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Posted by on Apr 2, 2012

Providence/Grace and Free Will

We live in a world where we often feel pressured to prove that God exists and then we can be at a loss in explaining where God is.  Out in the world of work, everyone is supposed to pretend that they are very objective and scientific.  But, as we have said, empirical data is only one modality of space-time reality.  Experience is a valid category by which we learn and make decisions.  Following my gut feeling about how to approach a worry or a situation with a person can be very useful.  Trying things like prayer and finding out that something new, unexpected and helpful outside my usual “bag of tricks” is happening, can send me down a good path towards surrender to the ways of God.   No one can define exactly how this universe is set up in terms of cause and effect.  No one philosophy or great intellect can tell us definitively a way to control outcomes.  I can be as intelligent, mature, ethical and unselfish as possible and that will not guarantee certain results.

Why is that?  From the secular point of view, we come into our lives with many predetermined factors.  Our physical lives, ethnicity, time in history, birth order, family system, religion, and socio-economic situation dictate a great deal of how we will develop.  There will also be many influences along the way.  The choices parents make, teachers we have, opportunities, illnesses, choices we make, etc. will be part of the mix of who we become.  But, from the spiritual point of view, there are other factors that intervene and open up possibilities.  If one has the perspective of faith, one will see the action of God in his life in varying ways.

Why in “varying ways?”  Therese of Lisieux said that “Everything is a grace.”  Ignatius of Loyola said that we can and should “Find God in all things.”  Everyone will observe and interpret the action of God in the external world and the motions of God within ourselves in different ways.  Many people will be very conservative in believing that God is active at all in their lives.  Others will see God and God’s care in many events big and small throughout the day or week.  The most challenging context in which to affirm the presence of God will be in the experience of suffering.  It can be challenging to see God or any value in any experience of pain or difficulty.   Hurt, inconvenience, failure, addiction, and loss can all seem pointless and to be avoided.

How can suffering be okay or how can God allow it?  How could failure be a grace?  Why aren’t resources that I discover just something I did on my part?  And, further, why see God in my circumstances at all?  If my sister dies at a young age, how can that be okay?  If I spill breakfast cereal on my pants, how can that be a good thing?  Didn’t I figure out which graduate school to go to on my own?  Does God do my tax return?  Isn’t it important to take control of my life?  These questions are at the heart of the daily grind of our lives.  If God is here, what is he doing and why or how is this mess of a world okay?

The theology or meaning of Christ on the cross is at the center of this question.  What Christians believe is really strange but poses a answer that confounds all other interpretations of reality.  How can surrender in obedience and helplessness to a divine Father who loves him, be the apex of salvation — THE solution to the problem of evil and suffering?!  Look at the other solutions.   First, if we believe in God, that is a reality which encompasses and surpasses the immensity of the universe by definition.  So, scientific laws are included within the reality of God who is intelligent and complex beyond anything we can understand.  Second, things we think are bad because they feel painful may not be bad in an objective sense.  If my overall desire is to realize my potential fully, I may not even see what that is.  If I have desires to be happy in a certain way, I may not know  how to get there.  I may not see what is in the way.

With faith, one believes in a Sacred Reality that is close but also beyond my limitations.  I believe that this Reality is loving and personal.   At some point I may take a chance on this God and let him guide me.  My life may take me through suffering.  It may be at the hands of crude, misguided people.  I may get beaten up one way or the other.  I may make bad choices too.  With guidance I could learn to discern better decisions.  From the hurt of the past I can gain several things.  I may see that I am compassionate because I know what hurt is.  I may be an exquisitely good at setting limits and yet being generous.  I may know how to express myself clearly because I have had to protect myself.  I may see through the games of others. The suffering was in no way a waste or distraction — it was all good.

