"You alone, O Jesus, could satisfy a soul that needed to love even to the infinite."
— Thérèse of Lisieux
Sometimes when you meet a new friend you know instantaneously that she will enter your inner circle. Other times a person moves in and out of your life, gradually drawing closer, until you turn to her one day and notice she has a greater presence than you realized. My friendship with Thérèse of Lisieux is of the latter variety. I don’t remember how we met. For years, she came and went in quiet ways, and I thought, “Someday I’d like to get to know her better.” That someday came this fall when I read her autobiography, Story of a Soul, for the first time.
Thérèse, born in 1873, fulfilled her dream of devoting herself to religious life by joining a Carmelite community at age 15. Her autobiography, published after her early death from tuberculous at 24, has inspired many to a life of infinite love, yet humble littleness, in God. In Thérèse, I have found a friend who understands my longing for the infinite — a longing that shows itself even in the scribbled infinity signs that loop around my journal of drawn prayers.
When pondering her vocation, Thérèse expressed her desire for every calling:
“To be Your Spouse, to be a Carmelite, and by my union with You to be the Mother of souls, should not this suffice me? And yet it is not so. No doubt, these three privileges sum up my true vocation: Carmelite, Spouse, Mother, and yet I feel within me the other vocations. I feel the vocation of the WARRIOR, THE PRIEST, THE APOSTLE, THE DOCTOR, THE MARTYR. Finally, I feel the need and the desire of carrying out the most heroic deeds for You, O Jesus” (p. 192).
After reading I Corinthians 12 and 13, she understood that her desire to be all things within the body of Christ could be met in what Paul described as “the most excellent way”:
“I understood that LOVE COMPRISED ALL VOCATIONS, THAT LOVE WAS EVERYTHING, THAT IT EMBRACED ALL TIMES AND PLACES....IN A WORD, THAT IT WAS ETERNAL!
“Then, in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out: O Jesus, my love...my vocation, at last I have found it....MY VOCATION IS LOVE!” (p. 194).
Have you ever longed for the infinite? Wished that your life could embody all the possibilities of which you dream? Desired more than you could ever achieve in a lifetime? Perhaps you would find in Thérèse a kindred spirit as well.
Reading her story felt a little like reading mine. This past summer, I once again found myself wrestling with God over a long-held, seemingly unfulfilled desire. I asked him why I continue to desire marriage when he insists I belong only to him. Pouring out my heart and its deep sadness over the loss of how I felt this dream ought to be fulfilled, I wrote:
“My deepest desire, underneath the desire for marriage, is the desire for love, for the God who is love. Because I desire love, I want to know it in every possible form. I am hungry for the love of God, the love of friendship, the love of marriage, the love of motherhood, the love of being a child, a sister, etc. I long for the fullness of God (Eph. 3:14-21), the fullness of love expressed in every possible form, a love without limits, a love that is infinite.”
Infinite. Like Thérèse my longing can only be met in the infinite love of God. I realized anew that my desire for marriage was meant to lead me to a love that could be found only in God. Also, like her, my desire to fill every possible role of love — daughter, sister, friend, wife, mother, etc. — can best be lived out by becoming God’s love for others in whatever way he desires, by embracing love itself as the ultimate vocation. Across the years and in spite of our very different lives, I would like to think that Thérèse and I might be friends, sharing a common calling and desire to love without limits.
Clarke, O.C.D., John. Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. 3rd ed. Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1996.