The editorial of the month
Jubilee Year of Mercy: Saint Thérèse of Lisieux and Mercy by Rev. Peter John Cameron, O.P
Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, in her writings, mentions the word “mercy” some seventy-five times. At the canonization process of 1910, Sister Thérèse’s former prioress, Mother Agnes (her blood sister Pauline), was asked why she wished to see her sibling beatified. She replied, “Because it will procure the glory of God, principally by proclaiming his mercy.”
God’s unshakeable mercy
The Little Flower’s certainty regarding divine mercy, ironically, stems from motherhood; when but a little girl Thérèse lost her own mother. She states:
I have long believed that the Lord is more tender than a mother. I know that a mother is always ready to forgive trivial, involuntary misbehavior on the part of her child. Children are always giving trouble, falling down, getting themselves dirty, breaking things—but all this does not shake their parents’ love for them.
The problem lies in our reluctance to accept this mercy—our misgivings. A play that the young nun composed for her community has the Child Jesus speak from the Christmas manger: “I thirst to give myself to souls,/ But many hearts are languishing.” It is to cure just such a spiritual malady that this Doctor of the Church devotes her consecrated life.
The felt need for mercy
Thérèse simply assumes that our need for God’s mercy matches her own. As she confesses in a poem:
I need a heart burning with tenderness,
Who will be my support forever,
Who loves everything in me, even my weakness…
And who never leaves me day or night.
A now-famous tussle with a Jansenist-tinged fellow Carmelite moved Thérèse to articulate her conviction about mercy. Her concluding words to Sister Fébronie were: “Sister, if you want divine justice, you will get divine justice. The soul gets exactly what it expects of God.”
And Thérèse always expected mercy from God. “After all the graces with which he has overwhelmed me, I also expect him to grant me that of his infinite mercy.” She prayed in her autobiography: “If your justice loves to release itself, this justice which extends only over the earth, how much more does your merciful love desire to set souls on fire since your mercy reaches to the heavens.”
Surrendering to mercy
The key consists in seeing beyond our own evil to the greater reality—the unfailing mercy of God. Cowering must yield to confidence. Thérèse intrepidly tells her Savior:
I feel that if you found a soul weaker and littler than mine, you would be pleased to grant it still greater favors, provided it abandoned itself with total confidence to your infinite mercy.
The saint instructs us, “In its audacious trust in God, the soul believes that it will more fully attract the love of One who did not come to call the just but sinners.” She underscores this in a poem: “Living on Love is banishing every fear,/ Every memory of past faults.” How to do this? “A glance of love cast towards Jesus and the knowledge of our profound misery makes reparation for everything.”
The mortification mercy demands is unceasing dependence. Thérèse testifies:
The memory of my faults humbles me; it causes me never to rely on my own strength, which is but weakness, but especially it teaches me a further lesson of the mercy and love of God.
We have only to beg pardon and all is repaired by that act of love. Jesus opens his heart to us. He forgets our infidelities and does not want to recall them. He will do even more: He will love us even better than before we committed that fault.
Saint Thérèse’s stated mission in the opening paragraph of her Story of a Soul continues today from her place in heaven: “I’m going to be doing only one thing: I shall begin to sing what I must sing eternally: The mercies of the Lord.”