The soul that walks in love neither tires others nor grows tired
Sayings of Light and Love, 97
If I have all the eloquence of men or of angels, but speak without love, I am simply a gong booming or a cymbal clashing. If I have the gift of prophecy, understanding all the mysteries there are, and knowing everything, and if I have faith in all its fullness, to move mountains, but without love, then I am nothing at all. If I give away all that I possess, piece by piece, and if I even let them take my body to burn it, but am without love, it will do me no good whatever.
Love is always patient and kind; it is never jealous; love is never boastful or conceited; it is never rude or selfish; it does not take offense, and is not resentful. Love takes no pleasure in other people’s sins but delights in the truth; it is always ready to excuse, to trust, to hope, and to endure whatever comes.
Love does not come to an end.
“Love makes _____.”
How would you complete this sentence?
Our answers may give us clues as to how we understand love: God’s love, our love for God, and how love, in all its forms—filial, erotic, and caritative—is at work in our lives. In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul is talking about charity, or what some refer to as agape love (αγαπη).
And like a professor standing at a blackboard or whiteboard, Paul defines his term, including both what love is and what it is not. We can feel fairly certain that he is sketching some of the basic parameters of love… as St. John of the Cross might define it in his saying, an untiring love.
Now, nowhere in this passage of his first letter to the Corinthians is St. Paul scolding the Church for possessing a lack of love or a warped concept of love. The context of this chapter is an instruction on worship in the Corinthian church, and how any worship—no matter how glorious it may be—that lacks the spiritual gift of charity, i.e. love, is so much dust in the wind. Hence that famous verse that we so often hear at weddings: “Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away” (1 Cor 13:8)
It was in reading these chapters that St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus found her inspiration one day. “I opened the Epistles of St. Paul to find some kind of answer. Chapters 12 and 13 of the First Epistle to the Corinthians fell under my eyes… the Apostle explains how all the most PERFECT gifts are nothing without LOVE. That Charity is the EXCELLENT WAY that leads most surely to God” (Ms B, 3r-3v). Therefore, St. Paul urges the Corinthians, “make love your aim” (1 Cor 14:1).
St. John Paul II noted this inspired reading of First Corinthians in his 1997 Apostolic Letter Divini Amoris Scientia:
She discovered hidden treasures, appropriating words and episodes, sometimes with supernatural boldness, as when, in reading the texts of St Paul (cf. 1 Cor 12-13), she realized her vocation to love (cf. Ms B, 3r-3v). Enlightened by the revealed Word, Thérèse wrote brilliant pages on the unity between love of God and love of neighbor (cf. Ms C, 11v-19r).
St. Thérèse did not develop her mad love for God in a vacuum. Love was her aim from her youth, as she testified time and time again in her autobiographical manuscripts and letters. St. John Paul II explained the nature of her formation when he declared Thérèse to be a Doctor of the Universal Church:
Her doctrine, as was said, conforms to the Church’s teaching. From childhood, she was taught by her family to participate in prayer and liturgical worship. In preparation for her first Confession, first Communion and the sacrament of Confirmation, she gave evidence of an extraordinary love for the truths of the faith, and she learned the Catechism almost word for word (cf. Ms A, 37r-37v).
So what was this untiring love that St. Thérèse learned in her family? What did it look like? Who were her models?
When a Doctor of the Universal Church is born to a pair of Saints, one doesn’t have to look very far because ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.’ In fact, one particular letter from her mother, Saint Zélie Guérin Martin to her father, Saint Louis Martin, provides us with an example of the untiring love that was taught by example in the Martin family home. Written during the summer of 1873 after the birth of Thérèse, Zélie takes Pauline and Marie with her to visit her brother and the Guérin family in Lisieux. Can you read untiring, selfless love in these lines?
Lisieux, August 31, 1873
My dear Louis,
We arrived yesterday afternoon at four-thirty. My brother was waiting for us at the station and was delighted to see us. He and his wife are doing everything they can to entertain us. This evening, Sunday, there’s a beautiful reception in their home in our honor. Tomorrow, Monday, we’re going to Trouville. Tuesday there will be a big dinner at the home of Madame Maudelonde and, perhaps, a drive to the country house of Madame Fournet. The children are thrilled and if the weather were good, they’d be ecstatic.
As for me, I’m finding it hard to relax! None of that interests me! I’m absolutely like the fish you pull out of the water. They’re no longer in their element and they have to perish! This would have the same effect on me if I had to stay a lot longer. I feel uncomfortable, I’m out of sorts. This is affecting me physically, and it’s almost making me sick. However, I’m reasoning with myself and trying to gain the upper hand. I’m with you in spirit all day, and I say to myself, “Now he must be doing such and such a thing.”
I’m longing to be near you, my dear Louis. I love you with all my heart, and I feel my affection so much more when you’re not here with me. It would be impossible for me to live apart from you.
This morning I attended three Masses. I went to the one at six o’clock, made my thanksgiving and said my prayers during the seven o’clock Mass, and returned for the high Mass.
My brother is not unhappy with his business. It’s going well enough.
Tell Léonie and Céline that I kiss them tenderly and will bring them a souvenir from Lisieux.
I’ll try to write you tomorrow, if possible, but I don’t know what time we’ll return from Trouville. I’m hurrying because they’re waiting for me to go visiting. We return Wednesday evening at seven-thirty. How long that seems to me!
I kiss you with all my love. The little girls want me to tell you that they’re very happy to have come to Lisieux and they send you big hugs.
(Family Correspondence CF 108)
O St. John of the Cross
You were endowed by our Lord with the spirit of self-denial
and a love of the cross.
Obtain for us the grace to follow your example
that we may come to the eternal vision of the glory of God.
O Saint of Christ’s redeeming cross
the road of life is dark and long.
Teach us always to be resigned to God’s holy will
in all the circumstances of our lives
and grant us the special favor
which we now ask of you:
mention your request.
Above all, obtain for us the grace of final perseverance,
a holy and happy death and everlasting life with you
and all the saints in heaven.
The novena prayer was composed from approved sources by Professor Michael Ogunu, a member of the Discalced Carmelite Secular Order in Nigeria.
The autobiographical manuscripts and family correspondence are found on the website of the Archives of the Carmel of Lisieux. The English version of the website appears here and the complete French version of the website is found here.