This learning, maturity, holiness is not something I can insert into myself.  It is part of a great mystery.  Something greater has made itself available to me.  The key resources are beyond the components of daily life.  I can go to yoga, the chiropractor, analysis, the health food store, school, have a great job and body, and be rich, and still not be on my true path.    If one is a person of religious faith, the only way to real happiness is surrender to God.  It is that blunt and simple.  This is so totally uncool that saying it is like marketing cat poop.   Okay, so we could say “Higher Power” and it might sound less “Churchy.”  The bottom line is that dependence on any authority figure is totally  unacceptable.  We are supposed to grow into greater and greater independence.  God is a weird old guy wearing white gowns who is out of touch and judges people.  So, that’s for later — when we die.  Admitting that I have a relationship with God, experience his presence on a daily basis and make decisions in relation to the inner motions of the heart is unusual for most people.

Yet somehow, a sizable segment of the Catholic/Christian population does have this experience.  They are middle of the road believers who know that they are being guided by God and still have their free will intact.  They surrender their inclination to demand that God explain it all.  They trust the mystery of how providence and freedom work, but they know the balance is real.  They base this trust on experience.  The care and challenge they feel from this divine reality is consistent, rational, reliable, helpful to them, and beyond their own abilities.  They would have abandoned their faith in God a long time ago if the results had been destructive.    They know when they “bump” into someone they need to see, that it is a gift.  They realize that the thought to travel down a certain road helped them avoid a pileup on the freeway.  When they lose a job they eventually see that it moved them out of a situation which was undermining their health.

Mystery, yes.  Surrender, yes.

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Posted by on Oct 1, 2008

Saint of the Day – St. Therese of Lisieux – October 1

Saint of the Day – St. Therese of Lisieux – October 1

St. Therese 

St. Therese of Lisieux is known as “The Little Flower” because before she died she promised that after her death she would send down a shower of roses on the earth. She is known for her “little way” to God – a way that everyone can follow, doing the smallest everyday things in love as a way to God.

I asked the sisters at several Carmelite monasteries to share their reflections on St. Therese for her feast day and received these gracious responses.

Mother Marija, 0cd of Holy Annunciation Monastery , a Byzantine Carmelite monastery, in Sugarloaf, PA, sent this note:

The invitation: “What is one thing you would like people to know about St. Therese?”  This in turn, led me to ask: “what did Therese want us to know about her life and spirituality?  What did she say?” Before she died Therese spoke  of her desire  to make known to all “little souls” (everyone)  her way of confidence and love.  Therese wanted us to know how much, how very much, we are loved by God and have nothing to fear from Him.  This being true, we might also say that God gave Therese to the Church and world as a “new” expression of the Gospel message: God is Love.

When praying the Novena of Grace in 1897, the very year of her death, Therese asked God to grant her unique request: That her mission to save souls would last until the end of time” So as we honor Therese,  we should  recognize that God wants our love and has sent Therese to us, raised her up in the Church, as a new “invitation” to know Him as Love.

The Sisters at Carmel of Reno were unable to offer a reflection on St. Therese or Carmelite spirituality at this time, but they graciously gave permission to use the icon of St. Therese doing the laundry created by the late Sr. Marie-Celeste, as illustration for this post. They also offered their best wishes and this comment.

We deeply appreciate your interest in Carmelite spirituality and  sharing the riches of theology and religious experience with the broad community on line.

St. Therese is one of my personal favorite saints, as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts. For more about her life and influence, here are some options:

Maurice and Therese: The Story of a Love by Patrick Ahern

Saint Therese and the Roses by Helen Walker Homan

St. Therese of Lisieux – Saint of the Day

The Triumph of the Lowly – St. Therese of Lisieux and the Little Way

 Original icon by Sr. Marie-Celeste Fadden, Carmel of Reno – Used with permission

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Posted by on Oct 1, 2007

Saint of the Day – St. Therese of Lisieux – October 1

St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Saint of the Day

Today, October 1, is the feast of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower. This is a picture of her as a child.

As faithful readers will recall, St. Thérèse is one of my favorite saints. I have already written about her (see my post for September 4, 2007, Triumph of the Lowly) and will not go into great detail here. Suffice it to say that in her short 24 years, she gave to the church a great gift, the Little Way. She delighted in the small things of life and determined that her calling was to love God in all His creatures and in all of creation. Although she entered a convent at the age of 15 and died there at 24, her writings have reached beyond the convent walls and touched people great and small since her death from tuberculosis in 1897.

