The Christmas of the two Teresas
22 December 2021
By Cristiana de Magistris
Nothing proves harder for modern man — the so- called “grown-up” Catholic — than the practice of “little” virtues; in silence and far from human view; with God alone as witness. Not without reason did Our Lord want to give us His example, so that we could more easily follow this path. This is why it is necessary to keep our eyes fixed, throughout our whole life, on the “abasements of Bethlehem”.
This was the school in which the great Reformer of Carmel, St Teresa of Ávila was instructed, and the one she wanted the sons and daughters of Carmel to draw from. It is recounted in the life of the saint that one day, at the monastery of the Incarnation in Ávila, while she was going down the stairs, she met a beautiful child who was smiling at her. The saint, surprised to see a child inside the monastery cloister, asked him, “And who are you?” But the child answered with the same question, “And who are you?” The saint replied, “I am Teresa of Jesus.” The Child, with a broad and luminous smile, said to her, “I am Jesus of Teresa.”
This emblematic episode could be the origin of the special devotion that the great Carmelite Reformer had for the Childhood of Our Lord. None of her foundations was ever without statues of the Child Jesus. Tradition has it that she had a number of these. For example, she had one Child Jesus to whom she turned when she wanted it to rain or not to rain; another to whom she turned when she had debts and didn’t know how to pay them, and so on.
Each of “her” Children had his own task. She also wanted the austerities of Carmel to be tempered during the Christmas season and enlivened with songs of exultation and pious recreation. Not only that; to increase the spiritual joy of the nuns, the saint used to compose verses to be sung while carrying statues of Our Lady and St Joseph in procession. Once she taught the older nuns to sing the refrain of a song she had composed, which went: Awaken, my Sisters! Here comes the Virgin, who has given birth to her Son and her God. Full of devotion and joy, the saint asked the sisters to give hospitality to the Divine Child, His Holy Mother and her spouse, St Joseph, to whom she was also particularly devoted.
The saint’s devotion to the Divine Child is also attested to by a miracle, which took place at the Carmel of Toledo, where the statue of the Little Jesus — brought by the saint herself on the occasion of the foundation of that monastery in 1569 — wept when the great Reformer had to leave the monastery.
This is what is written in the museum of the convent that houses this treasure: “On 8 June 1580, Saint Teresa took leave of her nuns in Toledo to go to Segovia. The naturally affectionate heart of the saint suffered greatly at this farewell, especially as she thought she would not see her daughters again. On that occasion, neither she nor her beloved religious were mistaken, because all had a presentiment that the Mother had come to the end of her earthly journey. According to a pious tradition, even an image of the Child Jesus was caught up in the sorrow of the nuns, shedding tears when the saint left her beloved convent in Toledo. Since then this image has been called by the affectionate nickname of Niño Lloroncito.”
Devotion to the Holy Child therefore has its roots in the mystical experience of the Spanish Reformer. After being handed down by other illustrious daughters of Carmel (by Venerable Margherita of the Most Holy Sacrament from the Carmel of Beaune (1619–1648) and Sister Mary of St Peter of the Carmel of Tours (1816–1848), among others), this devotion finally came to the Little Flower of Lisieux, St Thérèse, destined to be the Teacher of the “Little Way” — in the footsteps of the Child of Bethlehem.
After Midnight Mass, at which she wrote that she “had the happiness of receiving the strong and powerful God” in Holy Communion, “Jesus, the sweet little Child, turned the night of my soul into torrents of light”. Thinking back on that moment, Thérèse reflected, “On that night in which Jesus made himself weak and suffering for love of me, He made me strong and courageous.”
From then on, Thérèse walked more vigorously in the Way of the Lord and with greater assurance. “After that blessed night,” she recalls, “I was not defeated in any battle, but I walked from victory to victory and set out, so to speak, on a giant’s course.”
Her sister Céline recalled that every year she celebrated 25 March with the greatest devotion, because, she said, “this is the day when Jesus, in Mary’s womb, was at His smallest.” But she loved the mystery of the Nativity scene in a very particular way. It is here that the Child Jesus revealed to her all His secrets of simplicity and abandonment. At Christmas, on pictures that she painted herself, she passionately wrote this phrase of Saint Bernard: “Jesus, who made you so small? Love!”
