Assay: My spiritual master is St. Therese of Lisieux, so when a thoughtful reader emailed me about Heather King’s 2011 memoir, Shirt of Flame: A Year with Saint Therese of Lisieux, I was thrilled—and astounded that I hadn’t heard about it yet. I’m always trying to get my hands on more St. Therese material, plus I can never resist a good “year-of” memoir.
I couldn’t wait to read Shirt of Flame, and I found it fascinating, for many reasons. One passage struck me in particular.
In the study of happiness, I’m always fascinated and moved when I see a person choose to react in a way that boosts happiness or love or forgiveness, when circumstances made that choice difficult.
In her spiritual memoir Story of a Soul (which was one of the book-club choices for this month, by the way), St. Therese gives many examples about this from her own life—for instance, the moment of her “complete conversion,” where she acted selflessly by showing a greedy joy in her Christmas presents. In her circumstances, that was the loving way to act. Sometimes we can be generous by taking.
Often, to allow himself or herself to respond in a different frame of mind, a person re-frames a situation.
Heather King recounts an interesting example of this. She writes, “I’m mortified to admit that I was still miffed because [my mother had] never told me as a child (or an adult, for that matter) that I was pretty.”
Then she recounts how St. Therese has interpreted the same situation with her own upbringing. St. Therese’s mother died when she was four, and her older sisters, particularly her sister Pauline, helped to raise her.
St. Therese writes, “You gave a lot of attention, dear Mother [meaning Pauline], not to let me near anything that might tarnish my innocence, especially not to let me hear a single word that might be capable of letting vanity slip into my heart.”
As King points out, St. Therese chose to understand a lack of compliments to be a sign of loving care. That’s not the only interpretation, but that’s the one she chose to have.
I see that this is an area where I fall very short. Too often, I respond to a choice by feeling aggrieved or resentful. Sometimes, perversely, I almost enjoy feeling aggrieved or resentful! –and don’t even try to put a different cast on it, or look for other explanations.
I’m reminded by an observation by Flannery O’Connor, from a letter she wrote in 1959. “From 15 to 18 is an age at which one is very sensitive to the sins of others, as I know from recollections of myself. At that age you don’t look for what is hidden. It is a sign of maturity not to be scandalized and to try to find explanations in charity.”
“Finding explanations in charity” is another way of putting it — the aim of choosing to interpret actions in a loving way.
I feel like I just came across another great example of this, in some book or movie, but I’m blanking. Stay tuned, maybe I’ll think of it. Have you seen examples of this kind of choice, yourself?