The Little Flower
“ ‘You really are a saint!’ some one said to her. ‘No, I am not a saint; I have never done the works of the Saints. I am a very, very little soul on whom the good God has outpoured the abundance of His grace. You will see in Heaven that I am telling you the truth.’ ” Perhaps the most popular saint since her canonization, St. Therese of Lisieux is known for her child-like spirituality. Often referred to as the Little Way, this spirituality has been promoted and encouraged by the popes since her death. Providence raises up special souls for each era. If one but read the lives of famous saints, for example, St. Benedict or St. Ignatius of Loyola, one sees that God used them in order to reform the Church, to bring back Christian fervor in a time where charity had begun to grow cold. Yet, in all of them we find nothing more than the re-echoing of the Gospel.
The Carmelite from Lisieux is no different. In his book A Retreat with St. Therese, Fr. Liagre, C.S.Sp., points out that “Thérèse is the living commentary of the Gospels, the most beautiful commentary because the most simple.” In her one finds a soul appointed by Divine Providence to show what souls presently require, a holiness aimed at the prevailing lack of interior life and profound narcissism. With the help of Fr. Liagre’s book, a beautiful synopsis of the essential elements of her spiritual life, one sees that her “Little Way” is simply an application of the Gospel.
Faith in Merciful Love
“And we have believed in the charity which God hath to us” (John 4:6). These words are a perfect summary of what was the foundation of her interior life, for St. Therese rested completely upon the belief in God’s love for her. Without this principle, we will understand nothing about her. For any real union with God the primary and indispensable condition is faith in God’s unfailing love, a reality outside of which St. Therese never seemed to consider God. Due to the death of her mother at a young age she was constantly near her father, a very holy soul. Through him, her earthly father, she formed a conception of who her Heavenly Father was. She realized the great reality of what it meant to be a child of God and to be infinitely loved with a Divine Love. From this faith sprang all her other virtues and, even amidst the dark night of the soul, kept her fixed in her Father’s Love for her. It was the key to her sanctity. As the Council of Trent puts it: “faith is the beginning, root, and foundation of all justification.”
Towards the end of her life God had allowed Therese to suffer one of the greatest mortifications of an interior soul like hers: the dark night of the soul. In this state the soul is left to feel its own nothingness, feeling no consolation or joy from anything, even in the beautiful and quiet moments of peace it used to find in prayer. Her only source of consolation was to keep her eyes upon the “Sun of Love,” as she called Him, knowing that through the clouds of her soul He was there watching over her, but communicating Himself to her now only through the light of faith.
However, St. Therese’s faith was not in any love, but in Merciful Love. St. Paul explains that “when we were dead in sin, [God] has quickened us together in Christ” (Eph. 2:4). Despite the wretched state of man after the Fall God still loved him, or rather, He loved him because of that destitution into which he had fallen. It was this Love that led Him to the Cross to be crucified. His glory lies in our believing in this wholly Merciful Love. St. Therese understood this and dared to enter into a filial relationship with God her Father because she believed herself infinitely loved by the Father of Compassion. “What delights God in my soul,” she writes in one of her letters, “is to see me loving my littleness and poverty, to see the blind trust I have in His Compassion.”
Victim of Merciful Love
St. Therese strove to make herself a victim to Merciful Love. At a very early age she had a great desire to enter the Carmel and give herself to God. She knew that it was there that Our Lord was waiting for her. She would have to go through much discouragement and many disappointments before she would enter. By the time she had reached the age of fourteen she had set her heart on entering the Carmel by that following Christmas. However, this desire would find her much disappointed, for she would have to wait months before the local bishop would allow one of her young age to enter. This was only after she herself had implored him many times for the dispensation, for which she had even personally petitioned the pope during an audience when on pilgrimage in Rome. As she herself states, the call of God was so urgent that she was ready to pass through fire itself to prove her great desire to be the victim of His love. In her autobiography she expresses this beautifully: “To offer oneself as a Victim to Divine Love is not to offer oneself to sweetness—to consolation; but to every anguish, every bitterness, for Love lives only by sacrifice; and the more a soul wills to be surrendered to Love, the more must she be surrendered to suffering” (Autobiography, Ch. XII).
A soul which truly strives to please God will offer itself and its own miseries, after having given everything and still finding an obstacle: its own inability to love. With such a soul God is able to come and delight Himself within it, satisfying His desire to be loved. The more it does this the more it sees its wretchedness and the more it understands that it is a fit subject for the manifestation of Merciful Love. Therese expresses this well when she writes: “try to understand, that to be a victim of Love, the weaker and more wretched we are, the more fit we are for the operations of this consuming and transforming Love. It is sufficient to desire to be a victim, but we must be willing to remain poor and helpless always, and that is what is so difficult.” (Autobiography, 360).
It is in this line of thought that she intimated to one of her sisters, almost in a pathetic manner, that the committing of a fault was, from this point of view, a great joy to her because it gave her another opportunity to express her helplessness to Jesus. And in her childlike manner she added that this profits the soul so much that she would almost look for more ways to be found at fault, not that she would want to offend the good God, but so that she could be ever more plunged into the mercy of God.
