Friday, October 01, 2010

St. Thérèse of Lisieux and the Proper Disposition of the Intellect

The world is full of false dichotomies, and some people might assume the Parousians played into one of them when we chose St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Thérèse of Lisieux as our patron saints, the Dumb Ox being the height of Catholic intellectual life and the Little Flower being cute and small and flowery, stereotyping two doctors of the Church in ways that do no justice to their common sanctity and mental dexterity. St. Thomas Aquinas was renowned for his humility and tender devotion to our Lord. And just as St. Thomas Aquinas had a keen command of small details that led him to the universals, St. Thérèse had an alertness born of humility to see reality as it really is, drawing her to the revelation that all is grace, a revelation that contradicts the nihilism of her age and our own.

Saints are canonized in the Catholic Church according to their saintliness, and from that number a select few are chosen because of their contributions to the doctrine of the Church. Doctors help the Church come to a greater clarity on how we understand the Revelation of Christ. Pope John Paul II declared St. Thérèse a doctor recognizing her insight:

Thérèse of Lisieux did not only grasp and describe the profound truth of Love as the center and heart of the Church, but in her short life she lived it intensely. It is precisely this convergence of doctrine and concrete experience, of truth and life, of teaching and practice, which shines with particular brightness in this saint, and which makes her an attractive model especially for young people and for those who are seeking true meaning for their life. Before the emptiness of so many words, Thérèse offers another solution, the one Word of salvation which, understood and lived in silence, becomes a source of renewed life. She counters a rational culture, so often overcome by practical materialism, with the disarming simplicity of the "little way" which, by returning to the essentials, leads to the secret of all life: the divine Love that surrounds and penetrates every human venture. In a time like ours, so frequently marked by an ephemeral and hedonistic culture, this new Doctor of the Church proves to be remarkably effective in enlightening the mind and heart of those who hunger and thirst for truth and love. An eminent model and guide for Christians today.

St. Thérèse bucks the trend of reducing everything to their molecular composition and sees the love of God, his grace teeming in all human affairs, in all creation, even in the smallest acts. She was tuned into reality as it really is, and this darkness in our understanding is not overcome by faculties unfortunately sectioned off as being the whole intellect.

St. Thérèse lived in the light of truth undetectable by the proud, be they new atheists in their irrationality or ill formed apologists who reduce the mystery of transcendental truth to easily apprehended talking points void of the reality of Christ.

The Little Flower herself said, "It seems to me that humility is truth. I don't know if I'm humble, but I do know that I see the truth in all things."

St. Thérèse's willed humility opened her eyes to the grandeur of God displayed in all things. Humility is a necessary disposition to be receptive to reality as it really is, lest we get caught up in out own irrationality and have the arrogance to insist that our skewered vision of the world is accurate.

In my twenties, even with a degree of catechesis and an intellectual formation rooted in the great books, I became obsessed with the problem of evil. I would try to couch my own personal hurt in "intellectual" arguments against a Christian understanding of theodicy. In truth these "intellectual" arguments were rationalizations that did not even match up to my own experience. I moved far from agnostic doubt into nihilistic despair. Somewhere along the way, my doubts had gotten the best of me, and I had forgotten the reality of the love of God I had known both in previous times of prayer and in a world where I had witnessed love and beauty and goodness in spite of the evil I was dwelling on. After a few years of fighting with God out of my hurt, I realized my reasoning was off, and pride had driven me to cut myself off from graces that kept revealing the love of God if I only had eyes to see them, if only I had eyes like St. Thérèse.

St. Thérèse was hurt, but she did not make herself and her hurts bigger than the God who loved her. She made herself small, remained childlike, and did not lose the sense of wonder long-forgotten by so many who think they have figured the world out. This smallness enabled her to see the love woven into all truth so that she might express the truth of that love in each of her own small acts.

She said, "I prefer the monotony of obscure sacrifice to all ecstasies. To pick up a pin for love can convert a soul."

And in recognizing her as a Doctor of the Church, John Paul II knew this line of thinking was not the naivete of an innocent nun, but the sacramental vision necessary to understand the world as it is, a place where the love of God is constantly being revealed. This openness to see grace in all things could only be found in someone small enough to find grace in the smallest things.

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