On flowers and small things

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Today I am thinking about a young woman who compared herself to a flower, not a grand, showy one like a rose or a lily, but a simple violet which grows close to the ground. I am talking, of course, about St Therese, otherwise known as the Little Flower, whose saint’s day was celebrated yesterday.

She was born into a middle-class French family, entered a Carmelite monastery at the age of fifteen and died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-four. Until her death and the publication of her memoirs, hers was a hidden life. She didn’t die a martyr or travel to distant countries proclaiming the Gospel. Her heroism lay in carrying out small acts with great love, such as helping a grumbling, old sister to walk to the refectory, patiently putting up with the strange noise another sister made at prayer or seeking out the company of the people she found least attractive and most difficult.

She compared herself to a weak little bird which was determined, despite its smallness, to head towards the light of the divine. She also described herself as a small  paintbrush which Jesus used to paint the details into his pictures.

Acknowledging weakness

Rather than pretending a strength she didn’t possess, or giving up and saying that she was too small and frail to be used by God, she acknowledged her weakness. Realising the impossibility of reaching God by her own strength, she held out her arms and asked Jesus to pick her up. For that she must be small and humble. In this way, she allowed God to turn her weakness into a strength.

When she was asked to give instruction to the novices, she wrote that she flung herself into God’s arms and told Him that she felt that this work was beyond her strength. However, if He wanted to use her, then she asked Him to fill her hands, to that she could reach out and feed his children without for one moment ceasing to cling to Him.

Recently I have often been thinking of this image of St Therese clinging to God. There are phases in our lives when God allows us to coast along on what appears to be our own strength, and other phases when God allows us to see that we are really nothing without Him. I’m at a stage in my live when what I am expected to do seems to be beyond my strength. I am trying to return to work after having children, and struggling to learn a new job. Some days, I just don’t know how I’m going to keep on doing this. All I can do is acknowledge my weakness and my utter dependence on God.

Doing small things with love

Thomas Merton’s friend Bob Lax said that the aim of every Catholic should not just to be a good Catholic, but to become a saint. St Therese shows that it is possible for anyone, however, small and limited their life, to become a saint by doing small things with love.

When I was younger, I had a career, I travelled the world, I went to conferences and meetings. Now my life is quite different. It is enclosed by a bracelet of small things which simply have to be done: washing the dishes, shopping for food, walking the dog, washing the dog because she’s rolled in something unsavoury (again), cleaning the floor because someone has left a mess on it (again).

It is hard not to get fed up and grumble and sigh. However, rather than becoming annoyed and impatient, St Therese saw these small sacrifices as an opportunity to detach herself from self-love and turn towards God.

I can’t do any big, heroic acts, but the life of the Little Flower gives me hope that God will give me the strength to do small things with love.

A sense of peace

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Peace comes up many times in the Mass, from the opening line of the Gloria, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will”, to the priest’s words just before the sign of peace, “May the peace of God be with you always”, and the peoples’ reply, “And with your spirit”, and to the prayer just before communion, “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world. Grant us peace.”

Right at the very end, we are sent away with the words, “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.”

Consolation

A number of years ago, the illness of a close family member caused me great anxiety, and my search for some way of dealing with this pain, brought me into the Catholic church.

At the time, I probably didn’t realise that I was searching for peace. The thought uppermost in my mind was that if I prayed, perhaps, against the odds, my loved one might make a recovery. I had no intention of ever becoming Catholic, but I remember more than once crying all the way through the Eucharistic prayer. Even then I sensed that this was a place and a time when I could hand my burden over to God.

Nothing got better right away, but I found that when I went to Mass, I left with the feeling that I was more able to carry what had seemed too heavy for me to bear. Over time, I began to experience what might be called consolations, glimmers of light when I felt faith rather than just forcing myself to have it because I had run out of alternatives.

Something quite incredible happened. One day I felt that I was being asked to become Catholic. From that moment onwards, I experienced an incredible sense of peace and of God’s presence. It was like living my life with beautiful music playing in the background. All I had to do was be still in order to feel the presence of God.

It is impossible for me now, looking back, to remember exactly what this felt like. It was something I hadn’t experienced before, and I thought it would last forever. I could hardly wait to be received into the church, because I thought that I would be bourn along for the rest of my life on a wave of joy and peace. How wrong I was.

Into the Corryvreckan

The sense of peace and of God’s presence left me quite abruptly. I felt confused and distressed and alone. As I said to our parish priest, I wasn’t just all at sea; I was in the Corryvreckan (a stretch of sea off the Scottish island of Jura where the water can become a turbulent whirlpool depending on the tide).

I felt let down and abandoned. Yet a strong, sure current, under the surface turbulence, still pulled me on. I knew what I had to do. In the middle of these feelings of confusion and desolation, I made the decision to become Catholic.

I still hoped, of course, for consolation, and it was very painful to realise that entering the church didn’t bring back the sense of God’s presence, and that I still had to deal with doubt. Later I read St Therese’s ‘Story of a Soul’, where she describes how the sense of God’s presence left her, plunging her into a spiritual dryness. This continued until moments before her death. Mother Teresa, who recently became a saint for her work with the poor in Calcutta, experienced decades of spiritual darkness and dryness.

I eventually stopped looking for consolation. Basing faith around longed-for moments of joy and peace, was like being a spoilt child who holds out for sweeties. Accepting the doubt and the dryness has made it easier to bear.

God’s presence in the moment

The easy sense of God’s presence has never returned. However, something quite different has happened. Through acceptance, I have experienced moments of intense gratitude for what is, moments when I don’t fret about the future or regret the past. This has brought me to a different kind of awareness of God, perhaps tiny glimpses of what Eckhart Tolle writes about in ‘The Power of Now’, when he describes resting in the presence of God by living in the present moment.

At the start of this journey, I thought that God’s presence was just for me, wafts of peace and joy to insulate me from the pains of life. However, I am discovering that God’s peace brings a kind of restlessness. When I begin to feel gratitude for what I have, that makes room for an awareness of those who have much less. I am brought back round to the last words of the Mass, the words I used to dread, because it meant the end of a little pocket of peace, and a return to the daily difficulties of life: “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.”

I am not sure how this last bit will work out in my life. I wrote this post a few weeks ago, and didn’t have time to post it because I started a challenging new job which has brought quite a bit of un-peace. I would appreciate prayers. Thank you.