My Vocation is Love!

St. Therese at 15 just prior to joining the Carmel at Lisieux

St. Therese at 15 just prior to joining the Carmel at Lisieux

I am always delighted to see that, especially among younger Catholics, Thérèse Martin (1873-1897) is increasingly becoming one of the Church’s more “popular” saints. I am sure that many of us are already familiar with the broad outlines of her life. That she was one of five children, of Louis and Zélie (Guerin) Martin, all of whom entered the religious life. That, during a family pilgrimage to Rome, she implored Pope Leo XIII to grant her a dispensation to allow her to enter the Carmel at Lisieux at age 15; which, though not due to the pope’s intervention, she in fact did. That, after dying at the tender age of 24, her reputation grew largely due to the posthumous publication of her spiritual diary Histoire d’une Ame [Story of a Soul]. And, that she was canonized in 1925 by Pope Pius XI and proclaimed a Doctor of the Church in 1997 by Pope St. John Paul II.

In my household, moreover, the feast day of St. Thérèse (October 1st) holds a particular significance. My wife and I, quite deliberately, selected that day on which to be married; thereby making St. Thérèse the patron saint of our marriage and family. (Just as an aside, our son was born on the feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. I think the LORD is trying to tell us something about the spiritual direction of our family.) One portion of St. Thérèse’s Story of a Soul has always resonated with my wife and me in particular. In fact, we placed this text on the last page of our wedding programs.

Charity gave me the key to my vocation…I understood it was love alone that made the Church’s members act, that if love ever became extinct, apostles would not preach the Gospel and martyrs would not shed their blood. I understood that love comprised all vocations, that love was everything, that it embraced all times and places… In one word, that it was eternal (chapter 9).

St. Thérèse was prompted to write this passage based on her meditation of 1 Cor 13:1-13, and it illustrates well why she is truly a Doctor of the Church. St. Thérèse had a great desire to join the ranks of the martyrs of the Church. “Martyrdom was the dream of my youth,” she writes “and this dream has grown with me within the Carmel’s cloisters.” She also had the ambition to be a Carmelite missionary which, because of her ill health, she was not allowed to fulfill. But reflecting upon St. Paul’s great exhortation to love, St. Thérèse realized that love is the vocation of every Christian; it is the universal vocation. Much like holiness, all Christians are called to live out their particular vocations in love; whether one is called to the married life, or the consecrated religious life, or to some other particular vocation. Further, and this is one St. Thérèse’s great insights, if one lives out perfectly this universal vocation to love, one is embracing all of the particular vocations. In other words, the saint who loves perfectly is, in the realm of love, an apostle, and a prophet, and a martyr, etc. “Thus I shall be everything,” writes the Little Flower, “and thus my dream will be realized.” In a way, the Church has formally endorsed the Little Flower’s theology on this point. For, while she never left the confines of the Lisieux Carmel during her religious life, upon her canonization St. Thérèse was made co-patron – along with St. Francis Xavier – of missionary work. By doing “all the smallest things and doing them through love,” St. Thérèse lived perfectly her, and every, vocation.

And that is the great reminder which St. Thérèse gives to my wife and me as the patroness of our married life: that every particular vocation is lived through the universal vocation to love. And, in knowing this, we should all exclaim with St. Thérèse: “O Jesus, my Love…my vocation, at last I have found it…My vocation is love!”

Therese 2

St. Therese as St. Joan d’Arc in a play at the Carmel

Anthony Coleman teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

More Lessons from the First Grade

Love of learning can began in kindergarten and first grade.

Yes, some of us loved school from day one. In the spring 1952, I was in first grade at Saint Teresa of Avila school in an Irish and Italian American neighborhood in Brooklyn. My family had a television, one of the first in our apartment house. The Lone Ranger, Howdy Dooty, Kate Smith were among my favorites. The McCarthy hearings annoyingly interfered with my shows!

Alistair CookieOne Sunday I was watching Omnibus hosted by a young Alistair Cooke [Alistair Cookie to Sesame Street fans!]. I saw Australian aborigines dancing around a fire. The voiceover said this was how human beings lived 50,000 years ago. The next day I told Sr. Mary Charlotte that I had seen how people lived 50,000 years ago. She said it must have been an anti-Catholic show, since the world was created 5,000 years ago according to the Bible. On three counts, I knew that she was wrong (perhaps even then TV had more authority than a mere school teacher!). (1) The world was indeed older than 5,000 years [I had seen the dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History[1]]. (2) The Bible did not teach that [my father, who I thought was the smartest man in the world, read me the first chapter of Genesis; we could not find any dates]. (3) The Catholic Church in which I was totally immersed could not be teaching something so intuitively wrong [years later in high school I found out that in 1952 the Church did not teach that the world was 5000 years old]! Thus I knew she was wrong on these three counts. However, I was polite and didn’t tell her. But I knew that it was an important “Catholic thing” to get it right. I think my vocation as a Catholic intellectual began right there.

My mother who did not finish the 9th grade always stressed that her six children get as much education as possible. She also tweaked her highly educated son by giving him a copy of All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I told her that I indeed learned all I needed to know in the Catholic kindergarten taught by the same Sr. Mary Charlotte who taught me first grade. The lesson I learned was that I needed to learn a whole lot more. Thus even from kindergarten and first grade one can have a vocation to life-long learning.

Here perhaps is an intimation of a solution for Catholic higher education’s failure of nerve. If only we would remember our first grade and the love of learning that it inspired!

Daniel Sheridan is Professor of Theology at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine and former Director of the Online Theology Program.

[1]In 1952, one of the great Catholic intellectuals of the 20th century, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, was working in the fossil warehouse of the Museum of Natural History, about six miles from where I was watching Omnibus.