Therese of Lisieux is the great theologian of the heart of man. To talk about it, Saint Therese uses a very rich symbol, which is the lyre and its four strings. The lyre is a musical instrument of antiquity. In one of her poems, Therese says, “You, Jesus, make the four strings vibrate and these strings are my heart”.
Maybe we can think of another four-string instrument, like the violin, because today the lyre is no longer used. Think of our hearts, men and women, with four strings like a violin. In a woman’s heart, these four strings are the love of wife, mother, daughter and sister. And in the heart of man it is of husband, father, son and brother. We are called to love in all of these dimensions, with these four strings. These dimensions are fundamental because they are the image of the loving God in the body and soul of man and woman. These strings are indestructible. They can be wounded by sin, but when man opens himself to Jesus’ love, they are saved, they are healed and, we can say, retuned. All the saints insist on, especially the Carmelite saints, the purification of the heart. We must give all of our heart to Jesus, who is the Bridegroom and the Savior, and He, through the Holy Spirit, teaches us to love with all our heart, in all its dimensions.
It is very important not to ignore and never deny any of these strings, but to examine our own heart. It often happens that we strum one string more easily and another with more difficulty, because of a positive or negative experience we had in the past. We must also trust and give our hearts to Our Lady, the wonderful mother and educator of the heart of all her children. The saints teach us to entrust our heart, body and soul totally to Mary’s maternal love. This is our ongoing formation, the formation of our heart, which lasts a lifetime.
Exclusive and inclusive string
With all the saints it is possible to see these four strings that vibrate, but with much diversity. Diversity if you are a man or a woman, if you are a married or a celibate. The music is always beautiful, but with a diverse tone. Saint Therese is a woman consecrated in celibacy and virginity, but she is also a doctor of the Church who speaks of a truth for the whole Church. And in her, the dominant string is the spousal cord, the wife’s string. In St. Catherine of Siena, the dominant cord is the maternal string, everyone calls her the mother.
Let us summarize the teaching of St. Therese in regard to these four strings from her experience as wife, mother, daughter and sister. First of all, it should be noted that there is an essential difference between the spousal cord and all the other cords. The spousal cord is exclusive, while the other strings are inclusive. In other words, spousal love is only for one person. For a married person this is the husband or wife; for a consecrated person this is Jesus.
The other strings, mother, daughter and sister, are inclusive, including all other people. We are children of our parents, but first of all of God, the Church and Mary. We call our superiors fathers and mothers, we call the Pope the Holy Father, and also a mother can have many children. Saint Catherine of Siena’s mother had 25 children, but Catherine had hundreds of spiritual children, but only one husband: Jesus. Of course fraternal love is extended to all people. Any man is a brother for whom Christ died. This distinction is very important.
To understand the nuptial nature of St. Therese it is also necessary to understand the other saints. Spiritual marriage is a great theme of Carmelite saints. St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila speak of spiritual marriage as the full union with God, to which all are called to this universal vocation to holiness and to this spiritual marriage, equally for married people as for those consecrated in celibacy. Saint John of the Cross speaks of the equality of the covenant of love between husband and wife. You can see that our love for Jesus and Jesus’ love for us is the same, it is the communion of the Holy Spirit. If we open ourselves to Jesus, open our hearts, we can love Him as He loves us. This symbol of marriage is enlightening because the wife must love her husband as she is loved by him. Spiritual matrimony is just like holiness.
Saint John of the Cross gives the great theological foundation when he says that in the tree of the cross the Son of God married and redeemed human nature and, consequently, all souls. St. Paul said that every man is a brother for whom Jesus died. St. John of the Cross says that every man is a soul who is Jesus’ wife. Each person is called to correspond to Jesus’ love and that is exactly what holiness is.
Saint Therese of Lisieux has a slightly different tone about spiritual marriage. For her, spiritual marriage is the consecration of the heart to celibacy; thus she lives her religious consecration as a true marriage to Jesus. In the Story of a Soul she expresses this with a very beautiful statement, when she made her profession of faith on September 8th the feast of the Nativity of Mary: “What a beautiful feast in the Nativity of Mary to become the wife of Jesus”.
