For background from the playwright .
FATHER ALEXIS PROU is seated in the confessional wearing a brown Franciscan habit and a violet stole. THERESE enters and kneels on the kneeler placed not far from the confessor; an invisible wall separates them. There is a long pause. THERESE is very uneasy.
ALEXIS: Yes, my child?
THERESE: It's ... (she breaks off)
ALEXIS: Excuse me? I didn't quite hear you.
THERESE: Oh, Father, it's always the same. I don't even know why I'm here. On the way, I told myself that I would say nothing about my interior dispositions because I just don't know how to express them.
Therese: For eighteen months I have been tortured with the conviction that I am damned.
ALEXIS: And why is that?
THERESE: I'm just not used to speaking about myself.
ALEXIS: And I'm not used to speaking to cloistered Carmelite nuns. So we're even. I'm more at home preaching in factories or to big crowds on the street. This little Carmel is really something new for me. Yet—here I am ... all ready to listen.
THERESE: Preached retreats are always more painful to me than the ones I make alone.
ALEXIS: Well, you can relax. I left all my instruments of torture back in Brittany. (beat) But they should be here by tomorrow if you'd like to come back then.
THERESE: Oh, Father, forgive me; I didn't mean you!
ALEXIS: Come then, dear Sister. Be peaceful and tell me simply and in your own way what it is that troubles your soul.
THERESE: Oh, I am afraid to.
THERESE: Because I'm afraid that you—like all my other confessors—will just confirm the fears that have so taunted my soul.
ALEXIS: Tell me what you mean.
THERESE: At another retreat, I confided to the retreat master a hope I have held all my life.
ALEXIS: And what is that?
THERESE: My hope to become a great saint ... even to love God as much as Saint Teresa of Avila, my patron.
ALEXIS: And what did Father say to you?
THERESE: He seemed shocked by what I said, I guess because I am so young. I'm afraid he thought me prideful. Presumptuous. Because then he said to me: "Child, be a good religious, but don't aim so high. Moderate your desires."
ALEXIS: And what kind of priest was he?
THERESE: A Jesuit.
ALEXIS: (with a sigh of disgust) Uh huh. (beat) Go on.
THERESE: I ... I didn't understand what he meant: moderate my desires. I thought that acting on my desires to be a saint was the way to be a good religious.
ALEXIS: Of course it is! Where do you think those desires come from—the moon?! They're God's gift to you, girl. God's holy gift. Was it not our divine Savior himself who commanded us: "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect?"
Alexis: Dear, good Sister—if you want God’s justice, you will have God’s justice…and nothing more.
THERESE: That's just what I said to Father.
ALEXIS: Do you think Saint Teresa received more grace than you? No she did not. But don't aim for her seraphic sanctity. Rather, aim for the perfection of God himself.
THERESE: I want to, Father. I want to believe this. I want to live this. But still ... I am driven to distraction by a saying I heard in a sermon several months ago.
ALEXIS: What is it?
THERESE: "No one knows whether one is worthy of love or hate."
ALEXIS: Oh, that's an easy one.
THERESE: (hopefully) Is it?
ALEXIS: Of course. We're all worthy of hate. (beat) Left to ourselves, outside of the agency of divine grace, all we are worthy of is hate and eternal death. Period.
THERESE: (beginning to weep) No, Father! No! Say it isn't so. I ... I cannot bear it.
ALEXIS: Be peaceful child.
THERESE: For eighteen months I have been tortured with the conviction that I am damned. I know ... I know this trial is a temptation from the devil. But even still, my soul is so distraught that I have come to the point of asking myself whether heaven really exists.
ALEXIS: Hm. No heaven.
THERESE: Yes, Father.
ALEXIS: That would be very sad.
THERESE: Yes, Father.
ALEXIS: Would you like me to prove to you that heaven exists?
THERESE: (after a pause ... choked with emotion) Yes, Father.
ALEXIS: Well then, where should we look?
THERESE: I don't know, Father. I don't know.
ALEXIS: Don't you. I think you do. You've already shown it to me.
THERESE: I have? Then why can't I see it?
ALEXIS: Maybe because you're dwelling too much on hell. Tell me some more about this little word that is distracting you so.
THERESE: Which word?
THERESE: Yes, worthy. To be worthy. I think I will never feel worthy. Even after I go to confession and I know God has forgiven me ... even after receiving absolution and being assured that I am in a state of grace—I begin to doubt it. And then all my old trials come screeching back. (beat) I was deathly ill as a child. But my scruples make me doubt even that. Was I ever really sick? Or did I make it all up? Did I pretend ... so as to get others' attention? I was ill. I didn't make it up! But why do I torture myself this way? The Blessed Virgin—a statue of Mary—she smiled at me in my illness. I saw it. I see it now. That smile ... the Queen of heaven ... healed me. Did I lie about that smile ... that miracle ... to make others think better of me? No! I saw it! What is this torment?
