As a gift for the feast of St. Therese of Lisieux I publish below an excerpt from my conference "A Map of Therese's Way":
During Thérèse’s illness Céline asked her
“Do you believe I can still hope to be with you in heaven? This seems impossible to me. It’s like e, xpecting a cripple with one arm to climb to the top of a greased pole to fetch an object.”
“Yes, but if there’s a giant who picks up the little cripple in his arms, raises him high, and gives him the object desired! This is exactly what God will do for you, but you must not be preoccupied about the matter; you must say to God, ‘I know very well that I’ll never be worthy of what I hope for, but I hold out my hand to You like a beggar, and I’m sure You will answer me fully, for You are so good!”[vi]
Thérèse’s littleness is not immaturity, but a complete detachment from self. She outlines for us a program of searching interior asceticism. She asks us to give up attachment to consolation in prayer, to beautiful thoughts, to complicated methods in the spiritual life, to all spiritual beauty-culture and all thought of ourselves as virtuous people.
“You are very little; remember that and, when one is very little, one doesn’t have beautiful thoughts.”[vii]
“For simple souls there must be no complicated ways.”[viii]
“O Mother! I am too little to have any vanity now, I am too little to compose beautiful sentences in order to have you believe that I have a lot of humility. I prefer to agree very simply that the Almighty has done great things in the soul of His divine Mother’s child, and the greatest thing is to have shown her her littleness, her impotence.”[ix]
To be little does not mean to have little hope, or little desire, or little love; it means to have no conceit, no attachment to self, but great love and great confidence in the power of God. “We can never expect too much of God, Who is at the same time merciful and almighty, and we shall receive from Him precisely as much as we confidently expect of Him.” Thérèse’s “littleness” is an experiential knowledge of the wholly gratuitous action of grace. What could be our frustration becomes our cause for joy. A child cannot take care of herself, cannot earn her living, so no one expects the child to do so. In the same way, if we acknowledge our littleness, God will accept full responsibility for us, but, if we try to go it alone, God may leave us to do so until we turn to God.
Thérèse said her way was related to the doctrine St. John of the Cross set forth in his The Ascent of Mount Carmel: “To come to possess all, desire the possession of nothing. To desire to be all, desire the possession of nothing.” At seventeen Thérèse wrote to her cousin, Marie Guérin:
Marie, if you are nothing, you must not forget that Jesus is All, so you must lose your little nothingness in His infinite All and think only of this uniquely lovable All. . . . You are mistaken, my darling, if you believe that your little Thérèse walks always with fervor on the road of virtue. She is weak and very weak, and every day she experiences has a new experience of this weakness, but, Marie, Jesus is pleased to teach her, as He did St. Paul, the science of rejoicing in her infirmities This is a great grace, and I beg Jesus to teach it to you, for peace and quiet of heart are to be found there only. When we see ourselves as so miserable, then we no longer wish to consider ourselves, and we look only on the unique Beloved! . . .
Dear little Marie, as for myself, I know no other means of reaching perfection but (love).[xii]
The teenaged Thérèse turned away from the classical ideal of sanctity: that a saint must be perfect, a brave, vigorous person who “walks always with fervor on the road of virtue.” The ideal of sanctity set before her at Lisieux Carmel included physical mortification, anxious attention to one’s state of soul, and collecting “good deeds” to enrich one’s reward in heaven. Thérèse said firmly that these methods were not for her or for “little souls.” And the life Thérèse led was not what most of the people around her expected of a saint. Sister Anne of the Sacred Heart, a nun from Saigon who lived with Thérèse for seven years before returning to Vietnam, was often asked about Thérèse after she became famous. She invariably answered: “There is nothing to say about her, she was very good and very self-effacing, one would not notice her, never would I have suspected her sanctity.”[xiii]
Most of the nuns who lived with Thérèse did not venerate her during her lifetime. She was misunderstood and rejected just as we are. Pauline said that Thérèse “often had to suffer from people’s dislike of her, from clashes of temperament or of mood, and, indeed, from spite and jealousy on the part of certain sisters . . .”[xiv]
Sister Marie-Madeleine, the novice who used to run away and hide when it was time for her to see Thérèse for spiritual direction, testified:
“She was unknown and even misunderstood in the convent. About half the sisters said she was a good little nun, a gentle person, but that she had never had to suffer and that her life had been rather insignificant. The others . . . had a more unfavorable view of her . . . they said she had been spoiled by her sisters.”[xv]
Sister Vincent de Paul once said:
“I cannot understand why they talk about Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus as if she were a saint. She does nothing extraordinary; we do not see her practicing virtue; it cannot even be said that she is a really good nun.”[xvi]
“She does nothing extraordinary. We do not see her practicing virtue.” This testimony speaks volumes about the way of confidence and love. In place of extraordinary deeds, Thérèse proposes a way of deep interior detachment, a childlike and spousal intimacy with God, and a life of hidden love.
