(Luke 9:28-36; Jonah 3:1-12)
Homily for the feast of St. Therese of Lisieux By Fr. John Dear, S.J. Deacons Conference, Toronto, Canada October, 1, 2005. (Gospel passage: Luke 10:17-24)
Dear friends, this is a great text for our weekend together. After all your work, after all you’ve been through in your parishes and in the Church over the past few years, Jesus brings us together and says to each one of us: “Rejoice, rejoice, because your name is written in heaven! I have observed Satan fall from the sky. I have given you power. Nothing will harm you. Rejoice! Rejoice!” Wow!
So I invite you this weekend to rejoice because of your life and your ministry for Jesus. And to notice what Jesus does next. In one of the only places in all four Gospels, we are told, Jesus “rejoices” and starts praying. He’s happy that God has given us wisdom, the wisdom of peace and love and nonviolence, to us, the childlike, not the childish, not the worldly, successful, or the powerful, but us, the innocent, the peaceful, the nonviolent. So I hope this weekend that you can rejoice in your life and your ministry, as Jesus rejoices because of you.
Today is the feast of St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower. We all know all about her, how Therese Martin was born on January 2, 1873 to a middle-class family in Lisieux, Normandy, France; how at the age of 15, in 1889, she entered the cloistered Carmelite convent, like her four older sisters; how she took the name “Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face;” how she became the mistress of novices; how she contracted TB and died at age 24, on September 30, 1897, saying her last words, “My God, I love you.”
She was a sweet, young, pious nun whom nobody would have known about, except that she wrote an autobiography, Story of a Soul, which was published the following year, and everyone in the world read it and she was canonized a few years later, and celebrated as patron of France along with Joan of Arc, and named a Doctor of the Church.
It looked like she lived an ordinary life, but she dedicated herself to a subtle, daily practice of sacrificial love toward those around her, responding to coldness, rudeness, gossip, insults, resentment, anger, hostility, and passive/aggressive behavior with loving kindness, compassion and forgiveness. She aimed these small acts of unconditional love at Christ in the other person for the redemption of the human race–a spirituality she called her “Little Way.” She wanted to remain like a child, to live in the reign of God, to practice a profound trust in God through confidence in God’s love, not just despite our littleness, poverty, weakness and brokenness, but precisely because of them. She realized that this is the good stuff; that these weaknesses lead us deeper into compassionate love.
She was deliberately focused on sharing the unconditional, nonviolent love of Jesus. “Jesus, I ask You for nothing but peace and love,” she wrote, “infinite love without any limits, other than Yourself, love which is no longer I, but you.”
“My vocation is love!” she wrote at the conclusion of her autobiography. While the French Church around her was growing cold with power, rules, and regulations, like our own Church, she was determined to become, as she wrote, “love in the heart of the Church.” Her mission was “to make Love loved,” “to work for Love alone with the one purpose of pleasing the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and thus, helping people.” For me that means loving everyone–including people on death row, the unborn, the children of Iraq, the women of Haiti, the starving masses of Darfur–everyone.
Therese wanted to obey Jesus’ commandment to love others as he loved, to love even one’s enemies, but in the monastery, she wrote, there are no enemies, but there were plenty of mean, self-righteous people for whom she had negative feelings. There were many nuns whom she did not like, who offended her in small, petty ways, so she set about loving them as if it were a matter of life or death, no matter how small-minded, hostile, or cruel they could be. It is really quite a challenge–to love everyone, especially those we don’t like–until it hurts us.
She practiced perfect personal and interpersonal nonviolence, by loving these mean, tough people. In June 1895, she made a formal commitment to active nonviolent love with a solemn offering to God. She would love everyone like Christ, and give her life as a martyr of God’s nonviolent love. If you and I undertook that same steadfast love, she suggested, we will disarm and heal the world.
Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker later compared Therese’s Little Way with the atomic bomb. “It has the power of the Holy Spirit in it,” Dorothy Day wrote. “It is an explosive force that can transform our lives and the life of the world, once we put into effect.” According to Therese of Lisieux and Dorothy Day of New York, the smallest act of willing, universal love, united to the God of love, is more powerful than the atomic bomb, more explosive than a nuclear weapon. It is a spiritual explosion of love that disarms, heals, transforms, and reconciles.
That is your vocation as deacons, as servants of Christ and disciples of Jesus, to practice and teach this little way of nonviolence, to practice small acts of great love, to root out every trace of violence within us, to allow God to disarm our hearts and to share in God’s disarmament of the world, to love everyone unconditionally and from now on to help others practice this way of nonviolence so that love becomes contagious, wars end, weapons are dismantled, the hungry are fed, the sick are healed, and people everywhere begin to live in love, justice and peace so that there is a global transformation of nonviolent love.
If we dare follow Therese on the path of nonviolent love, if we walk this road of peace, justice and nonviolence, we too will give Jesus cause to rejoice and thank God and say to us, “Rejoice! Rejoice! Your names are written in heaven.”