In the second reading today, St. Paul tells us that each one of us is given the gift of the spirit in our own way. I would like to speak a little bit today about how the spirit was given in her own special way to a wonderful young Carmelite nun, St. Therese of Lisieux.
St. Therese, also known as The Little Flower is one of the most extraordinary mystics in the church. She was Carmelite nun belonging to the same order as her namesake, St. Teresa of Avila. She has probably had more influence on the church at large than any other saint except possibly St. Francis of Assisi.
A short time before she died in the Carmelite convent of Lisieux, at the request of the prioress who was her blood sister, Therese wrote to the story of her life. This was published privately for a limited audience after her death but soon spread throughout the universal church and has become one of the great spiritual classics. (A magnificent audio rendition of her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, can be found free by googling Internet Archives.)
Therese is best known for what has been called her Little Way. Like Julian of Norwich ,she believed that the people of her day lived too much in fear of God as a judge. She saw God rather as a loving father and maintained that the God who became a little child cannot possibly be someone to be feared. Rather he was to be recognized in the intimacy of his love which was manifested to us in Jesus.
Therese recognizes that she could never be perfect. She was indeed hypersensitive to her little faults and imperfections. She realized she could never approach the heroic sanctity of the great saints. She was only able to do little things for God. She realized that God, as a loving father/mother, would be very pleased with the little things of his child.
Her Little Way consisted and a commitment to the small, menial tasks of her life in the convent and to her relationships with the nuns of her community and the people she would contact through them. Herein would lie her sanctity. Her Little Way was simple and direct but called for strong determination and fortitude. She resolved to do everything, all the little insignificant tasks in the convent, for the love of God. She would love everyone she came in contact with and make a special effort to be loving to difficult or unlovable people whom she recognized as being the ones who needed love the most.
This is the appeal of St. Therese to the world even today. Everyone is capable of following her Little Way. It is a way of trial and error, of darkness and light, of joy and suffering but most of all, of loving in the concrete situation of one’s daily life. It is a paradox, but this little way of practicing heroic virtue is a way that is open to everyone. It does not involve dying for the faith, leaving one’s home to live among the poor, taking vows of poverty and obedience or becoming a missionary in Africa. It is a little way that is carried out in the everyday situation of daily life. The foundation of this little way is a very simple, honest acknowledgment of one’s own weaknesses and inadequacies. This is not, in the face of it ,a practice of self abasement but rather simply facing the truth about oneself. This by definition is the virtue of humility.
The next step in the spiritual journey or the Little Way, is to try to love. This love must be concrete, personal, individual and express itself in the small and large incidence of daily life and in every relationship experienced in that life. This love must be honest and real. It is not a matter of emotion or feeling but is an act of the will sometimes made in situations that can be tolerated only by sheer willpower or, rather, only by goodwill. It must be practiced in the smallest details of daily relationships especially when one’s inclination is to be impatient, cold, indifferent, unsympathetic or even angry.
Love begins when nothing is expected in return. Just as we are called to love God for his own sake and not for his gifts, so we are called to love one another in the same way. This is the way that God loves us and the only way we can really demonstrate love for God on this earth. If you do not love your brother and sister whom you can see, how can you love God you do not see?
In accordance with humility this love must be done honestly which means that many times we will fail. However we will see failure only as the opportunity to begin all over again even as Jesus and the psalmist tell us, seven times a day. This is not a question of “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” It is an issue of success being found in the very trying and trying again.
I will conclude with a quote from St. Therese’s Story of a Soul:
“Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word, always doing the smallest thing but doing it all for love.”