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Her Little Way Goes a Long Way

July 2, 2014

Unexpectedly, I find myself winnowing the thoughts of Thérèse of Lisieux, a Discalced Carmelite nun whose brief life spanned the closing three decades of the 19th century. She is one of the most popular of Catholic saints, noted for the “simplicity and practicality of her approach to the spiritual life.” I had stumbled across references to her from time to time over the years, but took little notice. However when I again chanced upon mention of this woman recently, I decided the time had come to find out what the fuss was about, and hunted down translations of the few writings she left to us. Perhaps I would have benefited from doing so earlier, although that is likely idle speculation, since experience tells me that my edification follows a timetable other than my own.

Perhaps this post is premature, as though I have read others’ reports of what she proffered, I have only begun to read her own accounts; I probably will have more to say on the matter when I have finished those. But my purpose here is to write about my journey, and I think it profitable to comment as I go. Too often, I think, people present a “sanitized” version when they determine a leg their journey is at an end, when they have settled things in their mind. This to me is far less helpful than hearing of someone’s struggles along the way.

Although a sister of a religious order from before her 16th birthday, Thérèse’s spiritual journey was largely solitary. Very unlike myself, she held that Jesus taught her “without the noise of words”. But like me, her concern was not only for her fellow believers, but for all mankind, particularly for the “least of these”. She sought to “live the truth” in response to God’s boundless love for her, and to do so in the commonplace routine of everyday life. She endeavoured to not allow there to be any gap between what she said and what she did.

Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. (Colossians 3:23-24 ESV)

She recognized that we must live the Gospel with whomever God brings into our lives, not just those of our own choosing, and frequently those we would not ourselves choose under any circumstances. How well I know this from personal experience! Like Mother Teresa (who chose her novitiate name in honour of Thérèse), she was determined, inspired by God’s love, to see Jesus in the depths of the soul of even the most disagreeable person. She was convinced that love for others was to go beyond the accepted understanding of the “second commandment” to love our neighbours as ourselves, that she was to love others not just as she loved herself, but as Jesus loved them. She rejected any suggestion of the impossibility of this, returning that with God all things are possible.

The first conversion, in the popular Christian vernacular “accepting Jesus as Lord and Saviour”, is a one-time thing; the second, suggested by Thérèse, is an lifelong process. I understand this “second conversion” (some refer to it as sanctification, although to me that word carries a lot of baggage that tends to muddy the water) for I, too, reached a point where I knew belief, my mental assent to the orthodox doctrines about Jesus, the cross, and the resurrection, was not enough, that what Jesus most desired of me was not my worship, which he never once solicited, but to truly follow him, in the Gospels something he repeatedly urged people to do. Believing in Jesus neither made him Lord of my life nor gave me citizenship in his Kingdom. Not only did I need to believe in him, I also needed to believe him. The “head thing” had to be followed by a “heart thing”. What was needed was surrender, the rejection of my ego, the death of my “self”, the relinquishing of my will to be able to adopt the critical posture of submission to the will of God. It is not so much what I believe that truly matters, but what I do.

Do I hear you professing to believe in the one and only God, but then observe you complacently sitting back as if you had done something wonderful? That’s just great. Demons do that, but what good does it do them? Use your heads! Do you suppose for a minute that you can cut faith and works in two and not end up with a corpse on your hands? (James 2:19-20, The Message)

Above all, I believe, what Jesus wants from me is relationship. He wants me to be in relationship with all three manifestations of the Trinity, and he wants me to be in relationship with my fellow man, Christian and non-Christian alike. This was what he said when questioned by the lawyer in Matthew 22.

Thérèse grasped the profound truth of God’s love, the love that he pours forth on us and through us, the nature of which is to humble one’s self.  It is having the humility to recognize my insignificance and my fallen state, but at the same time an awareness of the greatness bestowed upon me by the love of God. It is eschewing all efforts to achieve perfection, to achieve sanctity by the strength of my own efforts.

Mercy is the air that I breathe and the language that I speak; I sense the same was true of Thérèse. She was accused, as I have been at times, of over-emphasizing God’s mercy in a way that neglects divine justice. To that charge I can only say with her, “the soul receives from God exactly what it expects.”

God does not define himself as justice, but rather as love. Mercy is the source of God’s justice, his mercy conditioning justice so that justice serves love. When mercy reigns, compassion, forebearance, generosity and tender-heartedness serve it in attendance.

While Gospel mercy is not to be confused with justice and taken for granted as an entitlement, I believe the fear of God, thought necessary by some to protect his eternal majesty and supremacy, carries the diabolical power to dismiss and destroy his mercy, to make him seem formidable, impersonal and unapproachable. Since the way people think of God shapes how they relate to God, fear precludes any possibility of intimacy.

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. (1 John 4:18 ESV)

The “little way” of Thérèsa of Lisieux resonates with me, shedding a little more light on the mysteries of faith and the mystery of Jesus. I share with her the inmost confidence that God loves me more than I can possibly fathom, that I can love much only because I have received much. Like her, I appreciate each day as a gift in which I can make a difference by the way I choose to live it, though I often struggle with making the right choices. Likewise, I do my best to do all as though doing it for God, but in this too I all too often falter. I, too, have chosen a life of faith rather than darkness, knowing that Jesus understands my struggles and that my heavenly Father forgives my missteps. I, too, hope for a future in which God will consume my spirit.

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