COMING TO THE END
"My task was simplified the moment I realised I could do nothing by myself," wrote St Thérèse of Lisieux. For many of us, such a moment is the beginning of despair or of indifference, but for her it was different. She had an astonishing gift (in William Blake's words) for "building a Heaven in Hell's despair." At first sight she seems so protected and 'petite' (it was one of her favourite words; she was even nicknamed 'the Little Flower'). But she knew something that could only have been called despair if she had not been a woman of extraordinary courage and faith. "Jesus allowed pitch darkness to sweep over my soul," she wrote. "This trial was not something lasting a few days or weeks. I suffered it for months and I am still waiting for it to end. I wish I could express what I feel, but it is impossible. One must have travelled through the same sunless tunnel to understand how dark it is…. I must have seemed [to you] like a child for whom the veil of faith is almost pulled aside. But there is no veil, but instead a wall which towers to the sky and hides the stars."
I have met many who entered that frightful tunnel. We all have met them; I met one recently. You who are reading these lines may well be one of them. If so, I bow with respect to your terrible suffering and I admit that I have never been there myself. I am glad, though, to be able to convey St Thérèse's words to you. Her next words were (how amazing!), "I have never before felt so strongly how gentle and merciful God is. He sent me this heavy cross just at the time when I was strong enough to bear it…. Nothing now hinders me…. I no longer want anything except to love until I die of love. I am free and fear nothing."
A recent French biographer said it was characteristic of her to be always at the end of her resources. It is because she always gave everything she had. She never had anything up her sleeve: no tricks, no escapes, no clever explanations, no blaming, no postponing…. She remained always fully present and vulnerable to experience. That is why God could give her so much.
"We worked hard all night and caught nothing," said Peter (Luke 5:5). Peter was quite often at the end of his resources. He had given up everything to follow Jesus around the country and learn from him how to live right. It didn’t matter that all he gave up was a boat and a few nets; it was everything he had. It is not these (or any material possession) that would hold him back, but his reliance on them. He had had the courage to come to the end of his resources. Later he would be dragged even further beyond. The man he followed would be killed; and having nothing else to do, Peter would go back to fishing. But that terrible night he would catch nothing (John 21:3). He would be without a past and without a future. That must have been like St Thérèse's wall reaching up to the sky and letting in no light. But, as with her, it was the moment of recognition: "It is the Lord!" (John 21:7).
Can I too, in my measure, "build a Heaven in Hell's despair?" Every Christian is called to be a saint. We don’t all go willingly, we have to be dragged. The ego, the self-centred self, does not easily relinquish its hold. It keeps hold of us body and soul – mind and memories and feelings and muscles… everything – and taking leave of it is a matter of being dragged beyond ourselves. Where? To God, and to those strange creatures, other people.
Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care;
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a Heaven in Hell’s despair.
(William Blake, Songs of Experience, 1794)