Pope Francis has designated the month of October 2019 as an Extraordinary month of mission, with the theme ‘Baptised and Sent’. In addition to this, Sunday 20 October 2019 is the annual World Mission Sunday.
Our Carmelite sister St Thérèse of Lisieux is a universal patron of the missions, on a par with the great missionary St Francis Xavier. How is this possible for a Carmelite nun, who never left her enclosure after entering it? The enclosed Carmelite vocation does in fact have a strong missionary dimension. Our prayer must be outward-looking if it is to be authentic. St Teresa of Avila’s reform of the Carmelite Order was motivated by her concern for the suffering church in her own day. As our Constitutions of 1991 state: “Holy Mother transmitted to her daughters her own apostolic spirit. She longed to see them take the good of souls and the increase of the Church to heart, for she considered that an evident sign of true perfection.” (125)
The first few paragraphs of the Way of Perfection are a summing up of the reasons why Teresa made the reform. She tells of how she learned of the effects of the Reformation in Europe, particularly in France, and how this disturbed her:
“The news distressed me greatly, and, as though I could do something or were something, I cried to the Lord and begged Him that I might remedy so much evil. It seemed to me that I would have given a thousand lives to save one soul out of the many that were being lost. I realised that I was a woman and wretched and incapable of doing any of the useful things that I desired to do in the service of the Lord. All my longing was and still is that since He has so many enemies and so few friends that these friends should be good ones. As a result I resolved to do the little in my power; that is, to follow the evangelical counsels as perfectly as I could and strive that these few persons here do the same……Since we would all be occupied in prayer for those who are the defenders of the Church and for preachers and for learned men who protect her from attack, we could help as much as possible this Lord of mine who is so roughly treated by those for whom He has done so much good……O my Sisters in Christ, help me beg these things of the Lord. This is why He has gathered you together here. This is your vocation.” (Way 1.2 ff)
Teresa intended the foundation of St. Joseph’s in Avila to be a return to the primitive Carmelite Rule. She wanted the sisters to be more able to observe solitude and silence and to have a simpler lifestyle. Teresa was a very practical woman and made sure that the timetable provided a balance between solitude and community, and between work, recreation, and prayer; a balance which is still woven into our daily lives in Carmel today.
All religious life, and indeed all Christian life, should have a balance of contemplation and action. Teresa’s original insight in carrying out her reform was to see contemplation as action; an important work on behalf of the Church and the whole world. “Unceasing prayer is the most important aspect of the Rule”(Way 4.2.) she once wrote, and she continues, “Since prayer must be the foundation of this house, it is necessary that we strive to dedicate ourselves to what most helps us in prayer”. (Way 4.9) Teresa is clear that prayer should also overflow into practical service, especially service of each other in community. She says, “Let us desire and be occupied in prayer not for the sake of our enjoyment but so as to have the strength to serve.” (IC VII 4:12) This advice comes from the seventh mansion of the Interior Castle, where Teresa teaches that union with God, if it is genuine, must be shown forth in love of neighbour. Teresa continues: “Believe me, Martha and Mary must join together in order to show hospitality to the Lord and have Him always present and not host him badly by failing to give him something to eat.” One of Teresa’s best known sayings comes from the book of the Foundations: “Don’t be sad when obedience draws you to involvement in exterior matters. Know that if it is in the kitchen, the Lord walks among the pots and pans helping you both interiorly and exteriorly.” (Found 5:8) For Teresa, this simple fidelity to prayer and work was ‘the little in her power’ which could contribute greatly to the Church’s overall mission.
St Thérèse of Lisieux is often portrayed in contrast to St Teresa of Avila but these two great Carmelite women have much in common. Thérèse saw herself as a disciple of Teresa and was very proud to be named after her. Thérèse had a strong missionary vocation and had hoped to join one of the foundations made by the Carmel of Lisieux in Vietnam. When her failing health prevented this, she was given permission to correspond with two young missionaries whom she adopted as ‘spiritual brothers’. Both of these men recognised Thérèse’s holiness and looked forward to receiving her letters, full of spiritual wisdom. In these letters, her love of St Teresa and her understanding of the Carmelite vocation as both contemplative and active shines out. She writes in her first letter to Maurice Bellière: “You know that a Carmelite who would not be an apostle would separate herself from the goal of her vocation and would cease to be a daughter of the seraphic Saint Teresa, who desired to give a thousand lives to save a single soul”Likewise, in her first letter to Adolphe Roulland, Thérèse says: “I shall be truly happy to work with you for the salvation of souls. It is for this purpose I became a Carmelite nun; being unable to be an active missionary, I wanted to be one through love and penance, just like St. Teresa.”
Thérèse had such zeal that she wrote she could not be content with being an ordinary missionary but would want to preach the Gospel on all five continents simultaneously from creation until the end of time! After reading chapters 12 and 13 of St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, she came to realise that in a certain sense, her Carmelite vocation made this possible:
“I understood that love comprised all vocations, that love was everything, that it embraced all times and places… in a word, that it was eternal! Then, in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out, ‘O Jesus, my Love… my VOCATION, at last I have found it… MY VOCATION IS LOVE!’ Yes, I have found my place in the Church and it is you, O my God, who have given me this place; in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I shall be love. Thus I shall be everything, and thus my dream will be realised.”
Thérèse, now the universal patron of missionaries, understood that within the Carmelite enclosure she could be a universal missionary. Her recognition of her Carmelite vocation as being love in the heart of the Church has inspired countless others to follow her example and is now firmly established in the spirituality of the Order. Our Constitutions of 1991 state: “Taught by the shining example of St Thérèse of the Child Jesus, Patroness of the Missions, all the Carmels will carefully foster a missionary spirit which should animate their contemplative life. They will pray, in particular, for those who spread the Gospel, for an increase of vocations, for the unity of Christians, and for the evangelisation of peoples, so that all may be open to the message of Christ”(127)
We pray that this month of mission may provide an opportunity to reflect on the great gift of our faith and how we can communicate it to others, by both prayer and action.