“Called into the Night as the Slumbering Jesus’ Plaything”

Br Ignatius Schweitzer, OP

            Forsakenness.  Aridity.  Abandonment to God’s will.  The dark night of the soul.  For many, John of the Cross is just too harsh.  The themes of which he speaks are simply too daunting.  In short, ‘of the Cross’ is an apt title for this doctor of the Church.  Another doctor of the Church, Therese of the Child Jesus, is much more welcoming.  Her world is filled with sweetness, playfulness, and affection.  ‘Of the Child Jesus’ is an apt title for this master of the little way.  Yet Therese does not just stroll among sunshine and flowers.  As kindred spirits of the family of Carmel, much of Therese’s spirituality echoes her austere older brother’s doctrine of the dark night of the soul.  Moreover, Therese enhances John’s insights while balancing elements that are too extreme.  In this essay, I will consider how she does this in her reflections on Jesus as asleep in her boat and on herself as the plaything of Jesus.  I will also reflect on how Therese is able to maintain a childlike—and hence authentically Christian—joy, by seeing her dark night in terms of a special divine calling for the benefit of her brothers and sisters.    

            Even before she entered Carmel, through the influence of her home life, Therese had already adopted a spirituality akin to John’s.  In the midst of a bleak trial, she was given two gifts which were meant to console her.  Celine gave her a toy boat inscribed with the word “Abandonment!”; the boat contained the sleeping Child Jesus next to his ball with a sail that quoted the Song of Songs: “I sleep but my heart watches” (142-3).  Then, later in the day on a visit to the Carmel, the sisters presented to her a statue of the Child Jesus with his ball; “Therese” was written on the ball (142).  The fact that both her closest friend and even the more distant Carmelite community used the same basic image to console her shows that these were prominent themes on Therese’s mind and lips.  The same themes, though at times expressed differently, accompanied Therese throughout her religious life.

            In writing about her profession retreat, Therese takes up the theme of the sleeping Jesus:

the most absolute aridity and almost total abandonment were my lot.  Jesus was sleeping as usual in my little boat; ah! I see very well how rarely souls allow Him to sleep peacefully within them.  Jesus is so fatigued with always having to take the initiative and to attend to others that He hastens to take advantage of the repose I offer to Him. (165)[1]

This passage relates, in a childlike way, an important element of John’s doctrine.  In our relationship with God it is commendable and even perhaps courteous to allow God the possibility of remaining silent, while still holding firm in the void of the dark prayer of pure faith.  This helps resist a tendency to produce artificial ‘divine’ responses on our own accord or to read too much into natural phenomenon.  As John notes, “faith lies beyond all this understanding, taste, feeling, and imagining” (Ascent II:4.2). 

            Considering the transition from discursive meditation to contemplative prayer, John insists that spiritual nourishment is not acquired by the work of the imagination but “by pacifying the soul, by leaving it to its more spiritual quiet and repose” (II:12.6).  Similarly, Therese allows Jesus the freedom to sleep silently within her, which amounts to Therese herself becoming interiorly silent and passively receptive to God’s imperceptible work.  She notes that a doctor often puts the patient to sleep before an operation (165).  Being unconcerned with what God is working in the soul—though it could just be indifference—can be a sign of great faith, when one trusts that he is doing something though it may be uncomprehended by the soul.

            Therese’s relation to the sleeping Jesus is one of dark faith in Christ.  Therese transforms John’s theo-centric “general loving knowledge” (Ascent II:14.2) into a christo-centric simple gaze of love.  Gazing upon one’s sleeping beloved is non-discursive and expects no response in return, yet it is directed to a person.  This seems to fulfill the contemplative aspect of John’s “general loving knowledge” while avoiding the possible ambiguity.  John’s theo-centricism is at times too vague and the role of Christ disappears.  It is telling that most of the Scriptural quotes in the Ascent and Dark Night are from the Old Testament; Christ is spoken of little.  John says all that is required is freedom of the soul, being liberated from ideas and thoughts, so that one can “be content simply with a loving and peaceful attentiveness to God” (Dark Night I:10.4).  What of thoughts of the mysteries of the God-man’s life?  I prefer Therese’s christo-centricism because in it, John’s insight of the dark night of faith is kept in better continuity with the intellectual truths and mysteries of the Faith along with the sacramental life.  This is not to discount the role of Christ and the sacraments in John’s life or even in his other writings, but in the Ascent and Dark Night these things are peripheral.  The transition between discursive meditation and non-discursive contemplation (and back again) is smoother in Therese’s model of the sleeping Jesus.[2]  She can more easily move from meditating on Jesus’ life to a contemplative disposition of “loving and peaceful attentiveness”: this same person, Jesus, whom she has been thinking about and has received in the Eucharist now just happens to be asleep; he whom she was actively mediating on can now only be silently gazed upon.  The slumbering Jesus provides what John considers to be the dark night’s means of purgation—“pure dryness and interior darkness” (I:7.5)—while maintaining explicit union with Jesus’ saving life, death, and resurrection.