Alexis: God permits natural imperfections for one holy reason: to show us just how dependent we are on him…to persuade us never to let go of his loving hand…
ALEXIS: Blackmail. The devil wants to show you just how wretched and miserable you really are left to yourself so as to make you believe that that is the way you really are. And it is very convincing, isn't it, as all good blackmail is. Can make you desperate. And the enemy shall continue to triumph in his blackmail over you as long as you remain fixed upon justice instead of on abandonment and mercy.
THERESE: But God is a just God!
ALEXIS: Dear, good Sister—if you want God's justice, you will have God's justice...and nothing more. The soul receives exactly what it expects from God. And you expect, you desire much more in your soul than mere justice from God, don't you?
THERESE: Yes, Father. Much more.
ALEXIS: I know you do. That's where I see heaven in you. I want you to see it too.
THERESE: I want to see it.
ALEXIS: Then live in this truth: God may be a God of justice, but he is first and foremost a Father. A Father who loves and wants to be loved. A Father who is more tender than a mother. And all he asks from you is confidence and surrender. Abandonment to his mercy. Humility. And that is precisely what his justice-obsessed children refuse him. And so God the Father remains Love who is not loved. And that is even sadder than the thought that there is no heaven.
THERESE: This is true! I know it! I know it with all my soul! But how! How can I love the Father the way that he deserves to be loved with all my faults and shortcomings that give him so much offense and pain?!
ALEXIS: You remind me of someone.
ALEXIS: A disciple of Saint Francis named Brother Ruffino—a holy man whom the devil seduced into thinking he was damned.
THERESE: Just like my temptation!
ALEXIS: The devil made him think his whole Franciscan life was a complete sham. And he shamed Brother Ruffino into not telling Saint Francis about it. That's exactly where the devil wants us: locked up in our guilt. Because then he's got us. Trapped like a rat in our own soul.
ALEXIS: The devil even appeared to him in the form of the crucified Christ and told him that he was damned, that Saint Francis was damned, and the everyone who followed him was damned.
THERESE: So what happened?
ALEXIS: Well, the Holy Spirit told Saint Francis that the devil was deceiving poor Brother Ruffino. So Francis sent for him and said: "Oh Brother Ruffino, you naughty boy! Who are you going around believing? The wretched thing that appeared to you is the devil! It's not our Blessed Savior! And you should have known that by the way it hardened your tender heart to everything that is good. For that is the evil one's abominable job. It's what he does best."
THERESE: But how did it end? How did he get rid of the devil?
ALEXIS: Shall I tell you?
THERESE: Yes! By all means!
ALEXIS: But I must warn you: it's rather...saucy...shocking even.
THERESE: I'm not delicate.
ALEXIS: No, Sister, you are not. I can tell that about you. Well, this is what Saint Francis of Assisi said to poor, afflicted Brother Ruffino. He said: "Brother, the next time that devil says to you, 'You are damned,' you just say back to him: 'Oh enemy of the human race, open wide your mouth...and I will empty my bowels in it!'"
Therese: God can’t inspire impossible desires. So I can aspire to holiness… even despite my littleness.
THERESE: Saint Francis of Assisi said that?
ALEXIS: Apparently. Although it's even more graphic in Italian. (beat) And the point is that when you live abandoned to the mercy of our loving Father, then the devil flees in horror at the confidence grace gives you. Why do you fret at your shortcomings and defects? These natural imperfections do not cause God any sorrow or pain. They are the means by which he will make you a great saint. Only a hardened, doubting heart hurts God. God does not call to himself those who are worthy. Who in the world is worthy? Rather, God elects those whom he pleases through his mercy. God loves us because he is good-not because we are! Don't you think God sees and knows those things in us that need perfecting? And couldn't God change those things in an instant? Of course he could! Then why doesn't he? Because he wants us to believe that he loves us just the way we are right now! Only his love can make us worthy of his love! How foolish it is to think we can repair and perfect and improve on our own all those weaknesses we see in ourselves so as to try to make ourselves "worthy" of his love. That is absurdity! Blasphemy! And our abysmal failure at such foolish schemes is precisely what makes us feel damned! And how then the devil delights in our agony. How he rushes to use it to his dastardly advantage. No, dear sister, your struggles with holiness do not give God any sorrow—they give him joy. They give him joy because God, as a good Father, loves you more when he sees you struggling so earnestly with these trials. Because that is the moment you need to be loved more. Ah! What a wonderful privilege. A mystery. A paradox. So let God love you the way he wants to: by himself removing all the evil in your soul by an act of love that makes you lovable.
THERESE: I have never heard any of this before. Why has no one ever told me that our natural imperfections cannot cause God any pain?
