Story of a Soul, Chapter One, Take Two
When I first read Story of a Soul in the summer of 1985 or 1986, what struck me like a wave of the most delicate but delectable perfume was the intimacy Therese shared with Jesus.
I had fallen in love with Him myself just two or three years before, and I felt all the ardour of that first true love that a convert feels (though I was a cradle Catholic), so I understood Therese's passion and devotion to Our Lord. And yet new to me in her and in her book, what breathed out to me like the Holy Spirit Himself from every page and has stayed with me ever since (long after I've forgotten many details of her narrative), is the astounding level of intimacy (there's just no other word for it) she shares with the One who is the Spouse of her soul.
I mentioned in my first post on Chapter One (which you can scroll down to just below Therese's shower of roses post below this one) the affection and esteem in which Therese is held by great men. I mentioned in particular Dr. Ron McArthur, and sure enough, in imitation of his petite patroness, he dropped a rose in my lap after I wrote that - a little sign that he approved of his cameo. I must admit, though, that he came to mind as a good example because I remembered his name, as well as his devotion. That night I then came across the names of some of the others who'd been hovering around the edge of my memory, the Belgian Cardinal Mercier being the most remembered name among them - though that leaves aside Pope St. Pius X who called her "the greatest Saint of modern times," Pope Benedict XV, who in proclaiming her heroic virtues gave a panegyric proposing her Little Way to the whole world, and Pope Pius XI who called her "the star of my pontificate," just to name a few.
I think what undid these men was that new level of intimacy with Christ that Therese shows us all by simply being who she is, a little child, but a very articulate one, held in the arms of our True Father. These towering figures and so many more - whether Bishops, Superiors and Abbots of religious orders, theologians and teachers in seminaries, or the countless women she's led to great sanctity such as Elizabeth of the Trinity, Edith Stein, and Lucia of Fatima - were already in love with Christ when they came across Story of a Soul. And yet their experience, like mine, was that Therese showed them a way to be closer to Jesus than they'd ever imagined or could have conceived in their wildest dreams.
I love Marcel so much precisely because he is the second Therese. That is, he shows us anew this wonderful, nearly incredible degree of familiarity and union possible between us and God. Not only possible, but desired with the infinite longing of His Sacred Heart by the dear Spouse of each of our souls.
There is one interesting difference between Therese's spiritual life and Marcel's, interesting especially because, contrary to what you might expect, we're much more like Therese in this than like Marcel.
The story of Marcel's soul turns out to be, in a way, much closer to what he imagined a great saint's lot to be - for Jesus, Mary, and Therese seem always to be appearing to Marcel or at least communicating with him so directly in words that not only can he write them down, but by Jesus' and his spiritual director's express command, Marcel must write them down.
Contrary to what Marcel (and other readers) might expect when they pick up Story of a Soul by the internationally famous SAINT Therese, she has very little to tell us about her mystical experiences, if by mystical you mean, as is often meant, visions and locutions and extraordinary phenomenon such as were ordinary in the life of, say, St. Padre Pio . . . and Marcel!
Nope, that's not the gist of Therese's story. In fact, she explicitly states - twice - that Jesus never spoke to her in words. He guided her, yes, but by that still, small voice that resides in each of us. So how, you might ask, can Marcel be a second Therese?
Though he is less like us in how he heard Jesus' voice, Marcel is definitely more like us (than St. Therese and, I would imagine, almost all the saints) in that he is about as uncomprehending and forgetful a student as any teacher could ever hope and pray never to encounter in his life! Which seems to be precisely why Our Lord sent St. Therese (she has, you see, the patience of a saint, as well as the love of one) and then Himself showed up to sometimes visibly, other times merely verbally, personally teach our little brother.
But here is the stunning part:
Everything that God taught Therese (through ordinary channels of nature and grace) and then sent Therese to teach the world in answer to her prayers (which prayers we'll address in a moment) is contained in Story of a Soul. Which means that everything Marcel learned from her and from Jesus is, essentially, contained in Story of a Soul.
