St Thérèse of Lisieux in her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, describes herself as being unable to do a favour for her sister Celine without wanting lots of praise for it. This bothered her because she wanted to be more giving, without expectation of getting anything in return. She also wanted to be less oversensitive, or “touchy”. But she found it impossible to change herself.
This is what most of us have probably experienced from time to time, the frustration of not being able to change – the feeling of being stuck in bad habits, or ways of interacting that hurt ourselves and others.
St Thérèse struggled with this oversensitivity for years, what we might call a poor-little-princess complex, but she couldn’t overcome it.
One Christmas Eve when she was 14 she was (predictably) stung by a cranky comment from her father. They’d just got home from midnight Mass. She’d left her slippers, according to her family’s custom, by the fireplace for someone to place gifts in. He saw them, and, tired and annoyed, commented, “Well, fortunately this will be the last year!”
Thérèse later wrote that her father’s words “pierced my heart”. We can imagine what might have flashed through her mind: Why isn’t he happy for me? Is he annoyed with me? Is Christmas now ruined?
An extraordinary gift
But something happened in the next instant, which she later called the “grace of my
“I felt charity enter into my soul, and the need to forget myself and to please others; since then I’ve been happy!…The work I had been unable to do in 10 years was done by Jesus in one instant.”
She doesn’t even try to explain how it happened. She doesn’t know, only that it did happen – and it was a gift.
Heather King, author of A Shirt of Flame: A Year with St Thérèse of Lisieux describes the moment. It seems a little thing but for someone who had been so self-absorbed, it was huge:
She gathered herself, allowed herself to experience but not be overwhelmed by the feelings of hurt, and marched downstairs like an adult to open her presents with gratitude, good cheer, and joy.
This wasn’t just ignoring her feelings in favour of her father’s. It was an ability to give and receive in freedom of spirit. Without being stuck in neediness for the approval of her father, she was able to be happy, and her happiness brought him joy as a consequence.
Freed from the need to please
Joseph Schmidt in ‘Everything is Grace’, explains his belief that the Christmas gift St Thérèse received was freedom from the need to please: “Thérèse was pleasing her father, but not because she needed to please him in order to make herself feel connected and good. She was pleasing him now because, from the depths of her true self with a deepened sense of inner freedom, she could act in whatever compassionate, creative, and free way she was called to. And pleasing her father was exactly what, on this Christmas night, she was called to do and wanted to do.
“From the time of her complete conversion she would never walk on the path of accommodating others at the expense of her own true self. That is, she would never please others because in a self-indulgent way she needed to please them for her own sense of security, or closeness, or fear of separation. Now she would accommodate others in a spirit of freedom and creativity, and as an expression of real love.”
No martyrs here
Making other people happy, for St Thérèse, wasn’t about being a ‘martyr’, or even about being a ‘saint’ in the way we tend to think about saints repressing or not having any needs of their own.
It was about having the freedom to choose how she was going to act or respond in any situation. She chose to be cheerful and loving towards everyone, but she was never again emotionally dependent on what others thought or her how they acted towards her. In an instant, she was cured of any tendency towards passive-aggression.
After that Christmas Eve she had the great freedom of being able to love others, and being able to accept their love, without any strings attached. For most of us, this takes some time to achieve, maybe a lifetime. Even then, it’s still a gift of grace. St Thérèse, who mastered in one Christmas Eve night, gave credit for what this was – a really extraordinary gift!