Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, aflame with immense desires to spend her life for God and for the good of the Church, felt in herself the vocation of an apostle, a martyr, a missionary, a priest—and yet she knew that her true vocation was to be a cloistered nun, shut away in a monastery to pray, intercede, and unite herself to Christ, hidden from the eyes of all. How could she reconcile these: the greatness of her desires with the obscurity and apparent littleness of her life?
She came to understand this mystery in what she recognized as one of the greatest graces of her life: her discovery of the vocation of love which transcends all the particular vocations and yet unites them together. Leading up to this moment of grace was a profound experience, in a dream, of encountering the saints in heaven and their immense love for her. Venerable Anne of Jesus, one of the early nuns of her Carmelite Order, and a friend of John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, appeared to her, and cast her veil over little Thérèse, sheltering and encompassing her within it. Through this experience, Thérèse felt again, in a powerful way, the enveloping love of the heavenly Father, as well as the love of all those who are united to God. She knew herself to be a beloved daughter, and this awareness filled her heart with gratitude. Such an experience of love only enkindled in her heart more strongly the desires that she carried within her. Of her immense desires she writes:
To be Thy Spouse, O my Jesus, to be a daughter of Carmel, and by my union with Thee to be the mother of souls, should not all this content me? And yet other vocations make themselves felt—I feel called to the Priesthood and to the Apostolate—I would be a Martyr, a Doctor of the Church. I should like to accomplish the most heroic deeds—the spirit of the Crusader burns within me, and I long to die on the field of battle in defence of Holy Church.
But after enumerating all the things her heart desires to do for God, she says:
To such folly as this what answer wilt Thou make? Is there on the face of this earth a soul more feeble than mine? And yet, precisely because I am feeble, it has delighted Thee to accede to my least and most child-like desires, and to-day it is Thy good pleasure to realise those other desires, more vast than the Universe. These aspirations becoming a true martyrdom, I opened, one day, the Epistles of St. Paul to seek relief in my sufferings. My eyes fell on the 12th and 13th chapters of the First Epistle to the Corinthians. I read that all cannot become Apostles, Prophets, and Doctors; that the Church is composed of different members; that the eye cannot also be the hand. The answer was clear, but it did not fulfill my desires, or give to me the peace I sought. “Then descending into the depths of my nothingness, I was so lifted up that I reached my aim” (quoting St. John of the Cross).
Here she comes at last to the moment of grace in which the whole panorama of her vocation is unveiled before her eyes. We can do no better than to quote her in full:
Without being discouraged I read on, and found comfort in this counsel: “Be zealous for the better gifts. And I show unto you a yet more excellent way” (1 Cor 12:31). The Apostle then explains how all perfect gifts are nothing without Love, that Charity is the most excellent way of going surely to God. At last I had found rest.
Meditating on the mystical Body of Holy Church, I could not recognise myself among any of its members as described by St. Paul, or was it not rather that I wished to recognise myself in all? Charity provided me with the key to my vocation. I understood that since the Church is a body composed of different members, the noblest and most important of all the organs would not be wanting. I knew that the Church has a heart, that this heart burns with love, and that it is love alone which gives life to its members. I knew that if this love were extinguished, the Apostles would no longer preach the Gospel, and the Martyrs would refuse to shed their blood. I understood that love embraces all vocations, that it is all things, and that it reaches out through all the ages, and to the uttermost limits of the earth, because it is eternal.
Then, beside myself with joy, I cried out: “O Jesus, my Love, at last I have found my vocation. My vocation is love! Yes, I have found my place in the bosom of the Church, and this place, O my God, Thou hast Thyself given to me: in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I will be LOVE! … Thus I shall be all things: thus will my dream be realised. …”
Why do I say I am beside myself with joy? This does not convey my thought. Rather is it peace which has become my portion—the calm peace of the sailor when he catches sight of the beacon which lights him to port. O luminous Beacon of Love! I know how to come even unto Thee, I have found the means of borrowing Thy Fires.