Her Little Way to holiness is one to which all of us are called. It consists of doing the everyday things in “mindful” ways, paying attention and acting in love as we go about our everyday routines.

As she said, “I am a very little soul, who can offer only very little things to the Lord.”

In another place she wrote,”Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden me. The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love.”

As she neared her death, in the midst of a great time of personal spiritual darkness, she assured her sisters, “I will spend my Heaven doing good on earth,” and, “After my death I will let fall a shower of roses.”

When she overheard two of the other nuns wondering what would ever be said about her at her funeral, since she was so young and had really not done anything of note in her life, she was delighted. She had never wanted to be noticed as any different than the other sisters with whom she lived. Yet within just a few years of her death, her autobiography and other writings were being translated into all the major languages of the world. Her Little Way influenced theologians, popes, bishops, priests, and thousands of others both inside and outside the Church. In recognition of the depth of her contribution to the Church, Pope John Paul II, named her a Doctor of the Church in 1997.

For a more complete biographies, see:

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Posted by on Sep 4, 2007

Saint of the Day – St. Therese of Lisieux – October 1

The Triumph of the Lowly – St. Thérèse of Lisieux and The Little Way

Not too long after Pope John Paul II named St. Thérèse of Lisieux a Doctor of the Church in 1997, I overheard someone commenting to one of her friends that a specialist in the spirituality of St. Teresa of Avila, was upset by his action. This specialist was very clear about the reasons that Teresa of Avila had received that honor, based on her years of spiritual growth, her reformation of the Carmelite order, and her writings. By contrast, Thérèse of Lisieux, in her short 24 years, had really not contributed anything of substance, certainly not enough to merit such a grand title as Doctor of the Church, a status shared by only 32 other people. Only two other women, Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) and Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) were Doctors of the Church. They had only received this recognition in 1970. (The New Catholic Encyclopedia, in 1967, ventured that women were unlikely to receive this honor because it is linked to the teaching office of the church,”which is limited to males.”)

Marie Françoise Thérèse Martin (1873-1897) became Sr. Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face when she took her vows at the Carmelite convent in Lisieux in Normandy, France in 1888. I have been a fan of hers since I was in second grade. I read a children’s biography, Saint Thérèse and the Roses. It was really too hard for me to read easily, but I plowed my way through it and fell in love with her. I returned to the story many times as I grew up and continued to find her attractive. In fact, I chose her as my Confirmation patroness at age 13, long before she was so grand.

When Randy and I were newly-weds, we went to Guadalajara, Mexico to meet his cousins on his father’s side of the family. Randy’s aunt, Tía Dorotea, gave me a copy of Thérèse’s autobiography, The Story of a Soul, in Spanish. Thérèse was also Tía Dorotea’s favorite saint and I learned that in Mexico she is sometimes known as Santa Teresita (St. Little Teresa). I have thought of her as Teresita since that time.

However, I was in graduate school and then had young children and a business to operate with Randy, and I never found time to read my precious gift.

I’d like to say that I have now found and read it, but that would not be true. I know it is in our house somewhere, but like the beads for repairing my favorite moccasins, it is hiding in our resident Black Hole. I’m confident that it will someday escape and I plan to read it with a smile when it does, as I remember Tía Dorotea fondly.

So, I found myself wondering, what was it that made her as important in the life and history of the Church as Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena? I found the answer recently while shopping for a birthday gift at my favorite bookstore. On the shelf was a small book by Patrick Ahern, Auxiliary Bishop of New York, Maurice and Thérèse: The Story of a Love.

In this little book, Bishop Ahern offers a brief biography of Thérèse of Lisieux and an explanation of the general spiritual ambience of the late 19th Century. He then presents a series of letters written by Maurice Bellière to Thérèse of Lisieux and her responses. Maurice Bellière was a seminarian who had written to the Prioress of Carmel in Lisieux requesting that a Sister be chosen to pray especially for his vocation and with whom he could correspond. Thérèse’s sister Pauline was prioress at the time and she chose Thérèse to be the one who would respond to him.

