About six weeks ago I made a retreat at a Carmelite monastery. It should come as no surprise to you that while I was there I was re-introduced to St Thérèse of Lisieux (or St Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, or, as she is often known, the “Little Flower”). It was something of a surprise to me, though. I’ve never had a particularly strong devotion to her, though I always have respected and admired her. (She did send me a rose, however, which I asked for as a sign that my friend Laura had entered Heaven. Before St Thérèse died, she said she would send from Heaven a “shower of roses” upon the earth, that is, graces from God, but prayers answered through her intercession are often accompanied by the unexpected gift of a rose, in one way or another.) My former lack of devotion seems to be changing now, and I think we’re becoming friends. After all, St Thérèse said that after her death she would spend her Heaven doing good here below, and one of the things she said was, “I will help priests…”
This is probably my favorite picture of her. She was about eight years old then. Very cute, of course, but with a wisdom in her eyes well beyond her years—and also a hint of a smile that says she sees and knows way more than I do, and she is eager to share as much of it as my earthbound soul can receive.
I’ve recently finished reading a book about her “Little Way” of spiritual life, an old one, probably not readily available now. It is called Spiritual Childhood, by Msgr. Vernon Johnson. The author is notable in that he was convert to the Catholic Church from Anglicanism, and he attributes the turning point in this process to his reading of St Thérèse’s autobiography. The quotes here will be from his book.
As for her being called the Little Flower, she gave that name to herself. She was reflecting upon a time, as she wrote in her autobiography, when her father, “plucking a little white flower growing on a low stone wall, gave it to me and remarked with what loving care God had brought it to bloom and preserved it until that day. I thought I was listening to my own life story, so close was the resemblance between the little flower and little Thérèse…”
More important is her Little Way. Littleness, that is, humility and the complete, confident dependence upon God’s grace that comes from it, characterized the whole of the saint’s spirituality. She never attempted great ascetical feats, nor did she do anything that would be considered an extraordinary achievement in the eyes of the world. Her greatness lay in the fact that she consistently did little things out of love, and it was this undying love that advanced her rapidly on the path of sanctity.
Msgr. Johnson says this about “the central secret of the Little Way: it is the way of little sacrifices. It cannot be emphasized too strongly that the whole of her teaching is based on trust and self-surrender—a self-surrender in which no sacrifice is ever to be considered too small or too great. The most trifling actions done out of love, and done cheerfully, are of great value in the eyes of God.” Perhaps the essence of the Little Way is concisely expressed thus by the saint: “I will let no little sacrifice escape me, not a look, not a word. I will make use of the smallest actions and I will do them all for love.” If we decided simply to refrain from all uncharitable looks or words, how many fruitful sacrifices we would have to offer!
St Thérèse died in her twenties after a protracted and painful illness, enduring as well a long period of spiritual trial in which her accustomed intimacy with God seemed all but obliterated. But both her faith and love were strong enough to keep her offering, with trust in the Lord, the sacrifices these trials required.
We say that she offered little things out of love, but some of these things were not really so little (even aside from her intense physical sufferings due to her illness). She spent many winter nights shivering in an unheated room, but never complained about it. She endured misunderstandings and irksome annoyances from some of her sisters in the convent, but she did not defend herself or respond in kind. In short, she lived a life that was much harsher exteriorly and more demanding interiorly than that which most Americans live, and she welcomed opportunities to prove her love by offering everything to God, to win grace for souls in need. I think we might be ashamed if we looked at the minor things we routinely complain about or resist, refusing to make a little sacrifice out of love for God.
There’s an important passage in Msgr. Vernon’s book that helps us understand the basis of the Little Way. To embrace this way is to shift our world-view from a self-centered one to a God-centered one—and this is hardly a little thing! In fact, the Little Way is relentlessly demanding and requires a thorough inner conversion and purification. Here is how he explains it:
“To the really little, to the really humble, to the soul, that is to say, that is completely dependent upon God, the whole universe and every detail of human life within it is a unity. The smallest thing on earth is inseparably linked with heaven. It is the humble who see things in their totality, because for them, God is the center of everything. Their life therefore is a harmony, and they are at peace. On the other hand, the more grown-up we are, the more self-reliant and independent we become, the more is this truth hidden from our eyes, precisely because, self being the center, we see things only after a fragmentary fashion. Life is full of discord and conflict, we become anxious and rebellious and know no peace.”
It may be that we view the events in our lives primarily from the perspective of how everything relates to, or affects us, and not how things might fit into the plan of God. I have to work everything to my advantage, and so I fall to pieces if my plans are upset or some unexpected thing happens or I’m faced with some disappointment or apparent setback. But if I considered things from the perspective of God’s holy will and wise providence, I would seek to correspond to his plan, try to see the events in the light of that great unity of “things in heaven and things on earth” that are held together in the eternal mystery of Christ (see Col. 1:15-20).
Everything lies within the providence and power of God, so we should be able to trust Him absolutely. In sickness or in health, in sorrow or in joy, we should not think either that life is a series of random absurd occurrences, or, if we have to suffer, that God is withholding his love from us. When Thérèse was just a girl, she was seriously ill and near death. As she prayed, she looked toward a favorite statue of Our Lady, which suddenly “became animated” with an indescribable heavenly presence and beauty, for the Mother of God had come to visit her. Our Lady simply smiled upon the dying girl and she was instantly healed! This manifests both the unity of Heaven and Earth mentioned above as well as the fact that nothing is beyond the power of God, who often delights in working through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin and the saints. Knowing this, St Thérèse did not complain when the Lord didn’t heal her of the illness that eventually claimed her life. She trusted him like a child trusts a loving father, and so she joyfully offered her great sufferings for the salvation of souls and as an act of continual love for Our Lord.
I marked about 25 passages in this little book for further reflection, so what I’ve shared here is just a hint of the profound value and fruitfulness of the Little Way. I’ve learned some lessons, and I think the Little Flower has been sent to me to help me grow in my spiritual life, to make it bear much more fruit. I’ve become quite enamored of her, and I hope by her intercession to somehow begin to do all things with love and a greater spirit of humility and sacrifice. I prayed a novena to her to prepare for her feast day some weeks ago, and toward the end of it, someone unexpectedly dropped by with a gift of several flower arrangements: roses, roses, roses!