Which means we made a good choice for our first MBC selection!
I know someone (besides me) who, initially anyhow, carried Marcel's Conversations with her everywhere because she knew this book was the life changing book God had Marcel write just for her. (I hope she knew that, but certainly she took the book to heart). Another friend was heartily relieved when she got a second copy of Conversations so that it could remain downstairs while her primary copy was upstairs in her room where she would go in secret, close the door, and with Marcel pray to her Father in secret just as Jesus told us in the Gospel to do. (Plus if anything happened to the primary copy, she'd have a back up.)
I love reading the lives of the Saints because we see that we are just like they are. As C.S. Lewis so insightfully said, friendship begins at the moment one person says to another, "What? You too? I thought I was the only one!" And so it delights me to read that Blessed Marie-Eugene of the Child Jesus, when he was just Henri Grialou, a young man in the seminary, discovered the autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux and read it over and over again. "I find her life written by herself wonderful. No other book has ever made such an impression on me as that one," he would later say, and his biographer writes of his relationship with this book: "And he would never part with it."
But while we could multiply examples, it's enough here at Miss Marcel's Musings to open that other autobiography so dear to us, the one written in Vietnamese by a young Redemptorist, translated into French much later by his novice master and spiritual director, the saintly Father Boucher, and later still - just for us! - translated into English by good Jack Keogan, God bless him! Marvelously, the final draft of this autobiography was completed when the author was not quite 22, just one year younger than his sister Therese when she handed her copybook of childhood memories to Mother Agnes of Jesus.
Yes, I'm referring to the Autobiography of our own little brother Marcel Van, in which he writes (on his sheet 578):
"I had received, therefore, that afternoon a source of grace and happiness. The book, The Story of a Soul, had become my dearest friend. It followed me everywhere and I did not cease reading or re-reading it without ever getting weary of it. There was nothing in this volume which did not conform to my thoughts, and what enthused me still more in the course of my reading was to see clearly that the spiritual life of Therese was identical to mine. Her thoughts, even her 'yes' and her 'no' were in harmony with my own thoughts and the little events of my life. I dearly loved the chapter where she recounts her childhood in the bosom of her family, but I was very moved also on reading the passages where she described the death of her mother and her farewell to the family. It was really surprising. So, I felt choked when, looking at my past life, I noticed that there was no difference between our two sorrows.
"Truly, never in my life have I met a book which was so well adapted to my thinking and feelings as is The Story of a Soul. I can confess that the story of Therese's soul is the story of my soul, and that Therese's soul is my very own."
* * *
This may sound familiar, but it's me, Miss Marcel/Suzie writing in my own voice again, and if I might borrow the words of my little brother (but speaking on my own account), truly, never in my life have I met a book which was so well adapted to my thinking and feelings as is Marcel's Conversations!
For myself, I think I'd be satisfied to simply (and I mean very simply) read Conversations over and over for the rest of my years on earth. And if my time on earth terminates with alien abduction, I hope I can bring Marcel's book with me! But if, as I joyfully suspect and ardently hope, life on earth ends when life in the real heaven begins, then if we don't read there, I'll content myself with sitting beside Marcel and little Jesus and Therese on Mama Mary's lap. But it's hard for me to imagine I'll be comfortable unless I've got a copy of Conversations with me too!
But though, as I say, for myself I'd be satisfied to simply read his book, well for Marcel's sake, I'm happy to be reading Story of a Soul again. If the story of Therese's soul is the story of Marcel's soul, then I'm in! Not that she doesn't have something for those who don't read her on his account - clearly that's the case with most who come to her, and yet for 120 years this book has been changing lives.
So what is it that Story of a Soul has or is that manages to capture the heart of nearly everyone who opens its cover?
The other night I was at a dinner in honor of St. Thomas and the good Bishop Flores who visited Thomas Aquinas College for our namesake's feast. I was sitting with a wonderful Dominican priest who told me, after I asked who were his favorite saints, that while his two great patrons, St. Dominic and St. Paul, were his favorites, he had to mention that reading Therese's Story of a Soul was a big milestone in his life. He'd read it before he knew he would become a priest, and I got the idea that our sister's words watered the seed of his vocation.
