The Little Way of Therese (part1)

There is only one sadness in life: not to be a saint (Leon Bloy).

As we celebrate the Solemnity of All Saints, I see no one more fitting than St.Therese of Lisieux, my friend, my guide, my favorite saints, my aspiration and inspiration, to offer to my readers. She teaches us in very simple ways how to become a saint through her little way.

imagesWhat is the “Little Way” of St. Therese anyway? It is to become like a little child and acknowledge our powerlessness before the mighty God. As she puts it at the very beginning of her autobiography, “God’s Love is made manifest as well in a simple soul that does not resist His grace as in one more highly endowed”. Self-abasement is the characteristic of love; it seems that God enjoys coming to little souls. If all souls resembled the holy Doctors who have illuminated the Church, it seems that God would not stoop low enough. But He has created the little child, who knows nothing and can but utter feeble cries, and the poor savage who has only the natural law to guide him, and it is to their hearts that He deigns to stoop”.[1]

As the German writer Rudolf Stertenbrink puts it, “at the center of Theresian spirituality stands the concept of being a child in the presence of God”.[2] Therese wanted nothing more than to become more and more a child in the presence of God. Let us probe into the essence of a child! A child knows that it is nothing in and of itself; it has nothing; it can do nothing. A child is weak, innocent, naïve, and utterly dependent on others. A child has to look up because it expects everything to come from above. That’s what Therese believes will bring us in radical friendship with God. As she puts it in a letter to her sister Leonie on July 12, 1896:

“Look at a little child who has just vexed its mother, either by giving way to temper or by disobedience. If he hides in a corner and is sulky, or if he cries for fear of being punished, his mother will certainly not forgive the fault. But should he run to her with its little arms outstretched, and say: “Kiss me, Mother; I will not do it again!” what mother would not straightway clasp her child lovingly to her heart, and forget all it had done? …She knows quite well that her little one will repeat the fault—no matter, her darling will escape all punishment so long as it makes appeal to her heart.[3]

501a5172db413080cab0e8a0e172dd58With this, there is nothing counterintuitive about spiritual childish. As Stertenbrink asserts, “who is it within us who believes, hopes, prays, forgives, loves, and trusts? Who is it within us who weeps and laughs?”[4] It is the child at the bottom of our heart. The children within us is the part that most resembles the creator. A person who wants to brow and flourish must not lose contact with the child within. The disciples rebuked the little children who were coming to Jesus perhaps because they had lost contact with the child lying within their souls (cf. Luke 18:15-17). The perspective constitutes a fundamental characteristic of the Little Way. Whoever discovers this child hidden deep within is saved from dependence upon the past and fear of the future. It becomes possible in “the present moment”.[5] I bet there are some reading this who are caught up in the past mistakes. The Little Way offers a way out. Anyone can try it. If you fail, you just try again.

The ‘Little Way’ does not come without a fight. As a novice master, observing the novices, she noticed, “all souls have more or less the same battles to fight”.[6] So they need purification in order to be at the service of God. In a letter she sent her sister Céline on July 7, 1894, she reminds her of the spiritual dryness our soul sometimes undergoes as we journey in this valley of tears. “I went down into the garden to see… if the vineyard had flourished, but the pomegranates were in bud…”(cf. Song of songs 6:10, 11). There are times when the sweet consolations of God’s love and mercy are only “arid and waterless waste”. Since we are wayfarers, we feel “as gold is tired in the fire so must our souls be purified by temptation”.[7] What must be the proper attitude in these trying periods? She suggests that we fight even without the hope of winning the battle.[8] We must keep going no matter how strong the struggle may be.