Saint Thérèse, hidden away in the shelter of the Lord’s presence, enclosed in the austere and beautiful life of Carmel, discovered burning within her the Love that envelops the entire world. How is this possible? The fact of the matter is this: precisely her humble form of contemplative life was the catalyst in which these desires took root and flowered. Through this life she plunged into the interior mystery of Love that lies beneath the surface of the whole creation, buried like a seed seeking to push up above the soil, or echoing in the silence and hiddenness like an unceasing Heartbeat.
Yes, her heart was the “garden enclosed, the fountain sealed” that the Bridegroom speaks of in the Song of Songs (4:12). By entering into the inmost recesses of her own heart, where her Beloved dwelt, and opening herself to him, she found herself in touch with the very Fountain of Life. She came to that place where she touched the Heart of her Beloved, Christ, and found herself, in him, in touch with every other person and the whole of creation.
Therefore, by entering into the apparent narrowness of the enclosed monastic life, she was not in truth cutting herself off from the world or choosing some peripheral or eccentric vocation; rather, she was plunging into the very heart of the Church and the world, where the longing human heart comes face to face with the immense thirst in the Heart of God. By doing this, therefore, she was not narrowed as a human being, but expanded, expanded boundlessly and unconditionally by the Love of the One to whom she had totally surrendered her life. By going to the very Source of all love, she allowed this Love to possess her, to inundate her, to fill her, and to pour forth through her into the world.
There is a great paradox here, which we will be seeking to contemplate, understand, and experience throughout these reflections. The contemplative life, while being one particular vocation within the mystical Body of the Church, is also in a way the “vocation beyond vocations.” For through it a person foregoes the other possibilities of ministry and presence in this world, becoming one whose life is already “hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). But precisely through this the individual is not closed off from all the members of the Church, but enters, as Thérèse saw so clearly, into her very heart. The contemplative soul is joined with the very heartbeat of the Church, this hidden organ which is necessary for the functioning of all the other members, and which sends the blood of Divine Love coursing throughout the mystical Body
But is it not itself a sign of vanity and pride to claim that one abides at the heart of the Church? Is it not to reduce the Church to one’s own size, rather than allowing oneself to be inserted, in one’s littleness and humility, into the immense and universal mystery of the Church? Is it rather a matter of not being content with being simply one member, and instead to claim for oneself all the roles, or at least the most important? On the outside perhaps it seems this way, but the truth is that this paradox, this mystery is a trademark of God’s grace, a mark of his presence: that he chooses the littlest ones for the central mysteries of his love. God comes, not in great and marvelous external realities that attract the eyes, not in great feats and accomplishments, but in the lowliness of the human heart that opens itself to welcome his gift like good soil.
What this reveals is that the heart of the Church, the heart of the Christian life, is not the exclusive privilege of one vocation or state of life, but burns like a flame in the center of every life and every vocation. It is quite simply the bond of love and intimacy that unites each human heart to God, and therefore also unites us together in communion among ourselves. This intimacy, this communion is the heart of the Church, which Vatican II, following Saint Cyprian, describes as “a people made one with the unity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (Lumen Gentium, n. 4). To devote one’s life entirely to seeking union with the Trinity, and with one’s brethren within the Trinity’s love, is to make contact with the heart of the Church—and indeed with the burning Heart of God.
The contemplative life only seeks to manifest this in a particularly radical and exclusive way, as a gift for the entire Church and the world. Every person is invited to be a “contemplative” in the most central sense: to contemplate the Beauty of God shining in the face of Christ, and to allow oneself to be drawn into ineffable intimacy with the Trinity in love. But there are some persons who are called by God to the radical form of contemplative monastic life, in which this universal reality becomes expressed in every fiber of their existence in a particularly pronounced and explicit way. The life of the contemplative is, as Saint John Paul II said, “an invitation to his contemporaries and to the ecclesial community itself never to lose sight of the supreme vocation, which is to be always with the Lord.” This character of witness reveals precisely how such a mystery, such an invitation to intimacy with God, is God’s deepest desire for every person in every state of life. But because, in the busyness and distraction of our world, such an invitation is easily drowned out, God calls certain persons to a particular form of life which makes it enduringly visible for all. And not only do they make this call to intimacy with God visible, but, from the heart of their life dedicated totally to God, they become channels through which grace can flow to others, and friends who accompany others on their own journey toward the divine Beauty.
