Claudel wrote that Jesus did not come to take away our suffering but to transform it
Christmas is a time when even the secular world rediscovers the importance of ritual. Every family has special Christmas customs. They help navigate time, memory and change. Most are simple and happy, but some can be kind of counter-rituals – ways in which we have become controlled by the past or by expectations which are now burdensome or need to be re-energised or purified.
To live is to change, but perhaps there is a little part of all of us that is controlled by an idealism about how magical and perfect Christmas should be. This could derive equally from a childhood where either it was or was not perfect, or a strange admixture of the two. Like all longings, properly traced to source, it can yield rich spiritual gifts.
The Story of a Soul relates a poignant story from Christmas at Les Buissonnets, the Martin’s home in Lisieux, Returning from Midnight Mass the 14-year-old Thérèse is full of excitement at the thought of finding presents in the shoes she has placed by the chimney according to the family ritual. As she goes upstairs to take off her coat, she overhears her father saying wearily to her older siblings: “Thank goodness this is the last year we will have to do this.” Most of us can probably remember the complicated reaction when asked: “Aren’t you a bit old for that?” The “that” connects us with some aspect of childhood.
It’s not difficult to understand why, in Thérèse’s case, she would feel this acutely. Her history of maternal separation in infancy, her mother’s death when she was four, the loss of her “second mother” (her sister Pauline) to Carmel and her health crises all mean that anything which mediates the comfort and joy of childhood would touch her deeply.
Crushed in spirit, Thérèse’s initial reaction is to dissolve into tears. But then she experiences a huge grace, which she calls a “second conversion”. She controls her strong physical reactions and tears and shows only joy as she takes out the presents in front of her father. This joy soon has him laughing and at ease.
Thérèse describes this Christmas night as the time she received the grace to leave her infancy behind, the grace of “complete conversion”. She explains that what she recovers as she leaves behind a childishness controlled by fear of loss is, paradoxically, the character of child, with a child’s ability to trust, to engage with the world. That Christmas night Jesus changed her soul with the brilliance of his light, she says. “At the moment I entered into the seriousness of life Jesus remade me in his strength, and from that moment I have never been conquered.”
The poet Paul Claudel, who experienced a sudden conversion in Notre Dame Cathedral on Christmas Day 1886, wrote that Jesus did not come to take away our suffering, but to transform it by his presence. This is the essence of Thérèse’s Little Way. It is in identifying with Jesus, who became a child to face the seriousness of our life, never leaving the Father’s heart, that she lives like a child, not in a state of immaturity. This is necessary for someone who will retain a profound and heightened sensitivity for the rest of her life.
Now by sharing all that threatens her nature with the Jesus who comes as a child, she finds strength to face her sensitivities by depending on a love she knows by faith to embrace completely all her littleness and fragility, a love which comes to make all things new.