In today’s first reading, Paul writes that “we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God.” But what is the treasure that Paul writes about? We could make an argument that the treasure that God has given us is his own love. Of course, we all know that we find the perfect treasure of God’s love in the person of Jesus.
Earlier this month, we’ve just celebrated three feasts that relate to God and God’s love: Trinity Sunday, the Feast of the Sacred Heart and the Feast of the Body and Blood of Jesus. And I think that’s a great excuse to remain with this divine theme of God’s love.
But I’d like to talk about one person – a saint – whose entire life was devoted to celebrating love. This saint is none other than Therese of Lisieux. Born in France in 1873, the youngest of five sisters, Therese grew up in a home where she was immersed in the love of her parents and sisters.
Therese was good-natured and happy in the company of her family. She loved to play games with her siblings, and she especially loved to play act. However, as a child, Therese grew sullen when separated from her father, her mother, or her favorite sister, Pauline.
Therese eventually outgrew her insecurity and at the age of fifteen, she entered religious life. Her life was simple – she shared meals in community, she prayed in community, and she did chores around the house with her fellow sisters in community.
But in private, Therese wrote of her great ambition. She wanted to go to a monastery in Viet Nam, though her poor health prevented it. She wanted to be an apostle and a missionary, like Saint Peter or Saint Paul, and she wrote in her diary that sometimes she wished that she could be a priest. At other times, she wrote that she wanted to be a great scholar, a doctor of the church, who might educate others with her own insights on Scripture.
Therese, the little young Carmelite with a modest education, and a will of steel, wanted to make a mark on the world, if only to show how much she loved God.
One day, while engaged in silent prayer with the other sisters in the chapel, Therese decided to leaf through the bible. She came across a passage from Corinthians. First she read about the Church being many parts yet at the same time being one body. Therese continued to read from that passage, and she fixed on one line in particular, where Saint Paul says “If I speak in tongues or in the language of Angels, but I do not have love, then I am merely a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”
That evening Therese wrote in her diary, in gigantic capital letters, I HAVE FOUND MY PLACE IN THE CHURCH. Then she continued to write, saying, “In the Heart of the church, my mother, I shall be love.” One of her biographers, Bishop Patrick Ahern, said that ‘love was the central reality of Saint Therese’s life.’
Therese wrote more than sixty poems during her short life, and her poem “To Live of Love” is considered her finest. In our first reading, we heard Paul speak of this treasure in earthen vessels that we hold. Saint Therese has her own understanding of what that treasure might be. To quote from her poem:
To live of love, tis my heart to guard,
A mighty treasure in a fragile vase.
Weak, weak am I, O well beloved lord.
Nor have I yet an angel’s perfect grace
But If I fall each hour that hurries by
You come to me from your bright home above
And raising me, do give me the strength to cry
I live of love.
Though Saint Therese did not live to see her twenty fifth birthday, her writings survive. Her diary, STORY OF A SOUL, may be, globally, the best selling book of the twentieth century on the subject of spirituality.
Perhaps most ironically, Therese did achieve one the goals to which she aspired during her brief life. In 1997, John Paul II promoted her so that she would joins the ranks of Saint Augustine, Saint Cyril, Saint Jerome, and Thomas Aquinas – as a Doctor of the Roman Catholic Church. Saint Therese, the Little Flower, the tiny nun who never left the grounds of her carmel, and who never received a formal education in theology, is the ranking theologian in the church on the subject of love.