My mind wandered this morning while reading an edifying extract from St Thérèse of Lisieux, whose feastday this is. So many people seem to have got hold of a travesty of the saint, seeing her as a hothouse flower rather than the wrench of steel she truly was. In much the same way, I think a lot of us waste time striving to be good rather than aiming at sanctity itself. Of course there are aspects in common. One can’t be a saint and live an immoral or selfish life; but goodness often has an uncomfortable element of self-regard, as though we were taking a perpetual selfie of ourselves in order to scrutinize our motives and keep a tally of our successes and failures. Sanctity, by contrast, is more forgetfulness of self — not in the sense that we are indifferent to the rightness or wrongness of our thoughts and actions, but in the sense that we turn them all over to God and allow him to be the arbiter. If, like me, you are inclined to be lazy, may I suggest you concentrate on sanctity rather than goodness? It is much easier; and ultimately it brings us closer to God. In fact, come to think of it, it is remarkably like the Little Way of St Thérèse herself.
Benedict’s third step of humility (RB 7.34) is as brief as it is profound:
Tertius humiltatis gradus est ut quis pro Dei amore omni oboedientia se subdat maiori, imitans Dominum, de quo dicit apostolus, Factus oboediens usque ad mortem.
The third step of humility is, for the love of God, to submit to one’s superior in all obedience, imitating the Lord of whom the apostle says, ‘He became obedient even to death.’
Notice that he gives motive (love of God), concrete practice (obedient submission to a human superior) and example (the Lord himself). Monastic obedience is not about the exercise of power and control, it is about love and discipleship; but that love and discipleship cannot take just any form we like. All of us are called to obey God, but the vowed coenobite is required to give obedience to a human superior, a flawed human being who may fall far short of the ideal but who is believed to mediate the will of God to both the individual and the community. Obedience thus becomes an act of faith as well as love. Benedict is well aware of what he is asking. In giving Christ as the example to follow, he quotes Philippians 2.8. Our monastic obedience will lead us to the cross and to death as surely as it led him. That may sound rather wonderful in theory, but the glow tends to dim when put into practice!
In a way, what Benedict says here about the love of God may seem to undermine what he said earlier in RB 7.67 about progressing from fear to love, but it marks an important change from his primary source, the Rule of the Master, with its frankly rambling discourse, to the simplicity of Cassian. I think it also emphasizes that obedience, especially ‘to death,’ is impossible without love. St Thérèse of Lisieux, whose feast we celebrate today, understood that better than most. Attempts to kidnap her as a feminist icon avant la lettre or to promote her as a type of passive, Lydia Languish, spirituality demonstrate complete ignorance both of Thérèse herself and of the Carmelite world she inhabited. The Little Flower was steely enough to face down all opposition, speak freely and frankly, and yet, to obey. Her last days, spent in an agony of supposed abandonment and spiritual emptiness, were the fruit of a lifetime of obedience lived with a love and intensity those of us who are older and greyer can only marvel at. May she pray for us who lack her courage and insight.
The feast of St Thérèse of Lisieux is one I approach with mixed feelings. When I discovered that there was a lot more to her than the sentimentality of earlier times suggested, I was delighted. The Little Flower had an inner core of pure steel to which I could relate. Carmelite spirituality is not for me, but here was a Carmelite nun saying interesting things in an interesting way, with the ring of truth about them. This morning I was reflecting on just one. Thérèse could hardly say today what she was free to say in the nineteenth century, that she longed to be a priest, without being widely misunderstood and castigated for breaking the ban on the discussion of women’s ordination. I say misunderstood advisedly, for Thérèse knew quite well that she couldn’t be a priest and was not a champion of women’s ordination avant la lettre. What interests me, however, is not the question of ordination but the way in which women in the Church are perceived. It is telling that even today, when Thérèse’s unexpurgated writing are readily available, many still persist in seeing her as a bit of a milksop, all acquiescence and self-abnegation, not really a person at all, and hold that up as a model of what a Christian woman should be. (I exaggerate slightly, but I am the innocent victim of many a clerical panegyric on Thérèse.)
