Saturday, 12 September 2009

Fr Christopher O'Donnell O.Carm: the relevance of St Therese today

On Thursday of this week I was able to hear a lecture by Fr Christopher O'Donnell O.Carm about St Therese of Lisieux. His title on the publicity for the lecture was "The Challenge of St Therese: Thoughts on the visit of her relics to England", but I think it is better to think of it as being about how she is still very relevant in the world of today. The title Fr O'Donnell used on his handout was: "A saint for our world: St Therese of Lisieux and contemporary spirituality".

The most interesting aspect of Fr O'Donnell's lecture was that it took Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical Caritas in Veritate, and suggested that the teaching and charism of St Therese can be seen in the teaching of the encyclical. This is a rather cute idea in itself, but it has an added power in that it establishes a very profound relevance of an enclosed nun whose life was dedicated directly and immediately to union with God to the life of Christians in a world today that is largely characterised by an absence of belief in God. As Fr O'Donnell expressed it, where Caritas in Veritate urges the necessity of a spirituality in the response to the economic and social problems of our time, St Therese provides an example of a person whose whole life could be defined as spirituality. [Aside: the use of a terminology of "spirituality" was not, I suspect, entirely felicitous. Pope Benedict does, I think, refer to the need for an acknowledgement of God and of the eternal destiny of man in the search for the solutions to the problems of the world today.]

One can perhaps point out two aspects of St Therese teaching that are apparent in Caritas in Veritate. Fr O'Donnell briefly referred to the word "truth" in St Therese's writing, saying that is is not very frequent but that its occurrences are very significant. Just hours before her death, for example, Therese said: "Yes it seems to me I never sought anything but the truth". Jean Guitton also identifies truth, "a sense of reality", as one of seven key terms needed to understand the spiritual genius of St Therese.

Another aspect can be recognised in the term "gratuitousness" as it is used by Pope Benedict in Caritas et Veritate. In his talk, Fr O'Donnell did, I think, use the term "spirituality" as a kind of short hand to cover this, so it was not perhaps as explicit as I am now about to make it. Particularly in discussing different economic entities, Pope Benedict urges that the role of "gratuitousness" and "solidarity":
When both the logic of the market and the logic of the State come to an agreement that each will continue to exercise a monopoly over its respective area of influence, in the long term much is lost: solidarity in relations between citizens, participation and adherence, actions of gratuitousness, all of which stand in contrast with giving in order to acquire (the logic of exchange) and giving through duty (the logic of public obligation, imposed by State law). In order to defeat underdevelopment, action is required not only on improving exchange-based transactions and implanting public welfare structures, but above all on gradually increasing openness, in a world context, to forms of economic activity marked by quotas of gratuitousness and communion. The exclusively binary model of market-plus-State is corrosive of society, while economic forms based on solidarity, which find their natural home in civil society without being restricted to it, build up society. The market of gratuitousness does not exist, and attitudes of gratuitousness cannot be established by law. Yet both the market and politics need individuals who are open to reciprocal gift.

Interestingly, this urging of the place of love can also be found in Pope Benedict's first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (n.28 ff), where the context is that of love as agape, as commitment to the good of the other, lived out by the Christian who has first received love from the Incarnate Word.

A major element of St Therese's teaching is that of her confidence in the merciful love of God. When she makes an offering of herself to God it is not an offering to His Justice or punishment of some form; instead she asks to be a burnt offering immolated by His Merciful Love. She can have a complete confidence in the merciful love of God because she recognises its gratuitousness, the fact that it is given first and that we are then called to live it out in our acts of love. This recognition of its gratuitousness also removes the pressure on us to undertake great acts of love - little acts are sufficient because of the greatness of the love that God has first had for us. And so we arrive at a "little way" towards God.

So, taking my cue from Fr O'Donnell, I would argue that there is a complete affinity between the gratuitousness that Pope Benedict sees in the freely given love that God first has for us (Deus Caritas Est) and in the love=gratuitousness that needs to have its place in public and economic life today (Caritas in Veritate) and the confidence that we can have in the merciful love of God for us and our living of that love in the small acts of the "little way" (St Therese).

Therese, a hidden contemplative, teaches a doctrine utterly relevant to a contemporary life lived in the world.

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