Doubting Like Children

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I first heard of Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face about ten years ago. Mother Teresa of Calcutta had been my hero since I was just a girl, so when I learned that Therese was Teresa’s patron saint, I loved her. She immediately became significant on my horizon.

People struggling to understand Mother Teresa’s recently uncovered “dark night”[1] have pointed to the last eighteen months of Therese’s life, when Therese herself experienced strong feelings of spiritual alienation. So when I decided to actually read Therese’s spiritual autobiography not that long ago, it was with some amount dread, as if I subconsciously expected The Story of a Soul[1] to be heavy and perhaps even morose. It was not. What I read instead were airy descriptions of a spiritual childhood that never expired, but rather shone with brighter grace and wisdom as her years passed.

Therese possessed a unique innocence that lasted even till the time of her death at the age of twenty-four, and it continues to intrigue me on my own spiritual journey. Many of us could likely point to a stage in life when we felt the intense “youthful” fervor Therese describes on page 214 of her memoir: “I feel the vocation of Warrior, Priest, Apostle, Teacher, Martyr.” But while most of us lose our zeal by failing to find a way to live it forward, Therese succeeded in discovering her “way” by deciding to become “love itself.” By becoming very humble, like a child, Therese grew to understand the true nature of her relationship with God. She assumed knowledge of only two things: 1) that she was small (p. 233), and 2) that in her smallness, she was deeply loved (p. 213). Only on rare occasions has my ego allowed me to enter such profound awareness, though like most people I have longed for it and fantasized about attaining it. I’ve found myself believing and lamenting the idea that such innocence, once lost, can never be reclaimed. It can only be preserved.

Five years ago I visited the Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata, India[3], the religious order founded by the late Mother Teresa (my first hero). Growing up I had often heard sermons on the various words of Christ spoken from the cross: “Father forgive them,” “Why have you forsaken me,” ”Into your hands I commit my spirit.” But I never heard a sermon on “I Thirst,” and it wasn’t until arriving in Kolkata that I first discovered the potency this statement has for the spiritual life. Every cross in every chapel I visited connected with the Missionaries of Charity was accompanied by the block-letter words “I Thirst.” During my stay in Kolkata, the writings of Mother Teresa coupled with my own experience taught me to see that Christ’s thirst on the cross was not only physical, but spiritual. Jesus was thirsty for the suffering poor. Jesus was thirsty for me. Jesus is thirsty for you.

Mother Teresa wrote beautifully about the thirst of Christ in her private letters and journals, but so did Therese. Now I am persuaded that these two very different women actually understood opposite aspects of the same yearning. Feeling deeply loved by Jesus, Therese became thirsty for the souls of others in the same way she felt thirsted for by Christ (p. 104, 105). Teresa, on the other hand, did not feel loved. Hers was the thirst of Christ’s abandonment, the Christ who cried for the love of his Father that Friday long ago. Teresa, confronted by the complex pain of those she served, found in I Thirst a motif by which to express her own yearning for God’s love in the face of his apparent silence.

I can only guess that Teresa ached for Therese’s childlike simplicity, longed to be loved and to become love like the one she was named for (Mother Teresa was always careful to tell people that her namesake was not the “big Teresa,” Teresa of Avila, but the “little one,” Therese of Lisieux). But while there is a sense in which Mother Teresa’s grown-up doubt kept the fulfillment of her ideal hidden from her eyes, there is another stronger sense in which that very doubt humbled Mother Teresa to become another “little one” of Jesus. In this way, although Therese and Teresa experienced the thirst of Christ differently from each other, they arrived together at the same reality. They are in fact more similar than they appear.

This confronts each of us who have also “lost” our innocent belief with a deeply comforting possibility. If adult ego is what has kept you and I from “becoming love,” might not the adult doubt that plagues us also humble us, like Teresa, to acknowledge our thirst, our desperate need for God? To be in need is to be a child. In our spiritual need we may not feel like Therese (certainly Teresa didn’t), but we can be like Therese as certainly as was Teresa.

Can innocence be preserved? No. We are a broken people. Can innocence be restored? Yes. Again and again. Graced doubt may just break us into people small enough to receive the Kingdom.

This is what it felt like for Therese:

Jesus… spread His mantle over me, He washed me with precious perfume, clothed me with embroidered garments, giving me priceless necklaces and jewelry… He nourished me with the finest of wheat, honey, and oil in abundance… Then I became beautiful in His sight, and He made me into a powerful queen! (P.108.)

In the end we must not forget that little Therese, the child, also knew doubt. Toward the close of her life Therese described the darkness as a long tunnel, totally consuming in its abandonment. But this Teresa-like thirst for Christ’s love was not passive or drab, but rather one more opportunity for Therese to “be love.” Even if we today feel thirsty but not thirsted for, doubt can lead us, also, into trust. Adult doubt can turn us into “little children,” powerful queens, powerful kings.

Rachel Davies is the spirituality and interviews editor for Spectrum Magazine. She is currently working on an MA in Christian Spirituality at Heythrop College (The University of London).
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[1] For more on the spirituality of Mother Teresa, see Carol Zaleski's excellent piece, The Dark Night of Mother Teresa.
[2] St. Therese of Lisieux. The Story of a Soul. Trans. Robert J. Edmonson, CJ. Brewster: Paraclete Press, 2006.
[3] The anglicised name "Calcutta" was changed to "Kolkata" in 2001.

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