Story of a Soul

When we read of the saints, it’s easy to forget they were real people. They seem to have it all together and always in-tune to God’s voice and desires. Logically I know that’s not true, but they sound really good on paper. At first, St. Thérèse is no exception. She speaks of her strong connection to God from the age of three, even knowing for sure as a child that she would be a Carmelite. But underneath that devotion, there are hints of her humanity. She wasn’t perfect, and in her autobiography we witness her gradual spiritual growth. It shows that St. Thérèse was, in fact, real.

This is part autobiography, part spiritual guide. A common theme is her great suffering, from the innocent trials of childhood to her later illness leading to an early death. She loved deeply, both Jesus and humanity. She often prayed for the souls of the unsaved, and cared greatly for the clergy. She desired to take on the suffering of others so that they may be saved. In that, she lived as Jesus himself did. She became a guide to her fellow Sisters, and always had a word of spiritual wisdom for the novices (sometimes harsh, but always truthful).

My vocation is love!… I am but a weak and helpless child, yet it is my very weakness that makes me dare to offer myself, O Jesus, as victim to Thy Love.

She speaks often of her littleness and weakness, but there is another depth to that—of being unworthy, of feeling separated from God though she writes these lofty words. “I sing only of what I wish to believe,” she says. Though she frequently offers herself to Jesus there are times that she doesn’t feel that way. She writes the words so that she may feel it. That’s a sentiment all too familiar. St. Thérèse was young and often naive, but she didn’t need worldly wisdom and praise. She understood her vocation to be wholehearted love for Jesus—a simple devotion, but with great responsibility.

This edition includes an epilogue by the Prioress after St. Thérèse’s death, which sheds more light on the end of her earthly life. Maybe that’s what makes this all real to me—it includes a timeline of her life, and many details about her last weeks. There are excerpts from her letters to novices, and a section of written prayers later found tucked in her Bible. Against my self-imposed rules, I’ve dog-eared several pages of this book for later reference: I’ll need her guidance on charity, love, and prayer again.

Scripture teaches us to approach God as a child, not in a childish way but in wonder and admiration. We’re to love with that simple innocence. This is the way of the “Little Flower.” We often complicate things, especially as we get older. We become bitter by what we’ve learned of a hardened world. But Jesus isn’t bitter. Jesus is that pure and simple Love, and that’s how we’re to live, too. That’s how St. Thérèse lived.

Without love, even the most brilliant deeds count for nothing. These gifts, which Our Lord lavished upon me, far from doing me any harm, drew me toward him.

Three Wishes

whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. —Mark 11:24

It’s the most basic thing for people of faith, transcending religious boundaries—the power of prayer. Worship services open up with it; it’s our first reaction when someone is in need. But I’ve been thinking about prayer a lot recently, and I’ve come to understand that… I don’t understand it.

Growing up, I received mixed signals about prayer. Ask and ye shall receive, we were taught, but also be cautious about what you ask. I’d heard many prayers like, “Please give me this specific thing, unless it’s not Your will.” Which we don’t really mean, because we still desire it enough to ask. How do you know if it’s God’s will? Why, you pray on it, of course.

What a confusing and vicious cycle.

I’m reminded of a magical genie in a lamp. Use your wishes wisely, it says, and really think about what you’re asking. Those wishes always backfire—like, if you wish for money, you’ll receive an inheritance from a tragic death. Similarly, I was taught to never pray for patience, because God will test it so you may practice. (a la, “I’ll give you something to be patient about!”) But this never made much sense. God isn’t some trickster waiting for us to ask for the wrong thing.

Communing with Him is easy, comparatively. Whether it’s sitting in silence or offering praise, or praying for the well-being of others. But when it comes to me? I’m stuck on those old “rules,” so I’m never completely honest about the way I feel. I don’t know how to ask, so that I may receive.

