The Little Way by St Therese of Lisieux
All the passages below are taken from the book by Patrick Ahern, “Maurice & Therese—The story of a Love,” published in 1998.
Therese lost no time in answering Maurice’s letter of April 17, and her lengthy reply marked a new stage in her relationship with him. It was in this letter that she dropped the formal address of “Monsieur l’Abbe” to replace it with “My dear little brother,” the affectionate phrase she used when she prayed for him. It seemed perfectly natural to express the sisterly fondness she felt growing in her. At the same time, she was aware that the change was significant and she asked Mother Gonzague’s permission for it.
She knew that her love for Maurice was grounded in her love for God. She compared it to the love, in the seventeenth century, between Margaret Mary and her confessor, Father Claude de la Colombiere. The former had visions of the love which burned in the Heart of Christ for all humanity and felt herself called to establish in the Church a devotion to the Sacred Heart. Her claims were regarded with suspicion by Church authorities, but her confessor recognized their validity and staunchly defended her. Eventually she prevailed and the devotion was approved and became popular in Catholic piety. Margaret Mary was declared a saint by Rome in 1920, and Claude was canonized as a saint by Pope John Paul II on May 31, 1992.
Therese did not presume that she and Maurice were their equals, but saw a parallel in their God-centered relationship. Referring to Maurice in her autobiography, she wrote: “When it pleases Jesus to join two souls for His glory, He permits them to communicate their thoughts from time to time in order to incite each other to love God more.” Her love for him was both holy and deeply human, and she expressed it freely for the comfort she knew it gave him. She would express it more and more as their correspondence continued.
It bothered her, however, that Maurice did not seem to know her as she was. He idealized her, and she was at pains to correct him. He must not think of her as someone great, she said. “I beg you to believe me that the good God has given you as your sister not a great soul but one who is very little and very imperfect.” This was an important point which he needed to understand. It was at the heart of the spiritual discovery she had made which she called her “Little Way.” The Little Way is a rich and original teaching, and it is Therese’s great contribution to Christian spirituality. It is what people are referring to when they speak of the Copernican revolution she created in our traditional approach to God. It is hard to describe briefly because Therese never defined things, never put them in formulas. Rather, she lived them.
She was delighted that Maurice shared her enthusiasm for Joan of Arc. She began his introduction to the Little Way by recalling that Joan’s exploits as God’s emissary had fired her own imagination as a young child. She even dreamed of following her example and carving out a similar destiny of greatness. This dream changed, however, as she realized that God was not calling her to glory and to fame, but to a life of love lived in the silence of a cloister. Here, unnoticed, she could “love Jesus as He had never been loved before.” And because she never thought of her love for Jesus as something private, an exclusive relationship between Him and her, she would share this love with the whole world, with that “vast army of little souls” which she felt God gave her the mission to lead.
Because littleness is no obstacle to love, no greatness was required for this mission. Neither her human imperfection nor her shortcomings would keep her from God’s love, for she knew that His love is by nature merciful. She did not come by this insight easily. She struggled for most of her brief lifetime before she saw clearly that, in approaching God, weakness is not a liability. It is in fact an asset. By September 17, 1896, she was able to express this clearly in a letter to her oldest sister, Marie.
On September 7 that year, she had begun the ten-day private retreat which would prove to be her last. Sometime earlier the two had been having discussions in which Therese had tried to explain the confidence she had in God’s love for her, and the joy and lasting peace it gave her. Her sister found her explanation hard to understand and asked her to clarify in writing what Marie called her “little doctrine,” the essence of her spirituality. Therese responded on September 8 with a letter which has become Manuscript B of her autobiography. Only a dozen pages long, Manuscript B is ranked among the great masterpieces of Christian literature. Actually it is made up of two documents, her answer to Marie and a “letter” which she had written to Jesus at the beginning of the retreat. The two are reversed in the autobiography, the soliloquy to Jesus placed second instead of first.
Manuscript B soars to lyrical heights in expressing Therese’s love for God. It is here that she described the desires burning inside of her which seemed like madness: the desire to proclaim the Gospel in the four corners of the world until the end of time, to be an apostle, a priest, a missionary, a Doctor of the Church, and a martyr who would suffer all the martyrdoms of history to prove her love for God. Her desires lit fires in her heart and she felt called by God to all vocations.
