The Sarabite: Towards an Aesthetic Christianity

There is a continuous attraction, beginning with God, going to the world, and ending at last with God, an attraction which returns to the same place where it began as though in a kind of circle. -Marsilio Ficino

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

St. Therese - The Story of A Soul

Part VIII- Your Love Grew With Me

I saw my reflection in the window across the hall, the bottom of my cassock swaying as I rocked on my feet back and forth. I was nervous, but I didn't realize how nervous. I got up and looked at the top of the just-consecrated church. It was so tiring, the whole process of completing its construction, consecrating it, having the annual pilgrimage on foot to Lujan, and ordinations all within four days. The rector was thus very wise in giving us first year seminarians another silent retreat at the end of the year. This was the day of my general confession. I had to confess all of the sins I had ever done in my life. I wrote them down, and the more I thought of them, the more my heart sank.

Finally, the door to my spiritual director's office opened. I then went in, and he was as usual sitting to the right of a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe. I looked to that maternal face, hands folded in prayer, so gentle and womanly, ready to witness this act of coming home. I began my confession:

"Ave Maria Purisima!"
"Sin pecado concebida."

I don't know if you have ever felt your soul being ripped out of your chest, but it is not pleasant. Not at all. After each sin, from the smallest lie to the most unspeakable action, I felt them weighing more and more on me. My confessor stayed stoical: he had heard it all before. Toward the end, I just lost it completely. I was heaving with sobs. I felt completely worthless before God. I felt that I would always be a pile of filth in His eyes, and I was sobbing violently.

Now, Father might have been a little taken aback by all of this, but he did not lose his composure. So, what do you do when a fat, grown man breaks down in front of you and starts crying like a baby? Easy question, learnt on the first day of pastoral theology class: you tell a story.

After he was ordained in Econe, Switzerland, he went to Rome with a group of fellow priests to visit the various holy sites. When they got to the catacombs, the guide saw the cassocks and said instantly to them: "Do you know the early Christians believed in the Sacred Heart of Jesus?" Now, SSPX priests are pious and that might distort their vision of history, but not that much. They knew that the Sacred Heart devotion was started during the time of the Counter-reformation. So they were at first reluctant to believe this guide.

"No," the guide said, "come and see."

They went down into the dark catacomb and they stopped at a fresco of the Good Sheperd, a favorite image of the early Church. Our Lord appeared to have something on his chest, maybe it was a pouch of some sort.

"See," the guide insisted, " that is His heart."

"I have found my lost sheep."

How does God look at you? That is the first question of the spiritual life. When He looks down at you, what does He see? He sees you lonely, He sees you suffering, He sees you anxious in the dark night. What does He see, and how does He feel?

Like all good pieces of music, a spiritual life has to be in a key of some sort. Mine is in the key of St. Therese of Lisieux. It might get a little dissonant and even atonal at times, but that is the key my life is in. The mercy of the Lord endureth forever. I know. I have experienced it.

When we understand that God is disarmed before us, that the Creator of the Universe is a beggar shivering in front of the porch of our hearts, that is the most humbling and painful thing to think about. Even terrifying, because love is terrifying. To think that He has so much invested in us, that He waits for us like a mother waiting for her child to walk through that door at the dead of night, that He is ready to forgive us at the first sign that we want to come home... what are we to say to this? Perhaps so many people don't believe because they think they don't deserve it. They think that they will never be able to return that love, so why even try?

Christ, however, in agony until the end of the world, looks down hanging on the Cross and says to each one of us:

"Will you love me?"

This is where the language of generosity enters into the picture, the language of the widow's mite. My family was very poor when I was growing up. I remember living in migrant camps, going to soup kitchens, and getting hand-outs from the church and other places to make sure we had enough to make it. But no matter how poor we were, when we had enough, we always shared with people who had nothing. I remember my Grandma Maria used to lead us across from our house to leave plates of food for the homeless, and I remember my abuelita Julieta sending us to give food to shut-ins. You don't have to be rich to do something beautiful for God and your neighbor. You just have to love, and love will give you wings to fly.

For so many years, I have prayed to God to take away this heart of stone and give me a heart of flesh. I pray this still, but now I understand that I have to be patient. I can offer God so little, I can be so mean, cruel and selfish, but God accepts the little I do, and He treasures it like I treasured the humble toys my deceased grandmother used to give me. I was never so happy to receive them, and God is the same way with whatever I give Him.

Even if the doubting voices are right, even if I have no virtues to present to God at the end of it all, I will not be afraid. One of St. Therese's novices came to her one day and said that she feared the judgments of God. When she persisted in her fears, the saint merely said to her, "If you want justice you will get justice. I for my part hope for His mercy. I will go before the Judgment Seat with empty hands." At another point, St. Therese was flattered by another nun saying that when she looked at Therese, she realized how much she still had to gain to be virtuous .

"Rather," St. Therese said, "it's how much you have to lose."

So when I go before the Judgment Seat, and I am asked about having been such a failure, how I fled from the spiritual fight, and how I have nothing to show for it all, I will merely say,

"I have empty hands because I gave it all away. It wasn't You, Lord. It wasn't You."

Today I helped feed the homeless in People's Park. On the Catholic Worker van, there is a picture of Jesus standing in a soup line waiting to be fed. Being a Christian does not mean you have to strive for great things. It means that you have to strive to do little things greatly. What a joy it is to live under the gaze of God's eye!

You have loved me, Lord, and I thank You.


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