Thérèse Martin, a french teenager who became a Carmelite nun in the late 19th century, did nothing earth-shattering: she lived an obscure life in a cloistered monastery in a small town in France, and died of tuberculosis in her mid-twenties. Yet her impact is huge: canonized in 1925, named co-patron of the missions in 1927 despite never having been a missionary, made co-patronness of France in 1944, and declared a doctor of the Church in 1997, she was described by Pope St. Pius X as the greatest saint of modern times. Why? Her importance is because of what she wrote and taught: a “little way” of holiness that is a path that anyone can follow to become closer to Jesus.
What is St. Thérèse’s “little way”? She describes it as follows:
I concluded… I may aspire to sanctity in spite of my littleness. For me to become great is impossible. I must bear with myself and my many imperfections; but I will seek out a means of getting to Heaven by a little way… I mean to try and find an elevator by which I may be raised to God, for I am too tiny to climb the steep stairway of perfection. I have sought to find in Holy Scripture some suggestion as to what this elevator might be… “Whosoever is a little one, let him come to Me” …wishing to know further what He would do to the little one, I continued my search and this is what I found: “You shall be carried at the breasts and upon the knees; as one whom the mother caresses, so will I comfort you”. Never have I been consoled by words more tender and sweet. Your arms, then, O Jesus, are the elevator which must raise me up even to Heaven. To get there I need not grow; on the contrary I must remain little, I must become still less.
It is God who makes the “little one” succeed:
…think of a little child that is learning to stand but does not yet know how to walk. In his desire to reach the top of the stairs to find his mother, he lifts his little foot to climb the first step. It is all in vain, and at each renewed effort he falls. Well, be like that little child. Always keep lifting your foot to climb the ladder of holiness, and do not imagine that you can mount even the first step. All God asks of you is good will. From the top of the ladder He looks lovingly upon you, and soon, touched by your fruitless efforts, he will himself come down and, taking you in his arms, will carry you to his kingdom never again to leave him.
Thérèse loves Jesus simply and wholeheartedly, like a little child:
I ask not for riches or glory, not even the glory of Heaven… No, I ask for Love. To love you, Jesus, is now my only desire. Great deeds are not for me; I cannot preach the Gospel or shed my blood. No matter! My brothers work in my stead, and I, a little child, stay close to the throne and love you for all who are in the strife. But how shall I show my love, since love proves itself by deeds? The little child will strew flowers… that is to say, I will let no tiny sacrifice pass, no look, no word. I wish to profit by the smallest actions, and to do them for Love. I wish to suffer for Love’s sake, and for Love’s sake even to rejoice…
She shows her love with little actions:
… I do not mean that I imitated the penances of the Saints; far from resembling those beautiful souls who have practiced all sorts of mortifications from their infancy, I made mine consist in simply checking my inclinations, keeping back an impatient answer, doing little services to those around me without setting store thereby, and a hundred other things of the kind.
… I ought to seek the companionship of those Sisters towards whom I feel a natural aversion, and try to be their good Samaritan. A word or a smile is often enough to put fresh life in a despondent soul. And yet it is not merely in the hope of giving consolation that I try to be kind. If it were, I know that I should soon be discouraged, for well-intentioned words are often totally misunderstood. Consequently… I try to act solely to please Our Lord.
Courage is needed to start:
You must practice the little virtues. This is sometimes difficult, but God never refuses the first grace – courage for self-conquest; and if the soul correspond to that grace, she at once finds herself in God’s sunlight…. In the onset we must act with courage. By this means the heart gains strength, and victory follows victory.
Jesus provides the strength:
…I saw at a glance that the task was beyond my strength. Throwing myself without delay into Our Lord’s arms, I imitated those tiny children, who, when they are frightened, hide their faces on their fathers’ shoulder… The knowledge that it was impossible to do anything of myself rendered my task easier. My one interior occupation was to unite myself more and more closely to God, knowing that the rest would be given to me over and above. And indeed my hope has never been deceived; I have always found my hands filled when sustenance was needed… But had I done otherwise, and relied on my own strength, I should very soon have been forced to abandon my task.
We need not worry so much about imperfections:
In truth I had long known that the Lord is more tender than a mother, and I have sounded the depths of more than one mother’s heart. I know that a mother is ever ready to forgive her child’s small thoughtless faults. How often have I not had this sweet experience! No reproach could have touched me more than one single kiss from my Mother. My nature is such that fear makes me shrink, while, under love’s sweet rule, I not only advance – I fly.
God is tolerant and understanding:
That I fall asleep so often during meditation, and thanksgiving after Communion, should distress me. Well, I am not distressed. I reflect that little children are equally dear to their parents whether they are asleep or awake; that, in order to perform operations, doctors put their patients to sleep; and finally that “The Lord knows our frame; He remembers that we are but dust”.
Thérèse’s “little way” is to rely, like a child, on God’s goodness:
Remaining little means – to recognize one’s nothingness, to await everything from the Goodness of God, to avoid being too much troubled at our faults; finally, not to worry over amassing spiritual riches, not to be solicitous about anything.
In the end, it is God’s goodness, not our accomplishments, that will make all the difference:
I am happy at the thought of going to Heaven, but when I reflect on these words of Our Lord… to render to every man according to his works, I think that he will find my case a puzzle: I have no works… Well, he will render to me according to his own works!
For all of us, St. Thérèse’s “little way” is something not just to admire, but to live out in our daily lives. This is why this young nun from a small town in France, who lived over a century ago, is so important for us today: her “little way” can bring us to Jesus.
(Quotes are from The Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St Thérèse of Lisieux, https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/16772 Archaic or anglicized words were adapted for modern North American readers.)
©Agapios Theophilus, 2016