Then, when the conversation at the dinner became general, I discovered that my husband (who has himself been re-reading Story of a Soul, through no connection with our project here but inspired by the same Spirit of Love) was talking with others at the table about this book. A friend who is also a teacher at TAC, and one of our heroes and mentors, leaned in and said to us earnestly, "You know, out of all the autobiographies I've read," - and he's a voracious reader - "I would say there are three greats: The Confessions of St. Augustine, The Life of St. Teresa of Avila, and Story of a Soul. And what is remarkable is that in the first two, you see a lot of themselves, of the writers, and you can see they were at one point quite taken with themselves, but with little Therese, you have none of that. She is entirely about God, and she was that way her whole life."
[Incidentally, our friend hasn't yet read Marcel's Autobiography, so we don't have to worry that he's left out one of the four great memoirs of all time.]
As if that sweet praise of our sister weren't enough, another much admired friend (another tutor at TAC, but one who hadn't been at our table) told me after dinner that thanks to a comment made by her spiritual director, she'd just finished re-reading Story of a Soul, and by means of it, our sister had given her a gorgeous rose just this last week. My friend had gotten to the end of the book and was astonished to find, as Therese spoke about praying for everyone entrusted to her, that Therese took as her own - can you guess? "Draw me, we will run!" But more than that, in the paragraphs following, Therese takes her Spouse's high priestly prayer (from John 17, which turns out to be my friend's favorite chapter in the Bible) as her own too! This dear friend's eyes were bright, her face filled with awe, as she told me of the effect this was having on her: the inspiration, the joy of taking this prayer as her very own too.
My husband, for his part, had recently been telling me, and then our dinner companions, that what really knocked his socks off about Story of a Soul was the way that little Therese, when asked to write about her childhood memories, instead of just recalling stories, writes under the light of God's mercy, seeing everything in His light and launching into - instead of merely a series of anecdotes - the story of God's mercies on her soul.
As I prepared to write this post then (preparing = wondering what in the world even to its outermost reaches and into the world to come I might possibly say, but not really having a clue which direction to take), I happened upon the key, for me, to understanding our sister's book. At least the key to understanding it this time around, or maybe I should say, less presumptuously (for who knows if I'll remember anything tomorrow!), the key to understanding it at least for today . . .
I cannot take credit, but into the void of my brain came a sentence which I happened upon in the introduction to a book on our Blessed Mother:
"May it [the nameless book] help us all identify ourselves wholly with the Blessed Virgin, who magnified the Lord with the whole of her being in gratitude and joy, and who teaches us to do the same."
I had been thinking recently (don't worry, it was a fluke!) that the key to Therese's Story was gratitude. Then I read - in a copy of a letter I'd written to my friend Fr. Maestrini in 2001 - this line from Therese herself (as quoted by Celine in her Memoir of My Sister, St. Therese):
"My little method consists in this: rejoicing always and continually smiling - in times of defeat as well as victory."
Well if that didn't remind me of Marcel and her instructions (and Jesus') to him! But most importantly, it added the element of joy to my key. You know how keys have the part you hold and the part you insert into the lock? I think gratitude is the part of the key I was holding, but joy is what unlatches the door to Jesus' heart!
And so, putting gratitude and joy together in Therese we get the true face of love: an image of Mary, her Mother and ours. How right and how sweet that Therese learned from the one who smiled upon her in childhood, "to magnify the Lord with the whole of her being in gratitude and joy."
Open Story of a Soul and what do we find?
Therese, by obeying simply, that is, by writing in obedience, will please Jesus and begin to sing what she can't help singing eternally: "The Mercies of the Lord."
In order to do this the best she can, Therese doesn't depend on herself, but goes to Our Lady:
"I begged her to guide my hand that it trace no line displeasing to her."
Then she is ready to "Do whatever He tells" her, so looking to Him, Therese opens the Gospel and reads: "And going up a mountain, He called to Him men of His own choosing, and they came to Him" (Mark 3:13).
