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 Thérèse was fourteen. When the Martin family returned home after attending midnight mass in 1886, Louis noticed Thérèse’s shoes in front of the fireplace and sighed to Céline, "Thérèse ought to have outgrown all this sort of thing, and I hope this will be the last time." Céline caught Thérèse’s eye and realized that she had overheard her father’s remark. Aware of Thérèse’s hypersensitivity, Céline followed her upstairs and found Thérèse sitting on her bed, her eyes filled with tears. Céline told her not to go downstairs in this state. Thérèse 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. Having regained his own cheerfulness, Papa was laughing; Céline believed it was all a dream! Fortunately, it was a sweet reality; Thérèse had discovered once again the strength of soul which she had lost at the age of four and a half, and she was to preserve it forever. On that night of light began the third period of my life". Here is an account of a teenage girl choosing to control her feelings. A seemingly insignificant event; yet, it was the turning point in Thérèse’s life. God "made me strong and courageous, arming me with His weapons. 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 was the grace given to Thérèse. Thérèse was not healed of her hypersensitivity. Rather, she was given the strength to deal with it.
Reflect upon 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 Thérèse 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". If we do not understand this truth, then we cannot understand what Thérèse meant when she said that she loved suffering. Thérèse was not in love with pain; she was in love with God. Her love for God expressed itself in her choices to love her neighbor. 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.
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. Thirty-five years ago, when I was a gung-ho undergraduate psychology major, Freud’s viewpoint sounded pessimistic and depressing. Now, as a man in his sixties, who is still struggling with the same fears and neurotic tendencies that I wrestled with in my youth, I see Freud’s perspective as being realistic. 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. "Working on yourself," can be an insidious mask of self-hate, for it makes you feel that there is something wrong with you until you are "healed." 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" (S. 208). Thérèse 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. Thérèse understood that the emotional wounds of her childhood were not obstacles to spiritual growth but the context of growing in holiness.
Thérèse 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.
By Fr. Marc Foley. The Context of Holiness: Psychological and Spiritual Reflections on the Life of Saint Therese of Lisieux (pp. 95-96). ICS Publications