St. Therese of Lisieux's Christmas Conversion and the Battle of Bearing her Emotions
from Context of Holiness by Fr. Marc Foley p.92
The "third period" of Therese's life dawned on Dec. 25, 1885, when God gave her the grace to control her "extreme touchiness." Therese said that it was the greatest grace that she had ever received. it restored her strength of soul that she had lost when her mother died. It was the moment when she "received the grace of leaving childhood."
On Christmas day, it was a French tradition to fill the shoes of the baby of the family with little gifts. This custom continued in the Martin household until Therese was fourteen. When the Martin family returned home after attending midnight mass in 1886, Louis noticed Therese's shoes in front of the fireplace and sighed to Celine, "Therese ought to have outgrown all this sort of thing, and I hope this will be the last time." Celine caught Therese's eye and realized that she had overheard her father's remark. Aware of Therese's hypersensitivity, Celine followed her upstairs and found Therese sitting on her bed, her eyes filled with tears. Celine told her not to go downstairs in this state. Therese recounts, "I was no longer the same; Jesus had changed my heart. Forcing back my tears, I descended the stairs rapidly; controlling the poundings of my heart, I took my slippers and placed them in front of Papa, and withdrew all the objects joyfully. I had the happy appearance of a Queen...Since that night I have never been defeated in any combat. The source of my tears was dried up, and I received the grace of leaving my childhood, in a word, the grace of my complete conversion."
What does it mean to leave childhood? What does it mean to become an adult? It means having the strength not to be ruled by one's emotions or allowing one's feelings to dictate one's choices, and possessing the determination to stand upright in the face of an emotional storm. This is the grace given to Therese.
Therese was not healed of her hypersensitivity. Rather, she was given the strength to deal with it. Her father's remark deeply hurt Therese, but she received the strength not to give into her tears. Her feelings were not changed; rather, she was given the strength to control them. God did not remove Therese from the battle of her emotions but gave her the fortitude to remain in the battle. "It is God's will that I fight right up till death," she said.
The battle that Therese engaged in on December 25, 1886, was the form of all the battles that she would fight. Whether it was the battle to endure her "natural antipathy" toward Sr. Teresa, the courage to face her fears when she was appointed novice mistress, the patience to suffer boredom while listening to Sr. St. Raphael drone on and on delivering spiritual nosegays, the fortitude to work with Sr. Marie of St Joseph in the linen closet, the capacity to bear up under her father's mental illness, the grace to deal with her scrupulosity, or the strength to resist being mothered by Pauline and other mother figures in Carmel, the battle was the same. It was the battle of bearing her emotions.
Reflecting on your own life, what do we suffer in doing God's will? Is it not some painful emotion that accompanies our choices? Is it not fear that makes an act of faith harrowing? Is not the sadness of mourning that makes "letting go" difficult? Is not loneliness or emptiness the price of remaining faithful to one's vows? Is not tediousness and boredom the burden of being dutiful to the daily round?
Love and suffering are inseparable. If we are unwilling to suffer, then we cannot love. The grace of her Christmas conversion gave Therese the strength to embrace this truth. And it revealed to her that true happiness lies in love. "I felt charity enter into my soul, and the need to forget myself and to please others; since then I've always been happy." Therese was not in love with pain; ;she was in love with God. Her love for God expressed itself in her choices to love her neighbors. This demanded that she bear the pain that love entails. By embracing suffering, she experienced the embrace of God. If God is love, then we cannot know God by any other means than love. There is no truth in those who claim that they know God without loving their neighbor.
The Nature of Healing
Freud once said that therapy ends when we are dealing with our problems and they are no longer dealing with us. For are not our deeply rooted, deeply embedded, and deeply entrenched personality traits chronic, obdurate, and unyielding by definition? Even though I believe that by the grace of God I am not the man I was thirty-five years ago, for I can honestly say that much emotional healing has taken place in my heart. Nevertheless, during times of stress, when my old fears and neurotic compulsions well up within me in all their savage intensity, I feel that nothing has changed. I say to myself, "When will I ever be rid of this fear?"
Once I could accept the answer "Never" I felt a great weight taken off my shoulders. For I was released from the impossible goal of trying to become someone other than myself. I have often told people who come to me for spiritual direction to never make it a goal to conquer their faults. Simply ask for the grace to resist the temptation of the moment. Take it for granted that you will always have tendencies toward certain sins and self-destructive behaviors, which will always be opportunities to grow in virtue and rely upon the grace of God.
"I had no need to grow up." Therese did not make it a goal to get beyond the effects of her childhood but to do the will of God in the midst of them. Therese understood that the emotional wounds of her childhood were not obstacles to spiritual growth but the context of growing in holiness.
Therese can help us to refocus our goal in life. She tells us to keep our minds on doing the will of God. If our emotions are transformed in the process, all well and good. Praise God! But if they are not changed, they are the context in which we will grow in God's love.