Feast of St.Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face
God has greatly glorified this humble Discalced Carmelite. He has permitted her to pour out and distribute her favors far and wide and, no doubt, this is in recompense for her heroic virtues and eminent sanctity. But this by itself does not explain the spiritual radiation, the torrent of graces which, under God, have issued from her.
Other Saints have passed through this life and have been flaming torches of knowledge and sublime models because of their shining virtues and heroic deeds, but how many can we name who have exercised the sanctifying influence of our Saint? If God has desired that our “Little Therese’s” sanctity should shine with such brilliancy before the eyes of men; if He has given her such an extraordinary hold on people, it must be that, besides showing them her virtues, He wished to confirm and, as it were, proclaim as His own, the spiritual doctrine of this Teresian Carmelite Saint.
St. Therese’s own testimony, the testimonies of the Supreme Pontiffs, and the innumerable miracles and transformation of hearts God worked through her intercession are, so to speak, God’s signature, underwriting her manuscript (that is, “Story of a Soul”) and assuring the truth of her “Little Way” so that souls may be prompted to follow it. They proclaim that St. Therese was sent by God to open a new way of spirituality, a way of littleness, love and confidence. In times like ours when man, not sparing even those who claim themselves as traditional Catholics – those who, after that Vatican II’s “opening [of the Church] to the world became a veritable invasion of the Church by worldly thinking” (Pope Paul VI in ‘L’Osservatore Romano’, November 23, 1973), hold the traditions [they] have received, whether by word or by... epistle – is filled with the thought of the security of his position and therefore of his own importance as if he were the last life-line of the world; when he thinks he can by his own efforts build a better world and attain happiness by his own powers; there is evident opportuneness in St. Therese’s doctrine.
She reminds us that we are but weakness and powerlessness, that we are unable to accomplish anything without God’s assistance. On the other hand, simplifying the way that leads to holiness, she reduces perfection to its essential elements, separates it from all those external manifestations which led souls to believe that holiness is beyond our powers and that it depends on extraordinary graces that favored those penitential Saints: visions, revelations, miracles, prophecies, and the like. St. Therese thus made holiness accessible to all. Now, if God in this manner facilitates our access to holiness, it must be also because He wants a greater number to reach that goal. If He makes the road more simple it is because He wishes all souls to follow it.
The successors of St. Peter formally proclaim that the doctrine of spiritual childhood is suitable to all souls without any exception; that there is no soul which cannot and which ought not to follow it; that, according to the testimony of Our Lord: Amen I say to you, unless you be converted, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven (Mt 18.23).
It follows that, unless God gave to anyone a special direction, there is no one who can neglect it with impunity. St. Therese of the Child Jesus is the master of the spiritual life for men of today.
What, then, is the “Little Way of Spiritual Childhood”?
Many authors have dealt with the doctrine of St. Therese. Not all have properly grasped its meaning. “We have often noticed,” declares the Carmel of Lisieux, “that every one tries to adapt the Theresian doctrine to his own views of the ascetical and mystical life, and thereby takes away its originality.”
The question that has often been asked, is what constitutes the fundamental characteristic of St. Therese’s doctrine. Here again the answers differ according to the mentality of the writer or according to what impressed him most. Some affirm that the fundamental note is simplicity – others, confidence – for others again, it is love or a sum of several virtues taken together.
Now, the true characteristic of the Theresian doctrine is not found in this or that particular virtue, nor in any sum of virtues. Other Saints or spiritual writers have insisted on humility, or charity or on simplicity.
When we carefully look for the dominant character of St. Therese’s doctrine, we find that it does not consist in any particular virtue but in a special attitude of the mind. Everything is based on and flows from an attitude of spiritual childhood. It is this which gives unity to her teaching and imparts to it that simplicity which is so striking.
