel that in obeying simply, I would be pleasing to him; besides, I'm going to be doing only one thing: I shall begin to sing what I must sing eternally: "The Mercies of the Lord" (Ps. 88:2)....

Most of all I imitate the conduct of Magdalene; her astonishing or rather her loving audacity which charms the Heart of Jesus also attracts my own. Yes, I feel it; even though I had on my conscience all the sins that can be committed, I would go, my heart broken with sorrow, and throw myself into Jesus' arms, for I know how much He loves the prodigal child who returns to Him. It is not because God, in His anticipating Mercy, has preserved my soul from mortal sin that I go to Him with confidence and love....

Clearly, for St. Therese "confidence and love" in The Divine Mercy is the foundation of her whole relationship with Jesus Christ. Fr. Vernon Johnson emphasizes this strongly in his classic study of her spirituality entitled Spiritual Childhood (p. 90-91):

On a certain occasion during her life in Carmel, St. Therese was asked: "Tell us what we must do to be as little children. What do you mean by keeping little?" She replied: "When we keep little we recognize our own nothingness, and expect everything from God just as a little child expects everything from its father. Nothing worries us." In those words she reveals to us the foundation of her confidence. By looking at her heavenly Father's love for her, she learns a secret which is hidden from the wise and prudent and revealed only to little ones, namely that whereas, in heaven, the love of God goes out to those who are most like himself—the saints, our Lady, the only-begotten Son, on earth, His love goes out to those who are farthest off—the weak, the outcast, the sinful. In other words, the love revealed to St. Therese in the Person of our Lord was a merciful love, and it is as the "Merciful Love" that she always speaks of it. From her earliest days she had a special knowledge of the Divine Mercy, and one may say that this was the great light of her life and the grace proper to her mission. No one, it would seem, was ever more attracted than she was to this infinite mercy; no one penetrated further into its unfathomable secrets; no one better understood the immensity of the help that human weakness can draw from it. "The mercy of God was the illuminating sun of her soul, that which, to her eyes, threw light upon all the mystery of God in His relations with man." That this was so she tells us herself. "All souls cannot be alike. They must differ so that each divine perfection may receive special honour. To me He has manifested His infinite mercy, and in this resplendent mirror I contemplate his other attributes. There each appears radiant with love."

This last passage that Fr. Johnson quotes (above) occurs near to the end of the first part of Story of a Soul, as a summarizing statement of her understanding of the spiritual life up until that moment of her journey with Christ. Here St. Therese tells us that all of God's perfections are expressions of His merciful love, even His divine "Justice"! His Justice takes account of our weaknesses and involuntary imperfections, and in that sense His Justice is suffused with Mercy toward us:

O my Dear Mother! After so many graces can I not sing with the Psalmist: "How good is the Lord and His mercy endures forever!" (Ps. 117:1). It seems to me that if all creatures had received the same graces I received, God would be feared by none but would be loved to the point of folly; and through love, not through fear, no one would ever consent to cause Him any pain. I understand, however, that all souls cannot be the same, that it is necessary there be different types in order to honor each of God's perfections in a particular way. To me He has granted His infinite Mercy, and through it I contemplate and adore the other divine perfections! All of these perfections appear to be resplendent with love, even His Justice (and perhaps this even more so than the others) seems to me clothed in love. What a sweet joy it is to think that God is Just, i.e., that He takes into account our weakness, that He is perfectly aware of our fragile nature. What should I fear then? Ah! must not the infinitely just God, who deigns to pardon the faults of the prodigal son with so much kindness, be just also toward me who "am with Him always?" (Luke 15:31)

Therese then gives thanks for the opportunity she was given by her Mother superior to offer herself as an oblation to God's merciful love. She concludes this section of Story of a Soul with an expression of complete trust and joy in the merciful care of Jesus for her, no matter what the future may bring:

You permitted me, dear Mother, to offer myself in this way to God, and you know the rivers or rather the oceans of graces that flooded my soul. Ah! since the happy day, it seems to me that Love renews me, purifying my soul and leaving no trace of sin within it, and I need have no fear of purgatory. I know that of myself I would not merit even to enter that place of expiation, since only holy souls can have entrance there, but I also know that the Fire of Love is more sanctifying than the fire of purgatory. I know that Jesus cannot desire useless sufferings for us, and that He would not inspire the longings I feel unless He wanted to grant them.

Oh! How sweet is the way of Love! How I want to apply myself to doing the will of God always and with the greatest self-surrender!

Here, dear Mother, is all that I can tell you about the life of your little Therese; you know better than I do what she is and what Jesus has done for her. You will forgive me for having abridged my religious life so much.

How will this "story of a little white flower" come to an end? Perhaps the little flower will be plucked in her youthful freshness or else transported to other shores. I don't know, but what I am certain about is that God's mercy will accompany her always, that it will never cease blessing the dear Mother who offered her to Jesus; she will rejoice eternally at being one of the flowers of her crown. And with this, dear Mother she will sing eternally the new canticle of Love.

Finally, although her total oblation to God's merciful love would require great heroism, and her "Little Way" of spiritual childhood would require a radically humble spirit, St. Therese was well aware of the fact that she could not live out such ideals and aspirations by her own strength and efforts alone. She assures us that it is only the grace of Jesus Christ Himself, dwelling in our hearts, that can turn such dreams of sanctity into reality, enabling us to love God with all our hearts, and our neighbors as ourselves:

When the Lord commanded His people to love their neighbors as themselves, He had not as yet come upon the earth. Knowing the extent to which each one loved himself, He was not able to ask of His creatures a greater love than this for one's neighbor. But when Jesus gave his Apostles a new commandment, HIS OWN COMMANDMENT, as He calls it later on, it is no longer a question of loving one's neighbor as oneself but of loving him as He, Jesus, has loved him, and will love him to the consummation of the ages.

Ah! Lord, I know you don't command the impossible. You know better than I do my weakness and imperfection; You know very well that never would I be able to love my Sisters as You love them, unless You, O my Jesus, loved them in me. It is because You wanted to give me this grace that You made your new commandment. Oh! How I love this new commandment since it gives me the assurance that Your will is to love in me all those You command me to love!

(This series continues next week on the Mercy spirituality of Blessed Dina Belanger of Quebec. Quotations from the autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux in this instalment were taken from Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of Therese of Lisieux, Third edition, ICS, 1996).