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A Spirituality of Imperfection

Discovering the Little Way

Sunday, September 25th, 2022

During Richard Rohr’s novitiate year of becoming a Franciscan, he discovered the writings of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (1873­–1897). Father Richard describes Thérèse’s teaching as “a spirituality of imperfection”:

I have often mentioned my love for Thérèse of Lisieux, a French Carmelite nun with minimal formal education, who in her short, hidden life of only twenty-four years captured the essence of Jesus’ core teachings on love. Thérèse was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1997 [1], which means her teaching is seen as thoroughly reliable and trustworthy. She “‘democratized’ holiness,” as Brother Joseph Schmidt (1934–2022) said, “making it clear that holiness is within the reach of anyone willing to do God’s will in love at each successive moment as life unfolds.” [2] 

Thérèse came into a nineteenth-century Catholic Church that often believed in an angry, punitive God, perfectionism, and validation by personal good behavior—which is a very unstable and illusory path. In the midst of this rigid environment, Thérèse was convinced that her message, taught to her by Jesus himself, was “totally new.” [3] The gospel of radical grace had been forgotten by many Christians, so much so that Thérèse had to call it “new.”

Thérèse called this simple, childlike path her “little way.” It is a spirituality of imperfection. In a letter to priest Adolphe Roulland (1870–1934), she writes: “Perfection seems simple to me, I see it is sufficient to recognize one’s nothingness and to abandon oneself as a child into God’s arms.” [4] Any Christian “perfection” is, in fact, our ability to include, forgive, and accept our imperfection. As I’ve often said, we grow spiritually much more by doing it wrong than by doing it right. That might just be the central lesson of how spiritual growth happens, yet nothing in us wants to believe it.

If there is such a thing as human perfection, it seems to emerge precisely from how we handle the imperfection that is everywhere, especially in ourselves. What a clever place for God to hide holiness, so that only the humble, “little,” and earnest will find it! A “perfect” person ends up being one who can consciously forgive and include imperfection rather than the ones who think they are totally above and beyond imperfection. It becomes rather obvious once we say it out loud.

Near the end of her life, Thérèse explained her little way to her sister, and this became part of her autobiography Story of a Soul. In contrast to the “big way” of heroic perfectionism, she teaches, in essence, that as a little one “with all [her] imperfections,” God’s love is drawn toward her. God has to love her and help her because she is “too small to climb the rough stairway of perfection.” [5] With utter confidence, she “believed herself infinitely loved by Infinite Love.”

References:

[1] Pope John Paul II, “Proclamation of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face as a ‘Doctor of the Church,’” homily, October 19, 1997.

[2] Joseph F. Schmidt, Walking the Little Way of Thérèse of Lisieux: Discovering the Path of Love (Frederick, MD: The Word Among Us Press, 2012), 22.

[3] Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, trans. John Clarke, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1976), 207.

[4] Thérèse to Adolphe Roulland, May 9, 1897 in Thérèse of Lisieux: General Correspondence, vol. 2, 1890–1897, trans. John Clarke (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1988), 1094.

[5] Story of a Soul, 207.

[6] Louis Liagre, A Retreat with St. Thérèse, trans. P. J. Owen (London: Douglas Organ, 1947), 22. Note: This is the book that Father Richard read during his novitiate year.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011), xxii; and

The Little Way: A Spirituality of Imperfection (Albuquerque, NM: Center for Action and Contemplation, 2007). Available as MP3 audio download.

Explore Further. . .

Image credit: Arthur Allen, Daily Meditations 9 (detail), 2022, photograph, France, used with permission. Katrina Lillian Sorrentino, Entelechy 8 (detail), 2022, photograph, Spain, used with permission. Belinda Rain, Frost (detail), 1972, California, public domain. Jenna Keiper & Leslye Colvin, 2022, triptych art, United States. Click here to enlarge image.

This week’s images appear in a form inspired by early Christian/Catholic triptych art: a threefold form that tells a unified story. 

Image inspiration: We pause to appreciate the seemingly insignificant and experience the awe of the simple and unexpected.

Story from Our Community:

In a way, we are perfect if we allow ourselves to accept that we are not perfect. Perfect in the eyes of God with great potential, but imperfect in that we are not going to get it right all the time. We will make mistakes. —J.E.B. K.

Share your own story with us.

Prayer for our community:

God, Lord of all creation, lover of life and of everything, please help us to love in our very small way what You love infinitely and everywhere. We thank You that we can offer just this one prayer and that will be more than enough,  because in reality every thing and every one is connected, and nothing stands alone. To pray for one part is really to pray for the whole, and so we do. Help us each day to stand for love, for healing, for the good, for the diverse unity of the Body of Christ and all creation, because we know this is what You desire: as Jesus prayed, that all may be one. We offer our prayer together with all the holy names of God, we offer our prayer together with Christ, our Lord, Amen.

Listen to the prayer.

 

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