Theological Meditations, Uncategorized

Meditations on the Little Way

 

Lord, Who said, “Unless ye become like unto these little ones, you will not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven,” grant us, we beseech Thee, who seek to walk in the footsteps of the holy virgin Therese, humility and simplicity of heart, that we may obtain everlasting rewards in heaven.

-Oration prayers for the Feast of St. Therese of Lisieux, according to the 1944 Missale Romanum

 

The readings for this past Sunday (the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Times) take on a special significance since tomorrow is the feast day of St. Therese of Lisieux [1]. Therese of Lisieux is counted as a Doctor of the Church. The term “doctor” comes from the Latin term meaning “teacher.” The designation of “Doctor of the Church” is given to certain saints whose teachings and example were particularly influential in the development of Church teaching. St. Therese is counted among such theological greats as St. Athanasius, St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. Augustine, St. Anselm, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Robert Bellarmine. Yet, when one looks at her life, one would be left wondering why this is the case. She lived a relatively humble life; she was not educated at a top-notch school of theology, and she left us no corpus of in-depth theology, philosophy, or spirituality (in fact, most of what we know about her spirituality is derived from studying her autobiography and her personal letters). She was not trained as a theologian or a scholar of any sort. Yet, her significance in Church history becomes evident when we look at her spirituality.

Therese came from a middle class family in Alencon, a small town in Northern France. Her father was the son of a solider, and moved around a lot as a child. After initially showing interest in the monastic life, he eventually settled in the town of Alencon where he spent most of his adult life working as a watchmaker. His wife, Therese’s mother, was a lace maker (that was the dominant industry in that region). Therese herself was born on January 2, 1873, the youngest of the five surviving children in her family.

 

Tragedy struck her family relatively early on – her three oldest siblings died at a relatively young age, and her mother died when Therese was only four – and she herself was plagued with various physical illness throughout her early childhood; in spite of this, Therese retained a relatively close relationship with her father and older sisters. Her family was devout, and did everything they could to make her childhood as pleasant as they could for her amidst the tragedies they faced. As early as the age of 14, she began to take an interest in joining the Carmelite Order of nuns, who had a convent near her home in the town of Lisieux, where her family relocated after her mother’s death. She was admitted into the Carmelite convent of Lisieux in 1888, at the age of 15, and was fully initiated as a nun a year later, at the age of 16.

 

Unfortunately, Therese’s career as a nun was not long-lived. She died of tuberculosis in September of 1897, at the age of 24, never having left the convent of Lisieux. Yet, her influence has continued to remain within the Catholic Church due to a spiritual system which she was influential in developing known as the “little way.” [2] What we know of this spiritual system is derived from accounts of her life from those who knew her, her letters, and the autobiography she wrote towards the end of her life. The little way was born out of an acute awareness on Therese’s part of the contrast between greatness of the calling to which God was drawing her, and her own finitude and smallness on the other hand. She knew that she could never perfectly follow God’s will, and even in instances where she could, situations for grand displays of sanctity are few and far between. Yet, in spite of this, St. Therese was also acutely aware of the vastness of God’s love and mercy. Anyone who has felt the benefits of this love could not help but love God in return, and express this love in all we say and do. Thus, St. Therese felt that the primary way – and the most readily available way – to reach the heights of sanctity towards which we are called is to express love in ALL aspects of our life, even small and insignificant things. Doing day-to-day activities with great amounts of love was the main way in which Therese believed we grow in sanctity. This can be seen in her own life: the monastic life was defined by long periods of intense prayer interrupted only by the performing of the tedious (and sometimes difficult) tasks of maintaining the monastery. Feuds also occasionally broke out in the monastery. Accounts of Therese’s life affirm that she bore these tasks without a sense of bitterness or resentfulness, and had a large sense of patience towards all of her fellow nuns.

 

Another major motivation for Therese’s spirituality was St. Paul’s words in Philippians 4:3 (“I can do all things through Christ Who strengthens me”). There are two things to focus on – the all things part, and the through Christ Who strengthens me part. The love of God and neighbor needs to permeate all things. Everything we do needs to be motivated by a love of God. Yet, humans have nothing to offer God which could possibly catch the attention of God. Humans being finite and sinful beings, nothing we do or have could be worthy of the infinite goodness and majesty of God. So, if we order our life towards salvation, if we merit salvation, it is ultimately as a result of God’s goodness acting in us and through us. We have an obligation to do good, but when we approach the Judgement Seat of God, we will ultimately approach God empty-handed; everything we give to God is us giving back to God that which God gave unto us. The love which must be an ever-present part of what we do is, in fact, God’s love flowing through us. And it is for this reason that an awareness of God’s infinite love moves us to love. Therese thus fought against what could be described as a paranoid fear of Divine punishment, but rather promoted a sense of absolute trust in God. Filial fear, as opposed to servile fear, took, for Therese, the form of a sense of love of God similar to how a child innocently trusts a parent. [3]