            In the Ascent, John seeks to prepare his readers for the dark night of the soul by equipping them with wisdom “to practice abandonment to God’s guidance when He wants them to advance” (Prologue: 4).  Therese too adopts the theme of abandonment but in a way that better promotes the familiarity of the child with her heavenly Father.  Paradoxically, Therese is able to remain intimate with God even in her experience of forsakenness.  As Jesus’ little ball she is able to relativize her own experience of desolation since she is just a ball of no value, while remaining confident of God’s love since she is Jesus’ ball:          

I had offered myself, for some time now, to the Child Jesus as His little plaything.  I told Him not to use me as a valuable toy children are content to look at but dare not touch, but to use me like a little ball of no value which He could throw on the ground, push with His foot, pierce, leave in a corner, or press to His heart if it pleased Him; in a word, I wanted to amuse little Jesus, to give Him pleasure; I wanted to give myself up to His childish whims.  He heard my prayer. (136, in all quotations emphasis is Therese’s own)[3]

This paradigm provides the framework for Therese’s confidence in Jesus’ love and providential guidance even when she seems to have been squashed and forsaken in a corner: “he may sleep but his heart still watches” or as she describes it here: even in sleep, Jesus dreams of his precious ball and presses it to his heart (136). 

            Like John, Therese as Jesus’ plaything, accepts the nature of the dark journey and receives whatever may come to her, as if from God’s guiding hand.  Yet Therese attempts to transform what could become dreadful in John into a childlike joy.  She finds joy only in bringing Jesus pleasure.  What mystics have often referred to as the ‘game of love’—the oscillation between the consolation of God’s presence and the desolation of God’s seeming absence—Therese turns into literal ‘child’s play.’  Jesus’ ball goes in and out of his hands, near and far, yet his loving concern directs it all.  This sets trials in an atmosphere of playful delight, which despite experience is closer to the truth than morgue-like gravity.  This is not to trivialize the real human experience of trials but it is to nuance it by allowing some rays of the truth of God’s love into the darkness of one’s own dread.  This provides a correcting counter-balance to what in John could lead to taking oneself and one’s own experience of forsakenness too seriously.  It helps keep trials in the proper perspective of one who is after all a redeemed child of God. 

            In the worst trials, only a saint can accomplish this feat.  Therese, in her trial of faith, writes bluntly about her real anguish and doubt, yet she does not allow her experience of darkness to outshine God’s light.  Though she is in the midst of her trial while writing manuscripts B and C, she mostly proclaims the mercies of God, exposing her own anguish in only a limited number of passages.  She relativizes her own plight in light of God’s absolute love.  In the final conversations before her death, it is almost as if she oscillates between words of despair—confusion of being in a black hole (266), fear of dying (268), an agony she can no longer endure (269)—and words of confidence—humorous witticisms (265), omnipresence of grace (266), the goodness of God (270), her immense love for him (271).  It seems that the very crux of her perseverance is not taking the periods of her real doubt and darkness as seriously as the moments of her acts of pure faith.  She takes God more seriously than her own doubt.

            Yet even within the broader context of God’s love, the question remains: how can she face such a trial with any trace of a joyful demeanor?  The incongruity will remain completely enigmatic unless one realizes that Therese saw her trials within the larger context of her mission to the Church and the world.  This vocation for the sake of others makes Therese’s elucidation of the dark night more Christian than John’s by accenting its benefit for others: Therese’s endurance of the dark night is transformed into an act of charity toward others.  She expands the significance of the dark night beyond the personal realm to the world.  In one of her deathbed conversations she insists, “Everything I have, everything I merit, is for the good of the Church and for souls” (266).  This perceived mission extended throughout her cloistered life stretching back to her examination before vows in which she declared, “I came to save souls and especially to pray for priests” (149).  Commenting on this, Therese notes that even then she knew the means of accomplishing this would involve suffering (149). 

            Therese saw her endurance of the dark night as benefiting others through the congruous merit that belongs to the mystery of co-redemption.[4]  In his graciousness, God has involved his sons and daughters in Christ’s work of redemption (both one’s own and others) through the exercise of love.  Congruous merit belongs to the same mystery as the fruitfulness of intercessory prayer.  One’s life of holiness is united to and can assist the rest of the human family even if one is hidden away in Carmel.  In a mysterious way that cannot be forced in calculative self-initiation, even trials, which are endured in an open and generous love, can benefit others in a hidden way through God’s economy of salvation.  Having adopted the disposition of Jesus’ plaything, Therese notes, “Neither do I desire any longer suffering or death, and I still love them both; it is love alone that attracts me…Now, abandonment alone guides me.  I have no other compass!” (178).  John had already noted that one must be led by God through unknown paths.  As almost a truism he remarks that in order to reach an unknown land one must travel an unknown path (Dark Night II:16.8).  Since God is the guide (and compass) of the journey into himself, the soul’s main task is a ready response of love to whatever may come, even if it involves suffering. 

