A week or two ago I posted briefly about I Believe in Love, originally published in 1969 as Croire à l'Amour (that is, To believe in love). It was gifted to me in a spiritual direction session that I'd sought out for some very specific advice, and the priest handed it to me almost apologetically explaining for the cover design, with its prominent headshot of St. Thérèse of Lisieux in her habit. "This isn't one of those sentimental books about St. Thérèse," he said, and I had to give him points for having pegged me pretty well.
(I can appreciate kitsch as well as the next person, but the porcelain-and-roses holy-card drawings of Thérèse, um, actually offend me. The embalmer has done his work so thoroughly that the beloved is not visible.)
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Anyway, d'Elbée turned not to be writing about St. Thérèse very much at all. The book is subtitled (in the English editions at least) A personal retreat based on the teaching of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and indeed, in the first "conference" (as the chapters are called), d'Elbée announces, "During this retreat I intend to talk to you about confident love, following the teaching of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, of whom Pope Pius XII said, 'she rediscovered the Gospel itself, the very heart of the Gospel.'"
But the various quotes and examples from the life of that saint are pulled out more as crumbs of inspiration that support the various themes that d'Elbée is writing about. There are many quotes from Scripture -- many more than there are quotes from Thérèse -- and also quotes and anecdotes from many others. St. John Vianney, St. John of the Cross, St, Teresa of Avila, St. Augustine, St. Francis de Sales, but also lesser-known figures, principally French ones: St. Claude de la Colombière, ordinary journalists and authors. I get the impression that d'Elbée assumes his reader, his retreatant, already knows St. Thérèse very well -- the unsentimental, audacious, mischievous, wildly courageous St. Thérèse -- and points out her features to one who already recognizes them in context.
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I don't know why the good theological books that have crossed my path in the last several years have so often been the work of French thinkers and saints, or occasionally of others who were heavily influenced by them. It's a happy coincidence, because that's the one modern language (besides English) that I read really well, and so I have the opportunity of consulting the untranslated originals from time to time. But it's also interesting to me -- why do I so often find that the French-speaking writers (Francis de Sales, Jeanne de Chantal, Thérèse, Elisabeth Leseur, and now d'Elbée have good and sensible answers to my particular problems?
Sometimes I think that particular features of the history of the French-speaking Church must have generated a sort of Christian response that happens to be just the sort to respond to particular features of the history of me. Cathars and Calvinists, Jansenists and Jacobins, [Third-]Republicans.... all a slow forging of a particular kind of blade, one that feels at home in my hand.
But the blade metaphor doesn't really work for me, as nicely as it seems to work in a blog post; the effect of these French saints on me is demulcent, a healing balm, or a cool slaking fountain. The challenges both inside and outside the French Church have been harsh and punishing and unforgiving and frightening ones. The response from the French saints is a response of confidence, good humor, and serenity. "Blessed are the meek" in French comes out as "Heureux les débonnaires," often footnoted "litt., 'ceux qui sont doux'" -- "mild" with all its connotations of calm weather, "good-humored" with all its connotations of an unruffled, un-ruffle-able disposition. It makes me think of the disciples waking Jesus in alarm, only to see him calm the waves with a word.
I am convinced that the French connotation is the correct one, and I believe that the term "meek" has damaged English-speaking Christianity in a way that's going to be difficult to recover from.
Something in my nature -- it precedes my conversion and reaches far back into childhood -- looks critically upon the self and despairs. I am forever working in vain to silence, or at least drown out, an unrelenting, unforgiving, driving, punishing inner voice. The French saints, I think, had to deal with (and continue to deal with) a shape-shifting and ever-constant specter, of which the extant anticlericalism is only the latest outer appearance: the depressing philosophy of total, unredeemable human depravity. The message of confident love, the belief that Jesus' goodness >> any individual's weakness, is the corrective to both. This is what I find in the French saints.
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The whole book is good, but judging by the frequency of my pencil scratches on the pages, the earlier chapters are the ones that I most needed to read at this time. Here is a selection of my marked passages.
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Prior dilexit nos: God loved us first that we might love him. That is the explanation of it all: of the Creation, the Incarnation, Calvary, the Resurrection, the Eucharist.
Corrective: The love we have is evidence that God loves us; but we don't have to love him in order for him to love us. We are loved without any effort on our own and do not have to earn that love before we can access it.
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We do not read the Gospel enough in the light of the love of Christ. Thus, sixteen centuries after the Last Supper and Calvary, the most satanic of all heresies, Jansenism, was able to appear and spread: a heresy which turned a God of love, saying "Come to me, all of you, come because you are unworthy, come because you are sinful, come because you need to be saved," into a God whose arms are raised to strike, a demanding God, a vengeful God. Under the pretext of recognizing our unworthiness, Jansenism diabolically led souls away from Jesus.
Thus, no longer willing to endure this heresy, Jesus appeared to St. Margaret Mary [Alacoque] at Paray-le-Monial and through her gave His Heart to the world.
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When someone asked little Thérèse to summarize her little childlike way, she answered, "It is to be disturbed by nothing." ... Naturally this means not to be voluntarily disturbed, not consciously or deliberately disturbed, because nature always worries.... The main thing is not to consent consciously to anxiety or a troubled mind.
The moment you realize you are worrying, make very quickly an act of confidence: "No, Jesus, You are there..." Perhaps He is sleeping in the boat, but He is there.... It is really an offense against Him when we worry voluntarily about anything....