One night, she had a dream in which soldiers were needed for a war; she readily accepts to go. Not surprisingly, her heroes were the Crucified Jesus and the martyrs. To make Christ known, she would not mind being mistreated like the crucified Lord, flayed like St. Bartholomew, plunged into boiling oil like St. John, ground by the teeth of wild beasts like St. Ignatius of Antioch, a bread worthy of God. She would offer my neck to the sword of the executioner like St. Agnes and St. Cecilia, and like Joan of Arc she would murmur the name of Jesus at the stake.[9] Although she was not privileged enough to suffer martyrdom, she fought to do every small acts as if it were her last act. In the same way, to master the little way, we must be armed with the spirit of the sword fighting as if that was our only chance; we never fight alone; Jesus, who had come to bring not peace but war, empowers us to fight and fights for us. We become victorious through these fights. Is there any winner who did not have to fight/struggle? Thats what makes the victory succulent actually. Victory is won at the point of the sword.[10]st-therese-1

The ‘Little Way’ is the way of love. Realizing that she is not called to the battlefield like a warrior, or to die at the stake like Joan of Arc— the heroine of France– “God made me understand that my personal glory would never reveal itself before the eyes of men, but that it would consist in becoming a Saint”[11]— she commits herself to battle by means of love. Inspired by the sight of a statue of The Blessed Joan of Arc, she prayed, “I burn to do battle for Thy Glory…. I know the warfare in which I am to engage; it is not on the open field I shall fight… My sword is Love! O my Jesus! I will do battle, then, for Thy love, until the evening of my life”.[12] She believes that no battle is fiercer and more final than the battle of love conducted with the sword of the spirit.[13] That battle is against the flesh, the will to power, the pharisaic attitude of self-glorification persisting in the faith. Fighting to love is the only worthy battle. When we fight with assiduous passion, “the heavenly militia comes to my aid since it cannot bear seeing us defeated after being victorious in the battle of love”.[14] We fight more courageously when we have heaven fighting for us and that’s our great victory.[15] So while we must be coward in the battle against the flesh, the battle to love must be fought relentlessly. If we persevere, then the heart becomes bolder and we will march from victory to victory.[16] Fight! Fight! Fight!

In the next post, I will give more concrete examples of what the little way entails.

[1] Story of a soul, 14

[2] Rudolf Stertenbrink, Wisdom of the Little Flower, 22

[3] Therese Letter 3, July 12, 1896

[4] Stertenbrink, 21

[5] ibid 21

[6] Story of a soul, 239

[7] Letter 18, July 7, 1894.

[8] Counsels and reminiscences of Therese, the little flower,

[9] Story of a Soul, 193

[10] Urs Von Balthazar, Therese, 171

[11] Story of a Soul, 72

[12] Prayer inspired by a statue of Joan of Arc,

[13] Von Balthazar, 174

[14] Story of a Soul, 222

[15] ibid

[16] Von Balthazar, 172


Holy Innovation

Holiness is the birthright of the church’s life. The nearer a person is placed to the church’s reservoir of sanctity, the more that person is obligated to live it according to how the church conceives it. One’s sanctity is confirmed in, by, and for the church; otherwise, it is madness. An individual is not left to choose the way in which he will lay down her life for Christ outside the circle of the revealed truth. However, the church unabashedly urges the faithful to pursue their vocation because she believes that each person is unique and made for a unique vocation. As Von Balthazar puts it, “for each Christian, God has an sublime, unique, and personal Idea and fixes his place within the membership of the church”.[1] The fulfillment of God’s will is to enter into this plan; that’s the gateway to the happy life insofar that’s possible in this life.

Observing the life of the church through the way the saints had lived it, two types emerge. On one hand, we have the typical type who lives the Christian revelation through the normal, ordinary, and unspectacular way. They blossom in the garden of the church and adorn her with their fragrant and eloquent beauty without adding new colors. Most of the saints belong to that category. On the other hand, we have the big guns, bigger than life. They don’t follow the status quo, and yet they are not heretics. They were handpicked as a vessel of election for something unique, spectacular, and unprecedented. What these big fish do left the “small” saints stagnate in mediocrity as if they have done nothing. Their mission flashes across the dome of the church like lightning from heaven and lights up some specific and unique aspect of revelation unknown beforehand. History and time confirm their works as a necessary rock to the edifice of the church. What they do and say are irrefutable, beyond question, and they are prime members. We call them doctors of the church. There are only 33 of them.