“I am not always faithful, but I never get discouraged.”
Like us, Thérèse was not perfect. Unlike many of us, she never lost confidence that in the end she would be consumed by the fire of love:
After seven years in the religious life, I still am weak and imperfect. I always feel, however, the same bold confidence of becoming a great saint because I don’t count on my merits since I have none, but I trust in Him who is Virtue and Holiness. God alone, content with my weak efforts, will raise me to Himself and make me a saint, clothing me in His infinite merits.[xvii]
Some have interpreted Thérèse’s way to mean simply offering every little thing to God, a kind of constant “morning offering.” But a focus on Therese's little acts distorts the way, as if, instead of concentrating on doing great things for God, we should worry about doing little things for God. Thérèse does not allow us to become preoccupied with trivialities; she challenges us to let nothing escape us, to realize that the smallest happenings of our lives are all fuel for the fire of love which will transform us. She turned away from focusing on any deeds of her own, big or small, and concentrated on trusting in the action of Jesus.
“Let us not refuse Him the least sacrifice. Everything is so big in religion . . . to pick up a pin can convert a soul. What a mystery! . . . Ah! It is Jesus alone who can give such a value to our actions; let us love Him with all our strength. . . .[xviii]
In the texts Thérèse wrote we find a radical doctrine with cosmic reverberations. The “way of confidence and love” is not something we do. The heart of the little way is to revision our relationship with God, to touch the heart of God, and, above all, to let the heart of God touch our own hearts
To Thérèse sanctity is not perfection; it is bearing with one’s imperfections.
“If you want to bear in peace the trial of not pleasing yourself, you will give me a sweet home. . . . do not fear, the poorer you are the more Jesus will love you.”[xix]
“How happy I am to see myself always imperfect and to have such need of God’s mercy at the moment of my death!”[xx]
To Thérèse the holy person is not the perfect one, the superhero who has conquered weakness and limitation. To Thérèse, holiness is not a victory, but a surrender. It’s a loving acceptance of our own fragility, our weakness, our impotence, our inability to do any good on our own. And this loving acceptance is an invitation to the creative action of love and mercy in our hearts.
copyright 1988-2010 by Maureen O'Riordan. All rights reserved.
[vi] Last Conversations of St. Therese of Lisieux, tr. John Clarke, O.C.D. Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1977, , p. 221.
[vii] Ibid. , p. 218.
[viii] Story of a Soul (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1976), p. 254.
[ix] Ibid., p. 210.
[xii] Letters of Saint Thérèse, Volume I. Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1982, p. 641.
[xiii] Letters of Saint Thérèse, Volume II. Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1988, p. 1091.
[xiv] St. Thérèse of Lisieux by those who knew her.
[xv] St. Thérèse of Lisieux by those who knew her, p. 264.
[xvi] Last Conversations
[xvii] Story of a Soul, p. 72.
[xviii] Letters, Volume II, May 22, 1894, p. 855.
[xix] Letters, Volume II, December 24, 1896, p. 1038.
[xx] Last Conversations, July 15, 1897, p. 98.