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Thérèse of Lisieux, Part I: The Little Way

Monday, August 3, 2015

Mystics and Non-Dual Thinkers: Week 4

Thérèse of Lisieux, Part I: The Little Way
Monday, August 3, 2015

I have often mentioned my love for St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897), the uneducated French Carmelite nun 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, meaning that her teaching is seen as thoroughly reliable and trustworthy. [1] Thérèse taught that “Jesus does not demand great actions from us, but simply surrender and gratitude.” [2] She may have been exposed to Jean-Pierre de Caussade’s teaching,  since she “‘democratized’ holiness,” as Joseph Schmidt says, “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 . . . surrendering herself into God’s providence.” [3]

In a statue of Thérèse at the entrance to her basilica in Lisieux, she is holding a book with the words omen novum—meaning new sign, new message, or literally new omen. Pope Pius XI declared Thérèse’s spiritual way of childhood “omen novum” in a speech in 1925:

Thérèse fascinates the world today by the magic of her example, [an] example of holiness that everyone can and should follow. Because everyone must enter this small way—way of a golden simplicity, [which] is childish only by its name—in this way of spiritual childhood, all purity, clarity of mind and heart, irresistible love of goodness, truth, and sincerity. And this virtue of spiritual childhood, which resides in the will of the soul, bears the most beautiful fruit: love. O path so beautiful, so good, so beneficent; all peace and holiness! Omen novum.

Thérèse came into a 19th century Catholic Church that was controlled by Jansenism (the belief 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 says, “I’m convinced that my message is really new. Jesus himself taught me this.” This had been forgotten by most Christians by the 19th century, 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. She says, “Jesus deigned to show me the road that leads to this Divine Furnace [of God’s love] and this road is the surrender of the little child who sleeps without fear in its Father’s arms.” [4] In a letter to priest Adolphe Roulland, Thérèse 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.” Any Christian “perfection” is, in fact, our ability to include, forgive, and accept our imperfection.

Near the end of her life, Thérèse explained the Little Way to her sister, and it became part of her autobiography, The Story of a Soul. In contrast to the “Big Way” of heroic perfectionism, she says, in essence, “I know when I am a little one, I almost draw God’s love toward me. God has to love me and help me because I can’t do anything by myself. So I bring to God not my perfection, but my imperfection.” Then with utter confidence, she says, “I know God comes rushing toward me.” [5]

Thérèse uses a story from her own early childhood in a very loving family to illustrate this point: “[Picture] the little child who starts to hold herself up but does not yet know how to walk. Wanting absolutely to climb to the top of the stairs to find her mother again, she lifts her little foot to finally climb the first step. Useless labor! She always falls without making any advance. . . . Consent to be this little child. Through practicing all the virtues, keep lifting up your little foot in order to clamber up the stairs of holiness. You will not even get to the first rung, but God asks nothing of you except your good will. From the top of the stairs he looks down at you with love. Soon, won over by your ineffective efforts, he will come down himself and, taking you in his arms, he will take you away into his kingdom forever where you will never have to depart from him.” [6]

Gateway to Silence:
“My way is all confidence and love.” —St. Thérèse of Lisieux


[1] Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Little Way: A Spirituality of Imperfection (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2007), MP3 download.
[2] John Clarke, trans., Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux (ICS Publications: 1996), 188.
[3] Joseph F. Schmidt, Walking the Little Way of Thérèse of Lisieux: Discovering the Path of Love (The Word Among Us Press: 2012), 22.
[4] Clarke, Story of a Soul, 188.
[5] Rohr, The Little Way, MP3 download.
[6] Schmidt, Everything Is Grace: The Life and Way of Thérèse of Lisieux (The Word Among Us Press: 2007), 249-250.

Image credit: St. Thérèse of Lisieux, age 15 (detail), April 1888.
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