Over the last few weeks, my soul has been guided by one of the best spiritual teachers not on earth.
And today, we celebrate her feast day in the western Church.
St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, known to many as “the Little Flower”, has been embraced by many people the world over since her canonization in 1925.
Many things make her story captivating. She entered a small, austere religious community at age 15, having traveled to meet the Pope to seek his permission the year before because of her youth. She lived an obscure life, seeking no attention for herself, dying of tuberculosis at age 24. In addition to her great physical suffering, she experienced extensive periods of spiritual aridity that she bore with peace, even joy.
We know of her and her “little way” to holiness only because she was ordered to write before she died – and she did so out of obedience. (O blessed obedience!)
As I began re-reading her autobiography in these recent weeks, I came to realize that I did not understand – or remember – what her little way really was. It sounds so simple that one can easily comprehend the meaning of the words. But to consistently live them is something else altogether.
I will allow her to explain:
St. Thérèse described the way of “spiritual childhood”, acknowledging that “I am but a weak and helpless child.” But as a child, she did not fret over her weaknesses but rather instructed, “let us in all humility take our place among the imperfect, and look upon ourselves as little souls who at every instant need to be upheld by the goodness of God.”
Thus, as a spiritual child, she knew she was going to stumble and be imperfect. And she had complete trust that she was loved by her Father. Yet there is more…
She wanted to show her love for her Divine Spouse but knew that she was not capable of great acts.
“But how shall I show my love, since love proves itself by deeds? Well! The little child will strew flowers . . . she will embrace the Divine Throne with their fragrance, she will sing Love’s Canticle in silvery tones. Yes, my Beloved, it is thus my short life shall be spent in Thy sight. The only way I have of proving my love is to strew flowers before Thee—that is to say, I will let no tiny sacrifice pass, no look, no word. I wish to profit by the smallest actions, and to do them for Love. I wish to suffer for Love’s sake, and for Love’s sake even to rejoice: thus shall I strew flowers. Not one shall I find without scattering its petals before Thee . . . and I will sing . . . I will sing always, even if my roses must be gathered from amidst thorns; and the longer and sharper the thorns, the sweeter shall be my song.” (emphasis mine).
As she tells of her life in the convent, she explains how she volunteered to assist the most difficult of elderly nuns so that she can smile sweetly when criticized. When falsely accused of some misdeed, she quietly accepted it. Irritated by another’s restless noise at prayer, she offered acceptance of this as a gift to her Beloved.
She also refused to indulge her small but powerful desires, e.g. to seek the attention of a superior or one of her sisters who was also in the community.
She practiced her little way day in and day out, with each little discomfort, inconvenience and sacrifice born out of love for the Savior, until “I have reached a point where I can no longer suffer, because all suffering is become so sweet.”
I have often been puzzled by some of the great saints of both Catholic and Orthodox traditions who not only patiently endure the suffering given them but actually seem to crave suffering or to take action to bring themselves more.
Is there not enough suffering that comes naturally with being human that we have to create more? Does not God want us to enjoy the beauty of the life He has given us? Does He really want us to damage our bodies with rigorous asceticism?
I am most certainly not holy enough to understand the graces given to these great saints. For surely this manner in which they enter into suffering is a grace, as peculiar as it may seem to many of us.
I can say this with some certainty because of this holy guide who has been teaching me these past few weeks with her little way.
If my heart is to be united to the heart of Christ, how could it not suffer? The love of the Savior is not a love of comfortable and sentimental emotion. It is a love that sacrifices, that suffers, that gives all.
My own small self (yes, I am learning just how small I am) cannot love like that. I am too weak and selfish. But perhaps He will help me empty my heart of self through these little acts, done out of love.
I am only capable of small suffering. I know this about myself – and then, only with His help.
Yet, if I persist in the little way of my teacher, my heart will become empty, making room that my Beloved might come and dwell there. From my small heart, He can thus bring the fullness of His love to my little corner of the world.
Is there anything more beautiful I could hope to do with my life?
Quotes in this post were taken from The Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St.Thérèse of Lisieux With Additional Writings and Sayings of St. Thérèse. The Kindle version of this book is available for free through Amazon (here).
Also, see companion piece at oholyearth.com for photo reflections. Blessings.