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Lessons from the Newest Doctor of the Church for the Catholic Academy

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

St. Therese of Lisieux is the latest Doctor of the Church. She is also the youngest saint to have received this honor from the Vicar of Christ.

“Doctor of the Church” is the title given since the Middle Ages to certain saints, whose writing or teaching is outstanding for guiding the faithful in all periods of the Church’s history. Originally, the Western Fathers of the Church, Gregory the Great, Ambrose, Augustine, and Jerome, were considered the great Doctors of the Church. But the Church has officially added many more names to the original four, including Sts. Catherine of Siena (1347-80) and Teresa of Avila (1550-82).

Each of the Doctors of the Church has contributed some distinctive insight into the revealed truths of Christianity. Saint Augustine clarified the role of the human will in its cooperation with the grace of God. St. Teresa of Avila gave us some of the deepest insights into the meaning of mystical prayer.

Unlike most of the other Doctors of the Church, the Little Flower published very little. Her autobiography and letters are the main source of our knowledge of her teaching. She lived just twenty-four years and wrote her Story of a Soul under obedience to her Carmelite superiors.

Lessons from St. Therese

By now, scores of volumes have been written about the spirituality of St. Therese. The most prominent contribution that she is credited with giving the Church is her clear and deep understanding of spiritual childhood.

Also called childlikeness, it is the quality of guileless openness that Christ declared is one of the conditions for attaining salvation. It is the virtue of humility, at once ready to do God’s will, and having no selfish interests of one’s own. In the words of St. John, “Think of the love that the Father has lavished on us, by letting us be called God’s children; and that is what we are” (1 Jn 3:1).

The Little Flower never doubted that she was a child of God. Far above average in natural intelligence, she never allowed her gifted mind to question the fact that she depended always and in everything on the mysterious love of God. She spoke with Him as a child talks to its mother or father, always trusting in His goodness, even when He tried her generosity to the point of heroic virtue.

Her Unwavering Faith

Among the lessons that this youngest Doctor of the Church teaches us, is the lesson of unswerving faith in spite of years of dryness of spirit and aridity of heart.

What follows is only a few quotations from her own life story.

The retreat I made before my profession: it brought me no consolation with it, only complete dryness and almost a sense of dereliction. Once more, our Lord was asleep on the boat; how few souls there are that let Him have His sleep out! He can’t be always doing all the work, responding to all the calls made upon Him; so for my own part I am content to leave Him undisturbed. I dare say He won’t make His presence felt ‘til I start out on the great retreat of eternity. I don’t complain of that, I want it to happen. It shows, of course, that there is nothing of the saint about me; I suppose we ought to put down this dryness in prayer to my own fault, my own lukewarmness and want of fidelity. What excuse have I, after seven years in religion, for going through all my prayers and my thanksgivings as mechanically as if I, too, were asleep. But I don’t regret it; I think of little children lying asleep, under the loving eyes of their parents.

Again, she tells us how infrequent were what we might call the spiritual consolations in her life. She had no illusions about being a mystic, and least of all, a saint: “I always have the feeling,” she confesses, “that our Lord doesn’t supply me with provisions for my journey. He just gives me food unexpectedly, when and as I need it. I find it there without knowing how it got there. It simply comes to this, that our Lord dwells unseen in the depths of my miserable soul.”

One would think that a soul so dear to our Lord would be blessed by Him with mystical experiences, at least when she received Him in the Holy Eucharist. But no, it was just the opposite.

I can’t say that my thanksgivings after Communion have often brought with them any strong access of devotion. Indeed, I don’t know that there is any moment at which I experience so little. But then, that’s not to be wondered at, I have been offering myself to Our Lord as a hostess, ready to receive Him, not for her own satisfaction, but simply to please Him. I picture my soul at such times as a vacant site, with some rubbish lying about, only I ask Our Lady to clear all that away.

The marvel is that Therese never weakened in her faith and never doubted that the Christ whom she loved so dearly did not love her. She had learned from childhood that the secret of loving God is to surrender our will to His and not to expect the pleasures of His embrace in return.

If there is one insight that St. Therese always had, it was the priceless treasure of believing, by what we may call a blind faith. “Faith,” she said, is the “fountain of all pure and true happiness.” Here is how she describes her experience during what she calls those happy days of Eastertide. “Jesus,” she wrote, “allowed my soul to be overrun by an impenetrable darkness, which made the thought of heaven, hitherto so welcome, a subject of nothing but conflict and torment. And this trial was not to be a matter of a few days or a few weeks; it was to last until the moment when God should see fit to remove it. And that moment hasn’t come yet.”

So the litany goes on. Time and again, it would seem almost without end, that this chosen soul so deeply in love with her Lord was so constantly deprived of that spiritual consolation which we commonly associate with childlike sanctity.

One more quotation that deserves to be added. Our Doctor of the Church says she wished she could put down how she feels about this apparent contradiction between generosity in loving God and the absence of spiritual consolation. “To appreciate the darkness of this tunnel, she tells us, “you have to have been through it. Perhaps, though, I might try to explain it by a comparison. You must imagine that I have been born in a country entirely overspread with a thick mist. I have never seen nature in her smiling mood, all bathed and transfigured in the sunlight. But I’ve heard of these wonderful experiences, ever since I was a child; and I know that the country in which I live is not my native country; that lies elsewhere, and it must always be the center of my longings. Mightn’t that, you suggest, be simply a fable, invented by some dweller in the mist? Oh no, the fact is certain; the King of that sunny country has come and lived in the darkness, lived there for thirty-three years.”

Teaching the Catholic Academy

Many people wonder why Pope John Paul II declared St. Therese of Lisieux a Doctor of the Universal Church. But we should not wonder. If there is one lesson that today’s over-educated world desperately needs to learn, it is the lesson of believing without seeing, of submitting the mind to revealed truth, without experiencing the joys that our faith promises in the world to come.

There is such a thing as generosity of heart. But there is also such a thing as generosity of mind. The Little Flower is a Doctor of the Church because we need to learn the hardest lesson in life. The more we give God here on earth, the more He will reward us in that everlasting vision for which we were made.

When the Holy Father proclaimed the latest Doctor of the Church, he declared that “today, something surprising is happening. St. Therese of Lisieux was unable to attend a university or engage in systematic study.” This saint, the Pope concluded, is an attractive model, especially for young people, and for those who are seeking true meaning for their life. “She counters a rational culture so often overcome by practical materialism, with the disarming simplicity of the ‘little way’ which, by returning to the essentials, leads to the secret of all life: the divine Love that surrounds and penetrates every human venture.”

How the academic world of our day needs to rediscover what the Little Flower is teaching us. The deepest happiness on earth comes from a living faith in Jesus Christ, who having joy set before Him, chose the cross.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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