St Thérèse of Lisieux - Model for Missionaries
by Dwight Longenecker
‘In spite of my littleness, I would like to enlighten souls as did the Prophets and the Doctors. I have the vocation of the Apostles. I would like to travel over the whole earth to preach your Name and to plant your glorious cross on infidel soil. But…one mission alone would not be sufficient for me, I would want to preach the Gospel on all the five continents simultaneously and even to the most remote isles. I would be a missionary, not for a few years only, but from the beginning of creation until the consummation of the ages.’ (The Story of a Soul
: the Autobiography of St Thérèse of Lisieux)
With these words Thérèse of Liseux expressed her fervent wish to serve God as a missionary. Her wish almost came true because her own convent in France was hoping to send some sisters out to a sister house in Saigon, and before her health failed Thérèse had been selected for the missionary enterprise. But by the age of twenty four Thérèse was dead. Her life had been almost totally hidden. At her death she seemed just another obscure nun in a country convent in France. Most of the nuns didn’t recognise her great holiness. One said, ‘I cannot understand why people speak of Sister Thérèse as if she were a saint. She never does anything notable’ (The Hidden Face: A Study of St Thérèse of Lisieux). Thérèse had great ambitions to serve God, but at her death it looked like her life had come to nothing. Nevertheless on her deathbed Thérèse said she believed God had granted all her desires.
One of her desires was to be a doctor of the church and amazingly, one hundred years after her death the girl who was never a great scholar was declared a doctor of the church. In the simplicity of her life and message Thérèse brought a refreshment of doctrine Catholic life. Since then countless books have been written about her teaching both by simple souls and world-class theologians like Hans Urs von Balthasar. Over the last few years we have also seen a remarkably literal realisation of Thérèse’s dream to preach the gospel to every continent. Through the pilgrimage of her relics around the world people from every continent will be touched by her life and message in a fresh way.
Millions have flocked to be near the remains of Thérèse because of her simple teaching about finding God within the little-ness of life. They have been drawn to her Little Way, seeking a pattern for holiness in their own lives. But the Little Way of Thérèse is also a pattern for much wider ambitions. In 1927 Thérèse was declared the patroness of missions. During her lifetime she corresponded faithfully with two missionary priests, and countless missionaries have looked to her for inspiration and help since then. Her desire to be a missionary was fulfilled in another peculiar way in the life of the twentieth century’s most famous missionary—Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Teresa of Calcutta took her name from the saint of Lisieux and used her Little Way as the spiritual basis for her order. It is not an exaggeration to say that the worldwide order Missionaries of Charity are actually an outworking of Thérèse of Lisieux’s dream to be a missionary one day. Herself a tiny woman, Teresa of Calcutta holds hands with Thérèse of Lisieux to show the way forward for our own efforts at evangelising a needy world.
One of the problems with evangelising in the world today is that so much of the world has heard the Christian message, but haven’t seen Christianity in action. As G.K.Chesterton said, ‘Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, it has not been tried.’ We have penetrated the world with the Word of God, but we have often neglected to penetrate the world with the Love of God. A famous unbeliever has mocked Christianity by calling it, ‘Poor little talkative Christianity.’ In other words our evangelisation has too often been all talk and no action. Too often we are better at theory than practice.
Thérèse of Lisieux shows us a different way forward. There are three aspects to her way of mission which reveal a way forward for each Christian. First of all Thérèse had a vocation of love. After searching for how she could serve God she finally cried out with delight, ‘My vocation is love!’ She saw that her love could beat at the heart of the Church for all mankind. Thérèse’s mission begins and ends with love, and that love is an intimate gift which she gets from Jesus himself.
Thérèse learned that love is a gift which comes through prayer, and it is a gift that is given through prayer. It was through her life of prayer that she tapped into the powerhouse of love. She became a channel for that love in the world through her prayer. When she prayed for the unrepentant murderer Pranzini Thérèse showed that prayer changes things, and that even the hardest heart can be softened through prayer. She famously prophesied that she would ‘spend her heaven doing good on earth.’ It is through her continued life of prayer and worship in heaven that she continues to help pour God’s grace into the world and continues to show us how prayer provides the power for mission.
After love and prayer comes action. Thérèse’s life in the convent was small and simple, but within the confines of her life she was given the opportunity for action. So when an older nun asked for help, but was ungrateful, Thérèse gave her more help with her willing smile. When faced with a difficult sister she went to extraordinary lengths to befriend her and show her that love which everyone else, including Thérèse, found difficult. The whole community and the unlovable nun herself were convinced that she was Thérèse’s favourite friend. Only later did it emerge how hard Thérèse had worked to love and understand the unlovable sister. In her loving prayerful actions Thérèse doesn’t tell us how to evangelise—she shows us.
Thérèse of Lisieux’s pattern of evangelisation is therefore based in the simple rule of Love and Prayer put into Action. Teresa of Calcutta put that theory of love into action in a fresh way. Her nuns work hard to show the love of Christ, but they pray just as hard—knowing that it is their contemplative life of prayer which fuels their life of loving action in the world. Through her dynamic order missionary order, Teresa of Calcutta shows each one of us how to show Christ’s love for the world. Following the pattern of Thérèse of Lisieux and Teresa of Calcutta we can re-establish our own priorities in our life of witness. First of all, our witness to the gospel must be grounded in a fervent life of prayer. Its’s simple. No prayer, no power. We cannot evangelise on our own. Only through God’s grace can we reach others with the good news. Secondly, Actions speak louder than words. Its an old saying, but a true one. Whether it is on the level of the whole church, the diocese, the parish or our own individual lives, our Christian message must be acted on with determination and enthusiasm. If our message is not acted on it is not real. Finally, actions cannot stand alone. Every time we have the chance we must be able to bear a witness to the faith that is within us. We don’t need to be theologians, priests or religious to speak the Word of Life. In fact, the most powerful witness comes from ordinary people whose lives have been transformed by the beauty, love and power of Christ.
The little nun of Lisieux knew the beauty, love and power of Christ at a depth few of us can fathom. Her identification with the gospel was much more than head knowledge. She had allowed God’s grace to transform her into the likeness of Christ. This is really why Thérèse is the patroness of missions: because in her total identification with Christ she shows us the best way to evangelise the world. The secret is to become so like Christ that we don’t need to say much. Instead people simply see Him through us. This was the simple, but profound experience of Thérèse of Lisieux. It is the mystery at the heart of her little way, and the ultimate pattern for our own ministry in the world. Words and actions are part of the process, but at the end we must be transformed into His likeness, because the world is not so much interested in religious theory and debate. Instead men and women come with longing hearts like those enquirers in the book of Acts who cried out to the apostles: ‘Sirs, We would like to see Jesus!’
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Copyright © Dwight Longenecker. All rights reserved. Dwight Longenecker is a Catholic writer and broadcaster working and living in England. Check his website
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