Her name, Thérèse of the Child Jesus, which she chose at the age of nine, would remain the constant ideal to which she strove to remain faithful until the end of her short life. Later, beneath an image of the Child Jesus, she would write the following:
“O little Child, my only treasure, I abandon myself to your divine whims, I do not want to have any other joy than that of making You smile. Imprint in me Your childlike graces and virtues, so that, on the day of my birth in Heaven, the angels and saints may recognise in Your little spouse Thérèse of the Child Jesus”.
It is from the Child of Bethlehem that little Thérèse drew the spirit of childhood, which was, for her, above all, a spirit of humility and littleness. She never missed an opportunity in her daily life at Carmel to practise this “Little Way” and to instruct others in it.
This is how her sister Céline summarises her “direct way to Heaven”. Since the saint felt incapable of walking the hard path of perfection, she strove to become smaller and smaller, so that God would take care of everything she did and gather her up in his arms, as happens with the smallest children in families. She wanted to be holy but not grow up, since, just as the little misdeeds of children do not anger their parents, so also the imperfections of humble souls cannot seriously offend the good God, and errors will not be ascribed to them as faults, according to the Scripture: Little ones are forgiven out of pity.
As a result she was careful not to want to feel perfect or have others consider her so, because that would mean she was big enough for God to let her walk on her own. “Children do not work to get a position,” she said, “if they are good, they do it to please their parents. In the same way, it is not necessary to work to become saints, but to please God.” “Does a father, perhaps,” she said to Céline, “scold a child when he willingly accuses himself, or inflict a punishment on him? Not at all, but he clasps him to his heart.”
She also told the following story, which she had heard as a child. A king, in a hunting party, was chasing a white rabbit, which his dogs were about to catch, when the little creature, feeling lost, quickly turned back and jumped into the hunter’s arms. Moved by such great trust, he did not want to part with the white rabbit and did not allow anyone to touch it; insisting on feeding it himself. “This,” Thérèse commented, “is what the Good God will do with us if, pursued by justice, symbolised by the dogs, we seek to escape into the very arms of our Judge!”
The wisdom of the Saint of Lisieux consists in recognising, accepting, even loving one’s own weakness, without underestimating the need for personal cooperation in one’s sanctification. It does not excuse sin but urges the soul to forsake all its illusions about itself; not to trust in its own merits, nor rely on its own strength, but cast itself with enthusiasm into the merciful love of God. The “little doctrine” of the saint of Lisieux does not make sin a mere weakness and weakness almost a virtue, as often happens in our day.
Far from it. The ascetic demands of Christian perfection are not diminished in her “Little Way”.
“It is necessary to do all we can; to give without counting; to renounce ourselves constantly; in a word, to prove our love with all the good deeds in our power. But, in truth, since all this is of little account, it is necessary to confess ourselves useless servants after having done everything we believed we had to do; hoping, however, that the good God will, through grace, give us everything we desire. This is the hope of the little souls who run in the way of childhood — I say run, and not rest.”
This attitude of spiritual poverty even turns falling to their benefit. She wrote, “Children often fall, but they are too small to hurt themselves badly.”
She taught this wisdom to her fellow sisters, especially at Christmas, when she busied herself with writing poems and organising pious recreations, such as the one in which an imaginary angel came to ask each nun — following the example of her Holy Mother — to welcome the Little Jesus who, having become Man, found on earth only coldness and indifference:
“May your caresses and praise and tenderness be for the Child! Burn with love, souls aflame, for a God has become mortal for you. Stupendous mystery: he who comes begging is the eternal Word! My sisters, do not be afraid; draw near and, one by one, offer your love to Jesus; you will know His holy will. I will teach you what the Little Child in swaddling clothes craves most; to you who, pure like the angels, have more than you can suffer. Always – but always let your suffering and your joys be for the Little Child! Burn with love, souls aflame; for a God has become mortal for you. Stupendous mystery: he who comes begging is the eternal Word!”
Céline notes that, had she known it, Thérèse certainly would have enjoyed this prayer of Bossuet:
“Great God… grant that no learned or pious spirit may ever be accused at Your terrible tribunal of having contributed in some way to blocking Your access to countless hearts, because You wanted to enter there in a way which offended them by its simplicity […]; help all of us instead to become small like children, as Jesus Christ commands, so that we may enter once and for all through this little door and then be able to show it safely and effectively to others. Amen.”
It is no strange thing that, in his last hour, this great French prelate, who had enchanted audiences with his eloquence, uttered these moving words: “If I could live my life over again, I would like to be nothing but a little boy who always gives his hand to the Child Jesus.”
This is the lesson of the two Teresas for this Holy Christmas.