Let us see Therese’s prayer on the day of her profession: “O Jesus, my divine husband, may I never lose the second garment of my baptism. Take me before I commit even the slightest voluntary fault. May I never seek and may I never find anything but you alone; may the creatures be nothing to me and may I be nothing to them, but may you, Jesus, be everything! May the things of the earth never disturb my soul, may no one disturb my peace; Jesus, I ask only for peace, and also love, infinite love without other limit than you, love that is no longer me but you, my Jesus. Jesus, may I die a martyr for you, the martyrdom of the heart or of the body, or rather both… Give me my vows in all perfection and make me understand what a wife of yours must be. Make sure that I am never a burden to the community, but that no one takes care of me; that I am looked upon, trampled on with contempt, forgotten like a grain of sand for you, Jesus. May your will be done in me, perfectly; may I reach the place you must have prepared for me. Jesus, make me save many souls. May there not be one condemned today, and may all the souls in purgatory be saved. Jesus, forgive me if I say things that should not be said. I just want to give you pleasure and console you.”
This prayer is one of the most beautiful, purest expressions of the spousal love for Jesus of a person consecrated to celibacy. We realize that the first aspect is that Therese calls Jesus my spouse for the first time. She used to call him my fiancé. For her, the novitiate was a time of engagement. As we have seen, the first aspect is this exclusiveness to the spousal love of Jesus. The married person has only one husband or wife. This is very important: faithfulness is what characterizes spousal love.
Soul Spouse of Christ
We can also see how Therese expresses her love for Jesus, infinite love, which can only be lived in smallness, like a grain of sand. This is a very intimate love, very personal only with Jesus, but it is not a selfish, individualistic closure. We can see that, at the end of the prayer, it asks for salvation for all people, without any exception. No other saint has ever spoken in such a powerful way. She, as the wife of Christ, expects the salvation of all the brothers and sisters. Make this profession of St. Therese also her words for Jesus. Without the spousal love of Jesus, faithfulness is impossible, both in marriage and in consecrated celibacy.
I conclude these considerations about spousal love by referring also to other saints: Saint Francis of Assisi, Chiara Lubich, who is not yet a saint, but will certainly be beatified. As much in the writings of Francis as in those of Chiara, the spousal love of Jesus is extended to all the people of God. In St. Francis’ writings, in his letter to all the faithful, he states that those who live in charity, man or woman, married or consecrated, are all spouses, brothers and sisters and children of Jesus. Whoever does the will of God is, for me, brother, mother and wife.
Recently, Chiara Lubich also brought this speech. She was a consecrated woman, she made her vows in chastity, she lived the spousal love of Jesus in celibacy. Her sister was a bride and was preparing for marriage. Chiara wrote to her, “Just like me, you married the crucified Jesus. The most beautiful fruit of this spirituality is Chiara Luce Badano, the first beatified of the Folcolares movement. She never met Chiara Lubich personally, but always wrote her letters and she would answer them. There was an exchange of letters between the big and the small Chiara. Chiara Lubich taught children to be in love with Jesus and so Chiara Luce, 10 years old, wrote to say that she took Jesus as her husband. She had never thought about being consecrated, she wanted to get married, but she was so in love with Jesus as spouse that she was preparing for a future marriage.
At that time in Italy there was the false sexual freedom among the young, where they often had sexual relations, but the young Chiara wanted to remain a virgin until marriage, which is the truth proper to the Gospel that the Church proclaims, and she wanted to live that purity because she was precisely in love with Jesus. When the terrible disease of the tumor in her bones came at 16, she was able to live this trial as a union with the crucified Jesus. She gave a beautiful testimony of joy and understood that she could never get married. She saw her death as her marriage to Jesus, asking to be dressed as a bride. Chiara Luce and Saint Therese are very precious, especially for today’s youth!
Father François-Marie Lethel
Extract from a lecture given at the headquarters of the Shalom Catholic Community, the General Diaconia, in Aquiraz – Brazil. kept in the colloquial tone.
Father Lethel is the secretary of the Pontifical Academy of Theology and preacher of the Spiritual Exercises of Holy Week for Pope Benedict XVI Emeritus and the Roman Curia in 2011.