St. Therese and the Greatest Commandment

posted 6/4/20

In the Gospel for today’s Mass (Mark 12:28-34) a scribe asks Jesus: “Which is the first of all the commandments?”  Our Lord responds: “The first is this: Hear, O Israel!  The Lord our God is Lord alone!  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.”  This greatest commandment reveals the deep desire that God has for our love.  He is not looking for mere admiration or sycophancy, like the pagans treated their gods.  Our love is a response to the love He has for us, which always infinitely exceeds our love for Him.  

In his meditations on the spirituality of St. Therese of Lisieux, Fr. Jean d’Elbee remarks on how the saint “sees the Heart of Jesus overflowing with tenderness and mercy for poor sinners, for all men; from this Heart escapes floods of love which Jesus the Savior cannot contain any longer.”  Such is the love that Christ has for us.  “But,” he continues, “men in their ingratitude do not want this divine love.  They reject it; they raise the rampart of their indifference, of their contempt, and even of their hatred, so that the saving flood will not reach them.”  This is such a sad observation.  He offers us all the love of His heart, and we prefer to pursue other things.  What becomes of all this love that humanity rejects, that causes Jesus such sadness?  St. Therese wanted to take this unwanted love for herself.  She wanted God to make her heart like a catch basin for all of the love that humanity is rejecting.  “Thus I shall console my divine Savior.  Thus I shall die a victim of love, immolated in this ocean of flames.”  

D’Elbee explains that St. Therese lived out this desire to accept the love of Christ that others reject through perfect abandonment to His will.  She wanted to accept everything that came her way as a sign of His love for her – both the consolations and the crosses – and then offer everything she received back to Him.  All of her sufferings and joys, she accepted and offered to Him, especially at Mass, where Jesus continues to offer Himself as a sacrifice of love to the Father for us.  This is a beautiful reminder of how we can live out the first commandment through our participation in the Mass, making ourselves with Jesus an offering of love to the Father through the priest. 

Our Lord also speaks of the second commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  Again, the spirituality of Therese is helpful.  Observing the widespread indifference to, and distrust of God’s love, she feels no bitterness to those who do not love the One she loves.  Rather, she loves others all the more.  Fr. d’Elbee remarks: “when this love which men refuse has passed through the heart of little Therese and others victims like her, consuming them, men are no longer able to refuse it!  By being a victim of love, she becomes an apostle of love.”  St. Therese, like all the saints, makes the love of Christ harder to resist because it is the love of Christ that she shows them.  Christ’s love makes her lovable, making her a window through which we encounter the Source of all love.  And it’s contagious. By making herself an offering of love to God, St. Therese helps her neighbor (us!) love God and neighbor more too. 

This is why it is true that to love God and neighbor in this way “is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”  The true and perfect acts of reparation are not those offered in the Jerusalem Temple, or even in good works done with unconverted hearts.  It is to be wholly receptive to the love that Jesus gives to us at every moment, and to offer ourselves to Him in response – both at Mass and through the love we show our neighbor. 

St. Therese of the Child Jesus

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