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Prayer of the week

06 September 2013

Alison Fulford finds spiritual daring in St Thérèse's prayer of cheerful acceptance

Lord Jesus, I am not an eagle. All I have are the eyes and the heart of one. In spite of my littleness, I dare to gaze at the sun of love, and long to fly toward it. I want to imitate the eagles, but all I can do is flap my small wings. What shall I do? With cheerful confidence I shall stay gazing at the sun till I die. Nothing will frighten me, neither wind nor rain. O my beloved sun, I delight in feeling small and helpless in your presence; and my heart is at peace.

St Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-97)  from her autobiography  Story of a Soul

AT FIRST glance, this appears to be a prayer about lacking things. St Thérèse begins very matter-of-factly: "I am not an eagle." Then she goes on, expressing her desire to be like a bird of prey. It seems that the eagle, in as much as it stands for a spiritual truth, has stirred up in her the consciousness that she has not achieved this reality, and that she would like to.

We are prepared for this to be a petitionary prayer, beseeching Jesus to give Thérèse the gifts she needs to be a spiritual eagle. If we look again, however, we see that the prayer is not driven forward by a request; instead, its energy lies in trust and thanksgiving.

St Thérèse of Lisieux received her calling to the religious life while very young. Responding to her vocation, she became a Carmelite nun, and joined in the order's work of supporting priests through prayer. After her early death from TB, her writings and accounts of her life were quickly taken up with joy by the wider Roman Catholic Church. She left behind a witness to a life with God marked by its vitality, intensity, and love. This prayer contains some of her characteristic themes.

In the prayer, Thérèse uses the symbol of the eagle to explore her experience of being in the presence of God, and her selection tells us much about how she understood this. Eagles are majestic birds that have captured writers' imaginations for millennia. They are used to suggest apparently contradictory things, such as mercy and merciless attack (Deuteronomy 32.11 and 28.49). In this prayer, it is the eagle's ability to fly high and its traditionally attributed ability to look into the sun that are its prime traits.

Thérèse knows that she cannot soar high like a fully grown eagle, and she pictures herself flapping stubby wings. What she can do - and here is the root of her happiness - is to see as clearly as an eagle. And it is what the eagle gazes at, and flies towards, that is important. The sun in this prayer stands for God. Thérèse calls it the "sun of love", and it is this source of light and blessedness that she trains her spiritual eyes upon.

The phrase that is the beating heart of this prayer is "cheerful confidence". Thérèse is not worried about what she does not have, or anxious about the world around her; rather, she knows the delight of being sustained by God, and the privilege of gazing upon God.

She exhibits a mixture of acquiescence and daring, acceptance and striving, which results in a deep inner peace. If we are to know cheerful confidence in our faith, what littleness in our lives ought we to acknowledge, and to what spiritual daring should the delight of God's love propel us?

The Revd Alison Fulford is the Rector of Hickling with Kinoulton and Upper Broughton, in the diocese of Southwell & Nottingham. 

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