From a Catholic perspective, a life story is essentially a story of a soul. All that finally matters for the zealous Catholic is the conformity of his soul to Christ, his personal sanctification. St. Therese of Lisieux, like all saints, realized and acted upon this truth with complete integrity and commitment. But what does such integrity and commitment entail? What are the dynamics of sanctification? And what relevance does the life of St. Therese of Lisieux have for Catholics a century after her death?
In the eyes of the world, and certainly today’s world, many facets of her life would be deemed imprudent and even fanatical. A bourgeois France viewed a fifteen-year-old girl’s rush into an austere cloistered convent —and her father’s facilitation of it—as odd behavior. (Suburban America would consider it nothing less than bizarre.) Acquaintances of the Martin family said that the rigors of Carmel, the fasts and the cold, would be too much for the young Therese. And their warnings were correct; she was to die nine years later of an illness especially associated with the lack of nutrition and warmth. Surely there were at first indictments of "I told you so." But it soon came to light that Therese Martin had died a saint, and the bourgeois tongues stopped wagging; and today even suburban America—with its standard of spiritual compromise—has taken St. Therese of Lisieux to heart.
But which Therese has the world taken to heart? Is it the true Therese, or a mawkish, saccharine version of her? An authentic representation of any saint must transcend the sentimental, even the devotional, and concretely challenge the faithful to embark upon the path of sanctity. For the meaning of a saint’s life, the reason he is publicly canonized, is to edify and exhort the faithful to a radical following of Christ. And whether the path is the little way of a Therese of Lisieux or the grandiose odyssey of a Francis Xavier, it is always an arduous one, requiring uncompromising and wholehearted love. Indeed, the path of sanctity is an ascent of a mount narrow and steep that culminates in crucifixion.
In the case of Saint Therese, the ascending path was up the venerable and towering Mount of Carmel and specifically upon her own trail of "the Little Way." But all sincere followers of Christ, regardless of their vocation or particular spirituality, are called to ascend the heights of sanctity. The true believer (whom Christ differentiated from other believers as "the good soil . . . who hears the message and takes it in" [Matt. 13:23]) is constantly growing in his faith, in his conformity to Christ; is constantly climbing the mount of sanctity.
The Beginner’s Journey
At the beginning of the spiritual journey of any neophyte true believer (whether newly "converted" from outside or within the Church), a mount of the Faith is encountered that both beckons and looms. Even though this mount’s peak ominously blots out the sky beyond it, its glimmering heights are yet inspiring, its verdant pastures, inviting and comforting; the rays of grace that shine upon it, life-giving. And so the would-be saint is drawn and begins to climb and struggle, sometimes sliding, sometimes falling, but, by the grace of God, persevering. Many consolations, pastoral respites along the way, are his; and the ability to glimpse the pinnacle strengthens his resolve. He begins to make progress steadily. When he finally reaches the summit he is well-pleased with himself; the spiritual mountaineer has left far below the world and its values. But surprisingly he finds the top of this first mount to be broad and pleasant, truly not a peak at all, but a place most conducive to rest and harbor. But if he is a true believer, if he is to reach the heights of sanctity, he will wonder at the lack of a pinnacle; he will not remain satisfied with his progress, will not be satiated, but rather yearn for a closer proximity to God. Instead of resting on his laurels, the true believer will lookout from the perspective of the summit and soon discern through the clouds and mist a new horizon and a new towering mount to which his newly conquered height is but a foothill.