What then was her vocation, this mysterious destiny of which she felt certain? In Manuscript B she described her relentless search to find it. She did not mean her vocation as a Carmelite but the special destiny to which she knew God was insistently calling her, “to be love in the heart of the Church.” This is what would enable her to be everything she wanted to be because the love she envisioned embraced all vocations and reached out to the whole world.
It is in Manuscript B also that we have the memorable story of the little bird, in which she saw a symbol of herself in the terrible darkness of her night of faith. The little bird has the aspirations of an eagle but cannot soar as the eagle can to the lofty heights of “the Divine Sun.” Unworried by its weakness, it remains steadfast in its trust that beyond the clouds the Sun goes on shining. “Nothing will frighten it, neither wind nor rain, and if the dark clouds come and hide the Star of Love, the little bird will not change its place because it knows that beyond the clouds its bright Sun still shines on.”
Continuing the metaphor, she homed in on her human failings, which she never allowed to discourage her. “Being unable to soar like the eagles, the poor little bird is taken up with the trifles of earth. It chases a worm, gets its feathers wet in a muddy pool, becomes preoccupied with a flower.” But instead of worrying, it never loses heart.
For all its lyrical loftiness, Marie failed to understand the point Therese was making in her letter. Rather than inspiring her, Therese’s reply only heightened Marie’s sense of her own inadequacy. “I have read your pages burning with love for Jesus. But a certain feeling of sadness came over me in view of your extraordinary desires for martyrdom. They are proof of your love. Yes, you possess love, but I myself! No.” To answer her objection, Therese wrote a final letter on September 17, the last day of her retreat. It is regrettable that this letter is not included in Manuscript B of the autobiography because Marie is not alone in her reaction. It was in this last letter that Therese laid her questioning to rest with a clear statement of what she meant. Her words are revolutionary: “Let me tell you, Marie, that my desires for martyrdom are nothing. It is not they which give me the unlimited confidence which I feel in my heart. . . . What pleases God in my little soul is that He sees me loving my littleness and my poverty: it is the blind hope that I have in His mercy. [The emphasis is Therese’s.] That is my only treasure. Why can it not be yours? . . . To love Jesus, the more one is weak, without desires and without virtues, the more one is suitable for the operations of (God’s) consuming and transforming love. It is confidence and nothing but confidence that must lead us to love.”
That passage in her letter of September 17 is the clearest expression of the Little Way that Therese has left us. It puts an end to all the objections which Marie or Maurice or anyone at all might make about his or her human failure. How can someone as mediocre as I, we say, presume to love God? Therese’s answer is bold: “The more one is weak, without desires and without virtues, the more one is suited for the operations of God’sconsuming and transforming love.” Discouragement is simply not allowed in the spirituality of Therese. We may approach Him no matter how poor we are; in fact, the poorer the better, for the more we may then rely upon God. No matter in what situation we find ourselves, the only requirement is that we put our trust in His merciful love.
The Little Way is a whole new way of life, a way of holiness that is open to all because it requires nothing from anyone but the ordinary, day-to-day experience of which every life is made. Steeped in her mission of love, Therese saw no reason to take upon herself great penances, which were common in the Carmel of her day. She soon gave them up, content to offer God the small sacrifices which came in the routine of community life, the little occasions to be kind to others, the apostolate of the smile when smiling at another was the last thing she felt like doing. Such opportunities to demonstrate love for God by showing it to others abound in everyone’s daily life.
The Little Way finds joy in the present moment, in being pleased to be the person you are, whoever you are. It is a school of self-acceptance, which goes beyond accepting who you are to wanting to be who you are. It is a way of coming to terms with life not as it might be but as it is.
The last thing it should be seen as is mere self-help psychology, a method for calming anxiety. It is very helpful in this regard, of course, and it does result in peace of mind, but that is not its aim. The Little Way is a theology, one that is lived and which rests on the rock foundation of a central divine truth: that God is “nothing but Mercy and Love” and can be counted on for His boundless benevolence.
The Little Way is a wide-open invitation to all to love the God of the present moment, the only God Who exists and Who asks nothing from us but that we believe in His love. Therese knew God, she was sure of Him, and was a reliable witness to His love for each and every person. She spoke to every human being who would listen, to Marie who was disturbed by her own apparent mediocrity, to Maurice Belliere who worried greatly over his past sins, to all those who worry that they are not better than they are. It is a waste of time to regret that one is not better than one is. Therese made short work of regretting.
The Little Way is the joy of the Gospel from which she took it, whose Lord said that the littlest in the Kingdom of God is to be reckoned the greatest. [108-115]