I heard a story once about a priest who had a terrible dream one night. He found himself in his parish tool shed when the devil appeared to him and began recounting his ways of misleading souls. The devil brought out a large tool box with the word pride written on it saying: “This is what brought down the angels and brings down so many mortals”. Then he brought another box with lust written on it and said: “This is how I trap countless people, from least to greatest, they all fall.” He proceeded in this way with the other five deadly sins. After, he brought out a small shiny box, saying: “This is my last and most secret weapon, those who pass through all the other deadly sins, they easily fall into this one. This takes away all their energy and drive, it is my last and most favorite weapon.” He turned the box over and written on it was the word discouragement, then the priest woke up…
Discouragement means literally, ‘taking heart’. It is the opposite of encouragement meaning ‘giving heart’. It is so easy to fall into. It becomes sweet at times to wallow in our own failure and be tempted to give up because, as we think: “what’s the point?”. I know the crisis the Church is passing through has brought me to this on several occasions, but when it happens I can almost sense the presence of evil right at the door.
I believe one antidote we have to this trap of discouragement can be found in St Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face. Thérèse had every reason to be discouraged in her life. Bishop Patrick Ahern points out in his book Three Gifts of Thérèse of Lisieux, she lost her mother four times in her life. First, she lost her mom shortly after birth because she couldn’t nurse her for her first 18 months and had to send her away to live with a family on a farm. Then she lost her foster mother after she was weaned and moved back with her own family. Then she lost her natural mother again at age four when she died. Finally, she lost her “adopted” mother”: her sister Pauline at age nine when Pauline entered Carmel. At age ten she developed a nervous condition that brought her to the point of death. Thérèse had scruples and fears and a crippling sensitivity that made it seem a normal life might not even be possible for her.
Yet, providentially, when she received her first Holy Communion at the age of eleven, she made a resolution that she would keep the rest of her life, she stated: “I will never grow discouraged.” This protected her sad and sensitive nature from falling into even worse straits. It was this resolution which helped her choose confidence in the face of failure. After she had her miraculous healing and conversion on Christmas night 1887, this refusal to not allow discouragement in her heart blossomed into a powerful impetus of confidence and love when things seemed most bleak.
Later, in the convent, she saw all her weaknesses and imperfections in an even clearer contrast. This seemed to contradict the immense desires for sanctity deep within her. In regard to this she wrote later:
I have always wanted to be a saint. Alas! I have always noticed that when I compared myself to the saints, there is between them and me the same difference that exists between a mountain whose summit is lost in the clouds and the obscure grain of sand trampled underfoot by passers-by. Instead of becoming discouraged, I said to myself: God cannot inspire unrealizable desires. I can, then, in spite of my littleness, aspire to holiness. It is impossible for me to grow up, and so I must bear with myself such as I am with all my imperfections. But I want to seek out a means of going to heaven by a little way, a way that is very straight, very short, and totally new. (Story of a Soul ICS edition ch 10 2v, emphasis mine)
We can see that at the very origin of her discovery of the Little Way, which would propel her to become the youngest Doctor of the Church and would inspire countless believers to seek holiness, was her resolution to never become discouraged. All through her writings we can see that in the face of her shortcomings she chose confidence.
In my own life this has helped me tremendously. I find myself easily being tempted towards discouragement, but I try to make Thérèse’s resolution my own. And it has borne marvelous fruit. At times when I thought I said the wrong thing, or did the wrong thing, or simply saw failure around me through the decisions of others, I have had to make painful efforts to choose confidence in God in spite of it all. I have often found later that these situations were precisely what God was using to move my life and others’ lives in a beautiful direction that I could never have foreseen.
As we celebrate the feast of St Thérèse, let us make her resolution our own. May we never willingly choose discouragement when it is an option in front of us, but rather choose confidence in God. In the face of what seems like failure, He will direct us to the very heights of holiness and the perfect accomplishment of his plan.