Images of the Beloved
by John Wijngaards
Francis of Assisi called himself God’s fool, a carefree beggar, dancing in God’s beautiful creation. Ignatius of Loyola on the other hand saw himself more in terms of being a loyal courtier, a disciplined soldier in the service of the King of Kings. Our self image is a pattern of metaphors knotted together by emotion.
Whether we are aware of it or not, each one of us has a unique web of mental pictures through which we interpret ourselves and the world around us. These personal constructs, to borrow a phrase coined by the psychologist Joseph Kelly, provide the framework within which we think and act. They are also the scaffolding on which our spiritual life is built.
We cannot lead a wholesome spiritual life without a healthy self image. We cannot grow to greater spiritual maturity without redefining the metaphors that underpin our self image. In every new phase of life we are, consciously or not, updating our current metaphors or searching for new ones. Family and friends, spiritual masters, the media and our personal heroes all supply us with metaphors to choose from. For Christians, however, Sacred Scripture will always remain a privileged source and it is here that St.Thérèse of Lisieux can act as our guide.
Like spiritual masters before her, Thérèse offered her own preferred metaphors, such as “the little way” and “spiritual childhood”. Though these are worthy of consideration on their own merit, I believe that Thérèse can teach us more. We may learn from her example how to test our own unique metaphors against Scripture and refine them according to our needs.
Thérèse wrote her autobiography, “The Story of a Soul”, as a personal account not intended for wider circulation. This allows us unparalleled access to the inner sanctum of her spiritual life, and to the way she worked with Scripture. Her book contains a total of 121 biblical quotations, half of which are from the Gospels. Twenty-one times she cites a verse from the Psalms; nine times from St Paul’s letters. Her favourite Old Testament texts are from Isaiah, Canticles, Wisdom, Proverbs and Tobit. If we keep in mind that on 121 texts only 5 are quoted a second time and that Thérèse did not write to impress an audience, the wide range is truly astounding.
Thérèse used Scripture as a reservoir of metaphors which helped her understand herself and her relation to God. Take, for example, the metaphor of sailing through life like a ship. It was a natural expression on Thérèse’s lips. “I seem to be lost like a little boat without a pilot, at the mercy of the storm-tossed waves.” “Instead of the howling wind, a gentle breeze was swelling my sails, and I thought I had already reached harbour.” “Tranquil, unruffled by the slightest wind were the waters on which the little boat was sailing under a sky of cloudless blue.” “God launched me full sail upon a sea of confidence and love.” Thérèse herself recognised it as a metaphor:
“I remember how often I would say that line from a beautiful poem that my father used to recite: ‘The world is but a ship and not thy home’. These words young as I was encouraged me, and although so many of my childish dreams have faded with the years, the symbol of a ship still charms me and makes my exile easier to bear. Does not the book of Wisdom say: ‘Life is like a ship that passeth through the waves. When it is gone, the trace thereof cannot be found’ (Wisdom 5,10)?”
Here we have a characteristic sample of Thérèse’s thinking. A metaphor which she knew from her own experience is further deepened and confirmed by a quotation from Scripture. Thérèse tells us that she often searched the Scriptures until she found the image that satisfied her need. This applies particularly to her key metaphor of “spiritual childhood”.
This insight, the perception that sanctity does not lie in our human efforts and successes, but in allowing God to do his work in us, was the outcome of an intense inner struggle. For Thérèse had ambitions. She wanted to make a success of her life, to achieve something worthwhile, to do great things for Christ. She tells us that she dreamed of becoming a front line soldier, a priest, an apostle, a doctor of the Church, a martyr. “There is no heroic deed I do not desire to perform. I feel as daring as a crusader, ready to die for the Church upon the battlefield.” But how could an enclosed nun achieve such greatness?
Comprehension came to her in a paradox. Greatness in the biblical sense does not lie in external achievements, not even achievements in virtue and spirituality. True greatness consists in becoming like a child, in accepting oneself with all simplicity, in surrendering oneself unconditionally to God’s care and love. This wholehearted submission of oneself in poverty of spirit, deceptively easy as it may look, does in reality require a real conversion of heart and heroic strength. For Thérèse it was a liberating metaphor, mediated through Scripture.
