Marisa Guerin, PhD – June 29, 2021
No, this isn't a post about US politics. (Maybe best to let the "sides" of the body politic cool down a bit.)
As regular readers know – I am working on a book with my friend, Br. Joseph Schmidt. It explores the qualities of heart and mind that can guide us in a loving life, insights developed by Thérèse of Lisieux. Thérèse is quite a paradoxical figure; I’m well aware that a young French nun from the late 19th century is an unexpected life coach for most people today! However, when we dig past her sometimes-flowery writing style, her story provides us with a grounded, clear-eyed grasp of the inner dynamics that pretty much everyone has experienced in one form or another. Thérèse knows first-hand the early childhood hurts, the adaptations and addictions that we turn to for psychic survival, the projections that make others into enemies, and the emotionally damaging, unreasonable expectations we hold for ourselves and others in our unconscious quest for affirmation.
Our (emerging) book deals with the psychological and spiritual wisdom Thérèse gained as she grew in maturity. But there was a crucial, fundamental, spiritual insight that created the safe space within which Thérèse developed her way of living a meaningful and peaceful life of love. It is this: Thérèse re-discovered that the God Jesus manifested in the Gospels is merciful, loving, and not violent in any way…not to us or to anyone else. This intuitive leap within Therese was a direct, extraordinary and transformative insight.
People throughout history have had a tendency to project our own human realities onto the mystery we know as God. As a result, the scriptures and our own religious imaginations paint a picture of a God who has some emotions and motivations that can only be described as harsh, even violent. Many of those who have become alienated from the religious traditions of their childhoods have moved away from them precisely because of this dark view of a rigid, judgmental deity who enforces rules without compassion.
With great clarity, Thérèse grasped that Jesus’s God is not vindictive, not cruel, not distant, not punitive; she was grateful that even God’s justice is “clothed in mercy.” From her own experience of family love, she glimpsed the truth of God’s immense love for us, even when, in our weakness, we fail to choose the good. Everything we learn from Thérèse shows us this path of merciful love.
A nonviolent, non-adversarial, loving stance towards ourselves, towards others, and toward life is the defining characteristic of Thérèse’s psychological and spiritual vision and of her way.
Trusting that we are held securely in God’s all-encompassing love and that God never relates to us cruelly can be a radical awareness, contrary to common thinking both in Thérèse’s day and in ours. This awareness opens a freedom that changes everything.
How so? Well, first of all, Thérèse’s conviction that God’s love and mercy is utterly and always without violence allows us to reimagine ourselves; secondly, it also changes how we relate to society and how we feel about others.
The bedrock trust that God is never violent is an especially healing perspective because it dissolves the perfectionist in us, who so much wants to live a good life but collapses in the suffering that comes from the violence of self-blame. Trusting God’s merciful love does away with the all-too-common mindset that says we are responsible for fixing all the things that are wrong with ourselves and with the world, “or else.” This trust heals our inner indictment. Instead of being held hostage by our inadequacies, we find ourselves invited to a generous willingness to offer our gifts and do our part for good, confident in the larger Providence of God.
The conviction that God – the Ultimate Reality – is completely nonviolent also helps us to be more compassionate in our relationships with those we love, and with those we think of as our “enemies,” too. It undermines any view of human justice as revenge or compensatory pain. The hierarchy of “worthiness” that we are prone to construct disappears, since we are equally loved, even though we are also all flawed.
This fundamental understanding of the never-violent nature of Love unlocked a great many insights for Therese, and she perceptively caught the many daily implications of this vision. However, in a short blog post, this idea is hard to fully unpack, perhaps raising more questions than it answers. Like: What about wrongdoing? What about justice? Isn’t nature inherently violent? What about suffering and pain and violence in human history?
Our book has more to say about all of these concerns! But not here or now. The seed of the idea is worth planting: We are never beyond the reach of love, and there is nothing of violence in the heart of God.
May we be set free and healed of our own addictions to violence towards ourselves, others, and the situations of life….. and may we likewise accept with a peaceable heart that we are going to mess up sometimes, and that’s ok.
God is on our side.