St. Thérèse and Her Way of Trust and Love For Our Lives
Fifteen years ago my then-future husband proposed on October 1, the memorial of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, also known as "The Little Flower". The date was not chosen lightly. Early on in our courtship he asked me for a Lenten book suggestion. I suggested my favorite spiritual book, I Believe in Love: Retreat Conferences on the Interior Life by Father Thérèse I always recommend this book to others; my copy is dog-eared and well-marked with margin notes and underlining. I was particularly eager to see if this spiritually resonated with him, because maybe this could lead us to the next step. I was thrilled to find out that the book had indeed touched him! I mentioned earlier in March that St. Joseph helped us to find one another but it was St. Therese who brought us closer together, hence this being our engagement anniversary. We invoke both St. Joseph and St. Thérèse as the special patrons of our marriage.
The Church returns to the annual celebration of the Memorial of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus. The feast has moved from October 3 in the 1962 Calendar to October 1 on the current General Roman Calendar. This is due to the fact that St. Thérèse died on September 30, but this day was already the memorial of St. Jerome. Since ancient times saints were venerated on the anniversary of their deaths, because the day of the death on earth is also the birthday into eternal life in heaven. The calendar was revised with the objective to assign the feast on the day closest to his or her death. October 1 is the closest for St. Thérèse .
A Saint for Today
St. Thérèse is a saint for modern times, despite her dated flowery nineteenth-century writing. She was inspired by the Gospel to find a new and more direct way to heaven, which reflects the "modern" take on life in trying to find a shortcut or a labor-saving device. This simple cloistered French nun shared great secrets to help us all become saints. St. Thérèse was before her time, as she repeatedly articulated two areas that were later greatly emphasized in Vatican II: Lectio Divina (reading, praying and meditating the Word of God) and the universal call to holiness.
Of Thérèse of Lisieux, it can be said with conviction that the Spirit of God enabled her heart to reveal directly, to the men and women of our time, the fundamental mystery, the reality of the Gospel: the fact of having really received "a spirit of adoption as children that makes us cry out, 'Abba! Father!" The "Little Way" is the way of "spiritual childhood." This way contains something unique that is part of the genius of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. At the same time it holds a confirmation and renewal of the most fundamental and universal truth. For what truth of the Gospel message is more fundamental and universal than this: that God is our Father and we are his children? (Pope St. John Paul II, Homily at Lisieux, June 2, 1980).
How marvelous to be able to say that her spiritual childhood doctrine sums up the Gospel! She truly lived the Gospel. How do we follow this doctrine? By becoming little and childlike, and placing total confidence in God. The optional Gospel for her feast describes her doctrine and what we must become to become saints:
The disciples approached Jesus and said, “Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven?” He called a child over, placed it in their midst, and said, “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me (Matthew 18:1-5).
Her spiritual doctrine has been referred to by many names. She called it the "little way," the "way of simple loving trust," the "way of trust and love," and, as quoted above, Pope St. John Paul II referred to it as "the spiritual childhood." St. Thérèse tried to summarize her "little way" to her sister who was also her Mother Superior at the time. This is from her Manuscript C, which is included in her autobiography, Story of a Soul:
It is impossible for me to grow up, I must put up with myself as I am, with all my imperfections; but I want to find how to get to Heaven by a little way that is quite straight, quite short: a completely new little way. We are in an age of inventions; now one doesn't have to make the effort climb up a stairway in rich people's houses, because an elevator does the work much better. I too would like to find an elevator to lift me up to Jesus, for I am too little to climb up the steep stairway of perfection." Then I looked in the holy books for some sign of the elevator that I desired, and I read these words that had come forth from the mouth of Eternal Wisdom: "Whoever is VERY LITTLE let him come to me" [Proverbs 9:4]. So I came, guessing that I had found what I sought. Wishing to know, O my God, what you would do for a little child who answered your call, I continued my search and this is what I found: "As a mother caresses her baby, so I will comfort you: I will carry you at my breast and rock you in my lap" [Isaiah 66:13, 12]. Ah! never had such tender melodious words come to rejoice my soul; the elevator that would lift me up to Heaven is your arms, O Jesus! To reach perfection, I do not need to grow up. On the contrary, I need to stay little, to become more and more little. O my God, you have surpassed my expectations, and I wish to sing of your mercies.
Spiritual Childhood Is For All Temperaments
I have some friends who are more choleric in temperament, and not attracted at all the melancholic temperament, seeing it as more sentimental and sappy. They were so touched by the writings of St. Thérèse there were sure she was choleric, not melancholic. I personally found it hard to wade through all the sweetness in my first reading of her autobiography, but a few years later it didn't bother me. I do think St. Thérèse was more melancholic, which gave her that gift of perception, contemplation and understanding. She saw the big picture, but also analyzed the details, the "little things." But whatever her temperament, her spiritual doctrine has universal appeal to all temperaments, as long as we can put aside our pride and become as little children as Jesus wishes. It doesn't mean become childish, but childlike.