Again, we could mention other authors who have spoken of spiritual childhood but none have made it the basis for the spiritual life for the reason and in the way St. Therese has done it. Let there be no doubt about this, for she said so explicitly to Mother Agnes (St. Therese’s older sister, Pauline): “Mother, [my Way], is the way of spiritual childhood.”
The Meaning of the “Little Way of Spiritual Childhood”
St. Therese has fully explained this on two different occasions. One day, Mother Agnes asked her what was the exact nature of the Way she desired to teach souls after her death. She replied: “It is the way of spiritual childhood, the way of confidence and abandonment to God. I want to teach them the little means which have proved so perfectly successful for myself. I want to tell them that there is only one thing for us to do here below: to throw at Jesus’ feet the flowers of little sacrifices, to win Him through our caresses. That is the way in which I have taken hold of Him, and that is why I shall get such a good welcome.”
A few days later, having been asked what she meant by remaining a little child, she replied: “It means that we acknowledge our nothingness; that we expect everything from the good Lord, as a child expects everything from its father; it means to worry about nothing, not to build upon fortune; it means to remain little, seeking only to gather flowers, that flowers of sacrifice, and to offer them to the good Lord for His pleasure. It also means not to attribute to ourselves the virtues we practice, not to believe that we are capable of anything, but to acknowledge that it is the good Lord Who has placed that treasure in the hand of His little child that He may use it when He needs it, but it remains always God’s own treasure. Finally, it means that we must not be discouraged by our faults, for children fall frequently.”
In these two texts are expressed the fundamental characteristics of her “Little Way of Spiritual Childhood.”
First, there is LITTLENESS OR HUMILITY, which acknowledges its nothingness and attributes nothing to itself. The little child is naturally weak and powerless. He cannot do anything by his own strength. He depend on his father and mother for everything. He can scarcely put one foot before the other or, if he wants to climb the stairs, he is unable to raise his foot or make the first step. He recognizes this and confesses it (see our blogpost, “True Humility”).
Next,there is POVERTY. The child owns nothing. He has only what is given to him. He depend on his parents for everything.
Then, there is CONFIDENCE. The child knows his father and mother. If he has nothing, he knows that the parents are there to help him, feed him, give him all he needs in order to exist and act; hence, he does not fail to have recourse to them and is not anxious about anything.
There is also LOVE. However small and poor a child may be, he already possesses one thing in a charming way, and that is love. He has a heart cut to his size, but it is very much alive and very tender. He loves his mother effusively and sometimes, above all, his father. He hugs them because he loves them. He ABANDONS himself to them.
Finally, the child is SIMPLE. Everything in him – his thoughts, words, and actions – is simple. The child is guided in everything by one light alone, relying on one power alone, and seeking but one end alone: he relies on his parents at every moment, at every step of his life, seeks in them their sole support and strength. In whatever difficulty the child finds himself, he immediately looks to and runs towards them for help, and with complete confidence that this help will not be refused. A little one is capable only of little things.
These, then, are the qualities of childhood which St. Therese transposed into the supernatural order. They characterized her “Little Way of Spiritual Childhood,” and these we must reproduce in our relations with God. Pope Pius XI confirmed this, saying that spiritual childhood consists “in feeling and acting under the impulse of virtue, as a child feels and acts by nature” (Homily at the Mass of Canonization).
However, all the qualities we have mentioned are not equally characteristic of the “Little Way.” Hence, when we are asked which ones, among these virtues designate the essential characteristic of the “Little Way,” we must reply: on the one hand, humility, spiritual poverty, and confidence are its fundamental dispositions; on the other, charity is its soul. Nevertheless, what is truly predominant in her “Way” is childlike confidence, a confidence that is fearless, boundless and unwavering. It is this which makes St. Therese’s “Little Way” seem unique in the history of spirituality.
She declares this herself. After saying that her “Way” was spiritual childhood, she added that it is in a special manner “the way of confidence and abandonment.” This was also the interpretation given to it by her sisters.
(In our next articles, a closer examination of the underlying qualities of this Theresian attitude towards God.)