Although the first of November is the feast of All Saints, followed by All Souls on November 2, the whole month of November is traditionally a time for special remembrance of our loved ones who have died. With this in mind, I have been reflecting on an experience of Saint Therese Couderc — the Cenacle’s “Mother Therese” — which took place in 1885, just eight months before her death.
For years, Mother Therese was favored with much consolation in her prayer. But at the beginning of 1885, there has been little consolation for some time. In fact, she has been suffering — not only physical suffering as her body is dying, but spiritual suffering as well, united with the agony of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. But this painful period at the end of her life is relieved occasionally by remarkable consolations, of which one stands out as extraordinary. It is truly an experience which Sister Paule de Lassus (Saint Therese Couderc: The Woman—The Saint) calls a foretaste of heaven.
An uninvited choir
On Saturday, January 10, Mother Therese asks Mother Marie-Aimée Lautier, her Superior General, to visit with her alone.
“I don’t know what is happening,” Mother Therese says, “but since Our Lord is letting me speak with you, I will, since I can’t with anyone else. They would think that illness has made me lose my mind.”
What Mother Therese tells her is that since the previous day, she has been surrounded by a multitude of people singing and praying.
Sometimes she is frightened, and she would like them to go away. Nevertheless, she says that “There are hours when I am totally absorbed with them, for in spite of myself, I have to join with them.”
Mother Marie-Aimée suggests that she consult with the priest who is her confessor, which Mother Therese does. The next day, when Mother Marie-Aimée goes to see her, Mother Therese seems to be more at peace with what is happening.
“The Father is not afraid and doesn’t want me to be afraid. He believes that these are the souls in Purgatory and, since they are friends of God because they love him and are loved by him, they are, in his opinion, good company.”
They are indeed good company. While Mother Therese and the priest believe they are the souls in purgatory, I tend to think that these prayerful companions are in heaven. But Mother Therese has noticed that “they suffer and they express it in a heart-rending manner.” Can people in heaven suffer?
Those who have loved us on earth do continue to love us in heaven. It is likely that they love us even more after death, because they love us with the perfect love of God. Karl Rahner envisages them praying for us in this way:
“Lord, grant eternal rest to them whom we love — as never before — in your love. Grant it to them who still walk the hard road of pilgrimage, which is none the less the road that leads to us and to your eternal light” (The Eternal Year).
I imagine that the heavenly souls who surround Mother Therese are filled with compassion for her in her own pain. Their suffering is an expression of their love for her — and since they love with the love of God, an expression of God’s love for her as well.
She goes on to tell Mother Marie-Aimée about the experience of that morning. After she received communion, she says, the choir surrounding her struck up that ancient hymn of praise, the Te Deum. However, Mother Therese, like a lot of Catholics, prefers to be quiet following communion so that she can focus on Jesus. This time she doesn’t succeed.
“At the fourth verse, despite the efforts I made to attend to Our Lord as usual, I had to pay attention to them and sing along with them: Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of Hosts…. I had to follow along with them all the way to the end.”
Joining them was more than just a distraction from her prayer.
“It was wonderful. Even if I were to live a very long time I would never forget that harmony, those tones, that respect to which nothing on earth can be compared. Each verse was sung with a feeling that corresponded with the praises or the supplications that it expressed.
“When they arrived at the last verse: In Te Domine speravi, non confundar in aeternum,* they sang it at least ten times with humility, fervor, and a confidence full of love. How they pray! How they sing! Oh, if we only knew how to pray as they do!”
I have heard meditation described as practicing death. When I think of death, I think of being completely in the hand of God in total trust, not clinging to anything, letting go of all fear or worry. (See Se livrer, the “To Surrender Oneself” reflection of Mother Therese, where she speaks of the “sweet peace” of the totally surrendered soul, a peace which is “part of the happiness of the elect.”)
So in this context, meditation – or for that matter any kind of prayer – would involve practicing this surrender right now. It would mean resting in the presence of God in total trust (or as total as is possible on earth), rather than waiting for death to hand ourselves over to the Good God.
The choir that surrounds Mother Therese shares in this praise and peace of the blessed souls in the hand of God, a praise that is supremely beautiful. Praise of God is always lovely, of course, and the praise of these celestial multitudes is not tainted by self-seeking. An essential element of its beauty is love and compassion: in this case, the love and compassion they have for Mother Therese.
Eight months before her death, Mother Therese has experienced a foretaste of heaven. It is a heaven concerned with earth, a heaven filled with love for those of us still struggling here.
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, ‘To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!’ And the four living creatures said, ‘Amen!’ And the elders fell down and worshiped.