In St. Therese’s autobiography, Story of a Soul, she shares a lesson from one of her older sisters.
As a little child, Therese was trying to understand how it was possible for both a great saint and an ordinary little soul to be happy in heaven. Wouldn’t the great saint be happier, because he or she was filled with so much more holiness? Her sister grabbed a drinking glass and a thimble and filled them both with water. She asked Therese which was fuller. Therese admitted that they were both filled to the brim. Their capacity had been reached, and neither the thimble nor the glass could hold a drop more. So it is, Therese’s sister explained, with our souls. Our calling in life is not to be greater than others, but to be filled to the brim with Christ.
Pope Francis’s recently released Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate, is full of words of encouragement for those of us trying to live out holiness in our daily lives. In reading the first chapter of the exhortation, I couldn’t help but be reminded of St. Therese of Lisieux and her thimble analogy.
In paragraph 14, Pope Francis writes,
To be holy does not require being a bishop, a priest or a religious. We are frequently tempted to think that holiness is only for those who can withdraw from ordinary affairs to spend much time in prayer. That is not the case. We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves. Are you called to the consecrated life? Be holy by living out your commitment with joy. Are you married? Be holy by loving and caring for your husband or wife, as Christ does for the Church. Do you work for a living? Be holy by laboring with integrity and skill in the service of your brothers and sisters. Are you a parent or grandparent? Be holy by patiently teaching the little ones how to follow Jesus. Are you in a position of authority? Be holy by working for the common good and renouncing personal gain.
It is easy to look at the examples of great saints and feel discouraged or even – dare I say – jealous? There is such a thing as “holy jealousy,” i.e. feeling longing for graces that you see in others, while simultaneously rejoicing in the fact that others have been given the gifts they have been given. This isn’t the sort of jealousy I’m talking about. I’m referring to plain, ordinary jealousy. Perhaps you’ve experienced it yourself (if you’re anything like me) or have seen it in others. It seems there is always someone doing more, and our own weaknesses can become glaringly apparent in the face of that.
In my own life, I’ve struggled with the fact that I haven’t been able to do as much active ministry as I hoped to do. I studied theology and received my graduate degree in theology with a focus on catechesis…but I am a stay-at-home/homeschooling/work-at-home mom. I would like to be able to do even a little bit more, but my history of hyperemesis gravidarum pregnancies has made it difficult to do so. Because of my pregnancies, I would either have to avoid pregnancy indefinitely (something I don’t feel called to do) or I would have to accept a job knowing that, were I to get pregnant, I would have to miss months of work. Because of this, I find myself needing to stick to freelance and remote work, which, although wonderful, is not what I had imagined for myself.
However, I know in my heart that I am doing what God is calling me to do, given my circumstances. He is calling me to motherhood, to nurturing and welcoming the little lives that God sends our family. He has provided writing and speaking opportunities that allow me to continue ministry work in some way, while also showing me that the work that I am doing right now is important. I may not be paid for each dirty diaper I change, each toy I pick up, or each snack I fix, but God sees what I am doing. Even those menial, hidden tasks are pleasing to him. In fact, this is the way that God is calling me to be a saint.
Pope Francis continues in paragraph 16 of the document,
This holiness to which the Lord calls you will grow through small gestures. Here is an example: a woman goes shopping, she meets a neighbor and they begin to speak, and the gossip starts. But she says in her heart: “No, I will not speak badly of anyone”. This is a step forward in holiness. Later, at home, one of her children wants to talk to her about his hopes and dreams, and even though she is tired, she sits down and listens with patience and love. That is another sacrifice that brings holiness. Later she experiences some anxiety, but recalling the love of the Virgin Mary, she takes her rosary and prays with faith. Yet another path of holiness. Later still, she goes out onto the street, encounters a poor person and stops to say a kind word to him. One more step.
It may seem that the holiness that God is calling us to is too ordinary, but, like Therese’s thimble, following God’s call for our lives will leave us full to the brim. Being saints consists not in doing great things, but in discerning and following God’s call for holiness in your own life. Or, as Francis says in paragraph 11,
We should not grow discouraged before examples of holiness that appear unattainable. There are some testimonies that may prove helpful and inspiring, but that we are not meant to copy, for that could even lead us astray from the one specific path that the Lord has in mind for us. The important thing is that each believer discern his or her own path, that they bring out the very best of themselves, the most personal gifts that God has placed in their hearts.