Thérèse was passing through the last 18 months of her life, dying of tuberculosis. She was holding on by sheer force of will to her belief in God and her trust that her life of faith had not been that of a fool. It was a time of deep spiritual darkness for her, yet she offered sound advice, great encouragement and deep love to Maurice in her letters.

I couldn’t send the book to its new owner until I read it all myself! And through this book, I came to understand the great gift my Teresita gave to the Church, a path out of the darkness of Jansenism back into the light of trust in a loving God.

During the late 19th Century, an heretical approach to spirituality called Jansenism was still widely influential in popular spirituality, especially in France. The fundamental idea of Jansenism, which began in the mid-1600s, was that humans are not able to resisting any deep longing of the soul or any pleasure, whether towards good or evil. The only hope of salvation rested on God’s intervention in a person’s life, steering the person directly to choose the good. This understanding denied the existence and role of free will as a foundation of the relationship between God and humans. It was a system of predestination in which no one could have any certainty that he or she had been chosen (predestined) for salvation.

As a result, it tended to be a spirituality leading to uncompromising firmness or rigidity regarding beliefs and stern, strict religious practices. There was no role allowed for the heart or for feelings in worship. The infallibility of Church teachings was denied. Humans were seen as inherently bad and unworthy of God’s love or forgiveness. Frequent reception of Communion was discouraged because people are so unworthy to receive such a great gift.

Jansenism persisted for the next several centuries, especially in France. It was formally outlawed in 1712, but many Jansenist ideas and practices continued. St. Pius X, who had read Thérèse’s autobiography, was elected Pope in 1903. He tried to counter Jansenism by lowering the age for First Communion to 7 and by encouraging frequent Communion. Yet even into the mid-20th century when I was a girl, the remnants of Jansenism popped up in popular spirituality and even in the pulpit.

The “Little Way” of Thérèse of Lisieux, again opened the door to the Good News of Jesus, that God is a loving Father (a Parent) to us. While it is true that we are weak and we sin all too easily and frequently, God’s Love still reaches out to us and forgives.

The essence of the Little Way is the idea that most of us are not called to heroic degrees of self giving and sacrifice in our lives. Most of us are not called to leadership roles in the community. Few are called to celibacy. Even fewer are called to the heroic witness of martyrdom. But all of us are called to holiness (sainthood).

In her own words, “Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden me. The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love.”

Teresita understood, as did the great St. Teresa of Avila, that God is found even in the cooking pots of the kitchen — in the daily routines of cooking, cleaning, sewing, gardening and praying of her community.

Bishop Ahern notes that her greatest fear in facing death was that death might truly be the end of everything. That her life might go out like an extinguished candle and all have been in vain. Her second greatest fear was the death by suffocation that tuberculosis often causes. However, when the time came, she simply stopped breathing, with a smile of peaceful delight on her face, and moved into her new life, all fear and doubt obviously left behind her. Her final words were, “My God, I love you.”

John Paul II, in Divini Amoris Scientia (The Science of Divine Love), the decree that gave Marie Françoise Thérèse Martin the title, Doctor of the Church, noted that she gave us a foundation for spirituality that was innocent, open, hopeful, and trusting. Church authorities also noted that Thérèse was ahead of her time. Thérèse stressed the importance of reading Scripture and using it as a basis for prayer and meditation. She promoted the importance of studying the Scriptures in their original languages. These views would set theology and spirituality on a whole new course when they were advocated in 1943 by Pope Pius XII, in Divino Afflante Spiritu (Inspired by the Divine Spirit).

Thérèse Martin’s little book and her Little Way also influenced Pope John XXIII who convened the Second Vatican Council. Her autobiography influenced most of the movers and shakers of the early 20th Century in the Church and those insights shine through the Council documents and reforms.

Thank you, Bishop Ahern for your wonderful little book.

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