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Friendship vs Prudence? St Therese of Lisieux's Little Way

Thursday, October 01, 2020

By Br Thomas Therese Mannion | ‘How often do we use prudence as an excuse not to fulfil the demands of charity?’ On the feast of St Therese of Lisieux, Br Thomas reflects on this great saint's secret to grow in love of God and of neighbour.

‘You’re called to love everyone: it doesn’t mean you have to be friends, it doesn’t mean you have to like them’. How often do we tell ourselves this to get ourselves off the hook? How often do we use prudence as an excuse not to fulfil the demands of charity? To protect ourselves from the grace of showing the extremity of God’s merciful love? A love we have been given the grace and command to give to all people; after all, did he not die for us while we were still sinners?

If, like me, there is something about this statement that makes you feel uncomfortable you are in good company. St. Therese of Lisieux is most often known for her reflections on her vocation and speaking about the vocation to Love. I wonder if it is one of the most quoted but least practised parts of her Little Way. Our vocation to love is a vocation to be a friend to every sinner, not only the sinners you’re naturally drawn to.

In chapter 9 of her Story of a Soul, St. Therese explains she set out to find how far reaching is the precept of charity, motivated by the words of Jesus ‘The second commandment is like the first: love your neighbour as yourself’ and ‘it is not those who cry ‘Lord, Lord’ who will enter the Kingdom of Heaven but those who do the will of my Father in Heaven’.

St. Therese turns naturally to see how Jesus loved his disciples. She finds they had no ‘natural qualities’ that Jesus should like them, ‘for they were ignorant men’. Here St. Therese sets up exactly who it is we are to love – even those whom we have no natural attraction to, even those we find ignorant and ‘full of earthly ideas’. In spite of this she notes that ‘he calls them friends’. Yet these are the men Jesus seeks out. St. Therese goes on to apply this to her own situation: ‘There are, of course, no enemies in the Carmel; but, after all, we have our natural likes and dislikes. We may feel drawn towards one Sister, and may be tempted to go a long way round to avoid meeting another. Well, Our Lord tells me that this is the Sister to love and pray for, even though her behaviour may make me imagine she does not care for me. "If you love them that love you, what thanks are to you? For sinners also love those that love them." And it is not enough to love, we must prove our love; naturally one likes to please a friend, but that is not charity, for sinners do the same.’

St. Therese finds that asking human beings to love others as they love themselves tells us that God recognises how much we love ourselves. God does not leave us in this deficient love but calls us to an infinite love, ‘A new commandment I give unto you, love one another as I have loved you’. The love with which Jesus loves us, St. Therese says, is friendship: ‘I call you no longer servants, I call you friends’.

I have often teased some of my more scholastic brothers by positing a syllogism within her writings on this point:

Premise 1: Jesus loves us as friends as he says ‘I call you no longer servants I call you friends’.

Premise 2: Jesus commands us to love one another as he has loved us.

Conclusion: We have a vocation to friendship with every other human being (and the angels and saints for that matter).


To give this a Thomist twist, we might add an objection:

Objection 1: That is impossible


St. Therese replies to objection 1: ‘O my Jesus! Thou dost never ask what is impossible; Thou knowest better than I, how frail and imperfect I am, and Thou knowest that I shall never love my Sisters as Thou hast loved them, unless within me Thou lovest them, dear Lord! It is because Thou dost desire to grant me this grace that Thou hast given a New Commandment. Oh how I love it, since I am assured thereby that it is Thy Will to love in me all those Thou dost bid me love!’

Let us seize this opportunity, to love others wisely and prudently by truly willing their good. Acting as a friend should, knowing when to say yes and no, the limits of conversation, reaching out to people we find difficult but also knowing when we might have to walk away lest we cause more harm than good. John McKenzie said ‘prudence has long been, not the virtue by which one discerns the Christian thing to do, but the virtue by which one finds sound reasoning for evading the Christian thing to do!’ Is there any Martyr who could not have evaded Martyrdom with a clean conscience citing prudence? Could Mother Teresa or St. Therese not have cited prudence in fleeing dangerous or painful situations? A true virtue can never oppose one’s Christian duty, but we can rationalise that we are more virtuous than we in fact are. Let us pray to St. Therese for the gift of true and wise, loving and generous, kind Christian friendship.

St. Therese writes:

‘As I meditated on these Divine words, I saw how imperfect was the love I bore my Sisters in religion. I understood that I did not love them as Our Lord loves them. I know now that true charity consists in bearing all our neighbours' defects—not being surprised at their weakness, but edified at their smallest virtues. Above all I know that charity must not remain shut up in the heart, for “No man lights a candle, and puts it in a hidden place, nor under a bushel; but upon a candlestick, that they who come in may see the light”. It seems to me, dear Mother, this candle represents that charity which enlightens and gladdens, not only those who are dear to us, but all those who are of the household’.


St Thérèse of Lisieux, pray for us!



Br Thomas Thérèse Mannion O.P.

Br Thomas Thérèse Mannion O.P.

Br Thomas Thérèse is a student brother in simple vows, born on the Wirral. He felt called to the priesthood at an early age. Before joining the Order, he was employed in the Archdiocese of Westminster as a Catechetical and Youth Coordinator. Whilst studying Theology at Heythrop College, University of London, he stumbled across the Dominican Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist which lead him to discover the Friars of the English Province on YouTube. He entered the noviciate in 2016. He enjoys Ice Skating, History of the Papacy and the writings of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. | thomas.mannion@english.op.org

MORE ON: SAINTS, PRAYER


Comments

Dana Andrusik commented on 04-Oct-2020 01:57 AM
My wife and I attend Mass at The Shrine of the Little Flower in Baltimore, MD, USA.
At the back of the Sanctuary is a huge painting of the Little Flower ascending and releasing her roses for us. A beautiful Saint! So much love from and toward a little girl great in stature.

God bless you all!
Peter commented on 05-Oct-2020 08:09 AM
Thank you. St Therese is wonderful, and you have given us much to inspire, and to provoke us to self-examination, from her writing.

In a further Thomist twist, however, might I propose a distinction concerning McKenzie's quip that ‘prudence has long been, not the virtue by which one discerns the Christian thing to do, but the virtue by which one finds sound reasoning for evading the Christian thing to do!’? I concede that such evasion is a vice, but that is not prudence properly so called but its unworthy simulacrum, astutia or cunning. At least I think St Thomas would say so.

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