"This is the mystery of my vocation, my whole life, and especially the mystery of the privileges Jesus showered on my soul. He does not call those who are worthy but those whom He pleases . . . "
Therese is a paradox, and her paradox is humility.
What is humility? Humility is truth.
And so she will instruct her sisters, at the end of her life (only about two years after she's written these words) to save everything she used, and even her fingernail clippings. "You'll need them!" she prophesies. (And they did need them, did use them - they sent them out, upon request, to the four corners of God's green earth as relics.)
Therese knew that God, whom she had never refused, would not refuse her the last desire of her heart, the mission that had become her dream: to spend her heaven doing good on earth, to shower us with roses (and when they were handy, fingernail clippings) to show us how much He loves us, and to make Him loved by teaching us to love Him as she does.
She says to her sisters: "The whole world will love me!"
How will she fulfill her plans? Or better yet, why will God fulfill them?
Is she so great, then, that she can paraphrase the words of Our Lady: "All generations shall call me blessed"?
Therese can and does paraphrase the words of Our Lady, but not because she (Therese) is so great, but precisely because she is so little.
Our Lady sang in her Magnificat at the Visitation (and sings in the Evening Prayer of the Church daily through her children), "All generations will call me blessed for the Almighty has done great things for me and holy is His name. He has mercy on those who fear Him in every generation."
With joy and gratitude, then, little Therese sings the song of her Mother Mary, the song of the Church, the song of God our True Father's mercy and love. She will sing it throughout her book, and she wants her dear sister Pauline who became her second mother in childhood and is now her Mother Agnes in the Carmel to know that it isn't because of what she, Therese, is, but because of who God is, that so many good things have happened to her. Or rather, it is because of who she is, namely, one of the very little flowers that show forth God's glory by requiring Him to stoop so low to reach her with His tender solicitude.
I love that God's providence directed Therese to write these first chapters for her dear Mother Agnes alone, just as later she would write what became Manuscript B simply for her sister Marie of the Sacred Heart. I think by the time she was writing Manuscript C for Mother Marie de Gonzague, she was well aware, at least in a general way, of the wider audience that God had in mind for her words. Along these lines, here's a lovely passage from her Last Conversations. Mother Agnes, in preparation for her role as editor of Therese's Story, writes:
"A few days later, having asked her to read again a passage of her manuscript which seemed incomplete to me, I found her crying. When I asked her why, she answered with angelic simplicity:
'What I am reading in this copybook reflects my soul so well! Mother, these pages will do much good to souls. They will understand God's gentleness much better.' And she added: 'Ah, I know it; everybody will love me!'"
* * *
On St. Thomas Day earlier this week, Bishop Flores of Brownsville, Texas explained to us that the Fathers of the Church liked to call Our Lord "the brief word of the Father" - he (and they) said it in Latin, but I like the English translation he gave just fine. The Bishop went on to tell us how his dissertation director had told him years ago that he should imitate St. Thomas with the information (and implicit advice): "He never repeats himself!" Bishop Flores made us all laugh by explaining that he could have shortened his dissertation by 200 pages, if only he'd had an extra year to work on it!
I told my husband later that I was concerned.
First they say "Brevity is the soul of wit," and now this.
My husband thought for a moment and then found the right words to reassure me:
"I think," he said, "the primary teacher needs to be concise, but the intermediate teachers need to multiply words to explain."
This consoled me a lot, along with the happy recollection that Jesus repeats Himself quite frequently in his Conversations with Marcel - for our little brother's sake, but also for ours.
I mention these consolations now because the inevitable has happened. Despite the length of this post, I haven't brought us any farther than page one of Chapter One of our sister's book!
And yet, and yet . . . if I were to write a commentary on Story of a Soul and it were as large as the Pacific Ocean (which I should be able to see from where I write, on a hill overlooking St. Serra's beautiful downtown Ventura, but alas, the mist has obscured the ocean as my words might obscure my sister's), I would only keep you longer from her pages.