aaLet’s look at St. Therese of Lisieux for example. Died at 24, never went to college, cloistered at 14, yet was canonized only 25 years after her death, and now stands as a doctor of the church. She displays the marks of a very defined and exceptional character. Though she had never left the cloistered walls of Carmel, in 1927, she is declared the patroness of Missionaries alongside a towering figure like St Francis Xavier, who brought the Gospel in Central America. In the homily declaring her a doctor of the church, John Paul II states, “when the Magisterium proclaims someone a doctor of the Church, it intends to point out to all the faithful that… the doctrine professed and proclaimed by that person is a reference point. That means it not only conforms to revealed truth, it also sheds new light on the mysteries of the faith, and gives deeper understanding of Christ’s mystery” (3).

What did St. Therese do worthy of being the patroness of missionaries? What is the doctrine upon which she shed light? After receiving a special grace on Christmas Eve 1886, she became animated with a great zeal and ardent desire for souls. “Like His apostles,” she writes, “I have fished all night and caught nothing. [At last], more merciful to me than the disciples, Jesus took the net. He made of me a fisher of souls. I experienced a great desire to work for the conversion of sinners, a desire I hadn’t experienced so intensely before”.[2] So when she was asked why she is entering Carmel, she answered, “I came to save souls and to pray for priests”.[3] She will spend the rest of her life in contemplation of the cross of the Lord, and so doing beg the Lord to save and convert sinners. However, it is how she conceives her time in heaven that bestowed the worthy name of being the patroness of missionaries. It is that same understanding that makes John Paul say that she “shed new lights of the mystery of faith”.

What is heaven for St. Therese? She has always been absorbed in the present moment of God’s grace. She lives out of love, through love, and for love; she lives a love that’s not her own. She participates in the very love of God. love is not bound by time. Consequently, she has no difficulty interpreting the laws of the next world in the term of the circumstances surrounding her love in this world. There’s no difference between her mission in this world and that of heaven. It will be similar when she’s in heaven. Out of love she was praying for priest and the salvation of souls, so that same love will spur her on in heaven. She vowed not to take rest in heaven. “When I die, I will send down a shower of roses from the heavens, I will spend my heaven by doing good on earth”. That’s how she will take care all souls and missionaries scattered throughout the world. Wait! Is heaven not eternal rest anymore? For her, the good God would never inspire her with this desire unless he meant to fulfill it after her death. Clearly, she cannot do it before her death. It has got to be in heaven. As von Balthazar puts it, “it is as though heaven is a garment that has to fit her”.[4] She knows the measure of her unconditional love. The next world must be compatible with it. She is convinced that she will not be inactive in heaven. On her deathbed, she asserts that if “I am leaving the battlefield, it is not to seek repose”.

deathAlthough that may sound unorthodox to pious ears, this understanding of heaven as restlessness echoes some of the church Fathers’ view. We must not be selfish; in heaven, we are no longer wayfarers, so we can focus on helping those striving to get there. The idea that heaven is eternal happiness where all movements cease and we rest in God after the restlessness of this world does not fit the infinite depth of God. As she saw it, heaven is eternal love not eternal happiness because love, which is infinitely richer and deeper than happiness, more fittingly defines God’s being.[5] The greatness of this claim resides not because it comes from a great saint, far from it, it gives us food for thought because she had lived it herself.

It is within this backdrop that she is made patroness of missionaries and doctor of the church. That signifies that if she actually follows through with her plan, all missionaries under her tutelage will be successful. If they are successful, that’s something we had never thought was possible. That’s a breakthrough for us in our effort to understand the exhaustible economy of revelation. If all the above are true, she deserves all titles she receives.

[1] Von Balthazar, Therese of Lisieux, intro p xii

[2] John Clarke, the autobiography of st therese of lisieux, 3rd ed. P98-99

[3] 149

[4] von Balthazar, therese of lisieux, 31

[5] Von Balthazar, 33