Is it any wonder that women in the West are often amused and sometimes angered by an ‘ideal’ of womanhood so remote from reality? Yes, men and women are different; but men no longer have a monopoly on education or power in the secular sphere, and it is, frankly, difficult to move from being a fully responsible adult in one area of life to being someone who is considered to be not quite so responsible in another. The appointment of a woman to full membership of a Vatican Congregation has sparked some earnest discussion about whether women can assume such roles since they cannot be ordained. The theological question is important, but there is another I think equally important, and it is in essence equally theological.
If women are always to be consigned to handmaiden roles in the Church, occasionally praised but in practical terms not taken very seriously by the hierarchy, we may be guilty of ignoring something we all need to acknowledge, whether we are men or women, ordained or lay. A Church which is exclusively male and clerical in orientation may not be a true (i.e. full) reflection of God, who created man and woman in his own image and likeness. The Church, by its very nature, must reflect the whole Christ. Men and women may not have the same roles to perform, but a more collaborative effort is surely essential if the gospel is to be proclaimed and lived in all its fullness. We are all members of the laos, the people of God. We all have the duty of spreading faith and love wherever we go. Thérèse said she would be love at the heart of the Church. Let us ask her prayers that love may not grow cold because it has been rebuffed or trampled on.
Blogging, we are told, reveals what interests us and the kind of people we are. What we say and how we say it captures our essential essence. Le style est l’homme même indeed. But I wonder whether what we don’t say is just as revealing. The austere format of this blog suits me, but I know it puts some readers off. Perhaps, secretly, I don’t want the kind of readers who prefer visual imagery and catchy formats; so while I protest that I like the ‘monastic’ simplicity of the layout, I am actually trying to ensure that I only attract readers who are in sympathy with me? O devious Dame, if so!
You will find that I very rarely comment on what is going on in other churches. There has been no word from me on the subject of women in the episcopate or the doctrinal formulations of the Reformed or Protestant Churches, for example. That is not because I have no opinion, but because I do not want to be drawn into controversies I can never fully understand from the inside. I would need to be an Anglican or a Methodist or a Baptist to engage at any real depth. It is easy to see why. I may have read a fair amount of Anglican/Methodist/Baptist theology, but I have never lived as an Anglican/Methodist/Baptist so there is a gap between my theoretical understanding and my lived experience. Turn that back to front, and you may see why occasionally I am irritated by members of other churches making statements about the one to which I belong. It is not that I think they have no right to do so; it is just that I am not convinced they are always as well qualified to do so as I (note the ego!) think they should be.
I rarely comment on marriage or family life and have largely side-stepped the debate on same-sex marriage, yet I know that for many readers, they are questions of fundamental importance. My reticence stems from an awareness of my limitations. Why should I comment on that which is beyond me and about which others are infinitely better informed? Turn that around, and you may understand why I sometimes smile over comments that tell me how I ought to understand/live the monastic life. Many comments are helpful and make me examine my own practice, but there are a few that take us to cloud-cuckoo land!
I know I have many American readers, from both north and south, but I am very hesitant about commenting on U.S. politics. I have views, certainly, but I am not equal to the sheer intensity of American responses. The hatred of President Obama expressed by people I know to be good and kind leaves me speechless. I just don’t understand it — just as I don’t understand the apparent unwillingness to do anything about gun crime or the brinkmanship that has led to the latest shutdown of government. Turn that around, and as a European, I find the American tendency to think that what is good for Americans must be good for everyone else quite troubling.
Today you might have expected me to blog about St Thérèse of Lisieux, as I have done in the past; but I haven’t, because there are aspects of her life I find difficult. She was a great woman as well as a great saint, with more of steel in her than little flower, I think, but she plunges us into the stuffy world of the nineteenth century bourgeoisie, and I find that unattractive. I cannot relate to it in any meaningful way. In fact, I have never been drawn to Carmelite spirituality, much as I honour and hold dear those who are. I think that illustrates one final point about what we don’t blog about. No matter what we leave out, what we choose not to write about, someone, somewhere will have something to say that is worth reading, on precisely the subjects about which we ourselves are inadequate.
So, pray on — and blog on!