In his Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, Pope John Paul II invites us to penetrate into the depth of the Mystery of Jesus by uniting to “theological investigation” recourse to “that great heritage which is the ‘lived theology’ of the saints” (#27). This is immediately illustrated by citing two women Doctors of the Church, Saint Catherine of Siena and Saint Thérèse of Lisieux whose “lived theology” sheds notable light on the face of Jesus in his Passion: “blissful and afflicted” (ibid).
In this way, John Paul II indicates a new path for the theology of the third millennium, a path of reflection and of contemplation uniting inseparably the understanding of the Mystery of the faith (fides et ratio) and the loving experience of this same Mystery (fides et amor). (1)
From Francis of Assisi to Thérèse of Lisieux, the mystics are the great representatives of this lived theology of the saints. They transmit to the whole Church their profound knowledge of the Mystery of God the Trinity, of the God known and loved in Jesus Christ by means of the great work of his Love which is the Redemption of man.
Immersed in the Infinite Love of Jesus, they are the best “knowers” (connaisseurs) they are authentically “theologians,” that is to say “knowers (connaisseurs) of God.” In fact, according to the words of the Apostle John, “he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is Love” (cf. I Jn. 4:7-8).
This theology of the saints is like a beacon which sheds light on the whole Mystery of Jesus, from the first moment of the Incarnation in the virginal womb of Mary until his exaltation in the glory of the Resurrection, through all of the mysteries of his earthly life, and especially his Redemptive Passion. In this same light it is also possible to contemplate the countenance of Mary and to understand better her place in the Mystery of Christ and of the Church (cf. Lumen Gentium, VIII).
In the course of this brief article, we are going to utilize the “lived theology” of Thérèse of Lisieux in order to shed light on a delicate and important question, that of the cooperation of Mary and of the Church in the Mystery of the Redemption, which could also be called “coredemption.”
In order to better interpret the theology of Thérèse, we need to recall in the light of Vatican II the intimate and indissoluble bond which unites Jesus with Mary and the entire Church. Jesus is the New Adam, the God-Man, the Creator and the only Savior of all men, the Eternal Son of the Father who, by the power of the Holy Spirit, became in a completely virginal manner the Child and the Spouse of his creature, to the point that his creature became truly his Mother and his Spouse. Such is the Mystery of the New Eve in her ineffable communion with the New Adam: she is inseparably Mary and the Church, as Mother of God (theotókos) and Spouse of God (theonúmphos), Virgin-Mother and Virgin-Spouse. (2) Remaining always a mere creature, she is raised to an unparalleled dignity by this communion with the only Savior, an active and dynamic communion which is a true cooperation in the Economy of Salvation. (3)
As a consecrated virgin, Thérèse lived profoundly with Mary and in the Church, in this “Heart burning with Love” which is inseparably that of Mary and of the Church, (4) the heart of a Spouse given to Jesus alone and the heart of a Mother given to Jesus and open to all the men created and saved by Him. (5) It is in her Love as Spouse and as Mother that Thérèse sheds light on the Mystery of the cooperation of Mary and of the Church in the Redemption. All of her writings are characterized by a profound Marian and ecclesial spirit, whether explicitly or implicitly.
In this perspective, our article will be developed in three points:
1. Pranzini “My First child”
2. “The Heart of a Mother”
3. Communion in the Agony of Jesus
1. Pranzini “My First child”
The heart of Manuscript A, written in 1895, is the narrative of the “grace of Christmas” and the salvation of the criminal Pranzini, a double grace of communion in the Mysteries of the Incarnation and of the Redemption. The Holy Spirit leads the young Thérèse from the Crib to the Cross, from the admirable exchange of the Incarnation to the admirable exchange of the Redemption: in the Incarnation, God became man in order that man might become God; in the Redemption, He who was without sin became sin for us so that we might become in Him the righteousness of God (cf. II Cor. 5:21).
While the grace of Christmas was a purely personal grace of conversion, of liberation and of spiritual growth, this second grace concerns primarily the salvation of the neighbor, but in a union still more personal and more intimate with Jesus, a fruitful union of the spouse with the Crucified, who makes her mother of the man ransomed by his Blood. Leaving childhood behind at Christmas, Thérèse became a woman, she became spouse and mother at the age of 14, before her entry into Carmel. Charity made these two strongest and most beautiful “strings” (which are spousal and motherly love) resonate in her feminine heart: spousal love of Jesus and motherly love of neighbor. This grace is one of a new gaze at Jesus Crucified and at the neighbor, the poorest sinner for whom Jesus shed his Blood. It is a eucharistic grace, received during Sunday Mass by means of a simple image, which nonetheless becomes for Thérèse a genuine icon making her see the Mystery of the Redemption:
One Sunday, looking at a picture of Our Lord on the Cross, I was struck by the blood flowing from one of the divine hands. I felt a great pang of sorrow when thinking this blood was falling to the ground without anyone’s hastening to gather it up. I was resolved to remain in spirit at the foot of the Cross and to receive the divine dew. I understood I was then to pour it out upon souls. The cry of Jesus on the Cross sounded continually in my heart: “I thirst!” These words ignited within me an unknown and very living fire. I wanted to give my Beloved to drink and I felt myself consumed with a thirst for souls. (6)
The image represents the Crucified with Mary Magdalene embracing his feet, (7) standing under the right arm of the Cross, where Jesus’ hand is nailed. In this loving contemplation of the Blood of Jesus, Thérèse joins Catherine of Siena, the Doctor of the Body and Blood of Jesus. For Catherine, Mary Magdalene is the “loving disciple” who shows all of her Love when she stays there on Calvary, embracing the Cross to which Jesus is nailed, “soaked in his Blood, inebriated and washing herself in his Blood.” (8) By her “resolution” to “remain in spirit at the foot of the Cross,” Thérèse identifies herself with Magdalene. (9) She ardently desires that the Blood of Jesus fall upon her for the salvation of others. Her fear is that it will fall “to the ground” without reaching sinful man for whom it was shed.
