Dear Little Therese,
I was seventeen when I read your autobiography.
It struck me forcibly. You called it ‘The story of a little flower’. To me the will-power, courage, and decisiveness it showed made it seem more like the story of a piece of steel. Once you had chosen the path of complete dedication to God, nothing could stop you: not illness, nor opposition from outside, nor inner confusion and darkness.
I remember the time I was ill and sent to a sanatorium, in the days before penicillin and antibiotics, when death awaited pretty well anyone who was sent to the hospital. I was ashamed of myself for feeling a little afraid.
‘At the age of twenty-three,’ I said to myself, ‘Therese, who until then had been healthy and full of vitality, was filled with joy and hope when she first spat blood. Not only that—but when her health improved she got permission to end her fast with a diet of dry bread and water. And you’re almost trembling! You’re a priest! Don’t be silly!’
Reading it again, on the centenary of your birth (1873 to 1973), what now strikes me most is the way in which you loved God and your neighbor.
St. Augustine wrote: ‘We reach God, not by walking, but through love.’ You also called your road ‘the way of love’. Christ said: ‘No one comes to me unless my Father calls him’.
You were perfectly in tune with these words, feeling ‘like a bird without strength and without wings’, and seeing in God an eagle who came down to carry you off on high, on its wings. You called divine grace ‘the lifter’, which carried you to God swiftly and easily, since you were ‘too small to climb the harsh ladder of perfection’.
I said ’easily’, but let me make it clear: I meant it only in one way.
In another—well in the final months of your life your soul felt as if it was going down a kind of dark passage, seeing nothing of what it had once seen clearly. ‘Faith’, you wrote, ‘is no longer a veil but a wall’. Your physical sufferings were so great that you said, ‘If I had not had faith, I would have chosen death’.
In spite of that you kept saying to the Lord you loved, saying with your will alone, ‘I sing of the happiness of Paradise, but without any feeling of joy; I sing simply because I want to believe’. Your last words were: ‘My God, I love You’.
To the merciful love of God you offered yourself as a victim. All this did not prevent you from enjoying what was good and beautiful. Before your final illness you loved painting, and wrote poetry and short plays on religious subjects, taking some of the parts yourself and showing quite a talent for acting.
In the last stage of your illness, when you felt briefly better, you asked for some chocolates. You had no fear of your own imperfections, not even of having sometimes slept during meditation, out of weariness (‘mothers love their children, even when they are asleep’).
Loving your neighbor, you tried to serve others in small, useful ways, but to do so unobserved; and you preferred, if anything, to do this for people who irritated you, those you understood least. Behind their unlikeable faces you sought the beloved face of Christ.
And no one noticed these efforts of yours. ‘How mystical she was in chapel, and at her work’, the prioress wrote of you, ‘At other times she was very amusing, full of fun and making us laugh uproariously at recreation’.
Joy mixed with Christian love appears in the song of the angels at Bethlehem. It is part of the essence of the Gospel which means ‘good news’. It is characteristic of the saints. Joy may become perfect charity if it is shared, as in fact, dear St. Therese, you shared yours at recreation in the convent.
Therese, the love you gave God (and your neighbor for love of God) was really worthy of Him. This is how our love should be: a flame fed by all that’s great and fine in ourselves; a rejection of all that is refractory in us; and a victory that carries us on its wings and takes us as a gift to the feet of God.
These few lines certainly don’t contain the whole of your message to Christians, but they are enough to point out a few things to us.
Archbishop Albino Luciani
Patriarch of Venice
This letter to St. Therese of Lisieux is one of the series of Illustrissimi letters that Archbishop Luciani wrote regularly in a column for the Messaggero di San Antonio magazine. They were published in 1976 and are still available from booksellers in Italian and several translations, including English. We thank the whitesmokeahoy blog for publishing this excerpt from the publication.