The Desire to Love
St. Therese goes still further. “You want me to tell you a means to become perfect. I know only one, Love” (Autobiography, p. 367). The only proper response for love is love itself. Therese, therefore, when she understood herself loved by Merciful Love was aroused with a great desire to love in return. She later wrote: “The cry of the dying Jesus ‘I thirst’ goes on echoing in the depths of my heart, kindling within it new fires of zeal. I would give my Beloved to drink...” (Autobiography, p. 88). As St. Augustine writes: “God thirsts to be thirsted for.” The soul, in seeing its own misery and wretchedness, and being loved because of it, will be drawn to love in return and will be filled with a great desire to love.
St. Therese was known to say that her “one desire is to please Jesus” (Autobiography, p. 152). This is a beautiful expression of the Gospel because it shows that great desire to love God. Her soul was full of humility because of her wretched state as a sinner and yet still full of confidence because she counted on Merciful Love to implant into her nothingness the love that was lacking. Here we can see the necessity of faith in Merciful Love, for it makes our wretchedness the condition for believing ourselves capable of loving God and opens the soul to God to allow Him to accomplish His work in it.
When a soul thus surrenders itself to Merciful Love God places in it His own desire to be loved. “Our God is a consuming fire” and He consumes it with strengths like His, measureless and infinite. The soul is divinized and made like Him, for “He who is joined to the Lord, is one spirit” (I Cor. 6:17). St. Therese’s life is an illustration of this sublime doctrine. As she told one of her sisters on the night of her death: “There is no more to say…love is the only thing that matters.” In this one word is found the whole summary of the Gospel. She once wrote in a letter to her sister Céline: “In times of aridity when I am incapable of praying, of practicing virtue, I seek little opportunities, mere trifles, to give pleasure to Jesus; for instance a smile, a pleasant word when inclined to be silent and to show weariness. If I find no opportunities, I at least tell Him again and again that I love Him; that is not difficult and it keeps alive the fire in my heart. Even though this fire of love might seem to me extinct I would still throw straws upon the embers and I am certain it would rekindle.”
The Virtues of St. Therese
Faith in God’s Merciful love for her and abandonment to Him by her great desire to love Him in return is the secret to all her virtues. Fr. Liagre comments: “It is strange how when we contemplate St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, each virtue we examine seems to be her secret. And the reason is, I think, because all virtues in her are one and the same perfectly simple thing. They are only different aspects of one single virtue which, in her, more than dominates, even more than fosters all the rest, a virtue which is their very soul and foundation: Love” (A Retreat, p. 32).
A soul will be truly humble when it abandons itself as a victim of Merciful Love. It will love to see and acknowledge its misery and littleness before God because that is the very condition which draws that love to itself. One’s nothingness is now seen through the eyes of God. Every new manifestation of weakness is another reminder of what Merciful Love does and an opportunity for abandonment of itself into that Love.
St. Therese is a model of confidence because a soul can only be at peace when faced with its nothingness if it is certain that by this very means it places itself in the hands of Merciful Love. This is the confidence of a child knowing that his father is in control. Here is the key to her little way, for she abandon’s herself into the arms of her Father, leaving all to him and accomplishing all in the hands of His all-powerful love. “One day, seeing one of the sisters distressed at the sight of her sufferings, she said: ‘Oh, don’t worry! If I suffocate, God will give me strength. I love Him. Never will He forsake me’ ” (Novissima Verba, p. 89).
A little soul like St. Therese is filled with the gifts of the Holy Ghost as she is habitually led by His promptings, having placed all her confidence in Him. St. Paul exhorted that “If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25). This is definitely true of St. Therese.
Prompted by the love of God, to love for St. Therese was to renounce and sacrifice self. “As I never seek myself, I lead the happiest life in the world” (Autobiography, p. 305). This gave birth to the virtue of patience, which is love in action. Suffering is indispensable for fallen human nature, a necessary remedy from a loving Father for man’s egoism. St. Therese understood that it was through suffering that one is forced to go outside of oneself and fly to Merciful Love. She had the intelligence to know why God allowed suffering: “Time is but a dream; God sees us already in glory. Oh, how much good I derive from this thought. Now I understand why He lets us suffer” (Autobiography, p. 338).
Filled with this great desire to love, prayer was something very simple for St. Therese, which for her, was nothing other than a loving communion between the creature’s wretchedness and the Creator’s loving compassion. Often she would look to the Gospels to meditate upon, letting what they said about Christ’s actions and words be imprinted on her soul. She looked for Love and was able to penetrate beyond the words into the spirit of life which animated them. She learned from Jesus, or rather saw in Him, how to love God as her heavenly Father. Her great desire to love is a summary of her prayer life.
Being filled with the love of God, fraternal charity came spontaneously to St. Therese. She wrote: “The more united I am to Jesus, the more I love my Sisters” (Autobiography, p. 163). “It was by loving Him that He made me understand to the full the great duty of charity” (Autobiography, p. 162). To love God is to love our neighbor, and to love our neighbor is to love God.
In St. Therese we find a simple soul, devoid of any artificiality and completely focused on God. In short, we find in her true peace, that tranquility of order of which St. Augustine speaks. From where does this tranquility come? Her unwavering faith in Merciful Love, confidence, and her desire to love. Fr. Liagre sums up his commentary on St. Therese with these simple words: “Let us establish ourselves in that peace. What is asked of us? A firm faith in God’s Love for our wretchedness; humility; confidence; the desire to love. That is the whole of her ‘Little Way’: but, once more, it is also the whole of the Gospels” (A Retreat, p. 125).