Popular Catholic author and retreat director Fr Jacques Philippe has just completed a round of speaking engagements in Sydney giving retreats and talks at a variety of events held over ten days.
I attended his retreat day for women held at Notre Dame University, along with around 300 others from all over the city and elsewhere who had heard about or enjoyed his books on prayer, finding peace, and the spiritual life.
The French-born priest’s books have been published in 18 languages and some have been hailed as modern spiritual classics. They include Interior Freedom, Time for God, The Way of Trust and Love, and several more. His latest, Thirsting for Prayer, is very good, especially for anyone wanting to know more about personal prayer or needing encouragement to pray.
I had expected to come back from the day all inspired to write something, or have something like the rush of energy I experienced after going to the Catholic digital media conference in August (I really don’t get out much, I know).
I listened to the talks he gave with the help of an interpreter, a sister from the same congregation he belongs to, the Community of the Beautitudes. They were good. I prayed a little, went to Mass, confessed my sins to one of the several priests available for Reconciliation.
The focus of the retreat was St Therese of Lisieux and following her ‘little way’ of trust and love. In true Catholic-celebrity style Fr Philippe was completely unassuming, though charming. He’d peppered his speech with subtle doses of humour, sometimes self-depreciating.
His talks were based on unpacking key passages of St Therese’s writings. Perhaps because I know her story, and have read her autobiography, the Story of a Soul, and poems, letters, and transcripts of her last conversations, that I felt that I was hearing much that I already knew.
And in a sense I was but I did enjoy the irony that I was quietly flexing my pride at a retreat day that centred on the concept of humility.
So no great new flash of insight for me, but I did get something out of it and it was this: Learning the content is just the first step; then you have to let it sink into you. And that is where I am at the moment, at the sinking in part.
I knew, but it still has to sink in, that it will help me greatly to embrace humility, my littleness, my poverty; this is a concept so misunderstood and so antithetical to our culture and the way my identity has formed. I know through St Teresa of Avila and St Therese of Lisieux of the necessity of humility for growth in human as well as spiritual terms, but I’m beginning to get a glimpse of its attractiveness as well.
Fr Philippe actually covered a lot of ground, including the whole genesis of the concept of spiritual littleness in St Therese’s thinking, but three things in particular stood out for me:
1. Have love for the Scriptures
“Ask Therese to help you to have love for the scriptures, because that’s where God speaks to us and answers the questions of our hearts,” Fr Philippe said.
He spoke about how rare it was in St Therese’s day for people to have access to a complete Bible. St Therese was fortunate in that she was literate and also had access to excerpts of the Bible that her sister Celine would send to her.
How she would have loved to be able to be able to hold a whole Bible in her hand like we can! This is a treasure we can so easily take for granted. I’ve since updated the prayer space in our living room and hope to use it more in the mornings for Bible reading (see the picture above?).
2. To be little is to accept myself as I am and trust God
We can have a very painful experience of the distance between the kind of person I wish to be, and the way I am – but a false solution is to try to change myself. This painful experience, rather than something to try to escape, or to try to change as quickly as we can, is actually something which is a great grace, something that comes from God. It is through our experience of our poverty, our littleness, that God changes us, little by little. St Therese discovered this in her own life and it is partly why she is a Doctor (teacher) of the Church. Fr Philippe referenced St Paul’s, “When I am weak, then I am strong”. Thus, said Fr Philippe, “I must accept my weakness as a grace and pray for a conversion.”
My acceptance of myself I am, with all my limitations, without bitterness, or sadness, or anger is an act of faith in God and trust in his faithfulness, trust that God will provide the graces I need. It is pride which makes us fall into despair or despondency over our faults.
“God is just,” Fr Philippe said. “St Therese knew this, she knew that God would never inspire desires in her to be a great saint if he did not intend to fulfil them.” Thus, she had peace, even though, or especially because, she knew she could never do the things that the great saints before her time had done.
“If we have a desire for holiness, and make the effort to grow, and accept ourselves in our littleness, this is an act of faith in God and this attracts His graces,” he added.
Accepting our weakness in this profound way also enables us to be truly grateful for the graces that God gives us, because we know that they are really gifts from God and do not belong to us and make us better than others.
3. As I am able to accept myself, I will be able to accept others as they are
And that’s how to grow in charity too, in love of my neighbour; by being at peace with my own physical and psychological and spiritual frailties, others’ faults cease to irritate me so much.
“The more I am capable of accepting myself, the more I am accepting of others. I know myself, when I have been very harsh with others, it is because I cannot accept myself as I am, so I take it out on them,” Fr Philippe said, smiling.
Accepting our own weakness isn’t the same as accepting our sin, but it prevents us from despairing over our sins and giving up our efforts to grow in holiness. We get up, go to Reconciliation, and move on.
These are very sketchy points and missing all the context so if you are intested in St Therese and her discovery of the little way of spiritual childhood, her way of radical trust and love, then go and read her Story of a Soul, and Fr Jacques Phillipe’s Way of Trust and Love, which is the book he wrote from the notes of his retreats on St Therese.
I think Cradio and Xt3 will also be putting up video of the retreat I went to, and I’ll add those links when they do.
Also, the Australian Discalced Carmelite Fr Aloysius Rego, (who is part of the same order the saint belonged to) has written a book called Holiness for All: Themes from St Therese of Lisieux, which I’m told is very good as well.
I would have liked to interview Fr Philippe, but I’ve felt a bit strapped for time with managing home stuff at the moment as the super-long school holidays have started for our family. Instead, I’m looking forward to seeing the interview with him by Laura McAlister of Catholic Cravings when that appears.
In the meantime there is this recent one by Robert Hiini for The Catholic Weekly. I like the last lines the best:
“I think the biggest danger in the spiritual life is discouragement, the biggest problem. So I have to accept life, accept what I am and to persevere in searching God and praying and all the answers I need I will find, one day.”
Seems easy, doesn’t it?
Also, I can’t help but include this cool little link to Saintly Sages for a succinct explanation of authentic humility from another spiritual writer.