Last Updated: Tuesday - 01/04/2011
September 17, 2001
Thérèse offers her 'little way'
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
On Oct. 19, 1997, Pope John Paul named St. Thérèse of Lisieux a doctor of the Church. His decision placed this young woman, who had never attended university, let alone written scholarly books, in the company of 32 of the Church's greatest teachers of all time.
The pope was undeterred. "Her spiritual journey was so mature and courageous, the intuitions in her writings about the faith were so vast and profound that she deserves to be proclaimed among the great spiritual masters," he said.
Likewise, one of the great theologians of the last century, Hans Urs von Balthasar, while an admirer of Thérèse, did not view her as a mystic. Seen within the contemporary view of mysticism as concerned with extraordinary emotional experiences, von Balthasar is right.
But this view of mysticism is perhaps too narrow. What made Thérèse both a spiritual master and a true mystic was her "little way." She was able to find the presence of God in the moments of everyday life.
Thérèse wrote that she wanted to become "a warrior, a priest, an apostle, a doctor of the Church, a martyr." But she realized that her true vocation was to love. "All that we accomplish, however brilliant, is worth nothing without love."
Thérèse's love was eminently practical. It was love, not of humanity in general, but of this person here before her, especially the person who is least attractive. In the monastery, Thérèse avoided being chummy with her three sisters, who it was easy for her to love, and sought to give her greatest love to the senile, neurotic sisters on the fringe of community life.
She tried to give them "all possible services," to look for their virtues and ignore their faults, and to answer with a kind word when tempted to be disagreeable.
She tells of the trial of having to kneel during the daily meditation period next to a nun who was endlessly fidgeting. "I wanted to turn around and glare at the culprit to make her be quiet, but deep in my heart I felt that the best thing to do was to put up with it patiently, for the love of God first of all, and also not to hurt her feelings."
Father Oliver Johnson, one of the leading commentators on St. Thérèse, pays great attention to her words, "I will let no sacrifice escape me, not a look, not a word. I will make use of the smallest actions and I will do them all for love."
The expression on one's face telegraphs one's feelings before one has even spoken. Thérèse was a woman dedicated to not showing impatience or anger or other negative emotions.
Likewise, much of our talk witnesses not to the glory of God but to self-love. Thérèse worked diligently to ensure that all her conversations were edifying and did not draw attention to herself. "Whenever I am talking to one of the novices, I take care to mortify myself by never asking questions out of curiosity," she wrote.
When we listen attentively to others in conversation, we develop the ability to notice when they need consolation or encouragement. How many opportunities to aid others have been lost by our idle chatter and a failure to listen?
She avoided the twin ills of criticizing and complaining — the use of words that drag down not only others, but also ourselves.
One of the great spiritual dangers of our age is narcissism. We are tempted to want to do great things that will attract the notice of the world and its media. The Guinness Book of World Records, to take but one example, has swelled in size over the years because of the desire of so many to do something that will gain them their 10 minutes of fame.
But Thérèse shows us a different way. She performs small acts of anonymous service for those who are least likely to notice or be grateful. Always, she tried to forget self, remember God and then try to do the most perfect thing out of love for God.
This is the way to overcome self and realize a more perfect love of God. This is her "little way" that, far more than mystic revelations and spiritual ecstasies, provides a road to everlasting union with the loving Father.
(Fifth in a series of articles)
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