St. Therese of Lisieux and Suffering
We all suffer; since we are human it is inevitable that we will have trials throughout our life. Suffering, especially when it is intense, can seem intelligible and senseless at the time. So, how can we look at our suffering and see it as a blessing?
Therese suffered very much in her short life. But she begged God for the grace to not just endure it, but to embrace it. Here are a few of her thoughts on the subject from her autobiography, Story of a Soul:
“Yes, suffering opened wide it’s arms to me and I threw myself into them with love” (p. 149).
“I am truly happy to suffer” (p. 210).
“My God, I accept everything out of love for You: if You will it, I really want to suffer even to the point of dying of grief” (p.217).
When reading the third quote, especially, we really get a sense of Therese’s anguish. It might be helpful to understand the background from which she wrote that particular line. Her favorite blood sister in the Carmel community – the one she loved most – was Sr. Agnes of Jesus (Pauline). The Superior was considering sending Sr. Agnes to a mission in Asia, which meant that Therese would probably never see her again. Her anguish and distress at the possibility of this move was immense. But she accepted it, especially her feelings about it, and offered it up as a sacrifice to Jesus.
Therese understood that to love Jesus, she had to participate in His suffering for humanity. The suffering was never just for the sake of suffering. She didn’t wallow in it. She believed that if she accepted suffering she could offer it up to Jesus and let Him transform it by His love. But she very much wanted to suffer for others and take on their burden out of love. Isn’t that what Jesus did for us? He took on the sins of humanity. His agony in the Garden of Gethsemani was a very deep and unspeakable grief. He even asked that “this cup might pass”! But, He then continued: “Not my will, but Your will be done” (Matthew 26.39). Jesus laid down His life for us.
Therese laid down her life for her sisters. It certainly wasn’t as dramatic, but she laid it down, nevertheless. For example: She worked hard but was not efficient in practical matters. She knew that some of the nuns talked about how she was lazy and incompetent. This hurt, but she still smiled at them and went out of her way to do kind things for them, offering up each sacrifice as a flower to Jesus.
Much of her suffering was due to her emotional immaturity. She was unusually spiritually mature, but emotionally immature. This often caused “a raging storm” inside of her, such as at the thought of her dear sister, Sr. Agnes leaving. Most of the time her sacrifices were hidden and unknown until after her death. Many were surprised at her sanctity.
To suffer out of love is very Christian. Let us visit another author, Martin Israel. In his book The Pain That Heals he wrote:
"To bear another's pain means to be constantly present in thought and prayer, silent except when moved to speak by the Holy Spirit, always aware of the depth of distress and yet even more conscious of the power and light of God, who rules omnipotently in all worlds and over all situations. Such a person suffers vicariously, and in taking on the victim's burdens gives them to God in prayer. And God transfigures both the victim and the intercessor while changing the burden from an unbearable tragedy to a presage of triumph (p. 117)."
Love can do all things. Jesus can take both the smallest sacrifice and the most “unbearable tragedy” and transform them into the greatest of blessings. Let us pray to Therese, she will be our teacher on this path of love.