Their Love: A Valentine – and Christmas, and Every Day – Story

At first, Maurice Belliere was weak and uncertain.
Some serious sin, never fully revealed in the letters he wrote in the late Nineteenth Century, made him doubt his worthiness to fulfill a call to join the White Fathers, a French order of priests who in those days brought the Gospel to the most remote corners of Africa.

In an amazing exchange of letters, a cloistered nun named Therese built up his confidence. She assured him that because of his contrite heart and his reliance on Jesus, “He has forgotten your infidelities long ago.” Her letters were laced with references to the Gospels, Psalms and the Song of Songs.

When death — from the awful scourge of consumption — lay just months away; she broke the news in little pieces. The letters became peppered with endearments: “from the bottom of my heart” and appreciation for the “tenderness” of a thought or phrase.

As her illness advanced, the two almost changed places. Her pain mounted. She who had been strong confessed weakness: “I am a baby who can’t take any more!” She made Maurice promise not to idolize her or ignore her own sinful nature. She compared herself to “a little bird” – or, more frequently, “a little flower.” 

He who had been awkward and inarticulate in early letters soared like an eagle as he sought to comfort the one he called his true sister. He gave her words of honor: “There is no doubt that Jesus is the Treasure, but I found Him in you.” Her love made him stronger.

Today’s world often defines love the way we see it in movies or certain novels of romance. That “love” means sexual relationships in most stories – portrayed graphically enough to titillate but not so raw as to miss the “R” rating.

But their love was caritas or charity — giving beyond what seems rational. It is memorably described in Chapter 13 of St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, the pure love of God Himself. Therese lived that love as she lay dying.

Their love letters are preserved in ‘Maurice & Therese: The Story of a Love’ (New York: Doubleday Books, 1998, 283 pages). The book shares with modern readers this remarkable correspondence between a nun and a priest who never met face to face. The late Patrick Ahern (1919-2011), an auxiliary bishop of New York’s Catholic archdiocese, compiled this masterpiece after studying the writings of Therese of Lisieux and her intimates — family and a small number of friends.

The least distinguished and unlikely member of that circle was Maurice Belliere. After Therese died, he served in Africa for a few years, contracting a terrible disease that gradually robbed him of his priesthood, his mind and his life. His final days passed in an asylum. But his letters to and from Therese survived and were printed with the permission of his friends and her order, the Carmelites.

Ahern wrote, “Maurice was the quintessential ‘little soul’ to whom Therese was attracted, the prototype of most of us. He deserves our attention for that very reason – not because he was great but because he was not.” He was not great, but she was — and their love was great because it reflected God’s love for every human soul.

In simplicity, he was a prophet. Outside the sisters who shared her life, he was the first to declare her a saint. 

We remember her now as St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower. She lived 1873-1897. Her conversion at the age of 14 (some might say she was ‘born again, again’ after growing up in a devout Roman Catholic Family) reads like the stuff of legend, but it is all true. 
Not long after she died, only in her 20s, the Catholic Church recognized her sanctity, in part because of her autobiographical (and astonishing) ‘Story of a Soul’. The late Pope John Paul II declared her a doctor of the church.

Long after his death, own Maurice garnered his own honor. Some years ago, on the wall of a little church in Caen (Normandy), France, where he first felt the call to priestly life, admirers placed near his grave a plaque which reads: “Maurice Belliere, spiritual brother and protege of Saint Therese.”

In truth, most of us are not great.
But imagine the possibilities, when we find Him in one another.

Note: This reflection is adapted from a personal column first printed in The Sunday Oklahoman on Dec. 16, 2001
Archive ID: 875344