 

This is reflected in the readings for this week. In second reading – taken from the fifth chapter of the letter to St. James – the author writes,

 

Come now, you rich, and weep and wail over your impending miseries. Your wealth has rotted away, your clothes have become moth-eaten, your silver and gold have corroded, and that corrosion will be a testimony against you… (James 5:1-3)

 

The wealthy are often vilified in Scripture, particularly the New Testament, since those who become wealthy are successful by the standards of this world. Yet, the world is currently in a fallen, sinful state. Hence, whenever Scripture uses the term “the world,” it can be used either in a positive or a negative light: either as a reference to God’s creation, in and of itself (which is good, since it is the creation of an all-good God); or it can refer to God’s creation in its fallen, sinful state. Thus, to be “of the world” means to give in to the disordered mindset of fallen creation; it is to live by the standard of this world over and against the standard set by God, and thus to desire the creation above or instead of the Creator (thereby putting a lesser good above a higher good, in fact, the highest good). Warnings against riches, in Scripture, are thus a call to humbleness, and a warning against pride and placing our ultimate trust and desire in the things of this world (as opposed to ordering the things of this world to a higher good).

 

This is Step #1 in living out the Little Way of St. Therese: humility. We are to recognize that we have nothing to offer God, and our ability to live in a manner worthy of God is itself a gift from God. We thus need wholeheartedly embrace God and trust in Him. St. James writes that “that corrosion will be a testimony against you…” This gives us some insight as to what the ultimate destiny of those who do not act in accordance with the Little Way is, as opposed to those who do: those who place all their trust in the things of this world, as opposed to the things of God, will seem like they have a lot, but the things of this world ultimately pass away; hence, the prideful, the arrogant, those who are successful by the standard of this world alone, seem like they have everything now, but in the end, when it all passes away, they will have nothing. Those with humility go in the opposite direction. A holy or virtuous man who is wealthy is not attached to the things of this world; he sees them as gifts from God, which instills into him or her a sense of humility, and as a result of this humility uses them as tools a higher end, not as an end unto itself. The humble man is even willing to put aside the goods of this world, if it means growing closer to God. Those who are humble seem like nothing in the eyes of the world, but they know that they are nothing, and thus place their trust in God. Thus, in the end, because of their trust in God, the humble will end up with the only lasting good, the good of God.

 

What prompts the humble to not take pleasure in the goods of this world as their ultimate good is because they have already focused their attention on the things of God as the ultimate source of their joy. They live by the words of this Sunday’s responsorial Psalm: “The Law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul. … The precepts of the Law are right, rejoicing the heart. The command of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eye.” (Psalm 19:8, 9) The Law of the Lord is perfect and upright. IT alone purifies and enlightens the soul, and thus IT alone is the source of true happiness.

 

Anyone can understand and appreciate this fact. God does not call all people to perform great acts of holiness; yet, He DOES call all people to be imitators of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1, John 13:34). We do not always have the opportunity to serve God in the stereotypical way of the saints, but every moment of every day, every encounter with every individual, is an opportunity to serve God. St. Therese knew this, and she internalized it. It is for this reason that she is counted among the great Doctors of the Church. What was at the heart of all the teachings of the Church Fathers, she expressed and lived. Knowing Aquinas, Augustine, Chrysostom, Cyril, Athanasius, Bellarmine, Francis de Sales, or the Cappadocian Fathers is important, even necessary. Yet, their theology, like all of Christian theology, ultimately amounts to an examination of what it means to love God and love ones neighbor. THAT is what leads to sanctity, and THAT is what should be the leitmotif of all of our actions, both big and small, mundane and noteworthy. This is also something we see in another Church Father we celebrate today: St. Jerome. St. Jerome was considered one of the greatest Biblical scholars of the Patristic period. He saw that the heart of the Bible was Christ. He wrote: “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” The Bible derives its holiness and profundity from the fact that it points towards Christ. All the sermons on the world, expounding upon all the verses of Scripture, derive their meaning from this, and are meaningless without it. To understand Christ is to understand the heart of Scripture. All other theological pursuits solidify our faith, help it to grow, help us to better understand it, and thus are necessary. Yet, unless we first know Christ and act accordingly, no other part of theology is worthwhile or even possible.

 

 

Sources:

  1. To read today’s readings in full, see http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/093018.cfm
  2. For more information, see the “Life Story” section of the website connected to the Society of the Little Flower. Accessed at: https://www.littleflower.org/therese/life-story/
  3. Fr. John F. Russell, O.Carm., “St. Therese and Her Little Way.” Accessed at https://www.littleflower.org/therese/reflections/st-therese-and-her-little-way/. See also the section of the above reference that deals with St. Therese’s time as a nun (https://www.littleflower.org/therese/life-story/her-life-at-lisieux-carmel/)

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