We are in the middle of the Lenten season: a six-week journey into the paschal or “passover” mystery: the “passing over” of Jesus from this earthly life through death into a “glorious” heavenly life; the mystery of eternal life in and through earthly death.
Lent is a time to reflect on what we want to stop doing and begin doing. During these forty days, the Spirit leads us to rediscover the presence of God in our own lives; to walk with Jesus as our traveling companion through the challenges we face in our journey toward our heavenly dwelling place; and to let his Spirit of forgiveness and his light of wisdom drive the “tempter” out of our lives so that we can become what God intended us to be: our truest selves in relationship with God and one another.
The Word of God carries us back in our imaginations over 3000 years to the Ancient Near East, to the Sinai Peninsula between Egypt and Israel, to a charismatic leader named Moses. At Sinai, God entered into a covenant with the Hebrews summed up in that simple yet profound statement: “You are my people and I am your God.” Yes, God always keeps his promises and the Hebrews pledge to keep theirs: they will recognize their dependency upon God, worship God alone, support their families, reverence human life, keep their marriage vows, respect the rights of other people, speak truthfully, be chaste, and replace greed with generosity.These commandments are basic guidelines for good behavior. The question is: are these guidelines ours?
Paul in his letter to the Christian community at Corinth speaks about how people look for “signs of power” or the “wisdom of the philosophers” before they will believe in Jesus Christ.
Paul here proclaims that the mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is indeed our power and our wisdom. Hidden in the sufferings of our Good Friday is the glory of our Easter. Our Easter faith proclaims loudly and clearly that the eternal life Jesus won for us through his death and resurrection, that divine life bestowed upon us in the waters of baptism and nourished in the sacramental life of our world-wide Catholic community, will not disappear in death. No, the risen Christ promises us that we will make an evolutionary leap in death into a new transformative heavenly reality. That is our future. Yes, someday this earthly body of ours, like that of Jesus, will be transformed into a new kind of spiritual embodiment. At every Funeral Mass we hear: “For those who believe, life is not taken away, life is merely changed.” That's Paul's message.
In the Gospel according to John, Jesus cleanses the temple of buying and selling; predicts his death and resurrection; and proclaims that a community of disciples will replace the Temple in Jerusalem; Jesus is the one in whom divinity and humanity meet, the new temple of God, the presence of God among us.
Elsewhere Paul proclaims that we ourselves are temples of God; the triune God lives within us by virtue of the waters of baptism.
I would like to reflect on a modern icon who recognized that she was a temple of God, that the triune God lived within her: Therese of Lisieux.
Therese lived and died in the late 19th century in the obscurity of a Carmelite cloister in Normandy, France. We know about her through her remarkable autobiography, “The Story of a Soul,” which documents her own search for God and which made her a guru in Catholic Spirituality.
Therese's life was quite ordinary. A happy childhood changed to struggles with depression at the death of her mother when she was only four. At age 15, she had the moxie to ask Pope Leo XIII to let her enter the cloister even though she was underage. With persistence, she did and for nine years she pursued a spiritual pathway that she came to call the “little way.” She died at 24, holding onto a crucifix as she spoke her dying words, “My God, I love You.”
So what is this “little way” that anyone supposedly can follow? For me, it's made up of three ingredients. First, Therese realized her own insignificance. Think about it. There are about seven billion people on this planet; perhaps billions before; and perhaps billions after. And some say there are at least ten trillion planets in our galaxy alone; and at least 200 billion galaxies. Wow! Yet God gave us significance: God made us in his image and likeness.
Mental health is an important topic these days. Therese admitted that in her youth, she suffered from a form of spiritual scrupulosity: despite her best efforts to always please God in her everyday attitudes and behaviors, she felt she wasn't. Therese eventually overcame that scrupulosity. She discovered that God, who is love, created us out of love from nothingness so that we could be one with God forever. Therese personified humility: she experienced her own nothingness. Her response was always gratitude to God that she even existed.
Second, Therese recognized that God loved her unconditionally. That's why she had a childlike trust in God, no matter what happened to her in life, and she always welcomed whatever gifts God bestowed upon her.
Finally, Therese loved God unconditionally, even though she often wondered where God was. She believed despite her unbelief. Therese did small things well out of love for God. She accepted the will of God as expressed in the daily routine of cloistered life. In every situation, she willed the good of the other, no matter how annoying or mean-spirited she thought they were.
Therese of Lisieux was not simply content with a safe place in heaven. She wanted to spend heaven doing good on earth. That is why so many people honor her. She found God in her “little way.” To paraphrase St. Augustine, O God you have made me for yourself and my heart is restless until it rests in you, O God.
Therese's way can be a spiritual guide for us. It consists of three elements: gratitude to God; trust in God who loves us unconditionally; and doing ordinary things well out of love for God.
During these Lenten days I invite all of us to renew ourselves spiritually, to revisit the desert of silence, and to rededicate ourselves in regular prayer to God and in compassionate service to one another.
And then, when we renew our baptismal promises at Easter, we will re-experience more deeply the presence of God in our lives.