“Thank you Lord, I needed that”
On this Feast Day of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, it is good to recall how the Church Doctor and Carmelite nun broke like teams of wild stallions into Venerable Aloysius Schwartz’s (founder of World Villages for Children) soul.
In 1945, Al was a precocious 15-year-old, two years into formation at St. Charles College High School, a large diocesan preparatory seminary outside of Baltimore. Because he had seen complacency and a spiritual malaise cover much of the seminary, he had grown rather bored. Although a zeal was budding in him to serve Christ as a missionary in a foreign land, he didn’t walk the straight and narrow during those early years of formation.
Gifted with great intellect and a desire for prayer, Al also horsed around with classmates. By his second year, he was in the thick of the pranks, mischief, and hazing of his seminary classmates.
One day, Al became entangled in a since-forgotten transgression and was summoned to the office of the Headmaster, Fr. Joseph White. It was the custom then that misbehaving seminarians would be spanked with a wooden sandal. The unwritten rule was to spank the offender with as many strokes as was necessary to bring about tears. The school record was fifty-two; Al made it to thirty-five.
“That spanking, in a healthy way, had a profound effect on him,” said his brother Lou, also a seminarian at St. Charles. “It seemed to awaken him to some of the things he was straying from. He was humbled.”
Looking back years later in the Far East, Al agreed: “After leaving Joe White’s room, I limped downstairs to the chapel, knelt before the Blessed Sacrament, and said simply, “Thank you, Lord, I needed that.”
The Mighty Oak
It was shortly after the spanking that Thérèse came into his life. Someone had thought to give young Al her autobiography, The Story of a Soul. As he flipped the pages, he felt his entire life begin to shift. He began to see the French saint’s impulse to embrace privations, hiddenness, and the dignity of suffering as the truest path to the love of God. It would be through constant practices of “little sacrifices of love” that Al, like St. Thérèse , could begin to approach the furnace of God’s throne.
As an eighth-grader at Holy Name in Washington D.C., he began to gravitate toward the saints, but no single saint managed to captivate him as Thérèse “the Little Flower.” He would later write in his private journal, “the substance of her writings is inspired with the fire of the Spirit and blood of the Lamb.” He would later request of his spiritual director in Korea, Carmelite nun Mother Gertrude, that she pray fervently that “Thérèse herself puts into my heart, my bloodstream, and the very marrow of my bones what is contained in [The Story of a Soul].
Over the course of his life, Fr. Al would read the autobiography of the saint’s more than two dozen times, often in her own French hand – and made it mandatory reading for each of his Sisters of Mary nuns.
In the introduction to Fr. Al’s book, To Live Is Christ, a book of spirituality for the Sisters of Mary, he pleaded for the Sisters to pursue
Thérèse’s pursuit for absolute perfection. As he lay dying from the ravages of ALS, he asked the Sisters at his bedside to read to him the writings of the Little Flower.
He once wrote of his patron saint: “Thérèse and Jesus became one. Thérèse disappeared in the love of Jesus as a drop in the ocean of water. … she had a real attraction to the cross that could only be explained by the real presence of Jesus in her heart. Because of her remarkable courage in the midst of every trial and suffering, she more closely resembles a mighty oak tree than a little flower.”
It is no coincidence that Thérèse and Fr. Al both offered their entire lives in service to building God’s Kingdom; Thérèse directly to Jesus, and Al through the Virgin of the Poor to Jesus. “For some time I have indulged in the fancy of offering myself up to the Child Jesus as a plaything for Him to do what he liked with me,” she wrote in The Story of a Soul.
Before Fr. Al took off to serve the poorest of the poor in Korea in 1957, he said virtually the same to Mary. And the world began to change.