7.7 Maurice and Therese
Critical Response to
Maurice & Therese: The Story of a Love
By Patrick Ahern
Contribution to my understanding of spiritual direction
To be honest, as I began to read this book, I wondered how I would find anything that would be relevant or useful in the correspondence between a Catholic nun and a priest from 100 years ago. However, I discovered many positive examples of how one should provide spiritual direction. Therese provided a positive example by practicing the presence of God (“never more than five minutes without thinking about God”, 27) As she walked with Maurice in his journey with God, she helped him to focus on the most important element in his relationship with God, loving Jesus! “I beg Jesus to embellish your own soul with every virtue, and especially with His love.” 84 “Jesus wants to possess your heart completely.”130
As a good spiritual director, she prayed for him constantly. In sharing with Maurice, she reassured him that she was not perfect and allowed him to see some of her own weaknesses since she was aware of his tendency to idealize her (calling herself “your very little and unworthy little sister” 85, “am no angel, very imperfect” 74)
I wonder how vastly different the conservative evangelical churches from which I come would be if we could cultivate spiritual relationships in the way they are presented in this book (although with the same genders in today’s world). Confidentiality (which is often difficult to find today) strengthened their relationship and brought about deeper levels of intimacy in a short period of time.
Impact on my present call and commitment to shepherd others
I was impressed by Therese’s continued pursuit and love of God when the “dark night” appeared, her intimacy with God seemed to vanish and she received no consolation during the last years of her life. As Ahern states, loving God for Therese was not to be confused with an “emotional experience”. 51
Therese was obviously a brilliant woman (writing more prose and poetry than even St John of the Cross in less than half his life 89), but it was her single minded pursuit in loving God that set her apart—and this encourages me. Her love for God and His love for her was the “central reality of Therese’s life”, says Ahern 78 He later says, “The whole purpose of her earthly life was to love God and make Him loved.” 155 She gave Maurice a prayer to pray for her which would be a good one for anyone to offer on behalf of a fellow brother or sister, “I ask you to set my sister on fire with Your Spirit of Love, and to grant her the grace of making You deeply loved.” 87 She understood that because God had drawn her to His love, it was natural that she herself would draw others to love Him.
Maurice commented on how she helped him to understand the “simplicity in the soul’s relationship with the great God.” 144 This simplicity about spiritual truths was apparently essential in all her counsel. 151 She was a truly a mystic but one that even the most ordinary of people could understand. Often times today, the spiritual life is seen as far from simple and many who write today about the spiritual life do not make it simple to understand.
Therese is a positive model for me in her courage and single minded focus (she entered the religious order at age 15 (and boldly pleaded directly with the Pope in Rome).
Her compassion reflected that which I long to see in myself with others. She saw something in Maurice that he did not see himself and by her love, prayer and words of encouragement, he gradually came to share the same perspective. She was not unaware of his shortcomings but never lost confidence that God would use him. 281 She truly loved Maurice and yet, “She knew that her love for Maurice was grounded in her love for God.” 108
Maurice stands as an example of a humble man (“I’m so much in need of help”, 16) who was aware of his neediness (struggling with various attachments and needing full conversion and the salvation of his soul, 16) and yet one who was bold enough to request others to pray for him. For most missionaries, we are required to have a certain number of prayer partners. I doubt if many are as honest as was Maurice (although he was not always totally truthful 59) with those they ask to pray with them.
Ahern summarizes her views over worry and regrets about past failures, “It is a waste of time to regret that one is not better than one is.” 115 This is a lesson that I much need to learn!
The flexibility of Therese’s Spiritual Director was amazing—even allowing Therese to correspond with Maurice and later allowing direct communications between the two of them. Ahern points out that correspondence with a young man at the time by a nun would have been “considered inappropriate and even dangerous”. 42 However, accountability was built into the relationship since the Director read all of the letters going out and coming in (and “yet she never criticized anything she wrote” says Ahern, 42) Apparently she realized early on how important this relationship became to both Therese and to Maurice and was willing to take the risk of allowing it to continue and grow. (see footnote 55 on page 152) Perhaps this is a good model for those starting out in learning about spiritual direction.
Strengths and weaknesses
I love the prayer she sent Maurice “I ask of you Jesus, a heart that loves you, a heart that cannot be conquered, always ready for battle after each tempest, a heart that is free, never seduced, a heart that is straight and never walks on crooked paths.” 268 I have already sent this on to a number of my friends.
I must admit I wonder if the level of personal disclosure by Therese is always necessary or even halthy. Was Therese aware of a dependency in Maurice that she seemed to encourage? (“unite our souls” 103, hide nothing 104 , secrecy 107, Maurice pleading for God to not take her 160, her desire to console him 168, Maurice’s needed assurance of her love for him 193)
Unfortunately, many evangelicals would have problems with some of the statements in the book (Mary being called the “beloved Queen of the Apostles” 47, her suffering being able to “win God’s grace for others” 67). It should be noted that Therese did seek to have a biblical view of Mary and not one that deified her. Maurice’s desire for martyrdom does not seem to fit into the modern churches understanding or theology of suffering that both expressed. (105) In her view, joy seemed to be tied up in suffering (165, 171, 174) and yet we are not to desire suffering. (174)
There is little (if any) Scriptural support for Maurice pleading for Therese to intercede before Jesus on his behalf (177, 188-89) However, she attempted to discourage this when she wrote, “For those who love Him, and after each fault come to ask pardon by throwing themselves into His arms, Jesus trembles with joy.” (189) And later, “Ah, how good it is to let yourself go in His arms, with neither fear nor desires.” (209) Was her understanding of walking with Maurice after death Scriptural?
I wish the author had provided more of the poems of Therese and samples of her writings that are found in her autobiography. (52-56, 70-71)
Scriptural and use of the masters
This book was an intimate picture of how one of the spiritual masters provided spiritual direction.
Although the intention of this book was not to teach us how to provide spiritual direction and so no scriptural support was needed, I was impressed by how the Scriptures seemed to saturate the life of Therese. Her wise counsel and personal understanding of God naturally flowed out of her constant reading of the Scripture (especially the gospels).
Therese had a Biblical understanding of weakness that was noted by Ahern when he says “she saw clearly, that, in approaching God weakness is not a liability. It is in fact an asset.” 110 To use her own words, “To love Jesus, the more one is weak, . . . the more one is suitable for the operations of (God’s) consuming and transforming love.” 113
Therese took a counter cultural stance against Jansenism which emphasized God’s justice and reluctant mercy. (137-40). She maintained a Biblical and proper perspective of good works, when she said that they are an “expression of our love for God and inevitably flow from it” 140 As Ahern stated, “If her own sins were not serious, she understood that this was due to God’s mercy, not to her own virtue.” 142