I have read many books by and about St. Thérèse and her spirituality. Besides her Story of a Soul, my gold standard has been I Believe in Love. I have copied so many passages that I'm surprised I don't have it memorized! More recently I read Father Jacques Philippe's book, Way of Trust and Love which is also retreat notes on St. Thérèse, just like I Believe in Love. Father Philippe's book is more succinct, but I find the two complement each other.
Loving St. Thérèse and her "little way" is very personal, so what appeals to one may not be the same aspects for another. For me I recognize that I am weak and little, both physically and also in accomplishing great famous things. How comforting it is to know she has shared the blueprints for a successful plan to be a saint in any walk of life. Even if never reach beyond my circle of family and friends, I still have the opportunity to become a saint by embracing all those little events in my daily grind, and recognizing and loving Jesus in all the different (and sometimes difficult) personalities I meet each day. I need to see that I am a joy for Jesus, not in spite of my weakness, but because of my weakness and sin. I accept all that God sends me, even suffering, recognizing it as a joy and a gift of love, not as punishment. I am to be discouraged by nothing, and always run back as the Prodigal Son to the Father for His merciful love. Father Jean encourages us to
[r]emember that each time you pick yourself up after a fall, the feast of the prodigal son is renewed....After the absolution, you should dance like the prodigal son did at the request and for the joy of his father. We do not dance enough in the spiritual life (D'Elbee, I Believe in Love, pp. 20-21).
Recognizing the Essential
Being a mother and home educator, I have often pondered how to relate this wonderful saint and her "little way" to my children. I have mentioned before that I am a catechist in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS), and my children attend an atrium. During my training I have seen that all aspects of the "spiritual childhood" are woven throughout the Catechesis. This isn't surprising. St. Thérèse's spirituality is the heart of the Gospel. In the atrium the child receives the deepest and most essential elements of our Faith presented in the Liturgy and the Word of God. Recognizing this makes it easier for me to further share St. Thérèse and her spirituality with my sons at home.
One area that Father Jean said we must stress as parents and educators is the parable of the Prodigal Son and God's divine mercy (an area that is stressed especially for the sacrament of penance in the CGS)
Parents, educators, give the children confided to your care an understanding of this divine mercy by believing in it and practicing it yourselves. It is this faith which will prevent them from falling again and, if they fall, they will rise again, they will come back because you will have acquainted them with the gentleness of God. They will say, "I know how good God is. I know how to abide in his mercy. From the depths of my sin, I shall rise up and go to my father."
They are happy parents who have shown this way to their children, without weakness or compromise, but with a goodness so like that of God that, in their worst difficulties, they can say humbly with tremendous confidence, "I shall rise up and go to my father. I shall rise up and go to my mother; and through them I shall go to my Father in heaven." How many young people have lost the Faith, not from having fallen, but from not having been helped, with love, to pick themselves up again as many times as was necessary (D'Elbee, I Believe in Love, p. 21).
Relating Her Life to Children
I also want to relate some of St. Thérèse's life to my sons. Her life's story doesn't pack much action to spellbind my listeners. She didn't travel the globe and encounter new and different peoples, nor did she die a gruesome martyr's death. So we look at it in another way: her life looks a lot like ours: simple, everyday, ordinary. We have to delve at what transpired inside her. There are a few anecdotes from her life that speak to a child's heart.
First is her childhood story of Sacrifice beads. (That story is also included in the first six volumes of the TAN reprint of The Catholic Children's Treasure Box.) As we get older we don't really want to "count" our sacrifices, but the eagerness of the child to give these self-less gifts to Jesus is so beautiful.
We use other books or stories of St. Thérèse to relate her life. How often do we struggle with our personal desires and dislikes? Life presents us with many opportunities of having to put aside our will for others, but we have a choice to do it cheerfully and accept it, or do it only begrudgingly. The story of Thérèse making small sacrifices as a grown-up, giving up her personal preferences can impress a child's heart. I was always touched that she and I shared the dislike of drinking milk, but as she lay sick and dying, she drank up the glasses of milk without complaining.
We all can identify with the little annoying habits of family members. It helps to remember how about Thérèse hated being splashed, but she chose to wash her laundry next to the sister who always splashed her. St. Thérèse never pulled away and wiped her face.
Towards the end of the chapter, Mary Reed Newland gives some anecdotes of how Sister Thérèse recognized and loved Jesus in everyone. She practiced true fraternal charity, finding much joy in recognizing the good in her neighbor, and always forgiving. She didn't always like to be with everyone. Some sisters were harder for her to enjoy their company. Yet, she loved Jesus inside them. These are stories that help my sons realize that we need to practice charity at home at all time, even when someone's chewing is super-annoying, or when one doesn't play exactly like the other prefers!
No Regrets on Choice
There are such depths and richness to mine from the life and writings of St. Thérèse. My husband and I still look to St. Thérèse for inspiration, by reading and discussing. There are no regrets choosing this saint for our engagement day or saying yes to my husband! I personally am grateful for these fourteen years of marriage with my husband, and continue to ask St. Thérèse to help us see especially how to practice those virtues of fraternal charity within our family.
St. Thérèse desired to spend her heaven doing good on earth, helping us so much like sending a shower of roses. Through her intercession may we gain those "roses" to embrace and live her spiritual childhood so that we may become saints like her.
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