Made for the table

Incoming First-Year Therese of Lisieux

Been reading The Story of a Soul, the classic autobiography of a very young St. Therese of Lisieux, the “Little Flower.” It’s a sweet and stark story of deep devotion, and I’m often stirred by how determined the author is to find her way into full surrender to the will of God, and the great joy she has in detaching from the comforts and pleasures that distract from this.

The Saints are weird. They want different things than I want. They applaud experiences and efforts that, for most of us, would be the point in the story when we’re prone to say, “don’t worry, Christian, things will get better.” Especially baffling are these folks whose lives seemed perfectly fine until they encountered suffering, and upon this realization leave behind the comforts and treasures of home and family to take on a living martyrdom for the sake of Jesus. And they just love it.

Therese is telling a story I think of in relation to our incoming students, and myself during that time of my life. She can’t wait to get old enough to leave home and join this select community, but not of scholars, potential formal dates, or world-travelers. Rather, she can’t wait to leave home and be the spouse of Jesus – Jesus, the entirely absent and completely faithful; overwhelmingly attentive and never predictable; devoted true servant and relentless taskmaster. She is devastatedly in love.

Her view of herself, as one peculiarly called and gifted at such a young age, is a compelling vision for learning outcomes:

When a gardener gives special attention to a fruit which he wishes to ripen early, he does so,not with a view to leaving it on the tree, but in order to place it on a well-spread table. Our Lord lavished His favours on His Little Flower in the same way. He wishes His Mercies to shine forth
in me—He Who, while on earth, cried out in a transport of joy: “I bless Thee, O Father, because Thou hast hidden these things from the wise and prudent and hast revealed them to little ones.” (49)

I love this vision of purpose: to be beautifully prepared, in unusual privelege and at the peaking of youth, in order to be more quickly a featured dish on the Lord’s Table, to signal his grace in the great banquet for all. I am gifted because I am loved; I am given because God so loves the world I’m in.

Like any good fairy tale princess, she yearns and sings and dances in hopes of being united in happiness ever after to her one true love, and unlike any Disney film ever, she prays to be entirely consumed by that love for the sake of Love himself.

Yes, but what of all that talent? Beauty? Potential? Earning power? Boring. She can’t wait to get on with the agonizing death of the self for the sake of the joy of joining God. This is the great mystery of Saints: this constant affirmation that the way of Jesus’ suffering is the happiest of endings.

Eventually, her request to enter the convent at an unusually young age is granted. And here is her royal wedding:

Many were the graces I asked. I felt myself truly a queen and took advantage of my title to obtain every favour from the King for His ungrateful subjects. No one was forgotten. I wished that every sinner on earth might be converted; that on that day Purgatory should set its captives free; and I bore upon my heart this letter containing what I desired for myself:

“O Jesus, my Divine Spouse, grant that my baptismal robe may never be sullied. Take me from this world rather than let me stain my soul by committing the least wilful fault. May I never seek or find aught but Thee alone! May all creatures be nothing to me and I nothing to them! May no earthly thing disturb my peace!

“O Jesus, I ask but Peace. . . . Peace, and above all, Love. . . . Love—without limit. Jesus, I ask that for Thy sake I may die a Martyr; give me martyrdom of soul or body. Or rather give me both the one and the other.

“Grant that I may fulfill my engagements in all their perfection; that no one may think of me; that I may be trodden under foot, forgotten, as a little grain of sand. I offer myself to Thee, O my Beloved, that Thou mayest ever perfectly accomplish in me Thy Holy Will, without let or hindrance from creatures.”

When at the close of this glorious day I laid my crown of roses, according to custom, at Our Lady’s feet, it was without regret. I felt that time would never lessen my happiness. (74)

Swoon. Amen.

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