ALEXIS: God permits them for one holy reason: to show us just how dependent we are on him...to persuade us never to let go of his loving hand...to teach us how God wants to recreate and sanctify us out of our nothingness. That is why he leaves us with our imperfection. So that we can let him love us more as we turn it over to him in confidence.
THERESE: (with great peace) Yes.
ALEXIS: You understand all this, don't you.
THERESE: Yes. And it is filling and expanding my soul with such assurance...with the very joy that I need to bear patiently with the exile of life.
ALEXIS: You're not exiled, dear sister. If you do what I'm describing, then the Father grabs you and holds you tight in his arms and loves you, loves you, loves you—not because of anything you have, not because of anything you've done...or not done—but only because you are his! He loves you because you are his! And to live forever confidently as a little child in the Father's embrace—even if you cannot feel it—that, my dear sister, that is heaven. "Eternal life is this: to know the Father and the one whom he has sent, Jesus Christ." And you know him. That is the heaven I see in you without seeing you. See it for yourself now—and believe!
THERESE: (weeping) Oh! I love him! My God...I love you!
ALEXIS: Now listen to me very carefully, my beloved daughter. For what I am about to say is not Alexis Prou speaking. Rather, I am speaking to you as a priest in the name of God himself and on his behalf as I say to you: God is exceedingly pleased with you. He rejoices over you with gladness, and he renews you in his love-he sings joyfully because of you.
THERESE: Oh, Father! I feel like a little boat that you have launched full sail on the waves of confidence and love.
ALEXIS: Sail away to the heavens!
THERESE: You have shown me, Father, that our infinite desires are neither dreams nor fantasies. Now I see how the smallest details of my life are guided by God. He is the one who makes us desire and who grants our desires. And how merciful is the way that God has led me. Never has he given me the desire for anything which he has not given me. Even his bitter chalice seems delightful to me. God can't inspire impossible desires. So I can aspire to holiness...even despite my littleness. It is impossible for me to grow up, and so I guess I just have to bear with myself such as I am with all my imperfections. And when after death I appear before my beloved Jesus, I shall have only my desires to offer him. Will they be enough?
Alexis: God the Father grabs you and holds you tight in his arms and loves you, loves you, loves you—not because of anything you have, not because of anything you’ve done…or not done—but only because you are his!
(During THERESE'S speech, ALEXIS, overcome with emotion at what he is hearing, rises and then kneels, weeping, as he listens to her testimony.)
ALEXIS: Yes, dear sister. They will be enough. More than enough. You are a true child of God. A true, holy child of God.
THERESE: Father, I can never thank you as you deserve. (beat) May I come to speak with you again before you leave?
ALEXIS: Certainly, Sister. You come as often as you like. I'll look forward to it. In the meantime, say a prayer for this weak, unworthy, old priest.
THERESE: I will. Count on it, Father.
ALEXIS: I will. God bless you, Sister.
(ALEXIS remains kneeling...moved...absorbed. As THERESE rises and crosses, she meets GONZAGUE who enters from one side. THERESE is beaming with joy, and GONZAGUE detects it...and doesn't like it.)
THERESE: Oh, Mother!
GONZAGUE: Sister Therese! I have not had the opportunity to thank you as I should for the selfless, valiant care you gave the community during the influenza epidemic. What would we have done without you?
THERESE: Oh, Mother...
GONZAGUE: No. I mean it. You may have saved our lives...my life...Sister Therese. In fact, if a prioress were to be chosen out of the whole community, I would not hesitate to choose Sister Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, in spite of her youth. She is perfect in everything. Her only drawback is having her three sisters with her.
THERESE: I have come to Carmel to serve.
GONZAGUE: And you do it well. Continue to. I am never wrong about my vocations, am I. (she lovingly touches THERESE'S face.) My own daughter. (she turns to exit, then turns back) Oh, Sister Therese, one last thing. As your religious superior, I forbid you to speak to the retreat master, Father Prou, ever again. Do you understand me?
THERESE: (deflated, flabbergasted) Of course, Mother. Whatever you will, Mother. (GONZAGUE exits. Darkness slowly descends on THERESE and ALEXIS. The OBOE plays.)
The Sacrament of Memory is a play about the life of Therese Martin, a 19th Century Carmelite nun known to millions as the 'Little Flower,' St. Therese of Lisieux. Born in France in 1873, Therese should by all accounts have lived an anonymous life, in a convent in an obscure town—not achieving lasting devotion from millions throughout the world. The Sacrament of Memory illustrates the religious and political world, which surrounded Sister Therese. She was transformed from a child of privilege—coming to understand how small, daily acts of love were just as important as great deeds of magnificence, in finding meaning in life. Following her death at age 24 from tuberculosis in 1897, her message of "The Little Way" spread, attracting millions of adherents.