Through a truth glimpsed fleetingly in a state of prayer he calls to us. No matter how halfhearted such insights may be, God rejoices whenever we learn what he is trying to teach us.
—St. Teresa of Avila

But what if… I was honest? What if I wasn’t afraid of being wrong? I already know that His ways aren’t mine. I know that His plans are greater than my own, and if He grants me something different than what I asked, it’s better than what I asked. But I continue to hold back. I’m subconsciously afraid of that imaginary trickster. More than that, there’s that nagging voice during prayer that says it’s useless. There’s a certain disbelief that He’ll answer. But He’s never shown me that any of this is true. It’s strange how I both depend on His guidance and also tune Him out. But part of me also fears the next step in our spiritual relationship. He’s been calling to me, but I’ve been too self-absorbed to answer. Growing up and being responsible is scary.

I’ve been dwelling on this so much lately that I haven’t prayed at all. Where do I begin, now that I’ve started to unlearn those old teachings? It’s like when you’ve wronged a friend and don’t know how to apologize. But apologizing to God should be easier: you never know if people will accept your apology, but God always lets you come home.

There’s a big difference between the imaginary, trickster genie and… well, God. The genie may give you what you want, though you won’t like the way you receive it. God doesn’t play that game. He’ll gently say “No,” and show you something better. So for my first wish, I ask for clarity. I desire to be open with God, and push past those self-doubts and inadequacies. I don’t know where to begin. But prayer isn’t about syntax. It’s about God, and maybe my first step is… to pray about it.

Where I Want to Be

For the most part, I think we’ve all done pretty well despite a bad situation. I was recently looking at photos of the Spanish Flu epidemic—everyone in masks and gloves, sitting on opposite sides of train cars to prevent contamination. It’s creepy in its now-familiarity. The big difference, of course, is our access to the virtual sphere. They were unable to work from home, received the latest news from an actual newspaper, and likely couldn’t attend church at all.

I was working on a completely different blog post this week. (We’ll discuss Bl. Justo Takayama later!) But I see that now as an attempt to ignore the way I feel about the world right now. Some days it feels like the world is on fire, and I’m having a harder and harder time focusing on my work. So let’s be honest—things are not okay. And all it took were a few text messages asking after my spiritual health for me to realize the depth of it.

Considering the circumstances, it’s not wrong to be a little panicked right now. It’s been so long since we’ve had some semblance of a “normal” life and routine. Lately, I’ve been keeping myself busy with little things I’ve been meaning to do: sew a shirt hem; do a jigsaw puzzle; finish that video game. That’s all fine, but I’ve been ignoring the bigger things. Like talking to God and being honest about my feelings.

We’re blessed that virtual Mass is an option. Even though the archived livestream is available whenever, I shut everything down at 5:30 Saturday to attend. It was weird at first, watching a live feed from a parish a mere mile away. But like other strange routines, it became normal. It wasn’t until I was in the church parking lot this week, staring at the locked front doors from my car, that I understood how much I missed it. And I cried.

In a strange way, it made me think of this blog. It began as a chronicle of my conversion, a journey I proudly and publicly shared. There was a lot to learn; I was absorbing everything and was unashamed about my feelings. I’ve lost a little of that along the way. Some weeks these posts are merely informative, or just a book review (books are very important, though). There have been a couple weeks I didn’t post anything at all, mostly for lack of time. But I’m rarely honest anymore. I don’t discuss what’s going on in my spiritual life. I’ll talk about my thoughts or opinions, but not my faith. It’s suffered the same fate as my life as a whole, when it was supposed to be my [virtual] spiritual retreat.

Where do I want to be? I want to be in church, certainly. But I also want to be myself, unashamedly spilling my feelings and crying over a love of Jesus. We all ache for “normal” again, where going to work or a restaurant is simple. We have no control over that timing, but I can control my own “normal” life of devotion. This is a journey, and I’ve been standing still for a while.

I’m sorting through a lot of mental and spiritual stuff right now. What I really want from my spiritual life, and how to hear God despite my fears and judgements. But it’s hard to be honest with yourself. I simply want to be joyful and unashamed, which is strangely difficult for me to do. But like any healing, the first step is admitting that you need it. Maybe I’m supposed to be stuck at home for a while. Now I have no excuse, with all the time I’m saving by not commuting or attending various volunteer meetings.

I want my normal life back, but more than that, I want that union with Jesus again.