(The Nationalist, 25 May 2007)
Free gifts make us suspicious. Even with God’s gifts, we feel uneasy – how can God give me love unless I deserve it?
Thérèse of Lisieux had unique insight into God’s generosity: our failings are like a drop of water in the furnace of God’s love. Because we little appreciate God’s compassion, we project onto him our narrow human standards. We imagine that our weaknesses drive a wedge between God and us.
Thérèse says the opposite: ‘Resign yourself to stumbling at every step, even to falling; love your powerlessness,’ and again, ‘What a grace when in the morning I feel no courage, no strength to practise virtue.” It’s OK not to be OK. It is hard for us to believe this, and harder still to live by it.
This may be due to a religious heritage which told us that God’s love must be earned by observing his law. The guilt such a tradition induces has more to do with pride than holiness. When I fail, it is not before God that I feel guilty, but before an idealized image of myself. I have let myself down. Despite my efforts I failed to live up to my ideals, so my pride is wounded. The god I’m serving is not the God of Jesus Christ; it is my image of God, my ideal self.
For Thérèse, conversion meant abandoning this illusory God in which there is so much self-centredness. This led to her discovery of the ‘little way’ that turns upside-down how many of us look at the Christian life, introducing us to a spirituality of imperfection.
Thérèse does not trivialize moral failings, but sees them in the perspective of God’s mercy. As a mother overlooks her child’s failings, so does God look generously on our weaknesses. Far from displeasing God, they can be grace-bearing. They help us experience Christian life as a celebration of God’s love rather than a struggle towards self-perfection.
Thérèse says, ‘The more one is weak, without desires and without virtues, the more one is suited for the operations of God’s consuming and transforming love.’
This brings our relationship with God to a new level. From being timid and distant, we develop a boldness that thrills God’s heart. We experience how passionate is God’s love for us. In that strange logic of love, we come to understand the vulnerability of God; he cannot refuse our neediness.
Our faults remain, but, rather than damage our relationship, they draw us into deeper levels of intimacy.
There is no room for God’s love in the hearts of the proud. Effort, not grace, is their way to God. They need to learn that God cannot be bought. His friendship cannot be won by our achievements.
All is gift. Thérèse tells us, ‘Those who live by the gospel are not looking anxiously to see results, not counting on success, not concerned about what progress they have made. They live by faith and confidence, giving themselves completely over to God’s mercy.’ She illustrates this by the image of a stairs. God is at the top, watching our efforts to reach him. Knowing that we cannot measure up to the gospel ideal, he bends down to us. This is the way we reach union with God – not through grim determination and effort, but through his love taking us to himself.
(Adapted from Fr. Frank McAuliffe, Africa, May 2007, pp.18-19)