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How to Be Impartial Like St. Therese

A twist in a familiar story about the Little Flower shows us the right way to love the poor in our lives

Homily for the Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2021

My brothers and sisters, show no partiality
as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.
For if a man with gold rings and fine clothes
comes into your assembly,
and a poor person in shabby clothes also comes in,
and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes
and say, “Sit here, please, ”
while you say to the poor one, “Stand there, ” or “Sit at my feet,”
have you not made distinctions among yourselves
and become judges with evil designs?

Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters.
Did not God choose those who are poor in the world
to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom
that he promised to those who love him?

-James 2:1-5

Why do we desire the company and friendship of another person or persons? The answer to this question could be most interesting. Even more precisely revealing would be the answer to this question: why we prefer one person to another?

There is a familiar story in the documentation of the life of St. Therese of Lisieux, Virgin and Doctor of the Church, of a certain sister whom Therese made a point of seeking out in a friendly way. As this story is usually told, this sister’s words, actions, and character were displeasing to her. Yet this sister—Sister St. Augustine—later testified in two canonization testimonies that she was Therese’s favorite. She never knew that in fact Therese found her insufferable and had been exercising her virtue by being especially kind to her.

I never liked this version of the story. How did she not know while everyone else did? It didn’t reflect well on Therese if she had let others know the name of the object of her self-inflicted patience, or on the others for dwelling on the story at Sister St. Augustine’s expense.

But as I found with just a bit of research, this is not the whole story, not by a long shot.

It turns out that Sister St. Augustine was hyper-observant and extremely regular, which qualities, along with a demanding and reserved temperament, made her unattractive to her sisters. In her posthumous circular biography sent around by the prioress, we are told “in search of perfection, her perfect regularity made her less accessible to the demands of charity.”

In the face of this gently severe judgment of the prioress, let us read Therese’s own words describing her motivation in giving preference to this immoderately observant fellow nun. She writes that she intended to “give pleasure to the Divine Artist of souls by not stopping with the exterior.” And from there “to do my utmost to enter into the private sanctuary that Jesus,” in this person, “chose for his dwelling place. There, I assure you, I admired the beauty.”

Each one of us can answer for himself, and perhaps to his shame, why he prefers one person to another, but this much is clear (and it is borne out by the teaching of another Doctor of the Church, St. Thomas): the right motive to prefer one person to another lies within where that ravishing beautiful soul shares actually or expectantly in the glory of the Lord Jesus. What we call “human respect” is a sin against justice and love when we radically prefer external things to the inmost depths of a person made in the image and likeness of God.

Few of us nowadays would be so crass as to show outwardly any disdain for a poor man because he is poor, but we all have our poor: poor in knowledge, poor in skill, poor in good looks, poor in taste, poor in social skills, poor in common sense, poor in reputation, poor in the esteem that has been lost in our eyes. How do we treat these sanctuaries of the Divine Image?

Are we “users,” interested only in the advantage to our feelings or ego or reputation that preferring one to another may bring? Do we prefer persons who complement our preferred “look?”

Don’t get me wrong: good looks, brains, good humor, skills in the arts and in sports, even wealth—these are all reasons we may like someone. They are all good. But if our preference ends there, then we are not living as St. James requires of us in the epistle lesson of this Holy Mass. We must prefer persons because of our “faith in the glorious Jesus Christ.”

And so we discover often that those who are “poor in the world,” as he says, poor in these external qualities, are nevertheless “rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him” and that in any case we should love even our rich, good-looking, and intelligent friends because we want them to share in the life of grace promised us. We must not stop at the exterior, for indeed, in comparison with the life of Christ within, hidden deep within, everything else is exterior.

St. Therese was drawn to this difficult sister not because she was going to bestow from the heights of her more balanced and tolerant personality a ray of benevolence on a poor and merely tolerated neurotic. Her attitude was not “cold as charity,” as the expression goes. No, she was drawn to goodness, for God had declared this sister good in his work of creation. Therese was aware that she herself was receiving a gift by her closeness to this soul, and she was fascinated by her.

This sister brought out of the saint some of her most enduring charms. It was at her insistence that Therese began to write her poems and paint an image of the nursing Madonna, a task Therese lamented, as though she were some contemporary French Impressionist, since in the convent she could have no nude to model it!

These following daring words of the Doctor of the Church to Sister St. Augustine tell us the story, a story of deep love, affection, insight, and gratitude:

I will come to you at the hour of your death. You will not go to purgatory.  Souls as regular as yours don’t go there.  You are extremely faithful; it shows on you.  If you only knew how meritorious I find you to be.  You will be very surprised as soon as you see the good that you have done and the souls that you have saved. Your very eyes speak of the good God.  What happiness that I will soon see all the beauties of your soul.  I will know you just as you really are and I will rejoice then because on here on earth I have not fully known you.

Dear friends let us prefer our neighbor because, in spite of appearances, he is a mighty spirit. Look before and behind you, to your left and to your right, and you will see one whom only the vision of the Divine Face is able to reveal and whose charity shall never be cold even to the ages of ages. Amen.


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