I know it’s a fool who ignores the wisdom of the saints, but all I can do is thank God there are a lot of them for us to choose who to listen to. For every Maximillian Kolbe or Theresa of Avila whose council I value, there are five or six that I just cannot find common ground with.
And then there’s the saints it’s best to steer clear of during specific times of your life. A group of particularly fertile women I knew would half-jokingly advise each other to never so much as think St. Gianna Molla’s name unless they were ready to add to their family. St. Thomas Aquinas is probably best left behind on that vacation, unless the Summa is your idea of beach reading.
A friend of mine confided in me a couple months ago that she despaired of ever making any spiritual progress. “I do absolutely nothing out of love. Nothing. Every thing I do for my family, I do either out of guilt or because I don’t want to hear them yelling. We’re supposed to do these things, these little things with great love, and I’m not.”
Immediately, I spotted another of the saints I mentally put on the “Handle With Care” list. The Little Flower, though rightfully beloved by millions, charmingly humble and endlessly cheerful, is one I suspect is best avoided during emotionally challenging times. My friend was pregnant when she confessed her fears to me. Heavily pregnant and tending to five young children to boot. A combination to try even the heartiest of saints, to be sure.
The thing is, the whole “do little things with great love” idea is a deceptive one. It is an easy trap we fall into that equates “love” with “emotional response”. How many times do we need to be reminded that love isn’t an emotion, it’s an act of will? That even if you feel nothing but irritation while helping a child hunt down a shoe for the fifth time today, it doesn’t mean you’re not doing it out of love. After all, if the opposite of love is indifference, you would just let the dang kid walk around barefooted, burn his feet on the summer asphalt, get 20 splinters, and be done with it. Even if it just feels like irritation and exasperation, there on the floor looking under the couch, it’s still love motivating it.
There’s also the sense that “little things” equal “easy”, and that’s not right, either. Anyone who has sat next to an elderly loved one, and simply held her hand in silence because Alzheimer’s has robbed her of the ability to carry on even the shortest of conversations knows that “little” and “easy” are not always in alignment. The feelings holding your hand while you hold hers may be bitter: regret, guilt, and the burden of obligation, but there is still love, standing so large it becomes an invisible part of the background.
Isn’t that the way of the enemy? If he can’t stop grace from working in our souls, dissolving the selfishness bit by bit so that we can start being Christ’s hands and feet in this world, then he will try his hardest to make us doubt our motives. He will take the complex soup of emotions of the caretaker and distill them down to just a few, poisonous notes, handing it back to be swallowed. The common exasperation of a parent he will magnify to monstrous proportions, leaving the mother breathless from her perceived selfishness, and despairing of ever winning heaven.
St. Therese was on to something, with her articulation of her little way, but sometimes, particularly when we find ourselves in an emotionally volatile situation, it may be helpful to look for guidance from a different saint. At least until we’re able to weed out all the negative from our actions, and reveal love, that act of will, that lies beneath.