I could quote you many of my favorite lines from Chapter One, but then you'd simply be reading Chapter One on a screen instead of in her book!
I will content myself with this last reflection, then, on a quote from our sister's opening pages. She writes:
"I understood, too, that Our Lord's love is revealed as perfectly in the most simple soul who resists His grace in nothing as in the most excellent soul; in fact, since the nature of love is to humble oneself, if all souls resembled those of the holy Doctors who illumined the Church with the clarity of their teachings, it seems God would not descend so low when coming to their heart."
Well how do you like that?
Here is St. Therese, making God's plans plain, about to class herself with the little flower instead of the great cedar - that is, with the simple child rather than the learned Doctor. Has she forgotten, then, that Christ thanked the Father for having revealed His truth not to the wise, but to the little children?
And now, in the topsy turvy world of the Church (I remember how this upside down, push me - pull me, turn everything on it's head used to really rankle poor Nietzsche, God rest his soul!), the little flower has been elevated higher than the cedar and topped with a mortarboard or her own.
Despite her own classification, she's a Doctor now too, and hence, as I believe more each day, our need for a second Therese, namely our little brother Marcel, to keep God bending very low and repeating Himself frequently, that we might know He still has use for the little flowers and that they (that is, we) delight His Heart beyond measure.
Ah, but she's wonderful, isn't she? Tall cedars or little flowers (and she really is a little flower, we'll discover as we read on), the sun shines simultaneously on all of us "as though each were alone on the earth, and so Our Lord is occupied particularly with each soul as though there were no others like it. And just as in nature all the seasons are arranged in such a way as to make the humblest daisy bloom on a set day, in the same way, everything works out for the good of each soul."
We find this teaching of our diminutive yet doctoral sister in at least two places: here on the second page of her memoir, and in her first meeting with little Van (who at 14 was not yet a Redemptorist - Therese would help him find his vocation - and thus not yet Marcel).
At their first meeting, Therese reassured Marcel that God had planned their relationship from all eternity, and he needn't waste a moment worrying, "If only . . ." Truly God never wastes a moment - He has everything planned out, eternally, and it is entirely for our good. She told Marcel then and she tells us now:
"The dispositions of Providence are realized, necessarily, at a very precise moment which is not brought forward, even for a moment, nor does it allow an instant's delay."
Let's join our sister in thanking God as we rejoice in His uncountable mercies to us, as well as to her, and certainly to Marcel as well. The other day I heard the most wonderful news (again, from Bishop Flores). He said that no grace is ever a singular event meant for one person alone.
Just as the Faith of the Church was complete in Mary at the moment of her "Fiat" at the Annunciaton, and that grace has meant the salvation of the world, so too the grace God gave to Marcel in letting him speak with Therese is a grace meant for us all. That you are here reading this is no accident, but a mercy God has planned from the beginning - and He has no beginning, so that's a long thought out plan on His part!
Let's take our sister's confidence, too, as a grace not meant only for herself but precisely for us at this moment and from here on out. She has no need of it anymore; she sees what she used to believe and trust. For us, though, what a rose, what a treasure, what a find! We can move mountains with her confidence!
Let's start by trusting that we'll find in our reading of Story of a Soul just what we need, at just the right moment, each month throughout the coming year. And then let's pray in the words she taught us to use as a prayer, that we may bring the whole world to God through His bringing us to Himself. How good He is! And how wise! And if we knew how loving - well the moment would be right for that first real Kiss from Him, the one that shoots us to Heaven in a heartbeat. I'm guessing that moment's not here yet, so meanwhile, let's pray:
Draw me, we will run!
Thanks for helping me inaugurate Marcel's Book Club! And since I'm posting January's book club (part II) on the Eve of February, I can say with no fear of rushing you: Happy Reading! May Chapter Two bring even more joy than Chapter One! That's the way it is with Therese - things just get better and better. So from her and Marcel and myself, good-bye to good January, and hello to the month that brings us Valentine's Day and so much more, all packed into 28 short days. Let's fill them with love!
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