Here, the lowly and little heart allows itself to come into contact with every other heart in creation, for it allows itself to be drawn into that central mystery where all of us are united as one within the love of God. We see this most clearly in the “littlest” ones of the New Testament, the Virgin Mary and the beloved disciple John. Are they not the first contemplatives? And do they not, truly, stand at the heart of the Church—in the chamber at Nazareth where the Word becomes man in Mary’s womb, at the Last Supper where John reclines in the bosom of Christ, at the foot of the Cross where the Wellspring of salvation is unleashed for all?
It is in the contemplation of the Crucified Christ that all vocations find their inspiration. From this contemplation, together with the primordial gift of the Spirit, all gifts…take their origin. After Mary, the Mother of Jesus, it is John who receives this gift. John is the disciple whom Jesus loved, the witness who together with Mary stood at the foot of the Cross (cf. Jn 19:26-27). His decision to consecrate himself totally is the fruit of the divine love which envelops him, sustains him and fills his heart. John, together with Mary, is among the first in a long line of men and women who, from the beginning of the Church until the end, are touched by God’s love and feel called to follow the Lamb, once sacrificed and now alive, wherever he goes (cf. Rev 14:1-5). (John Paul II, Vita Consecrata, n. 23)
It is here, close to the Heart of Jesus, immersed into the central mysteries of his life—the Incarnation, the Last Supper, the Passion, the Resurrection—that the mystery of the Church springs forth in its fullness. Mary and John live this first of all—this union with the Divine Beloved—and they live it for all of us. The Catechism expresses this beautifully, saying that the reality lived by Mary takes primacy over the office entrusted to Peter and the Apostles:
In the Church this communion of men with God, in the “love [that] never ends,” is the purpose which governs everything in her that is a sacramental means, tied to this passing world (1 Cor 13:18). “[The Church’s] structure is totally ordered to the holiness of Christ’s members. And holiness is measured according to the ‘great mystery’ in which the Bride responds with the gift of love to the gift of the Bridegroom.” Mary goes before us all in the holiness that is the Church’s mystery as “the bride without spot or wrinkle” (Eph 5:27). This is why the “Marian” dimension of the Church precedes the “Petrine.” (par. 773)
Mary’s virginal receptivity to God’s love, and her abiding intimacy with him, is what interiorly informs all the other elements of the Church’s life and gives them meaning. In her burns the spark of eternal life already present in this world, and she anticipates in herself the perfect union between the Bridegroom and his Bride, the Church. It is her holiness, her love, her docility to God and union with him that fuels and gives meaning to the apostolic ministry of the priests and the bishops, and to the whole mission of the Church in this world. Further, while John is an apostle and bishop like Peter, he also enters into the “Marian” mystery, staying with her close to the bosom of Christ, even to the Cross, where the whole mystery of the Church pours forth from his opened Heart. Because of this, he proves to be a kind of bridge between the two—between the “heart” and the “members,” between the “Marian” and the “Petrine” elements of the Church. And there is a reason that John keeps his name hidden throughout his Gospel, only calling himself “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (Jn 13:23; 19:26; 21:7, 20-24). It is because we are, each one of us, invited to take his place, to stand with Mary close to the Heart of Jesus, sharing in the union of Bridegroom and Bride.
Mary and John allowed themselves to be drawn into this place of intimate love, united to Christ and, in him, to the Father. In this place their hearts and their lives became a place of pure, loving, and unconditional acceptance of the gift and the will of God, which was present to them at every moment and in every thing. Yes, this disposition of trusting and love-filled acceptance, in which the human heart welcomes God’s love and surrenders to him in return: this is the attitude that allows us to dwell at heart of the Church, from which the rest of her life flows and to which it returns. For the whole reason the Church exists is to unite human persons intimately to God, and also, in this way, to unite us to one another. By reposing in the bosom of Christ, as Christ reposes in the bosom of the Father—and pronouncing a wholehearted “Yes” to God and his Love—we can allow ourselves to be drawn into the inner life of the Trinity, to share in his complete and endless Joy. This is the innermost mystery of the Church, and it is the deepest desire and vocation of each one of us, who find ourselves fully only here, in the embrace of the Divine Lover who cradles us ceaselessly in his embrace.