            In her trial of faith, Therese saw herself as being in solidarity with those without faith.  While begging in the name of unbelievers—both on their behalf and with them as one sharing in the experience of having no faith—she resigns herself to eating the bread of sorrows at this table of poor sinners as long as Jesus desires it (212).  Therese relates:

I tell Him, too, I am happy not to enjoy this beautiful heaven on this earth so that He will open it for all eternity to poor unbelievers.  Also, in spite of this trial which has taken away all my joy, I can nevertheless cry out: ‘You have given me DELIGHT, O Lord, in ALL your doings’ (Ps 91:5).  For is there a joy greater than that of suffering out of love for You?…But if my suffering was really unknown to You, which is impossible, I would still be happy to have it, if through it I could prevent or make reparation for one single sin against faith. (214)[5]

Such is the paradox of the game of love when one is playing not so much for oneself as for others: even suffering can be qualified by the greater joy of love.  Here it is not suffering in itself that is meritorious—suffering has its origin in evil after all—but the love united with Christ’s own sacrifice and transformed by suffering.  This transformation of love in Christ entails more than just the negative aspect of refining, but also a positive aspect of emblazing ardency.[6]  Like any authentic love of God, it is intrinsically a love for one’s neighbors as well.  Therese makes more explicit than John that the dark night can bear fruit in the world and not merely in her private life of holiness; her sufferings are neither in vain nor just for her own sake, but are meaningful for others through Christ’s redemption.  The most intimate happenings hidden in the depths of her soul, though veiled, are open to the world and its redemption.

            Can such a ‘love’ for someone you have never met really be authentic?  Is not a universal love a delusion due to its vagueness?  True, love in the concrete is perhaps the safer bet, but that is not to rule out love in the general just because it demands a greater faith.  During the final year of her life, Therese claimed to have come to a new understanding of love, apparently in an experiential way and not merely theoretically (219).  She sees that she is to love others as God loves them and with God’s own love, that is, Jesus loving through her (220-1).  In this she echoes John of the Cross whose main purpose of voiding the natural operations of the intellect, memory, and will is to allow God’s divine activity to replace them through the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.  If one is truly loving and knowing with God’s own love and knowledge, no neighbor is unknown.  Furthermore, Therese’s new understanding of love seems to imply something of a dark night of faith even in the concrete realm.  When facing a disagreeable sister, she recognizes in faith that God must nevertheless take pleasure in this sister.  She relativizes her own experience, realizing “that charity must not consist in feelings but in works,” and so she sets herself “to doing for this Sister what [she] would do for the person [she] loved the most” (222).  I have heard it suggested that Therese acting as if she liked this sister—with smiles and all—when she really did not, is dishonest or at least fake.  I see it rather as an act of faith in an everlasting truth that outshines the shadows of passing sentiments: this sister will be quite likable and a particular source of joy for Therese into Eternity when the Divine Artist completes this work-in-progress (cf 222).  And so the authenticity of love in the general is made credible by love in the concrete: Therese survives the dark night of faith involved in loving the disagreeable sister and so her dark night of the soul for the sake of souls is rendered believable.

            Thus does Therese of the Child Jesus adopt themes of John of the Cross’ dark night while transforming them through her gospel paradigm of spiritual childhood, articulated as the slumbering Jesus’ plaything.  Through her sense of calling and mission for the sake of souls, Therese’s dark night was mingled with a tinge of Christian joy.  Although darkness may seem to belong only to the desolate, in the end, even the night can drip with the playful bliss of sleeping lovers. 

[1] If taken strictly, elements of the passage would be problematic.  Jesus does not sleep, but is always attentive to us; and he does not need us to offer him repose for his weariness, but he offers us repose. 

[2] Teresa of Avila seems to be concerned with this same continuity in Book VI, chapter 7 of her Interior Castles where she stresses that Jesus’ humanity and the sacraments cannot be transcended.  

[3] Again, if taken abstractly, apart from how Therese employs it, elements of this passage are problematic.  In most cases it would not be  precise to say that Jesus directly causes the trials that could be described as being cast to the ground, pushed, and pierced, rather Jesus permits them and brings good from them.  Also, Jesus does not treat us according to whims absolutely, but rather according to his providential goodness, which since it ‘sees’ more than we do may, at times, seem whimsical relative to us.  

[4] It is beyond the purpose of this paper to explicate the intricacies and nuances of the soteriological principle of congruous merit and the role of suffering in it, but my point is that Therese’s understanding of her own vocation and her dark night was shaped by it. 

[5] Therese’s question, “is there a joy greater than that of suffering out of love for You?” is rhetorical or at least bound to earthly joy since she would have to admit the joy of heaven would be greater.

[6] For example, the growth in love of two friends who have suffered through a trial together is not only a purification of the initial love present from the beginning, but also a deepening of it.

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