On October 1st, we celebrate the feast day of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, a Discalced Carmelite nun and Doctor of the Church. Ever since I was a young child, I have had a great fondness for this great saint. I was fascinated by her Little Way, a deceptively simple path to holiness that was rooted in a radical humility and a child-like insistence on loving God and loving others.
This summer, I had the privilege of making a little pilgrimage to Lisieux during my vacation. My internship at Franciscans International’s office in Geneva allowed me to travel to several neighboring countries in Europe and I made sure to make the most of this wonderful opportunity.
As a Franciscan, I have come to see a tremendous synergy between Thérèse’s Little Way and our Order’s charism of Minority and Poverty. In the early years of her time in Carmel, she developed “a real attraction for objects that were both very ugly and the least convenient” (Thérèse of Lisieux, 1897/1996, pp. 159). She rejoiced when a beautiful little jug in her room was replaced by a large, chipped one. And, in an incident evocative of Saint Francis’ Perfect Joy, Thérèse delighted when a Sister mistakenly took her lamp, leaving her without a light source. “Instead of feeling annoyed at thus being deprived of it, I was really happy, feeling that Poverty consists in being deprived not only of agreeable things but indispensable things too. And so in this exterior darkness, I was interiorly illumined!” (1897/1996, pp. 159).
One of the hallmark characteristics of Thérèse’s Little Way is her practice of small actions and hidden gestures done with pure love, self-abandon, and total defenselessness. She came upon this way after realizing that she could not engage in ascetic practices and bodily penance (she had bad posture and so was prohibited from sitting without any back support; she often fell asleep during silent meditation; etc.). Instead, in recognition of her own minority, she applied herself to “practicing little virtues, not having the capability of practicing the great” (1897/1996, pp. 159). These “little services,” such as folding up the mantles left behind by her Sisters or accompanying a cranky elder Sister to the infirmary, became small victories that she focused on achieving along her way to perfection.
She wrote of an incident in which her novice mistress once blamed and chastised her for a broken vase. Rather than retort in self-defense, she silently proceeded to clean up the mess and promised to be more careful in the future. For Thérèse, this was an act to be offered up,” trusting that “at the Last Judgement everything would be revealed.” But she wasn’t just a pious little thing – she shrewdly remarked that “when one performs her duty, never excusing herself, no one notices it; on the contrary, imperfections appear immediately” (1897/1996, pp. 159).
I have come to greatly admire Thérèse’s spirituality, although in all honesty I initially found it absurd, on the verge of masochism. But we know that saints, no matter how small, do not become saints solely on the merits of their actions, no matter how kind and pleasant. The genius of Thérèse’s Little Way illuminates a manner of Christian discipleship that harkens back to the pathway once trod by the likes of the Apostle Paul and Francis of Assisi, and transcends the particularities of one’s vocation and professional endeavors.
As an enclosed nun in a strict, contemplative Order, the entirety of Thérèse’s world existed within the four walls of the Carmel in Lisieux. However, in Thérèse we see a soul totally engulfed in love and we know that “a soul that is burning with love cannot remain inactive. No doubt, she will remain at Jesus’ feet as did Mary Magdalene, and she will listen to His sweet and burning words. Appearing to do nothing, she will give much more than Martha who torments herself with many things and wants her sister to imitate her” (1897/1996, pp. 258).
Those of us who are engaged in active apostolates, especially those ministries related to JPIC (justice, peace, and the integrity of creation), might reel with indignation at these words. John Dear once wrote, “Given our culture of violence and the world’s wars, I prefer to translate Thérèse’s spirituality as ‘the little way of nonviolence. Through these small acts of great love, we root out every trace of violence within us, allow God to disarm our hearts, and share in God’s disarmament of the world… Thérèse also exemplifies nonviolence toward ourselves. She refused to hate herself, put herself down or fall into despair because of her own weaknesses and faults. Instead, she loved herself and practice nonviolence toward herself. ‘If you are willing to bear serenely the trial of being displeasing to yourself,’ she wrote her sister, ‘then you will be for Jesus a pleasant place of shelter.’”
We can all do well to reflect on this insight and to acknowledge that often times, in our pursuit of justice and peace, our own hearts can become filled with injustice and the very opposite of peace. Our JPIC work and the paucity of progress in the face of so much evil can often bring resentment and bitterness into our hearts, extending righteous anger into destructive and corrosive outrage. But as Thérèse wisely points out, “It is not Martha’s works that Jesus finds fault with… It is only the restlessness of His ardent hostess that He willed to correct” (1897/1996, pp. 159). Thérèse’s Little Way of pure love and radical humility then becomes an antidote to the frenetic restlessness that engulfs the lives and ministries of even the best-intentioned Christians.
My engagement with JPIC, especially antiracism, following the election of Donald Trump has often resulted in profound disappointments and frustrations. The seemingly endless barrage of injustice and oppression inflicted on minorities (immigrants, people of color, the LGBTQ community) have proved too much to bear and I admit that, far too often these past few months, I have viewed the response of the Catholic Church to the violence of this administration with more than a hint of incredulity and cynicism. I had set for myself a particular vision or expectation of justice unfolding my way and the Church’s responses were always a bit too little, too late. If it’s true that frustrated idealists make the best cynics, then I have been in grave danger of being overcome by bitterness and contempt.
Thérèse gently reminds us of a different way of engaging our brothers and sisters in the fight for justice and peace. “I understand now that charity consist in bearing with the faults of others, in not being surprised at their weakness, in being edified by the smallest acts of virtue we see them practice. But I understood above all that charity must not remain hidden in the bottom of the heart. Jesus has said: ‘No one lights a lamp and puts it under a bushel basket, but upon the lampstand, so as to give light to ALL in the house.’ It seems to me that this lamp represents charity which must enlighten and rejoice not only those who are dearest to us but ‘ALL who are in the house’ without distinction” (1897/1996, p. 220).
From the confines of her cloister in Lisieux, Thérèse reminds all of us out in the world of what true Christian discipleship is about. It is only this love of God burning in our hearts that will conquer evil. That is both the challenge and the gift of her Little Way.
Dear, J. (2009). St. Thérèse’s Little Way of Nonviolence. National Catholic Reporter. Retrieved from https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/road-peace/st-th-r-ses-little-way-nonviolence.
Thérèse of Lisieux. (1996). Story of a soul: The autobiography of Thérèse of Lisieux. (J. Clark, OCD, Trans.). Washington, DC: ICS Publications. (Original work published 1897).