You’d be hard pressed to find a practicing Catholic who hasn’t heard of St. Therese of Lisieux. Pope St. Pius X called her “the greatest saint of modern times.” The Little Flower enjoys chart-topping popularity in the holy-card-and-statuary department, and come October 1st, many a pair of eyes will be trained on gardens (and floral departments) hoping to land a signal rose from her “shower from Heaven.”
I have loved St. Therese from childhood, but it wasn’t until I became an adult and read about her childhood that I really came to truly know and appreciate the diminutive author of the Little Way.
Therese was not born a saint, but she was born into a family whose saint-making engine churned at a terrific speed. Raised in a family both broken and defined by love, Therese’s spirituality was formed and shaped by loss. The pattern for her entire childhood went pretty much like this: bond, lose, mourn, heal, re-attach, repeat. Beginning with the loss of her mother at age 4, (and even earlier than that with the necessity of being cared for by a wet-nurse for much of her infancy) Therese suffered a series of devastating blows, each one of which could have unhinged her or embittered her. But they didn’t. Or rather, she didn’t allow them to. While Therese could not control her circumstances, her poor health, or her propensity toward depression, she could control her self. Realizing her capacity for self-mastery turned out to be the key upon which her entire spirituality hinged. Her Little Way, practiced in little choices and little moments, hour by hour and day by day, unlocked the treasury of Heaven.
I mistakenly presumed Therese to be a saint who came easily by her pious title; her childhood innocence was preserved by her devoted, equally-pious family and she entered Carmel as a teenager, not even old enough to have made any serious mistakes. There, safely ensconced against any real temptation or danger, she had passed 10 uneventful years before dying and going straight to Heaven. That was my outsider’s take on her life, anyway.
But I was wrong.
In “Story of a Soul,” the autobiography Theres penned at the insistence of her superiors, the real Little Flower walked me through the stages of her spiritual development, growing from a self-described petulant and manipulative child to an overly emotional pre teen to a highly sensitive and depressed teenager to a young adult who found the very existence of some of her housemates (read: fellow nuns) endlessly irritating. In other words, she sounded completely normal. Typical, even. And she was! She certainly possessed natural graces given to her and earned for her by her loving and holy parents and siblings, but she was pretty much a normal girl. It was her response to her circumstances that set her apart as extraordinary. And her response was consistent: He must increase, I must decrease.
Her littleness is what made her a spiritual giant. Her Little Way prescribed a fool proof path to Heaven, should the practitioner follow it to the letter. It was – and is – pretty simple. But in its simplicity it is profoundly difficult to practice. In sum, she instructs us: be a child. Approach God as His child. Depend completely and utterly on Him to provide, and then accept every situation, every little inconvenience, every opportunity to serve one’s sibling or neighbor or elderly father as a direct and irrefutable invitation from Him. And that’s it.
She wanted to go to heaven by an entirely new little way. “I wanted to find an elevator that would raise me to Jesus.” The elevator, she wrote, would be the arms of Jesus lifting her in all her littleness.
And so Therese celebrated her littleness. She reveled in it, really. If there was a dull or humiliating task to be performed in the domestic realm, she volunteered. If she encountered a particularly irritating community member occupying the chapel when she entered for prayer time, she positioned herself so she could be annoyed to the maximum degree by nasally intonations and mouth breathing. She took the raw material of her life and her banal, daily experiences and she made something extraordinary of it. And all from beyond the four walls of her family home and, later, the cloistered walls of her Carmelite monastery. She didn’t travel the world, she didn’t hold a high powered job, she didn’t even get married…she just accepted God’s invitation to make something of the life she had today, right now, and then she showed up.
She didn’t turn away from the life God laid out for her, and she didn’t look to Him accusingly and demand different terms. It got me thinking, how often do I bargain with Him about changing this or rearranging that and then and only then, I can be happy.
Enough of that. That’s not the way to happiness. That’s not the route to holiness.
Therese knew this. She didn’t wish her life away, nor did she complain over the arguably awful hand she’d been dealt: poor health, dead mother, dead siblings, over sensitive temperament. She could have wallowed in it, but instead, she opened herself wide to the grace Jesus longed to give to her, and she changed the world. All without penning a single best seller. Without holding political office. Without any measure of worldly success. But her last words were “My God, I love you.”
It’s hard to top that, even with a Nobel prize.
St. Therese, make us more receptive to the little ways God is speaking to us in our circumstances, in our disappointments and our happy accidents, that we may offer Him a whole bouquet of “yeses” more beautiful than any single gesture of momentary greatness. We’re not all given those large moments to prove our fidelity or test our courage, after all. But we’re most of us saddled with other human beings to love and floors in need of sweeping. May we each make our little way to heaven, too.