Thursday, October 1, 2009

St. Therese of Lisieux

Today is the Feast St. Therese of Lisieux (also known as The Little Flower) on the Catholic liturgical calendar. Happy Feast!

I want to mention this wonderful Saint and Doctor of the Church for a virtue I haven't heard referred to her very often: meekness. Perhaps this is because her humility is so radiant we don't stop to consider this other virtue which was so closely allied to her humility.

Meekness is, I think, a virtue which in our times is especially overlooked, misunderstood, and undervalued.

Indeed, St. Therese, whose spiritual life is called, "the little way," was blessedly humble. But she was also marvelously meek. (This word is so misunderstood I still find resistance within myself to using it as a positive attribution, even though I know it is a great virtue). Perhaps, if this can be said, if the other virtues aside from humility were ranked according to how humble they seem, meekness would be at the top.

I'm not sure how closely this corresponds with more expansive and precise definitions of meekness, but the way I think about it, meekness is that virtue which enables a person to absorb any sort of personal assault, offense, or irritation--no matter how big or small--without lashing back in any way that would contravene Christian charity. To be able to immediately respond to personal offense or annoyance with love, with no bitterness in one's heart, is the height of meekness.

Here's where people get confused. Meekness is not equivalent to becoming a door mat. Meekness is not being a wimp. Jesus, the most meek of all ever to walk this earth, was no wimp; nor was he a door mat. When I think of our Lord's meekness I see Him nailed on the cross, in the midst of great suffering, saying "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." The pinnacle of fortitude is perfectly compatible with the pinnacle of meekness.

It seems to me the Little Flower is a beautiful example of meekness because in many and various ways during her days in the convent, she absorbed small hurts, annoyances, and irritations without responding in an unkind way. When faced with small crosses she became so successful at transforming temptations toward frustration or anger into spiritual acts of penance and love that her sisters in the convent did not know what her dislikes were, whether food, chores, or particular personalities. But she was meek not only in small, but also in great ways. When she became ill with tuberculosis (which ended up killing her) and was suffering pain and had bouts of coughing, she did not reveal outwardly that she was in pain. So much was this the case that some of her sisters (that is, until Therese became so ill she would collapse) thought she may have been faking her illness.

Now, it is not a great thing to react once or twice to small annoyances with calmness and equanimity. But to do this without fail--especially when one lives in an enclosed community and sees the same faces every day--and to do this consistently for love of one's sisters and for Christ--this is truly heroic.

May we all strive toward authentic Christian meekness, that meekness so powerful it can absorb the nails of the cross without malice.

If you want to learn more about her spirituality, I Believe in Love, is an excellent book that does a good job of helping you enter into her Little Way. (And of course her duly famous spiritual memoir is Story of a Soul.)

Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, pray for us!

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