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The spirituality of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin

Model used for statue of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin.

Spirituality, the fundamental, underlying way in which a person relates to God, to other people and to oneself, is not merely an attitude toward God, an acceptable way to worship God, or a certain set of beliefs about God. Spirituality certainly flows from these relationships, but it is much more fundamental than any of them. Spirituality is who one is at the deepest level of being.

Who then was Mother Theodore Guerin? She was a French woman formed in what is now known as the French School of Spirituality that emerged in the years following the French Revolution. The spirituality of that school emphasized the Incarnate Word, encouraging humility, obedience and self-abnegation in response to the person and the life of the Word made flesh. That spirituality was part of the warp and weft of Mother Theodore’s person. She learned and lived it in France; she brought it to Indiana. As a result, she always exhibited a strong sense of a personal relationship with Jesus, most especially in the Eucharist.

Her times of receiving the Eucharist may have been for Mother Theodore the pinnacle of her moments of prayer. In one of her instructions to the Congregation, she says of the Eucharist, “If we truly knew how to appreciate it, it alone would suffice to fortify and sustain us.” And her advice to her sisters for many years was, “Send your heart a thousand times a day to adore our Lord really and truly present in the Holy Sacrament.”

Mother Theodore speaks often also, in her letters and in her instructions to her sisters, of the human qualities of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, of Jesus the Divine Infant, and of the importance of Mary and Joseph to Jesus as he grew up depending on them. Mary, in particular, occupied a central place in her devotion. One of her strongest desires, which she writes about very early, was to build a beautiful church in honor of Mary, the Mother of Jesus.

There was a definite human quality and simplicity to Mother Theodore’s perception of God. She writes: “[God] shares our miserable dwelling with us. He remains with us day and night. Yes, while you are peacefully sleeping Jesus is watching over you.” “The spirit of faith consists in doing our actions for God, in His presence, to look upon all events of life as directed by Him.” (Quotes from the Positio and Mother Theodore’s Instructions on Faith)

Hers was also a spirituality of acceptance. She had not volunteered for the mission to the United States because she felt her poor health would be a hindrance to its success. Yet, when the French Superior said the mission would not be undertaken if she did not agree to lead it, she poured herself fully into the work of making the mission in Indiana a reality. Her ability to accept difficulties, some of them enormous and seemingly insurmountable, seems to have come from strength deep within her person. There is little doubt that this inner strength was a result of her fundamental, indeed mystical, relationship with Jesus who was with her always. Her deeply personal, felt relationship with Jesus gave Mother Theodore the capacity to accept whatever it was that God asked of her. Her concept of Providence convinced her that whatever circumstances were presented to her in life they were gifts of God. They were to be accepted without question — and that simple acceptance would make her able to accept also the pain that might accompany them.

The primary virtue underlying her understanding of Providence and her belief in Jesus as a personal friend was love. Throughout her life Mother Theodore cherished, exhibited and shared her understanding of love as the fundamental Christian virtue. Many of her letters and instructions mention the centrality of love: the need to love everyone, no matter who, no matter what their relationship to you, no matter whether they were rich or poor, no matter whether they loved you in return. Mother Theodore lived and taught by her words and actions that love was the fundamental quality of the life of a Christian and that, only through love, would one be able to reach heaven. One of her fundamental instructions to her sisters as teachers was to “love the children first, then teach them.”

For Mother Theodore the spirituality of love and the spirituality of acceptance were often intertwined. “Charity,” she said, “consists in loving sincerely persons whose inclinations are most opposed to ours, in pardoning those who injure us. Charity does not consist in loving one or two persons and being indifferent to all the rest.”

Possibly the characteristic that stands out most strongly to anyone who reads Mother Theodore’s letters and journals is her common sense approach to life. As close as she was to Jesus, as much as her thrust was always toward heaven, yet she was always fully conscious and aware of the human characteristics of everyone with whom she came in contact, especially her sisters. She knew their weaknesses, but she saw their strengths even before they saw them. In her letters Mother Theodore encouraged and walked with each one, always through loving counsel — and often with very direct advice. For instance, to Sister Basilide she writes, “The talent of a good superior is to require of each one only what she can give. Up to this time you have not known how to deal with a person who is in the wrong. Perhaps you are not able to do so. I must not myself require from you more than you can give.” To Sister Maria, “You have the experience, moreover, of how unhappy you are when you yield to your caprices. This, it seems to me, should make you take once for all, and keep, the resolution to do better.” To Sister Mary Xavier, “Endeavor to curb your temper with the children. Remember that you have not only to teach them how to sew, but also how to become meek, humble, patient, etc., and this kind of lesson is given much better by example than by precept.”

Always a visionary, Mother Theodore’s vision was nonetheless founded on the realities of life as she saw it and lived it. Though she had said — “all appearances are against it” — concerning the founding of an Academy at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods in the wilderness of Indiana, she nonetheless set her energies to do it. Though she knew no English before she came to Indiana, she learned it quickly and used it in innumerable letters and contacts with American businessmen. Though she was a French woman dealing with American men who had had very few dealings with women in the area of business, she dealt directly and firmly with them, despite the fact that they found it often extremely difficult to deal with a woman.

Another important aspect of the spirituality of Mother Theodore was her response to the natural world. She rarely failed to draw attention to the beauties or the forces of nature that surrounded her, and always interpreted these natural phenomena as one of the faces of God. On her second overseas journey she spoke of going on deck each evening to bless God for all the wonders of his creation. “In the Gulf of Mexico there are vast numbers of flying fish, which would be the prey of the larger ones, were it not that God, as if to supply for their exceeding weakness, has given them wings wherewith to escape the voracity of their enemies. This, too, is our state, was my reflection; God has given us the wings of prayer to enable us to escape the snares of the devil. But, although these little fishes find safety in the air, they are unable to support themselves in it long, owing to the structure of their wings; plus their nature in this respect is not unlike ours, since they are obliged to live a good deal among their enemies.” So often her understanding of who we are as human beings was clarified and expanded by her understanding of the natural world around us.

And so, by looking at her in many circumstances of her life, we intuit the fundamental spirituality that gave Mother Theodore the ability to lead her poor and small Congregation into an expanded and fruitful future. That spirituality was based on a deep, personal, mystic relationship with Jesus; on a pragmatic acceptance of whatever came as the gift of God; on a deep and genuine love of everyone, no matter who they were; on a fundamentally common sense approach to life that saw all of life as a gift, sometimes happy, sometimes not; and on a belief that the natural world carried with it powerful messages for all of us as human beings.

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Sister Jeanne Knoerle

Sister Jeanne Knoerle was a Sister of Providence for 64 years. She taught for many years at schools in Illinois, Indiana, and Washington, D.C. and was the president of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College from 1968 to 1983. Sister Jeanne passed away in June 2013. Read Sister Jeanne’s Obituary here.

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