Power of Confidence: Gensis and Structure of the Way of “Spiritual Childhood” of St. Therese of Lisieux, The
Russell, John F
The Power of Confidence: Genesis and Structure of the Way of “Spiritual Childhood” of St. Thereseof Lisieux. By Conrad De Meester, O.C.D. Translated by Susan Conroy. Alba House: Society of St. Paul, 2187 Victory Blvd., Staten Island, NY, 1998. Pp, 380. Paper. $22.95.
Conrad De Meester served on the working equipe or team that produced the critical edition of the writings of St. Therese/se in 1973. De Meester’s vast knowledge of the Theresian corpus as well as the scholarly literature about Thereseis evident throughout the book.
The present work appeared originally in 1969 (La Dynamique de la Confiance) as a doctoral dissertation. A less detailed edition of his scholarly work was published in the seventies as Les Mains Vides (With Empty Hands) and achieved great success. It was translated into fifteen languages. (The English translation appeared in 1982 in Sydney, Australia: St. Paul Publications.) The present volume, a revised version of the dissertation, appeared in French in 1995. It retrieves the detail of his original work and reflects any changes necessitated by the critical edition of St. Therese’s writings (1973).
At the outset De Meester defines his task: he will examine Therese’s writings in order to reveal as precisely as possible the development of her way to holiness of life.
The task includes an analysis of her “little way” as well as the images and symbols which identify her spirituality. His methodology reflects the explication des textes or the style of textual analysis prominent in French scholarship. He divides his work into four parts.
Part 1, ‘The Discovery,” deals with various questions and issues surrounding Therese6se’s discovery of the “little way.” For example, the term “spiritual childhood” is not found in her writings but has appeared as an alternate image of the “little way.” It is obvious from her writings that the image of the child plays an important role in her experience of her relationship to God. De Meester points out that it may be that Therese used the term “spiritual childhood” in teaching her novices. The “little way” is keenly associated with the experience of confidence and love toward God, in particular in her relationship to Jesus Christ.
It is in this first part that De Meester argues for dating Therese’s discovery of the “little way”between 1894 and 1895, in contrast to Abbe Combes who set 1893 as the logical date. Therese had received Celine’s notebook of selections from Scripture in 1894. It was there that she discovered Proverbs 9:4 and Isaiah 66:12-13, which were foundational to her little way. When she made her “Act of Oblation to Merciful Love, she provided a summary of the spirituality of her “little way.” De Meester notes that both Ms. B and Ms. C of the Story of a Soul as well as the “Act of Oblation to Merciful Love” offer both the fundamental structure and her experience of the “little way.”
Part II, entitled `The Goal,” covers the years prior to her actual formulation of the “little way,” 1873-1894. De Meester shows how elements of her spirituality began to emerge. The experience of weakness, littleness, confidence, abandonment, humility, suffering, and love are woven into the fabric of her life. While it may appear that Th6r6se is prone to self-abasement, De Meester counters that she had discovered weakness as a fundamental experience in her life. She also accepted the call to love God above all. Humility, abandonment to God’s providential love, and being little would direct her way to genuine love of God and neighbor. Arms, elevator, and embraces suggest that her way would be direct and simple. For her, God is Father and Spouse, and both images are associated with Jesus who reflects both paternal and maternal qualities to Therese..
Part III, “The Unfolding,” offers a close analysis of both Ms. B and the “Act of Oblation to Merciful Love.” It is obvious that, in Therese’s experience, she cannot be preoccupied with perfectionism. Weakness and imperfections prompt her to seize upon the scriptural passages that speak of God’s compassionate love. She puts confidence in God’s merciful love; her relationship to God unfolds in her growing capacity to love unto folly.
Part IV, “The Structure,” offers perhaps the most creative dimension of De Meesters work. He argues for the centrality of confidence as the core experience of St. Therese’s “little way.” Therese had experienced life as an outpouring of God’s mercy, and, therefore, her faith was grounded in God’s love for her. Confidence in God’s love grew throughout her life. De Meester notes that confidence has other equivalents in Therese’s writing: hope, trust, to hope, to wait, abandonment, to abandon oneself, audacity, love, folly, and little. Therese herself wrote that as one appears to advance on the way of perfection, the more one is aware that the goal is far off. So, she could write that “I am simply resigned to seeing myself always imperfect and in this I find my joy.”
The summary of the book hardly does justice to the wealth of detail supporting his arguments. De Meester points out that von Balthasar falsely reported that Pyre Pichon told Therese that she was free of all sin. De Meester comments rightly that it was only mortal sin that Pichon had in mind. As a consequence, von Balthasar’s position appeared to present the “little way” as a pathway for the spiritually advanced. De Meester suggests that the “little way” can accompany and give significance to an initial conversion of heart.
St. Therese viewed God as always fulfilling her desires. De Meester raises the question of the origin of this conviction. He suggests that Matthew 7:8 and John 16:23 are the scriptural sources. St. John of the Cross fed her understanding also when he wrote that “the more God wishes to bestow on us, the more he makes us desire.”
De Meester discusses the theme of “merit” in the writings of St. Therese.. She did not spend much time on the concept because merit, as understood in her day, suggested a just reward for something done. For These, one simply acts out of love without attention to rewards. De Meester might have clarified the issue by introducing the traditional theological distinction between meritum de condigno (a strict claim to justice) and mentum de congruo (an appropriate reward for living the virtues).
De Meester has shown herculean diligence in researching the developwent of the “little way” of St. Therese. This reviewer would have liked to have seen in this revised edition some dialogue with contemporary literature on human development and self-esteem, the meaning of suffering in an age that tends to view spirituality as therapeutic, and more attention to the prophetic aspect of St. Th6rise’s spirituality.
Not only is this work a thorough analysis of St. Therese’sspiritual journey, but it is indispensable reading for anyone who wishes to deepen their understanding of her “little way.”
John F. Russell, O.Corm., is Professor of Theology at Seton Hall University, South Orange, NJ.
Copyright Spiritual Life Winter 2000
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