Therese of Lisieux and Francis de Sales: Two Doctors of Love

I have long considered Saint Therese of Lisieux and Saint Francis de Sales to be spiritual counterparts. The first similarity between their teachings that struck me was the concept (whether explicitly articulated as such or not) of a ‘little way’ – the idea that a strong spiritual life can best be cultivated by regularly drawing one’s attention to the divine will, and living in harmony with it in the small acts of everyday living. Therese is most famous for this approach of course, but Francis’ Introduction to the Devout Life (as well as many of his letters) has as its central focus the idea that devotion is something to be enacted daily in all walks of life, not a separate activity reserved for our ‘religious’ moments.

Secondly, they both consistently emphasise the tender mercy and love of God. This is never invoked over or against his other attributes (e.g.; justice, holiness) but the teachings of both saints constantly refers back to the limitless love of God that is always ready to forgive; that it is only our pride and hardness of heart that prevents us from receiving His grace and moving forward in holiness. Indeed, both Saint Therese and Saint Francis, as Doctors of the Church, have received unofficial titles that bear witness to this centrality of love in their thinking: Therese has been called the Doctor of Merciful Love, and Francis the Doctor of Divine Love (a title bestowed upon him by Blessed John Paul II I believe).

I would like to look at two passages – one from each saint – that touch on both these aspects of their thought: an emphasis on the love of God, and the possibility of living in accordance with the divine will through small acts of everyday charity. More specifically however, they are concerned with the need for us to stop putting ourselves in the way of God’s grace; to be humble and faithful enough to receive his love, and not bother ourselves about our worthiness (or rather, our lack of it). The first passage is from Saint Therese:

“My thoughts are not your thoughts, says the Lord” (Is 55,8). Merit does not consist in doing or giving much, but rather in receiving, in loving much. It is said, it is much sweeter to give than to receive,(Acts 20,35) and it is true. But when Jesus wills to take for Himself the sweetness of giving, it would not be gracious to refuse. Let us allow Him to take and give all He wills. Perfection consists in doing His will, and the soul that surrenders itself totally to Him is called by Jesus Himself “His mother, His sister,” and His whole family (Mt 12,50). And elsewhere: “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word (that is, he will do my will) and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our abode with him” (Jn 14,23). Oh, how easy it is to please Jesus, to delight His Heart, one has only to love Him, without looking at one’s self, without examining one’s faults too much.

from Letter 142

            Here we see Therese’s emphasis on the humble reception of God’s grace as inseparable from the doing of His will. In essence she is saying that if we truly love Jesus and wish to do His will, then we will not overly worry ourselves about how much we have let Him down – after all, is it not utterly basic to the Christian life that if our efforts are weighed in the balance, we will always fall short? – but rather, we will not look at ourselves at all, but only at Him, in awe and reverent love. Therese summarises this point towards the end of the letter ‘…Jesus teaches me not to count my acts. He teaches me to do all through love, to refuse him nothing, to be content when he gives me a chance of proving to him that I love him. But this is done in peace, in abandonment; it is Jesus who is doing all in me, and I am doing nothing.

Similarly, Saint Francis urges his readers, when in a state of regret and sorrow after sinning, not to dwell too much on our own faults, as although we may see some sort of correlation between self-loathing and contrition, the two do not necessarily go hand in hand; in fact, the former is more often a sign of pride. It is anger at my inability to stay on the straight and narrow; I was doing so well at avoiding such-and-such a sin until now – the implication being that it is our own efforts that keep us in a state of grace. Saint Francis (in a passage I like so much I have quoted before) counsels against this extreme brow-beating, and suggests (like Saint Therese) humility before the mercy of God:

One of the best exercises in meekness we can perform, is to be patient with ourselves and our imperfections. For though reason requires that we should be displeased and sorry when we commit any fault, yet we must refrain from a bitter, gloomy, spiteful and passionate displeasure…In any case, angers, spites and vexations against ourselves tend to pride, and flow from no other source than self-love, which is troubled and disquieted to see ourselves imperfect…so we correct ourselves much better by calm and steady repentance than by harsh, eager and passionate repentance. The latter proceeds not according to the quality of our faults, but according to our inclinations…

…when, then, your heart falls, raise it up gently; humbling yourself greatly before God, and acknowledging your misery, but without being surprised at your fall…and return to the way of virtue which you had forsaken with great courage, and confidence in his mercy

Introduction to the Devout Life, Part III, Chapter IX

            Again, the core of the message is humility, and faith in God’s nature – He is eternal, limitless, ever-merciful love, and to act as if somehow what we do could prevent His forgiving grace in doing its work is suggestive of a lack of belief in His ability to impart this forgiveness. Furthermore, as Therese points out, if we truly love God, then all our affections and intentions will be focused on Him – we will not be preoccupied with how often we have fallen, as our gaze will be turned towards the living God, incarnate in Jesus Christ.

The passages above also reflect the two central themes I see in both Francis and Therese – the love of God, and the living out of our love for Him in small everyday acts, and I can think of few better examples to look to for people in today’s world curious about the Catholic faith. They emphasise the core message of the gospel – that God is love, and that He is always ready to forgive our sins – and provide a practical, uncomplicated method for living out a response to this love in daily life. Also, their gentleness and patience in teaching will no doubt have a great appeal to a world wary of the sometimes clinical and overly-strict didacticism that is seen to come from the Church. Like the stained glass windows in a church, they simply let the light shine through.

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2 thoughts on “Therese of Lisieux and Francis de Sales: Two Doctors of Love

  1. Pingback: Julian of Norwich: The ‘Sharpness’ of Sin and the Goodness of Contrition | Journey Towards Easter

  2. Pingback: Julian of Norwich: The ‘Sharpness’ of Sin and the Goodness of Contrition | Journey Towards Easter | nebraskaenergyobserver

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