Therese was born in France in the late 1800s and desired to enter cloistered religious life from an early age. The Carmelites would not allow her to enter at the age of fifteen because they had a strict rule regarding entrance. She persisted in her desire and when she was in Rome with her father she begged to be seen by the pope himself over the matter. The pope responded by saying that if she was meant to be a nun it would happen in God’s time. She returned home with her father and after the local bishop heard about her journey to Rome he was amazed at her persistence. He allowed her to enter the convent, it was God’s time.
Once she entered she began living a life of self-denial, obedience, and deep prayer. However, it was not always easy. Carmel could be a challenging environment to live in. Religious life is never as simple as it sounds. Therese had a yearning since her early childhood to “do” as much as she could for God and for others. Her early life as a sister involved many sacrifices in the community so she could grow closer to the bridegroom she had devoted her life too. After the first couple of years passed by, her understanding of discipleship would be transformed, purified and brought to its pinnacle.
After several experiences in the convent and many intimate moments of union with Christ, she was blessed to be given a view of what it really meant to be a disciple.
“I understood that it was love alone that made the Church’s members act, that if love ever became extinct, apostles would not preach the Gospel and martyrs would not shed their blood. I understood that love comprised all vocations, that love was everything…in a word that it was eternal. Then, in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out: Oh Jesus, my love…my vocation, at last I have found it, my vocation is love.”
“In the evening of life I shall appear before you with empty hands, for I am not asking you, Lord, to count my works.”
These two quotes summarize the life of Therese. For a portion of her early life in the convent she was always trying to do as much as she could for others. At times she commented that she was wrapped up in all the holy actions that she should commit each day. Now all of these beautiful acts of sacrifice are very much necessary for the spiritual life, but Christ drew her so close to himself that she saw the purest notion of what it meant to follow him.
Her calling was not simply to perform deeds for God in an attempt to win his heart; she realized through his revelation that her calling in life was simple and profound: her calling was love. She noted that love is what drew on every man or woman to be good and do good. Love is what pushed forth all the great saints and love is what gave the martyr’s the ability to stand before the powers of evil and not be overcome. Love is what defines the divine and it is the reason why he must, must come near to us at every moment.
This love is also the reason for the second quote. Therese used an image of an infant at the bottom of a staircase and a father standing at the top. The baby obviously longs for intimacy and proximity with his father so he desperately attempts to climb the first step. However, the baby is barely able to crawl. Climbing the stairs fails no matter how hard he tries or how badly he wants to reach the top.
Therese wrote about this image not to place our faith in a cycle of despair, but in order to prove a point that is imperative for the life of a follower of Christ. The fact that we do not win his love or earn a better relationship with him by doing more or trying harder. Faith is not a contest in what we can do for God, it is a relationship founded on a Father who sees his children trying to find him and desperately be close to him. Viewing our position, he runs towards them and down to them to pick up his children and bring them into his arms.
At the end of life, Therese realized that all we can ask for is to be brought to his side, to give him our humble hands that our empty. Like the father who runs down the steps to pick up his infant, God will never let us wallow in emptiness. He’ll fill our hands with something better than effort, he’ll fill them with his own life and love.
Therese’s life defines the simplicity and grandeur of holiness. She teaches us that empty hands is how we should come to him, but that when we leave his presence he’ll give us everything in return. He’ll bestow his divine life upon us. In doing so, he’ll reveal who he is and who we are.