St Thérèse of Lisieux Novena

‘A King who had set out on the chase noticed his dogs pursuing a small white rabbit which was just ahead of them. When the little rabbit began to sense that the dogs were about to pounce on it, it turned suddenly and bounded back, jumping into the arms of the huntsman. Deeply moved by this show of confidence the king from then on cherished the rabbit as his own. He allowed no one to molest it and nourished and cared for the little animal himself. You see, no matter how helpless we feel, we have only to leap up into God’s arms. Then he will be so touched, as it were, by our CONFIDENCE that he cannot help but repay our trust’. St Thérèse of Lisieux. I praise God for this insight which is wholly practical. When I get chased by lower instincts and put confidence in God making the leap - following the Little Way - she suggests Jesus rewards me. 

‘One day when I was nearing the end of my life and feeling absolutely bereft and forsaken by God, I was in the garden, walking very slowly because of my weakness and constant pain. Suddenly I saw a hen at the side of the path, hustling her newborn chicks out of my way, protecting them with outstretched wings. I thought of how God had loved and protected me, how God wants indeed to envelope everyone with the tender protectiveness of that mother hen. I was so moved that my eyes filled up with tears and I had to look away. THAT’S HOW GOD LOVES YOU TOO - no matter what it feels like, no matter what kind of personal history you have. If you want holiness, build your foundation on this rock of God’s love. St Thérèse of Lisieux imaginatively represented by Elizabeth Ruth Obbard ODC. I find Therese an encouragement to welcome God’s love deeper and deeper into my life. 

‘Mary, if I were the Queen of Heaven, and you were Thérèse, I should want to be Thérèse that you might be the Queen of Heaven’ was almost the last thing St Thérèse said before she died. The Saint whose Novena we’re keeping before her Feast on 1 October admired the Blessed Virgin for her TRUST IN GOD alongside her humility before him, abandonment to his will and perseverance with Jesus to the end. The incident in the picture occurred Pentecost Sunday 1883 when 10 year old Thérèse was at death’s door and received healing from God in answer to prayer. The family statue of Mary came alive. ‘The Virgin Mary grew beautiful… what pierced me to the depths of my heart was her enchanting smile’. In Lisieux on Assumption Feast 2019 I was privileged to walk in procession with a replica of this statue renewing my own trust in God after the example of Mary and Thérèse.

On these stairs the force of God’s love first impacted St Thérèse of Lisieux. After Midnight Mass 1886 the 13 year old Thérèse rushed upstairs prior to the children’s Christmas treat by the fire. She overheard on the stairs her tired and rather bad tempered father say to her older sisters down below ‘Well, thank goodness it’s the last year this is going to happen!’. Her instinct was to cry out of self-pity but in a moment God overruled her over sensitiveness. She ran downstairs to join in the present opening. In her best selling ‘Story of a Soul’ we read ‘as I took out my presents you would have thought that I was as happy as a queen. Papa smiled, his good humour restored’. I love her CONVERSION story and identify times in my life when the force of God’s love has anointed me to forget my self in its wretched sensitivity and look cheerfully to what he and others want of me.

‘Suppose a father with two sons, mischievous and disobedient. Coming to punish them, he sees one shaking with terror and trying to get away from him while his brother does the opposite, casts himself into his father’s arms, says that he is sorry for having caused him pain, that he loves him and that he will prove it by being good in future. Then if this child asks his father to punish him with a kiss. I do not think the heart of the delighted father could resist the filial confidence of his child, for he knows his sincerity and love. He is of course perfectly aware that his son will fall, not once but many times, into the same faults, but he is ready to pardon him every time if every time his son takes him by the heart’  St Thérèse of Lisieux explaining her LITTLE WAY which I’m getting a handle on. When I know I’ve given in to my lower passions I imagine this scene, say sorry and jump in faith into Jesus’ arms.

A copy of this discomfiting picture of Christ in his passion hanging in Lisieux Cathedral hung over Thérèse’s bed when she was dying. Before that when her father became mentally ill God taught her to see Jesus in his vacant face mirroring this scripture from Isaiah 53:2-3 prophesying Christ’s passion: ‘He had no form or majesty that we should look on him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others, a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces’. I find this insight of Thérèse - who called herself Thérèse of the HOLY FACE - compelling and challenging. Lord Jesus give me grace to recognise you in the mystery of your suffering face among others so I can find you in what’s unlovely, painful and sorrowful. ‘Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love’ Psalm 31:16

Engaging with Thérèse of Lisieux is engagement with SELF-ACCEPTANCE, something built in her by the Lord and her acceptance by a loving family and the community she joined at 15. Her ‘Story of a Soul’ captures this struggle to welcome God’s love and accept ourselves within its embrace. On a retreat in Lisieux in August 2019 I felt inspired by her to talk with Jesus about my own difficulties in self-acceptance and how my failings can become happy pretext for looking to him. To know this, to accept ourselves and our life circumstances, helps us divert from these towards addressing our deeper needs and aspirations. Thanks to Thérèse I run less risk of seeing the way to my true self blocked by staying slave to lower impulses though, like her, I can’t presume on Jesus. As she said, ‘I am not perfect but I want to become so… effort means more to God than victory’.

‘Love is strong as death… its flames are flashes of fire, a raging flame’ Song of Songs 8:6 St Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-97) knew this flame of love and talked about how best we can fuel it in the modest circumstances of our life. ‘When we are in darkness, in dryness, then there is no wood within our reach, but surely we can throw little bits of straw on the fire… I have tried it. When I feel nothing, when I am incapable of praying or of practising virtue, then is the moment to look or small occasions… a smile, a friendly word, when I would much prefer to say nothing or look bored etc’. She writes elsewhere: ‘The greatest honour God can do a soul is not to give much to it, but to ask much of it… the one thing I beg you to ask for my soul is the grace to LOVE JESUS AND MAKE HIM LOVED as much as lies in my power. Thérèse is rightly styled patroness of Christian mission!

‘O my God! Blessed Trinity, I desire to love you and make you loved, to work for the glorification of holy Church by saving souls on earth… I desire to be a saint, but I feel my powerlessness, and I ask you, O my God, to be yourself my sanctity. Since you have so loved me as to give your only Son to be my Saviour… the infinite treasures of his merits are mine I OFFER THEM to you with joy, begging you to look at me only with the face of Jesus between and in his heart burning with love… in the evening of this life I shall appear before you empty-handed, for I do not ask you, Lord, to count my works…so… I receive from your love the possession of yourself… to live in an act of perfect love I OFFER MYSELF as a burnt-offering to your merciful love, calling upon you to consume me at every instant’. Act of Offering of St Thérèse of Lisieux (abridged)

‘At seven-fifteen in the evening of the 30th September 1897, after the Angelus, the Prioress warned Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face that her agony might go on longer.  Therese answered courageously, in a voice barely audible: ‘Very well then!... let it come ... oh! I would not want to suffer less!....’ Then, looking at the crucifix she held so tightly in her clasped hands: ‘Oh! I love Him! ...My God... I love you!’ She had barely uttered these words in ‘the night of faith’, when she collapsed; then suddenly, as though hearing a voice from heaven, she sat up in ecstasy, her look radiant, gazing above her. It was the tending of the cloud, the skies opening, illumination; and in that illumination she died.’ Epilogue to Letters of St  Thérèse of Lisieux translated by F.J.Sheed (1972)