- The Good Oil
October 15 is the feast of that heavyweight mystic and Doctor of the Church, St Teresa of Avila. Ten years ago on October 19, Mother Teresa of Calcutta was beatified, and October 1 is the feast of St Thérèse of Lisieux, one of that rare species – female Doctors of the Church.
It is the “little” Teresa, Thérèse of Lisieux, who has captured my imagination, not on her own, but aided and abetted by American religious brother Joseph Schmidt. Through his books and as my one-time spiritual director and retreat-giver, Joe – perhaps Thérèse’s number one fan – has influenced my conversion from one who dismissed Thérèse because of a perceived saccharin spirituality (schmaltzy “Little Flower” holy cards didn’t help), to one who genuinely appreciates this woman and her profound teaching on love. Tough love at that.
I find myself in good company with other Thérèse enthusiasts – Pope Francis, Richard Rohr, Ronald Rolheiser, Mother Teresa, Edith Stein, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton – who discovered that Thérèse was “not just a mute pious little doll”, but had a depth of spiritual wisdom and disarming honesty.
Thérèse’s (and Joe’s) first lesson is that another name for love is non-violence. This gives me a fresh take on that abused and overused word, “love”. Thérèse’s central thesis is that true love, the love Jesus proclaims in word and deed, is a love totally devoid of any trace of violence. No violence, even violence that attempts to overcome evil, has a place in true Gospel spirituality.
Daily we’re assaulted by violent words and images. “Kick this mob out” screamed the headline on the first day of this year’s federal election. We seem to exist in a vortex of violence both within and without. I’m all for making peace and not war, but I recognise inner war-like tendencies in my feelings of hostility and self-righteousness. Labelling, verbal put-downs, blaming and so-called “idle” gossip are common weapons in my repertoire of violence. This colleague’s a drama queen, that politician’s a megalomaniac, and did you hear how so-and-so stuffed up? And on we go.
The Carmelite convent where Thérèse lived for nine short years until her death from tuberculosis at the age of 24, was not immune to the violence of small-mindedness, rivalry, resentment and even occasional cruelty. Such a climate inevitably left Thérèse feeling hurt and hostile. She discovered, however, that if she “harboured” her negative thoughts and feelings to keep them alive, if she allowed “the feelings to have her, rather than she have the feelings” (Joe’s words), she engaged in violence. She did violence to the offending sister, casting her as the adversary or enemy, and she did violence to herself by wallowing in her victim status.
I do that. The person who talks over me, the colleague who avoids me and the friend who disagrees with me, becomes an enemy created by my own hostile (read violent) thoughts and feelings.