Before we discuss St. Therese of Lisieux’s teaching on Purgatory, I want to put that teaching into context. Her teaching is daring. Some of the nuns she lived with in the Carmelite monastery were scandalized by it, thinking it presumptuous. The last thing St. Therese (or I) would want is for people to interpret her teaching in such a way that they thought they could be spiritually lax and still go straight to Heaven.
So, As you read about her teaching, keep these things in mind:
- Therese is a doctor of the Church. The Church has only 35 doctors, four of them women. Now, being a doctor of the Church doesn’t mean she was infallible. But it does mean that the Church especially recommends her spirituality for Christians in any age. Therese is the Doctor of the Little Way of Spiritual Childhood, and her teaching on Purgatory was part of that Little Way.
- St. Therese was completely orthodox. This follows from #1. What she taught about Purgatory must never be taken to contradict official Church teaching on the subject.
- Presumption is a sin. And if we presume that God will forgive our mortal sins without true repentance and a visit to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, that presumption is a mortal sin.
Can we avoid Purgatory?
So, what did St. Therese say about Purgatory?
When she was assistant novice mistress, she began teaching the novices under her that they could avoid Purgatory. What was so daring about this? None of the novices was especially holy! All of them were average Catholic women, with natural weaknesses. They had very few meritorious acts to balance the weight of their sins. Some of them even had personality problems. Therese taught them they could go straight to Heaven when they died.
Simple. By trusting God for everything.
An antidote to Jansenism
Therese grew up in a France that was still greatly influenced by Jansenism. French Catholics believed God was exacting. If you wanted to be holy, you had to not only do your duty, but perform a host of good works to earn spiritual merit. If you stored up enough merits, you could avoid Purgatory.
When Therese was little, her sister Marie brought home from boarding school a string of sacrifice beads. Marie was to use the beads to count the day’s merits. Zelie Martin, Therese’s mother, gave one to Celine so she could count merits too. Then Therese, who was still a preschooler, wanted one as well.
As Therese grew older, she struggled with scruples. She knew she was not particularly strong. In fact, psychologically, she was very sensitive and immature following her mother’s death. How could she ever accumulate enough merit?
She pondered this question for a few years before the Lord showed her the answer through Sacred Scripture. The quick way to holiness, the easy way to go straight to Heaven, was to abandon oneself totally to God as a child entrusts himself fully to his father. The Little Way of Spiritual Childhood was born.
Therese stopped storing up merits for herself. She still performed little meritorious acts, but she offered them all for others. Her plan was to have no merits in her account on the.
The power of empty hands
One day towards the end of Therese’s life, her sister Pauline (now Mother Agnes of Jesus) lamented having no good works to offer to God on Judgment Day. Therese considered herself “in the same circumstances.” It did not perturb here. Since she could give God nothing, he would supply everything.
“As far as little ones are concerned, they will be judged with great gentleness… ‘At the end, the Lord will rise up to save the gentle and the humble of the earth.’ It doesn’t say ‘to judge’; but ‘to save.'” (Last Conversations, 67)
When we stop counting our merits, we learn to rely totally on God. A baby can do nothing for himself. He depends on his parents for everything. This is Therese’s spiritual attitude. She gave away everything she could possibly have placed her confidence in, so that God would be her all in all. She was poor in spirit out of love for God. She knew that God would no more be harsh with her for having no spiritual possessions than a mother is harsh with her baby for needing to be fed and clothed.
Isn’t this presumption?
Sr. Febronie, the sub-prioress, was scandalized by what Therese told the novices. How could an average, ordinary Christian expect to go straight to Heaven? Therese told her,
“My sister, if you desire God’s justice, you will have God’s justice. The soul receives exactly what she looks for from God.” (NPPA of
Sr. Marie of the Angels, my translation)
After Sr. Febronie died in a flu epidemic, Therese dreamed the sister was suffering in Purgatory. She had indeed received the justice she had expected.
How can we avoid presumption and have true trust? By working tirelessly to conquer our sins and attachments.
Therese never let the novices be spiritually lax. But she knew that some habits of sin and weakness are so deeply ingrained that God Himself must free us from them. She experienced such a miracle herself. On Christmas Eve, shortly before her fourteenth birthday, God removed the psychological weakness that had held her bound for a decade.
Therese believed that God would perform similar miracles for those who completely trust Him. We do not have to despair when we seem to make no headway against sin, despite our efforts. We can trust that in God’s time–which may be our last moment of life on earth–He will relieve our burdens. What we cannot do for ourselves, He will delight to do for us.
But only if we trust Him.
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