The Way of Beauty Thérèse’s 'Little Way,' Little No More

What could have prompted Pius XI in 1925 to canonize her and her “little way?  What could have prompted John Paul II in 1997 to declare her the thirty-third Doctor of the Church, the third woman, and the youngest woman of them all?  What was so remarkable, so cosmic about picking up pins and not flinching when water was splashed in her face by another nun? On October 1st, questions like these come to mind when the liturgical calendar registers the feast of St. Thérèse of Lisieux.

The Daily Grind

As a Carmelite, Thérèse grasped the Pauline verse that whatever you do,  ‘whether you eat or drink’ can be sanctified not only for God’s glory and praise but to build up the Church in the world (1 Cor 10:31).  Perhaps she heard of the sacrament of the present moment, so simply preached by her fellow Frenchman, Jean-Pierre Caussade, S.J. (d 1791).  Wasn’t she anticipating what Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. wrote The Divine Milieu?  All human activity is steadily and irrevocably moving from Christ, the Alpha, to Christ, the Omega.  Thérèse understood the importance of sanctifying everything in one’s day through one’s intentions. 

Variety of Gifts and the Mission of Love

Thérèse came to understand that the Church is an organically-structured unity of the baptized.  Catholics believe in the same creed, worship, and governance. Each member has a ministerial function that builds up the Body and contributes to its well-being.  No two people receive the same spiritual gifts, but all are to be used for the building up of the Church.

According to 1 Corinthians 12-13, this ministry has to be done through the duties inherent in one’s vocation and the manner in which one’s lives out that vocation. Thérèse may have expressed this ministry in a way that is off putting.  Still, the fact remains:  the only ‘stuff’ we have to sanctify is the raw material of one’s very own life.  Some people work at toll booths, while others work as guards in prisons. Some attend to infant children while others educate them. A bishop builds up his local Church differently from a mother and father building up their family as the Domestic Church.

In chapter 12, she could find no explicit ministry that was possible for her to practice within the Carmelite cloister, for she embraced the entire world.  It is not generally known that Thérèse wrote in her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, that she had an intense desire to become a priest. To her sister Marie, she writes: “I feel in me the vocation of the priest.”  As priesthood was not possible, Thérèse searched elsewhere and went to the heart of 1 Corinthians:

“I knew that the Church had a heart and that such a heart appeared to be aflame with love.  I knew that one love drove the members of the Church to action, that if this love were extinguished, the apostles would have proclaimed the Gospel no longer.  I saw and realized that love sets off the bounds of all vocations, that love is everything, that this same love embraces every time and every place” (Quoted in the Liturgy of the Hours for October 1, 1450-51).

As she read the Ode to Love in chapter 13, her heart was filled with joy:
“Then, nearly ecstatic with the supreme joy in my soul, I proclaimed: O Jesus, my love, at last I have found my calling: my calling is love. . . . In the heart of the Church, my mother, I will be love, and thus I will be all things, as my desire finds its direction” (Ibid).

A Doctor of the Church?

Thérèse became convinced that the power of the love of one person could build up the Body of Christ, anywhere and at any time.  Unselfish love is the heart of the Church’s mission superseding all other gifts.  This is holiness, pure and simple, but “the manner is ordinary.” This is the title of a book written by John LaFarge, S.J. (d 1963), which received critical and popular acclaim for its common-sense approach to the daily grind of Jesuits and others.

Why has the Church ranked Thérèse among the Doctors of the Church?  First, she grasped the heart of the Church’s mission as love. There is no separation or opposition between love of God and love of neighbor regardless of where one lives. Second, her ‘little way’ is simple, direct, and universally accessible, especially to the homebound, the infirm, and the forgotten.  “The manner is ordinary.”

Finally, Thérèse shows contemporary man and woman how to deal with the spiritual desert and about doubting the existence of God. Yes, a cloistered nun experienced spiritual desolation. For the last two years of her religious life, she experienced what St. John of the Cross calls “the dark night of the soul.” This last point calls for some explanation.

"The Dark Night of the Soul: Spiritual Consolation and Desolation"

It is not uncommon for the devout to experience dryness, aridity, and doubts about God’s existence.  It can happen to lay men and women as well as those in clerical and consecrated life. One feels cut off from God, as though God is far off, distant, disinterested, and even dead.  One lives by sheer conviction and not with feeling.  We all experience this:  some days it’s so difficult to face life that we would rather stay in bed.

In consolation, prayer is easy, everything is easy, and all obstacles are removed to help the soul to continue in virtue.  It feels so good to practice one’s Catholic faith even though daily struggles are always there to deal with. 

Spiritual distress is “darkness of soul, disquiet of mind, an attraction to what is coarse and earthly, all restlessness proceeding from different temptations and disturbances that challenge one’s faith.  The soul finds itself listless, apathetic, like one cut off from God.” Thus writes Thomas Corbishley, S.J. in his translation of St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, #315). Spiritual distress differs from external concerns.  It affects the soul deep down, separate and distinct from material struggles.

More in The Way of Beauty

There are three reasons why we experience desolation: (a) It is our fault because we’re careless in our own spiritual exercises; (b) To test the resolve of our faith; (c) To show us that, of ourselves, we are powerless to bring about spiritual comfort, but that this is all a gratuitous gift of God. (The Spiritual Exercises, #322)

Surely Thérèse was not lax in her spiritual duties. In prayer however, instead of a garden, she found herself in a desert. Yet, she went to prayer, even though God seemed far away. Pray she did—through long periods of spiritual emptiness without feeling. Years later, Mother Teresa of Calcutta would reveal that she too had lived in this ‘dark night of the soul’ for some fifty years.  Let us not forget that Jesus was tempted in the desert for forty days. There he encountered physical stripping and a naked landscape. He encountered psychological struggle against the devil, plus fatigue, discomfort, thirst, loneliness, and hunger.

What to Do in the Spiritual Desert?

When you encounter a spiritual desert, find some scripture verses or psalms that you can pray again and again. Make them your own. Remain convinced that you are in God’s presence. God is at work in your soul despite your negative feelings. Stay the course, and try to be patient with yourself. God sees the heart and its intentions and will not be outdone in generosity. Eventually distress and doubt about God’s existence will be transformed into a place of wonder.  Out of the desert will come something beautiful:  a new attitude, a new vision, a new mandate, a new mission, and new service.   

Thérèse’s ‘Little Way,’ Little No More

Thérèse saw in Carmel an apostolically-fruitful life, a life lived in the heart of the Church. She abandoned the notion of priesthood and embraced the vocation of a missionary like that of St. Francis Xavier. He had spent his life as the itinerant apostle to the Indies, but she spent hers as a cloistered missionary.  With him, she has been named “Co-Patron of the Missions.”

“Thérèse’s ‘little way’ is little no more. She knew what was at the heart of everything. More love” (Stephanie Paulsell, “Reading St. Thérèse,” Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Summer/Autumn, 2010, 74). Perhaps this is what prompted Pius X to call her the greatest saint of our time.  

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