With the coming to Australia early next year of the relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux, Kate Cleary provides an outline of the saint's "little way of spiritual childhood". Kate Cleary manages the Caroline Chisholm Library in Melbourne (email@example.com). All quotes are taken from St Thérèse's autobiography, 'Story of a Soul'.
The Pilgrimage of the Relics of St Thérèse commences in the Perth Archdiocese on 31 January 2002 and continues through most Australian dioceses, concluding in Brisbane on 30 April. Information about the Pilgrimage itinerary in specific dioceses can be obtained from those dioceses.
For St Thérèse, love was the foundation of her way of "spiritual childhood". But this word has lost so much currency we need to look at how Thérèse loved to understand what she means by it.
Here is the description of her assisting an arthritic nun in the community:
"Finally, we reached the refectory without mishap; and here other difficulties arose. I had to seat Sister St Pierre and I had to act skilfully in order not to hurt her; then I had to turn back her sleeves (again in a certain way), and afterward I was free to leave. With her poor cripple's hands she was trying to manage with her bread as well as she could. I soon noticed this, and, each evening, I did not leave her until after I had rendered her this little service. As she had not asked for this, she was very much touched by my attention, and it was by this means that I gained her entire good graces, and this especially (I learned later) because, after cutting her bread for her, I gave her my most beautiful smile ...".
That is how she loved. It was not sentimental or gushing, but a detailed attention to the person, and an honouring of God in them. When we talk of Thérèse's little way of love, it is this sort of love we mean: the kind of love that God has for us.
In the natural order the clearest analogy for this love is the bond between mother and child. It is the mother's love that has brought the child into being, and by this love it is supported every moment. Without its mother's love it is not merely restless, it is completely lost. In its littleness it can give only one thing, but that one thing is everything, namely, love. Thérèse teaches us to take this idea up into the supernatural realm.
God is our heavenly Father. He has created us because He loves us. By His love we are supported every moment. The one thing that the heavenly Father wants from us, His children, is our love. In our helplessness we are only able to give our love, and that is the one thing God wants. All our actions are only valuable in His eyes in so far as they are the expression of our love for Him. That is the foundation of the little way of spiritual childhood.
The next thing that stands out most clearly in the mother-child relationship is the child's dependence which is absolute and complete. Without the mother, it can do nothing; and its dependence is precisely in proportion to its littleness. This is why, as indicated in her autobiography, she wanted to stay little in the supernatural sphere: if she grew up she would have to do things on her own.
She recognised that we are completely dependent on our heavenly Father for everything. If we let go of Him we fall, but if we keep our hand in His, if we surrender our wills completely to Him, He will lead us through dangers and to heights of sanctity which by ourselves we could never achieve.
It is the consciousness of its littleness that enables the soul to realise its utter dependence on God. "Littleness" in a soul is humility. Humility teaches us how utterly dependent we are upon God. To realise her nothingness apart from God was Thérèse's great joy: "The Almighty has done great things for me and the greatest is to show me my littleness".
In the natural sphere, from the child's dependence springs an unquestioning confidence. It never occurs to the little child that its mother could fail it. On the mother's side, this utter dependence cries to her heart as nothing else could do. And the smaller the child, the more watchful is the mother to anticipate its every need. And so it is with God. All He needs is a look, a cry, a prayer and there He is with his arms around us. Thérèse walked with God with the radiant confidence of a little child, totally abandoned to Him.
The most important outcome of this spiritual disposition is great trust in God. Thérèse's trust developed out of her dispositions of love, confidence and especially humility. She expected nothing of her weakness. She expected all things from God. For her, her very weakness was a strong inducement to hope:
"I am but a weak and helpless child, but my very weakness makes me dare to offer myself, O Jesus, as victim to your love. In olden days only purest, spotless holocausts would be accepted by the omnipotent God, nor could his justice be appeased save by the most perfect sacrifices; but now that the law of fear has given way to the law of love, I have been chosen, though a weak and imperfect creature, as Love's victim. And is not the choice a fitting one? Most surely, for in order that Love may be wholly satisfied, it must stoop even unto nothingness and transform that nothingness into fire".
Thérèse was tireless, obstinate and blind in her trust: spiritual aridity and barrenness tended only to display it more clearly and to make it more unassailable. During the last 18 months of her life, these spiritual trials were terrible and acute bodily suffering was added to them. Yet this is how she responds:
"O my God how good you are to the little victim of your merciful love! Even now when you add these bodily pains to those of my soul, I cannot bring myself to say: 'The anguish of death has encompassed me.' Rather do I cry out with gratitude: 'I have gone down into the valley of the shadow of death, but I fear no evil, because thou Lord art with me'."
What is it that takes the little one to its mother quicker than anything else? Pain. In its mother's arms its pain is not taken away, but it finds something that makes the pain easier to bear. The little soul seeks its Father's love somewhere in its pain. In its Father's embrace its pain is not taken away but the soul is gathered into the mystery of a crucified God. Thérèse found that the answer to pain lay in the arms of the crucified God and nowhere else.
But it is perhaps her attitude to sin which is the most insightful gift she has given us. Again, using the analogy of childhood, she describes two children who offend their mother: one runs away in shame, the other runs into her mother's arms and begs forgiveness. Therese's instructions are clear: be that second child. Run straight into the arms of God no matter how awful the sin seems. Christ gives us this teaching in the parable of the prodigal son, but how beautifully she restates it. And how timely it is, both in her own Jansenistic times and in our current day of so much hopelessness, especially among the young. God welcomes the sinner with tears of joy: run to Him.
This way of spiritual childhood, a new way of understanding and loving God, a way open to all of us, was St Thérèse's great gift to the Church. Her boundless trust in God led her to heights of sanctity and an ability to bear great suffering for Him. Let us pray to her for this gift of trust in God, of abandonment to Him, of love of His will for us, that will move us swiftly into His arms: "Later on, in heaven, it will be our delight to look back upon these dark days of exile ... [T]hough our cross was bitter, how precious and sweet it was, for from our hearts came nothing but aspirations of love and gratitude! No longer did we walk, we ran, we flew in the paths of perfection."