“I searched the Scriptures until I came upon these words from the lips of eternal wisdom: ‘Whosoever is a little one, let him come to me’ (Proverbs 9,4). I went closer to God feeling sure that I was on the right path, but as I wanted to know what he would do to ‘a little one’ I continued my search. This is what I found: ‘You shall be carried at the breasts and upon the knees. As one whom the mother caresses, so will I comfort you’ (Isaiah 66,12-13). My heart had never been moved by such tender and consoling words before!”
From the same treasury, Thérèse drew two other texts: “To him that is little, mercy is granted” (Wisdom 6,7) and “The Lord shall feed his flock as a shepherd and lift them up to his bosom” (Isaiah 40,11). It was all Thérèse required. In prayer and thought she elaborated the metaphor till it became a key pillar of her distinctive spiritual self image.
It is useful to reflect on the fact that these four Scripture texts, however valid, are not immediately obvious. Thérèse had to dig and delve before she discovered them. They struck her so powerfully because they matched her need. They spoke to Thérèse with a highly personal, even idiosyncratic message. Yet this approach to the inspired Word is entirely legitimate. For Scripture contains much more than arid theories. It presents a wealth of images, pictures and metaphors that can inspire real life and excite real people. It is like the store room, mentioned by Christ, in which each disciple of the kingdom of heaven can uncover unexpected new treasures (Matthew 13,52).
The metaphors we adopt steer us and affirm us in the way we live. Thérèse was fond of an image of the suffering Christ popular at the time. It depicted Christ bleeding from the scourging, his face partly veiled. It was known as “the Sacred Face”. At her own request Thérèse was given the religious name “Theresa of the Sacred Face”. She kept a picture of the Sacred Face in her prayer book and during her final sickness she asked that such a picture be pinned to the curtain at the side of her bed so that she could look at it from time to time. The most telling aspect for her was that Jesus’ face was veiled.
Quoting Isaiah’s words ‘There is no beauty or majesty in him. We saw him but he has no looks to attract our eyes’ (Isaiah 53,2-3), she tells us that these words had been the foundation of her devotion to the Sacred Face. “I too wanted to be without beauty, without looks, lonely, treading the winepress while being unknown to all creatures.” “Your beauty, oh Jesus, which you cover with a veil, reveals to me the depth of your mystery and makes me want to approach you ever closer. Hiding myself in your face, I want to be like you.” It also had practical implications.
“Our face is a mirror of the soul. That is why I must always show a happy, relaxed face as a small and contented child.” It helped her not to burden others with her own worries and discomforts, especially during the final months before she died.
More of Thérèse’s images could be worked out in this way. She saw herself as the toy Jesus could play with as he wished, and as the little flower plucked from the wayside, yet worthwhile in God’s eyes. She was the small bird carried on the wings of a mighty eagle. For each metaphor she found confirmation in Scripture.
What we can learn from Thérèse is the interaction between her own self understanding, based on what she found important in life, and the inspired Word of God. She allowed her thinking to be moulded by that Word. She refined her constructs and metaphors, and acquired new ones so that, while they remained her own, these personal constructs grew out into a genuine Christian spirituality. She was right when she said, “One’s most intimate thoughts, the children of one’s heart and mind, are riches which one clings to as one’s very own”. It is our own metaphors, remodelled by Scripture, that can make us saints; if we live up to them.
Years ago I knew a young man who suffered from anorexia nervosa. His mother tried every conceivable ploy to make him eat a proper meal, usually to no avail. Though he was as thin as a rake, he kept describing himself as ugly and plump. The obvious mismatch between his self image and reality only dawned on him when the hidden faces of his insecurity were gradually exposed. These included a picture of himself as a child in the attic where he had been locked up for punishment; of being ridiculed by playmates at school; of an animal film showing geese being fattened in France.
Published in The Tablet 27 September 1997, pp. 1222-1223.