But in order to reach the new mount’s base, the true believer must descend into an obscure chasm that lies between the two mounts, thus leaving behind the light, comfort and satisfaction of his erstwhile attainment. He must relinquish his easy answers and his sensible comforts and venture into the unknown. He is tempted to quail at the task ahead. It is confounding to have to descend before he can ascend again. And the new mount appears so steep, so mysterious; its very pinnacle is shrouded in mist. But the faithful soul will reflect that as he stood at the base of his first mount, it too appeared, relative to his then state of soul, just as formidable and yet, fortified with Faith and Hope and Charity, he had conquered it. And so he descends into the murky chasm, knowing not exactly where he is going, but trusting in God to lead him to his new challenge. And with the compass of faith, he will find the base of the new mount and once again begin the ascent. The mount is steeper and higher than the previous one, at places seemingly unscalable, but the true believer has grown stronger and more confident in conquering the previous height, and he has learned to trust in God though perils loom.
Finally, the true believer, tempered and matured, will reach the second summit. He may then successively scale higher and steeper mounts: each requiring a deeper faith and love, but each preparing him for the next by a strengthening of heart and soul. But sooner or later, standing upon the pinnacle of a just-won summit, he will be confronted with a new horizon: a vast panorama of new mountain ranges, more varied, expansive and higher than he ever imagined, every pinnacle rising into the obscure mystery of distances and clouds. Again the spiritual mountaineer will be tempted to make his home upon the just-won mount, maybe even desire to go down a ways to a pleasant valley he reposed in on his ascent. But the true believer will feel a stronger beckon to continue his adventure of faith. But this time, he must choose from among the many mountains a specific one to the exclusion of the others. Some of these mounts could be said to be those of the lay state, some those of the religious, maybe one a special, unique calling. And, as Holy Mother Church teaches, it is the mountains of the religious state that tower higher than those of the lay. But each mount, whether lay or religious, rises into the ethereal airs of sanctity; each leads to a final pinnacle where no other peaks beckon, a culmination in itself.
Most true believers will spend a lifetime dutifully and piously ascending their specific final mount. A few, such as St. Therese of Lisieux and her Mount Carmel, will be graced with the full ascent of their final summit before their earthly sojourn is ended. Yet the highly blessed soul that reaches the summit of vocational perfection is not yet called to rest. Instead, he is once again beckoned, though now from his pinnacle all that meets his gaze is the dark abyss of space. Now it is not the formidability of mountain ascents or the murky chasms of descents that challenge his faith, but rather the nothingness that surrounds him. He is well aware of his ability to scale mountains, maybe he is even spiritually self-assured. But now he is called to free-fall into the abyss of faith, where there is no visible support and no light of intellect or heart. Here he is completely helpless, completely dependent on the power of God; though he perceives not the sustaining hand of the Lord, but only an abysmal vacuum. Yet he who is destined for earthly sanctity trusts, believes beyond belief, hopes beyond hope, in the love of God.
It is in the abyss that the true believer becomes a saint, where finally in the depths of his soul he fully realizes his nothingness, where all that is left of his faith is his heart’s own trusting abandonment, as he plunges through the total blackness. It is here where he faces his nothingness, his complete contingency. It is this plummet through the abysmal vacuum that St. John of the Cross described as the dark night of the soul; which St. Therese of Lisieux in her last days spoke of as a black hole: "I am in a hole just like that, body and soul. Ah! what darkness!"
Of course there will be some souls who will spend a lifetime seeking to scale their very first summit of Faith, sliding and slipping and falling and beginning again. Others may scale an endless sequence of foothills. But for those who have but a modicum of true belief, regardless of their relative spiritual success or failure, the struggle to ascend will never end. And all ascents, even of the smallest mount, encompass in some portion all the elements of the entire spiritual journey. Hence deep gulches, the kind bridged only by a faith-filled leap and fleeting views of the abyss, if only through a fissure in the rock, will be encountered upon any authentic path of sanctity. It is at these encounters that the believer is called to accept (in accord with his spiritual progress) his dizzying, that is, quite contingent and helpless, existence. It is then that the believer is called to begin to realize the two cardinal truths of his being.
