In his book, Patience with God: The Story of Zacchaeus Continuing In Us, Tomáš Halík has an intriguing chapter on Thérèse of Lisieux. In it, I read many things I hadn’t known about her and gained a completely novel perspective on her value.
Here are some selected excerpts:
Before her death, the young Carmelite nun experienced great spiritual conflicts and inner darkness. In that night of trial, her impending death once appeared to her—as she literally states—as a night of nothingness. “I no longer believe in eternal life: I feel that there is nothing beyond this mortal life,” the doctor of the church wrote. “My mind is gripped by the arguments of the worst materialists” was another of her authentic statements. Not only was Thérèse to know the collapse of the sweet life of piety, which she had always known up to then; her previous profound sense of God’s closeness was to be swallowed up by mist, darkness, and emptiness. She found herself “far from all suns,” if I may be allowed to describe her experience in the words that Nietzsche’s madman uses in his torrent of suggestive metaphors that sum up the death of God.
Whereas the church of her day preached a dread of sin and a systematic ascent to ultimate virtue and spiritual and moral perfection, Thérèse—fully in the spirit of St. Paul’s letters—taught the need to accept with joy and thankfulness one’s own weakness as a space that God’s kindness and mercy may enter (while haughty virtue refuses admittance). She writes that those who have been climbing the hill of virtue for a long time ought to accept with humble joy their own collapse and (God-willed) fall, because God awaits them not at the dreamed-of “heights” but precisely at the very bottom, “deep in the fertile valley of humility.”
However, if I am correct in my understanding of Thérèse and of her path through paradox and constant reinterpretation, then her concern was something else: not simply to draw these unbelievers back into the heart of the church, but rather to broaden that heart by including their experience of darkness. Through her solidarity with unbelievers, she conquers new territory (along with its inhabitants) for a church that has previously been too closed. Thérèse inspires us to a faith that does not retreat cowardly to the strongholds of its certainties when confronted by the challenge of atheism, that does not fire the arguments of militant apologists across the trenches at atheism from a safe position, but instead goes “unarmed” with much greater courage—as St. Francis once did into the sultan’s camp—into the “camp of unbelievers” and brings therefrom a new “trophy” for the treasure-house of faith: the atheists’ experience with a distant God. By now, the existential “truth of atheism,” that experience of pain that was previously the “rock of atheism,” is also part of the treasure-house of faith. Faith construed this way and lived authentically and patiently in the depth of night now carries an existential experience within itself. It lacks nothing of what is part of the human condition. It endures people’s night also.
Halík sums up the themes of his book with the reflection that “faith can overcome unbelief only by embracing it.”
Only a faith that admits of everything that exists, can contend with all of reality, and eschews no dimension of the human experience is credible.
Paradoxically, entering into an experience of darkness can mean “conquer[ing] new territory” rather than losing ground, as it would seem.