In its simplicity, this text sheds great light on the meaning of the coredemption and the mediation of Mary and of the Church. There is a real collaboration of the creature, as spouse and mother, in the work accomplished by Jesus, the sole Savior, the sole Redeemer, the sole Mediator. This collaboration does not consist in adding something to the Blood of Jesus, but in communicating the Blood to the men of all times and all places.
Thérèse remains close to the Cross as the spouse who wants to offer a drink to her “Beloved,” and it is then that she becomes mother because of the virginal fruitfulness of the Redeeming Blood which she receives. She recounts how immediately Jesus gives her the criminal Pranzini as “her first child” (Ms A 45v-46v). It is one of the most beautiful and most powerful pages on the meaning of hope in Divine Mercy. The criminal condemned to death is on the point of dying in impenitence. Thérèse is aware of the extreme danger of his position, but at the same time, she cannot resign herself to the loss of a brother for whom Christ died: “I wanted at all costs to prevent him from falling into hell,” she writes. (10) The only price is that of the Blood of Jesus. The young girl has Mass celebrated for him. She expresses her certitude about his salvation in an absolute manner: “even if he went to his death without any signs of repentance or without having gone to confession. I was absolutely confident in the mercy of Jesus.” (11) Before being executed, Pranzini embraces the Crucifix which the chaplain of the prison presents to him. This simple sign brings Thérèse to her point of departure, which was the contemplation of Jesus Crucified:
Wasn’t it before the wounds of Jesus, when seeing His divine blood flowing, that the thirst for souls had entered my heart? I wished to give them this immaculate blood to drink, this blood which was to purify them from their stains, and the lips of my “first child” were pressed to the sacred wounds! … What an unspeakably sweet response! … After this unique grace my desire to save souls grows each day, and I seemed to hear Jesus say to me what he said to the Samaritan woman: “Give me to drink!” It was a true interchange of love: to souls I was giving the blood of Jesus, to Jesus I was offering these same souls refreshed by the divine dew.” (12)
Jesus then gave Thérèse as her “first child” a most miserable sinner, one who, from a human point of view was a “desperate case.” For him the young girl hoped against every hope, in all the strength of her Love as Spouse and Mother. This experience is fundamental, foundational. Thérèse will express her desire to save “the souls who are on earth” (13); “the” souls, and not just “some” souls! She will even dare to formulate this prayer: “Jesus, allow me to save very many souls; let no soul be lost today.” (14)
And it is finally with the same confidence that during her great trial against the faith, she will intercede for atheists and the enemies of the Church (cf. Ms C 5v-7v).
2. “The Heart of a Mother”
In all of this Thérèse is singularly close to Mary, Mother of all men redeemed by the Blood of Jesus, Mother of Mercy and Refuge of sinners. The profoundly Marian dimension of this experience of the Carmelite can be made clearer in the light of the little play on The flight into Egypt (RP 6), written immediately after Manuscript A. It is the most illuminating work of Thérèse on the mystery of motherhood and its setting is an imaginary dialogue between Mary the Mother of Jesus and Susanna the mother of Dismas, the future good thief of the Gospel. This fabricated history is a marvelous parable about motherly love. Mary, the All-Holy has “the heart of a mother,” but the poor pagan woman and sinner also has “the heart of a mother,” a heart capable of welcoming the Infant Savior and of obtaining the salvation of the sinner child. The little Dismas was a leper; he was miraculously healed when, at Mary’s request, Susanna bathed him in the water in which the Infant Jesus had been bathed. Susanna then speaks to Mary about her fear concerning the salvation of her child, foreseeing that he will become a bandit like his father. Mary’s response, which is the high point of the entire work, corresponds exactly to what Thérèse had lived with regard to Pranzini:
Trust in the infinite mercy of the Good God; it is great enough to wipe out the greatest crimes when it finds the heart of a mother who places all of her confidence in it. Jesus does not wish the death of the sinner, but that he be converted and live eternally. This child who, through no effort of his own, has just been cured of leprosy, will be cured one day of a much more dangerous leprosy… Then a simple bath will not suffice, Dismas will need to be bathed in the blood of the Redeemer…. Jesus will die in order to give life to Dismas and he will enter the same day as the Son of God into the heavenly kingdom (RP 6, l0r).