13. The Spouse of Virgins
Radha in Athens cites a number of historical figures who described experiences similar to her own in devotion to a spiritual Beloved. They include Mirabai, who immortalized her love for Krishna in beautiful poetry; the Sufi Jalalludin Rumi; and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, a Catholic nun.
Thérèse lived at the end of the nineteenth century. Both her parents had unfulfilled monastic vocations, and their prenuptial hopes came true when all five of their daughters became nuns. Thérèse entered a Carmelite cloister at age fifteen and lived there until her death of illness only nine years later. She was canonized in a very short time, totally on the merits of her inner life, whose magnitude became known from a memoir she wrote on orders from her superiors, titled posthumously The Story of a Soul. The soul was delightfully innocent and gloriously in love with her Lord, whom she often addresses directly in the text, modestly referring to herself in the third person. One of her honorifics for Jesus is the Spouse of virgins.
The words of Thérèse unveil a world incomprehensible to postmodern sensibility, and drastically at odds with it. Her whole family was exquisitely refined and of a deep nature, able to comprehend the subtleties of Spirit and to endure the harshest suffering that material life can inflict. The Catholic Church is much maligned today, and most of the remaining faithful practice a “lite” version of the creed, ignoring the strict edicts on sex, morality, and sin. The centuries of its past glory are now called the “Dark Ages”, but if anyone doubts that the Church carried the Spirit through all that time, they need only delve into The Story of a Soul to be bathed in a brilliant remnant of that light.
In the Zeitgeist fostered by the Church, people embraced suffering as beneficial for the soul, and sacrifice as the greatest virtue. This is what made the culture of Medieval Europe a unified whole, for the focus of life was not the selfish concerns of the individual but rather the community and its welfare, spiritual as well as material. The actual personal reality of this way of life comes home when Thérèse describes the feelings of her father when he lost her to Carmel, and would hence see her again only through a grated window on brief visits to the cloister. He said: “Only God could ask such a sacrifice, but my heart is filled with joy even in the midst of tears.” On his first visit he told her of an inner experience he had afterwards during Mass at Notre Dame Cathedral, in which “I received such great graces and consolations that I prayed: ‘It is too much, my God. I am too happy. This is not the way to Heaven; I want to suffer something for you, and I offer myself as a…'” He caught himself before saying the word “victim”, but Thérèse understood perfectly, for she shared the sentiment ~ in fact it was one of the driving forces of her life of devotion.
God fulfilled the father’s prayer, for soon afterwards he came down with a lingering painful illness that finally took his life. Thérèse wrote of it:
Father’s three years of martyrdom seem to me the most desirable and fruitful years we have ever had, and I would not exchange them for the most sublime ecstasies. In face of such a priceless treasure, my heart cries out in gratitude: “Blessed be Thou, my God, for the days wherein thou hast afflicted us” [Psalm 49: 15]. It was so bitter a cross, and yet how precious and sweet, since drawing from our hearts such acts of love and thankfulness; we no longer walked along the way of perfection ~ we ran. We winged our way in thought and heart, beyond all space and time, and chose to suffer on earth that we might taste eternal happiness.
Now that we’ve set the stage with the devout Christian context of Thérèse’ life, let’s take a look at some passages that reveal the nature of her relationship with Jesus. Here’s what she said about her First Holy Communion at age ten:
How lovely it was, that first kiss of Jesus in my heart ~ it was truly a kiss of love. I knew that I was loved, and said, “I love You, and I give myself to You forever”. It was a complete fusion. We were no longer two, for Therese had disappeared like a drop of water lost in the mighty ocean. Jesus alone remained ~ the Master and King.
(From a few years later:) One evening, not knowing how to tell Jesus how much I loved him, and how I wanted above all else to serve him and give him glory, I was saddened at the thought that he would never receive a single act of love from the depths of Hell. Then from the bottom of my heart I said I would consent to be cast into that place of torment and blasphemy, so that even there he would be loved eternally…. When one is in love, one says so many foolish things!
Heaven meant nothing to me save love, and I was sure that nothing could take me from the Divine Being who held me captive.
(From her life in Carmel:) I was thinking about those who offer themselves as victims to God’s justice, diverting to themselves the punishments deserved by sinners. The nobility and generosity of such an offering was obvious… From the bottom of my heart I cried: O my Divine Master… (she pleaded with Jesus to accept her as a victim, then said:) I long to run into your arms to be consumed in the enrapturing furnace of your Infinite Love.
This spiritual practice of sacrificial victimhood was sometimes phrased in the Old Testament rhetoric of “holocaust”, whose literal meaning was a burnt offering to the Lord. It was expanded metaphorically to describe souls who undergo great ordeals without losing faith, who are thus said to have been “tried in the fire”.
The latter part of the book was written after Thérèse came down with her fatal disease, tuberculosis, which gradually worsened until she could barely scrawl in large childlike script. Here are some excerpts:
I am ill, and I shall never get better, but my soul always remains at peace. For a long time now I have not belonged to myself; I have given myself entirely to Jesus. He is free to do with me whatever He likes.
To be a martyr is what I long for most of all. Martyrdom! I dreamed of it when I was young, and the dream has grown up with me in my little cell in Carmel. I am just as foolish about this because I do not desire any one kind of torture; I would be satisfied only with them all. I want to be scourged and crucified like You, my Spouse; flayed alive like St. Bartholomew, thrown into boiling oil like St. John, and ground by the teeth of wild beasts like St. Ignatius of Antioch, so that I might become bread worthy of God. Like St. Agnes and St. Cecilia, I want to offer my neck to the executioner’s sword, and like Joan of Arc, murmur the name of Jesus at the burning stake. My heart thrills at the thought of the undreamt-of torments that will be the lot of Christians in the time of Anti-Christ! I want them all to be my lot!
I am not afraid of the demon vultures, for I know that I am not destined to be their prey, but that of the Divine Eagle ~ You, my Saviour…. For as long as You wish, I will stay with my eyes fixed on You, longing to be fascinated by your divine gaze, longing to be the prey of Your love. I hope that one day you will swoop upon and carry me off to the furnace of love, and plunge me into its glowing abyss, that I may become forever its happy holocaust.
But I know that you delight in lavishing graces upon my soul, so long as I abondon myself with boundless confidence to Your infinite mercy.