I emphasize this concept of "worrying with the full consent of the will," for it is very important in the spiritual life to make a distinction between our nature and our will, united to the love of Jesus. "Homo duplex:" my nature says "No"; my will says "Yes." ...My nature is troubled and afraid; my heart recalls the divine testament: "Peace I leave with you"... My nature revolts; I force myself to say, "All is well, Jesus; do not change anything." It is a fight which we must take up again and again without ceasing, for our fallen nature always rears up its head. St. Francis de Sales says it dies a quarter of an hour after we do! This is the drama of our life. But the beautiful thing is that Jesus sees our will united to his by a fundamental choice -- the profound, habitual disposition of having only one will with Him. All those movements of our nature, if we do not consent to them, do not exist for Him. There is no sin without consent.
This is precisely the passage I needed to see most right now. A handful of events in my life recently have shown me the degree to which I was reared to confuse nature and will, not to believe in the fundamental inner freedom of voluntary choice. I come from the land of "this is the way that you are and always will be: accept it." This is the way it has to be, because the alternative is to live in a land of understanding right and wrong, of calling good good and evil evil, and that is uncomfortable.
But not to see the distinction between nature and will is to sink into one of three terrible errors about the totality of being human, because our nature is truly a mess.
-- Some, falling into the error of total human depravity, preach hopelessness: the best we can do is pretend to be among the elect, only to find out at the very end whether we really are.
-- Or, rejecting that (because who wants to stay totally depraved?) some of us *cough* strive endlessly to redeem our own nature by the powers of that nature, in endless programs of self-improvement and collective social reform. (A little progress appears to be made, as we harvest a little waste heat and turn it into power for good, but it's nothing more than a slight improvement in efficiency; there is a theoretical limit that is inherent to the material system. Thank you, Jules Carnot, for yet another French contribution to my philosophy.)
-- Or, rejecting that too, recognizing correctly that there is something good in all of us, concluding that human nature is usually not depraved at all, is fundamentally good, at least in a wide variety of its forms, and must be affirmed and celebrated everywhere -- except where they infringe upon the inclinations of other natures.
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The saints learned to rejoice in humility and humiliations... I speak here, obviously, of a love that is pure will, for our fallen nature does not seek humiliations or love them.
I wrote in the margins, "We forget again the distinction between nature & will & we often ascribe to the saints a holy Nature instead of a holy will, & then we see our own nature & despair."
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Frequently make what I call the examination of the prayer "O Jesus, I thank you for everything." It should be the fruit of your disposition of will, of heart, and of soul to bless Jesus for everything that He wills or permits for you, for everything that happens to you... In this short and simple prayer there is at the same time humility, an immense confidence in merciful love, abandonment, and thanksgiving.
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There is a repeated theme that Jesus rejoices with us in our wretchedness because it enables him to act in his role as Savior. That we should be thankful even for our misery because it leads us to seek mercy, and that the act of seeking mercy is itself a joy. And to be completely confident in that mercy.
The Curé of Ars: "Our sins, grains of sand beside the great mountain of the mercies of God." St. Thérèse..: "All possible crimes, a drop of water thrown into a blazing furnace."
One reproach sometimes made to this spirituality of confident love is that it would entail the danger of presumption and of letting ourselves go. You shall see... how abandonment and obedience do away with this danger. I think, on the contrary, that there is a double danger in the method which diminishes the role of confidence and stresses the role of personal effort, subjected to numerous self-examinations. If we are successful, there is the danger of pride, of attributing to ourselves what is in reality the work of grace; on the other hand, if we see no signs of progress, nine times out of ten we fall into wretched, sterile discouragement.... But in order to live this sound doctrine to the fullest, we must be very convinced...
[E]ven the most beautiful souls... do not want to believe that confidence is the key which will open the door for him, becau this door is a wound made by love. They look for other ways, as if this way were too beautiful to be reliable.
...So what then? He calls me just as I am? I can go to him with all my miseries, all my weaknesses? He will repair what I have done badly? He will supply for all my indigence?
Yes, provided that you go to Him, that you count on Him, that you expect everything of Him...
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[W]e must live a presently existing love...What would a husband think who, when asking his wife, "Do you love me?" received the response "I have a great desire to love you; I shall work toward it; I hope one day to achieve it by dint of my efforts and generosity and sacrifice." You are right to smile. But is this not the spiritual disposition many excellent souls adopt toward Jesus?
Make rather the admirable response of St. Peter: "Lord, You know all things; You know that I love you."
That gave me a rueful little laugh of recognitin, because that's how I often phrase it when I greet my spouse. Not the first way, but the second. "You know I love you," I will say. There is something a little desperate in that phrasing, I think, because always -- always -- I am tempted to think I do not love enough. I want, I think, to be reassured that, at least, I love enough for it to be known.
One of the great fruits of a good marriage has been the realization, no less astonishing to me for the frequency with which I realize it, of being beloved. I know and see my own faults constantly. And yet, someone (a pretty great person, if I may inject my opinion) loves me, really and for real. I wake up to it every morning and marvel, because it is marvelous, but at the same time I don't doubt it even for a minute. And I try with all my will to apply the same marvel as well as the same confidence to divine love and mercy, unfathomably vaster and more constant.
I have found d'Elbée's meditations to give me a helpful little nudge toward that confidence.