The first cardinal truth is that left to himself, he is utterly irredeemable, utterly unworthy of life or sanctity, on the very brink of annihilation itself. As overwhelming as this first truth is, it is itself overwhelmed by the even profounder second truth: that God’s love for man is so powerful that it can imbue even his contingent, helpless existence with everlasting beatific life. The first truth without the second leads to the sin of despair; the second without the first leads to the sin of presumption; but together they lead to the theological virtue of hope.
The True Believer vs. the Lukewarm Believer
Whether it entails the neophyte’s struggle up the first mount or the saint’s free-fall into the abyss, the journey of faith is not about complacency or satiation. One never reaches a point where he can be well satisfied with his degree of sanctity or smugly certain of God and His ways. Those satisfied with their spiritual progress and their proximity to God are not the true believers and, most especially, they are not the saints; but rather they are the lukewarm believers. For the saint knows God in His infinite majesty and his own self in his weak contingency, but the lukewarm knows neither God nor himself. Whereas the true believer is militantly engaged in spiritual growth, the lukewarm believer is presumptuously complacent in regards to the state of his soul.
For the true believer, earthly existence is a constant spiritual struggle, a continual dying to the self and subsequent rebirth in Christ: an existence that always calls for another leap of faith. Indeed, there can be no sustained spiritual progress unless darkness and dryness challenge faith and hope, and, in the process, purify love. This desert experience—be it mere spiritual aridity, the cessation of emotional religious experience, or the dark night of the soul itself—confronts all true believers in Christ. And as the experience grows darker and yawns greater with the believer’s advance in sanctity, a greater and purer love of God is evoked, and the essence of faith—holy trust—is born.
This faith, this trust, dignifies man as creature in that it allows him to give something back to God. Adam and Eve were given the commandment not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Why? Was it not so that they could render something unto God, give a gift to God the Father, the gift of loving trust? "I trust you Lord, even though I feel or am told (as the serpent whispered to the woman) that I am somehow missing out, am somehow being slighted, am somehow being abandoned. I trust because you, my God, are all-good and all-loving." Without trials and tests, man could never give anything back to the Lord, could never exercise and grow in faith and trust and love.
This gift of trust from the created to the Creator is perfected in the humanity of Christ in His passion. Whereas Adam betrayed the divine trust by partaking of the fruit of the tree, Christ fulfilled it by offering Himself as the fruit of the tree: "Father! Everything is possible for You. Take this cup away from Me. But let it be as You, not I, would have it" (Mk 14:36). It was not that the Blessed Lord recoiled from the impending physical pains of the Cross, but rather from the mysterious separation from God that would somehow take place when He took upon Himself the sins of the world, sins that spanned from Adam until the end of time: "My God, my God, why hast thou abandoned Me?" (Mk. 15:34). Never has there been such a darkness endured! He who was light itself cast into the blackest of nights; He the Holy One bearing all the evil of all the ages; He the Savior of the world experiencing, as it were, the damnation of sin.
And so too Christ’s followers must experience a taste of this darkness: where God seems distant, where sensible consolations recede, where one’s affections and emotions dry out or even rally against one’s duty to love and trust. For true love always entails suffering, always entails the cross. To hope when the heart is broken, to believe when all is dark, to love when that love means crucifixion, this is the call of sanctity. At the early end of St. Therese’s life, she had learned to love God perfectly—the essence of sanctification. After experiencing the dark abyss where all consolations of faith were removed, after experiencing the feeling of God’s abandonment, after undergoing the prolonged suffocation of tuberculosis and assailing doubts, Therese’s last words witnessed to her sanctity. As she gazed at a crucifix, she cried: "Oh! I love Him! My God I love You!"
Each mount upon the journey of faith is both a Tabor and a Golgotha, for each entails a transfiguring sanctification via a sharing in Christ’s sufferings. And though the ascents up the mounts of sanctification are steep and perilous, they can be—indeed are meant to be—conquered. For Christ Himself desires that His followers win the summit of sanctity. The ascent requires only assent. With Christ’s bidding and aiding, all a Catholic soul need say is "yes."
This article was originally written in 2001.