“My Vocation is Love” - A Reflection of the Life of Therese of Lisieux
by the Reverend Noel E. Bordador

Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, or commonly known as Therese of Lisieux, is not well known among Episcopalians except perhaps among those who call themselves High Church. Born in France in 1873, a cursory examination of her life might lead one to think that there is nothing spectacular or extraordinary about her life- at least by our world’s standards. Her theological writings are rather naïve. Her spiritual autobiography had been judged by some to be distastefully sentimental. Some even pronounced her to be rather emotionally immature if not mentally unstable. At age 15, she received a papal dispensation to enter the Carmel of Lisieux where she remained until her death at the age of twenty-four. There she led a simple but a rather hard, austere life. Though she was generally happy to be an obscure nun, she struggled with her choice of vocation. She often wondered whether it would have been better for her to be a missionary in an exotic land rather than a cloistered monastic in the backwaters of France. Yet, in the end, she wrote it did not really matter what she had or would become, because even in her obscurity, lackluster, unheroic and ordinary life behind the convent wall, she has realized that her first and foremost vocation is to be a lover of God, a lover of God’s people, and a lover of the Church. She prays in her spiritual autobiography, “Jesus, … my vocation, at last I found it…my vocation is love. Yes, I have found my place in the Church and it is you, O my God, who has given me this place: in the heart of the Church, my mother, I shall be love.”

Yet, for Therese, that surety of God’s love for her and her love for God was severely tested when in her early twenties she developed an incurable illness that meant a long but sure painful death. In the midst of her difficult illness, she entered a profound darkening of her soul, a profound spiritual crisis. She wrote, “My soul feels exiled from God…Heaven is closed against me more and more.” She was in such desperation of faith that this saint even contemplated taking her own life. Yet in all that, she was sustained by an intuition that she was not really alone, that God had not abandoned her. She wrote: “My little boat has much trouble making harbour. For a long time I have seen the shore, but I keep on finding that I’m further from it; still Jesus is the one steering my little ship, and I am sure he will bring it happily to port.”

Her faith did not save her from spiritual sufferings; her faith did not save her from a violent and painful death. But she so clung to her belief in God’s goodness that that she did not suffer and die feeling alone. Her faith in God provided the meaning of her life when things that were happening to her seemed meaningless. And so when she died at age twenty-four, on September 30, 1897, her last words of prayer to Jesus were not bitter words, although at one time, in the midst of her distress, she said that she understood how some people could curse God. But her dying prayer to God was contained in three words: “I love you.”

In 1925, she was canonized by Rome as a saint. In 1997, on the centennial of her death, she was declared Doctor of the Church, the only third female saint to be declared- joining the ranks of Catherine of Siena and another Carmelite, Teresa de Jesus. Some questioned why she deserved to be declared doctor, considering that she produced no noteworthy tome of theology. But I think she has much to say to us. First, Therese reminds us all that whatever we do in life, whoever we are, our identity and vocation is first and foremost lovers of God. Secondly, she reminds us that sanctity, holiness can and must be lived out in the day-to-day ordinariness of our lives that we take for granted; yet it is there in the daily grind, and not just in our spiritual highs- where God is found, where God is. In our accomplishment-obsessed world, Therese reminds us that to be with God, we need not lead heroic, extraordinary and powerful lives, that holiness is a path for everyone. Thirdly, Therese reminds us that God encompasses both the light and darkness of life. There cannot be any area of life where God is not, and this includes our experience of suffering and even in death. She invites us to place ourselves like a little child on God’s hands, in hope, amidst the joys and struggles, certainty and brokenness of life, and together with her we cry out, “All is grace!”

© 2013 Noel E. Bordador
Noel Bordador is a gay Filipino priest in the Episcopal Diocese of New York.

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