During the last year of her life, Therese of Lisieux corresponded regularly with a young man named Maurice who was preparing to become a missionary. This man, despite being very sincere and quite pious, had some rather serious moral struggles. While he greatly admired Therese, eagerly awaited her advice on things, and relied upon her prayers to help him, he was always afraid to tell her about his moral failures. Thus, for a long time, he would share with her only about the good things in his life, but never about his sins and failings. He feared that if he told her the real truth she would be shocked, lose respect for him, and turn away.
Eventually though he did muster up the courage and trust needed to share his weaknesses with her, though only after first expressing his fear: “I was afraid that in love you would take on the prerogative of justice and holiness and that everything that is sullied would then become an object of horror for you.”
Therese’s response to this comment is most noteworthy: “It must be that you don’t know me well at all, if you are afraid that a detailed account of your faults would lessen the tenderness that I feel for your soul.”
God should get more press like this. The fear that this young man experienced in his relationship to Therese is the exact one that all of us perennially have in our relationship with God. We are afraid that in the sight of goodness and holiness all that is sullied in us will be an object of horror. Simply put, we are afraid that God’s good opinion of us might change should all of our darkest secrets be laid bare. Thus Therese’s words could have come right from God’s own mouth: “You don’t know me very well, if you are afraid that baring your faults before me will lessen the tenderness I feel towards you.”
Those are words that, for all kinds of reasons, we find very hard to believe. Why? Because generally the experience we have with each other is exactly the opposite. As our faults become more manifest in a relationship, others’ affection for us often does lessen. So we do what comes naturally, we hide our faults and failures and try instead to reveal our strengths and achievements. This then carries over into our prayer lives, our church lives, and even into our most intimate relations with God.
How does this impact our prayer? Real prayer, as it is classically defined, is the lifting of mind and heart to God. Our problem, given the fear that what is wrong in us will somehow lessen God’s affection, amounts to this. While we find it easier to raise our minds to God, we rarely really lay bare what is actually inside of our hearts. Instead we treat God as we would a visiting dignitary, namely, we show God what we think God wants to see in us, tell God what we think God would want to hear about us, and hide all those things that we feel will lessen God’s affection. Silly as it sounds, we, like Adam and Eve after the fall, try to hide our faults from God, worrying that if we really bared our souls God would be displeased.
The same is true in our church lives: Invariably, when we most need God and the support of the community of faith, we stay away from church and community. This is manifest everywhere; sadly so. I know so many people, especially young people, who because something is wrong in their lives stop going to church. They stop going to church precisely until such a time when, all on their own, they can somehow rectify the problem and then they go back to church and present their “unsullied” selves, now seemingly more at rights with holiness and goodness. Generally this expresses itself this way: “Given how I’m living, I would be a hypocrite if I went to church! I’m too honest and humble to go to church right now.” That may sound noble and humble, but it betrays a false understanding of God and ultimately does us no favours. As Therese (and she might just as well have been speaking for God) says: “You must not know me very well if you think that a detailed account of your faults would in any way lessen the tenderness I feel towards you.”
In fact, on this score we might well learn a lesson from Adam and Eve. After they sinned, they too did what comes naturally, they hid and tried to camouflage their shame by their own efforts at clothing themselves. But their shame remained until God found them and gave them real clothing with which to cover their guilt.
We do not know God very well at all when we fear coming into God’s presence replete with all that is within us, weaknesses as well as strengths. Nothing we do can ever lessen God’s tenderness towards us.