A Reflection on the Little Way of St. Therese
Every month each Carmelite Sister steps aside from her daily service to God’s people and makes a one-day spiritual retreat. To most of us, this single day out of each month is dearly loved and longed for. We meet and work with a lot of people on a daily basis, and to enjoy a day of silence and prayer is not so much a luxury as a necessity. A few of the standard components of our day of prayer include a monthly examination of conscience, extra meditations and spiritual conferences, and a period of thinking about and preparing for the moment of our entrance into eternity, i.e. our death. I hope that last one doesn’t sound morbid. It isn’t. I like to think about that instant when I will see Jesus Face to face.
Last month, during my day of prayer, I decided to set aside some time and do a little cleaning. So, out came the boxes – little boxes with nuns’ treasures of scissors and magnets and a magnifying glass – oh, and a needle –threader – holy cards and assorted notes; medium boxes containing craft materials for our fundraisers; and the file box of treasured papers from workshops, in services, and retreats.
As I plowed through the file box, I came upon a piece of paper that I hadn’t seen in quite a while. In fact, I remembered clearly the day in the late 1960s when I made what was known in those days as a “photstat” which if you are a “boomer” like me, recognize right away as a “photostatic copy” of a document. In those days of the very first copy machines, it was a three-part process to make just one copy, including putting on, and then removing at the end, the essential, filmy-pink paper.
Well, as we are currently in the year 2013, you can probably guess that it was a mighty-yellowed paper from the legendary 60s. I think it was probably the Holy Spirit Who helped me find it after all these years. As it turned out, the message on this yellowed paper became the much-needed theme of my Day of Prayer.
This is the story.
In the late 1960s, one of the Discalced Carmelite Friars lent me a paper showing the three standard, classic degrees or ways of the spiritual life called the purgative, illuminative, and unitive ways. In separate columns, he placed the terms Carmelite Saints, such as St. Teresa of Jesus, St. John of the Cross used to describe these three ways. In other words, he cross-matched their descriptions of the spiritual life with the classic ones. In table form, he showed St. John of the Cross’s terms of dark night of the senses, dark night of the spirit, mystical marriage to name a few, and placed them into the standard three ways. He did the same with St. Teresa of Avila’s four waters (ways of prayer). I found it to be so interesting that I wanted to have my own copy so I “photostated” it, including the grand finale of peeling off the important pink filmy paper carefully to see the final “perfect” copy.
With that background, I need to explain the final column on the paper. It showed St. Therese’s spiritual doctrine, also known as “The Little Way of St. Therese.” St. Therese’s column, in contrast to the others, was remarkable simple. There were no terms to define. There were no interpretations of the nuance of the intricacy of the workings of the Holy Spirit within the souls. There were no analogies, metaphors, theological technicalities, or any such things like that.
The Little Way of St. Therese showed an almost-empty column. I mean there were hardly any words. The only words were the following: Confidence and Love. That was it. She didn’t bother to define theological steps to holiness, or describe the manifestations of various degrees of prayer. No, she simply loved God and tried to do simple, daily things with love.
That was my epiphany.
I understood in a deeper way why St. Therese was named a “Doctor of the Church” with a spiritual doctrine that can be universally applied throughout the whole world. I understood why people are drawn to her, autobiography, Story of a Soul. She is so human. She distills the spiritual journey into the concept of love and deep, deep, child-like trust.
St. Therese lived each day with complete confidence in God’s love. She wrote, “What matters in life, is not great deeds, but great love.” Therese’s spirituality is of doing the ordinary with extraordinary love. I remember when I attended Catholic elementary school, in the sixth grade our teacher, “Sister Marguerite Marie, told us that if we wanted to be like St. Therese, even picking up a small paper off the floor is an act of love and praise to God. Now, over fifty years later, I still find that to be a true statement. St. Therese’s way is very captivating, and it has captivated the world.
On my day of prayer, it captivated me once again.
“You know, Mother, that I have always wanted to be become a saint. Unfortunately, when I have compared myself with the saints, I have always found that there is the same difference between the saints and me as there is between a mountain whose summit is lost in the clouds and a humble grain of sand trodden underfoot by passersby. Instead of being discouraged, I told myself: God would not make me wish for something impossible and so, in spite of my littleness, I can aim at being a saint. It is impossible for me to grow bigger, so I put up with myself as I am, with all my countless faults…
But I will look for some means of going to heaven by a little way which is very short and very straight, a little way that is quite new[…] It is your arms, Jesus, which are the lift to carry me to heaven, And so there is no need for me to grow up. In fact, just the opposite: I must stay little and become less and less.’
St. Thérèse of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul, 113. (New York: Double Day, 2001)