When I am weak I am strong: Beating Paul at his own game
Reading St. Paul is always a bit of a romp. No voice in Scripture is more capable of simultaneous self-deprecation and self-defense. A classic case is found in chapter 12 of Second Corinthians, where St. Paul defends the probity of his own ministry in Corinth: “Though if I wish to boast, I shall not be a fool, for I shall be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me” (2 Cor 12:2). He goes on to explain how he received a thorn in the flesh, “a messenger of Satan, to harass me” (12:7)—but this was “to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations” he had received.
Oh yes, this is classic St. Paul. But the lesson is a good one, for as Our Lord told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (12:8).
Paul’s ministry, of course, bore great fruit, not only while he was still on earth, but ever since. And yet, as far as we in the West can tell, he must be as frustrated as the rest of us (were that possible in Heaven) by how that fruit has declined and rotted in our own time. Which of us has not learned at least as thoroughly as St. Paul that we have nothing to boast of but our own weakness—that, indeed, we must be content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. And what is the difference between this and despair? Simply what St. Paul himself concludes: “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (12:9-10).
When it comes to the life of grace, civilizations are much like you and I: They have short memories. Whether we work little or much for the sake of the Gospel, we tend to have one thing in common: We are elated by apparent success, and depressed by apparent failure. And in our own day, the sense of failure is both palpable and all but universal. In the sweep of Western history, this sense of failure may have begun to predominate again in a special way in the nineteenth century, during which, after generations of growing conflict between Christianity and Western culture, it became abundantly and abidingly clear not only that a trajectory of spiritual loss had begun to define Western culture but that the disease was likely to be terminal. Certainly we found no encouragement in the continued spiritual decline of the twentieth century, during which Christianity went from being honored mostly in the breach to being openly mocked.
So here we are in the twenty-first century. In the face of a decadent culture, not only much of the Church but even the papacy itself tries to borrow strength from the world, piggy-backing on popular causes, glossing over points of difference, and (if we are honest) refusing even to boast in our own surpassing weakness, because that would demand a genuine faith in Christ. Truly, it is now as Our Lord said while He walked among us: “You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times” (Mt 16:3).
But perhaps there is a silver lining in the cloud. I chose the nineteenth century as the point at which it became clear that the Church had lost its formative power over Western culture not only because I am an intellectual historian by training, and have long since concluded that Christian cultural dominance in the West was over by that time, but also because I am acutely aware of the presence and power of the great doctor of the Church whom Our Lord raised up for us between 1873 and 1897. For it was Thérèse of Lisieux more than any other saint who both realized and taught once again to the Church that it is only when we are weak that we are strong.
It may be hard to take instruction from a cloistered nun who scarcely escaped her girlhood—for Thérèse died of tuberculosis at age 24—but there are not so many who become doctors of the Church fresh out of their teens that we can afford to be choosy. In any case, one thing is certain: Thérèse took St. Paul at his word, almost certainly even more thoroughly than did Paul himself. She knew that in Christ it was precisely her weakness that made her strong. Unlike the great Apostle to the Gentiles, there was nothing even remotely artistic about Thérèse’s littleness.
The way of Mercy
St. Thérèse knew that she was very, very little and very, very weak. But instead of leading her to realize that she could not really accomplish anything useful, this knowledge settled into a single surpassing certainty: That Christ did not ask us to rely on our own strength and ability but to trust totally in Him. This is a hard lesson for the “doers” among us to learn. A certain personality type is attracted by great saints who have seemed to convert so many, to inspire a great following, at times even to transform whole cultures from the ground up.
It is one of the pitfalls of traditional hagiography to emphasize the miracle-laden success of the great saints of history. This can backfire on us. After all, it is only “an evil and adulterous generation” which seeks a sign, and we have already received the only sign we are guaranteed: “The sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Mt 12:39-40).
Thérèse, in contrast, sought no fresh sign beyond the sign of her own littleness, and this inspired her to turn always to Christ, whom she knew would never betray her trust in Him. It is the same for all of us today. Yes, we must each discern what God asks of us, what vocation He has given to us, what energies and talents we are to place at His service. But we are not permitted the luxury of attributing anything to our own efforts, neither to bask in the glow of “our” success nor to wallow in the despair of “our” failure (even if our failure is a sin). What Our Lord wants first and foremost is for us to trust in His mercy.
This does not mean we need not discern what we are called to do, both vocationally and day by day. After all, Thérèse did not choose to do nothing; she became a Carmelite nun. The failure to accompany our Lord, in accordance with His particular invitation to each of us, is evidence of a signal lack of trust. But Thérèse reminds us that even the most talented and active among us have nothing that we have not been given, and since everything is a gift, it is no cause for either self-congratulation or self-reliance. In everything, we are called to depend utterly on Our Lord’s love and mercy. Whether we are called to action or can discern nothing we might do to help, this is a challenge to continually place everything in Our Lord’s hands, relying at every moment on His immense mercy.
A way to start
I was reminded of all this recently by reading the ten retreat conferences which make up the book I Believe in Love by Father Jean C. J. d’Elbée (†1982). Originally published in French in 1969, the English translation is still available from Sophia Institute Press. The subtitle is “A Personal Retreat Based on the Teaching of St. Thérèse of Lisieux”, and while Sophia also offers a “Leader’s Edition Guide” and a “Study Guide”, the book works just as well as stand-alone spiritual reading. For English-speaking readers, the book is a discovery of Madeleine Stebbins, who helped to translate it into English, and her husband H. Lyman Stebbins, the first president of Catholics United for the Faith (one of the earliest grassroots lay organization supporting authentic Catholicism in the turbulent years following the Second Vatican Council).
My wife had already read the book several times before I finally picked it up this past Lent. But this is not a book review. I am simply saying that reading these retreat conferences is an excellent way to enter into the spiritual genius of St. Thérèse, especially if you are put off by the little-girl tone and frequent effusive italicizations of Thérèse’s autobiography, The Story of a Soul. Not that you should be, but in the autobiography you will realize how very young St. Thérèse really was, especially as she looks back into her teen years.
By contrast, in I Believe in Love, you are in the hands of a mature retreat master who has mastered this prodigious “little” spirituality. It is a rare opportunity to learn that childlike way to the glory of God which is especially open to us now, and which has so often been recommended over the past one hundred years by the Church.
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