Grow into Spiritual Childhood this Advent

As this year’s short Advent progresses, many of us will perhaps be thinking of our Christmases as children. As one gets older, it is easy to become sentimental about Christmas past, even without the benefit of its eponymous ghost to remind us of what it was like.

But we don’t need Hollywood, or even Sammy Cahn and Glenn Campbell, to tell us that “Christmas is for Children.” As Catholics, we know that the real Christmas — whose subject is God-in-the-crib with Mary His Mother — mystically makes present Christ’s three births, one of which is the birth of Christ in the soul.

This is our rebirth as children of God.

But it is not Christmas yet. We are still in Advent, that penitential period of preparation for the Christmas grace. So let us prepare ourselves, penitent-like, by belittling ourselves — that is to say, making ourselves little, for the very God who came to us in the body of a child tells us that we need to become children if we are to approach Him: “Amen I say to you, unless you be converted, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3).

The great mistress of the Little Way, who mastered the art of becoming a child as Jesus admonishes us, is Saint Thérèse. Here is what she says about being little:

To remain little is to recognize one’s nothingness, to expect everything from God, as a little child expects everything from his father; it is to be disturbed about nothing, not to earn a fortune.

Even among poor people, as long as the child is quite small, they give him what he needs; but as soon as he has grown up, his father no longer wishes to feed him and says to him: “Work now, you can be self-supporting.” Well, so as never to hear that, I have not wished to grow up, since I feel myself incapable of earning my living, the eternal life of heaven. I have, therefore, always remained little, having no other occupation than to gather the flowers of love and sacrifice and to offer them to God for His pleasure.

To be little also means not to attribute to oneself the virtues that one practices, believing oneself capable of something; but it means recognizing that God places this treasure of virtue in the hand of His little child that he may make use of it when necessity arises; and it is always God’s treasure.

We live in a very irresponsible age, characterized by dysfunctional millennials, safe spaces in institutions of “higher education,” trigger alerts, precious snowflakes, etc. (No, I don’t believe all millennials fit the image, and neither am I like every other member of “Generation-X.” But the video is funny, and caricatures some disturbing realities.) Because of that, we should be alert to the fact that Saint Thérèse was not advocating childishness or irresponsibility.

Contrast clarifies the mind. On this subject, then, let us contrast what the Doctor of Merciful Love says with an utterance of the Doctor of the Gentiles: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But, when I became a man, I put away the things of a child,” wrote Saint Paul (1 Cor. 13:11). He refers here of the maturity of divine Charity. “The things of a child” of which he speaks as things to be put aside are not the good or beneficial aspects of childhood that are aspired to in the Little Way, but the defective aspects of childhood. As Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange tells us, “St. Teresa of the Child Jesus reminds us that the principal virtues of the child of God are those in which are reproduced in an eminent degree the innate qualities of the child, minus his defects. Consequently the way of spiritual childhood will teach us to be supernaturally ourselves minus our defects.” (Father Reginald explains what the innate qualities of a child are here, and continues those thoughts here and here; these short passages are highly recommended reading.)

Even then, for all his mature big-boy talk, Saint Paul was not too big for his spiritual britches. The Greek name that Saul of Tarsus chose (shortly after winning the Roman proconsul, Sergius Paulus to the faith; cf. Acts 13:6-12), was a Hellenized form of the Latin, Paulus, which means “small.” There are other indications that he was little in his own mind, such as when he writes, “For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Cor. 15:9).

And he loved spiritual childhood so much that, as their apostle, he regarded himself in maternal terms toward his Galatian disciples: “My little children, of whom I am in labour again, until Christ be formed in you” (Gal. 4:19).

Returning now to Saint Thérèse, she was far from childish; she lived all the demanding responsibilities of a Carmelite Nun. It was a difficult life. If she was not “grown up” in the sense of reaching adult maturity, she would not have been eligible to take solemn religious vows. The kind of “grown up” she does not want to be is someone who is “independent” — that is, of her Heavenly Father. Children are very dependent, and that is what Sister Thérèse wished to remain, at least in the order of grace. Now, in fact, all of us are radically dependent in the order of grace, but we don’t all accept that because of our pride and disordered self-love. When we acknowledge and fully grasp that dependence, we begin to acquire humility and abandonment.

It was a lesson in humility that Our Lord was teaching when he gave the example of a little child in Matthew 18. The next verse from that which we earlier quoted is, “Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, he is the greater in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:4).

Abandonment of the type practiced by Saint Thérèse would help us heed Saint Francis de Sales’ advice to Saint Jane Frances de Chantal: “Do all things without haste, gently, as do the Angels; follow the guidance of the divine movements, and be supple to grace; God wills us to be like little children.”

Note how the great Doctor associates suppleness to grace with being childlike.

The flip side to radical dependence is boundless confidence — and that, throughout all of life’s vicissitudes. Saint Thérèse had a holy indifference regarding whether her will or preference came to be. She simply accepted all from the hands of her loving Father, trusting confidently in His care for her. And this was accompanied by heroic generosity, too.

Charity is the greatest of the theological virtues, and is, therefore, the greatest virtue, full stop. For Saint Thérèse, the Love of God was not something to aspire to as the summit of the spiritual life, but was what animated her entire journey. In the language of Saint Thomas (Cf. ST IIa IIae, Q. 32, A. 1, ad 2), theological Charity “commanded” the acts of the other virtues.

Children love their parents. Watch what happens when a poor little lost child is restored to mother or father. That’s love. One may object that this is childish love; it is not altruistic. My response is that’s what is essential in this child’s love is that he recognizes in Mommy and Daddy his good, and is directed wholeheartedly toward this good. While such love must graduate into what Saint Thomas calls a “love of benevolence,” as distinguished from a “love of concupiscence” (Cf. ST IIa IIae Q. 23, A. 1), it is still love; it is still a cleaving to the good with one’s will. Saint Thérèse took that ardent love of a child, purified it, and elevated it to the supernatural order of grace.

All of these sentiments can be found summarized in her Act of Oblation to God’s Merciful Love, which is worthy of attentive reading and meditation.

It is small wonder that numerous popes praised Saint Thérèse for her spiritual doctrine, noting that her “Little Way” is a gift to the Church of our time.

Sister Marie Gabrielle and I discuss this subject in the latest Reconquest, scheduled to air tonight. Downloads will be available here after the show’s premiere if you are a Veritas Radio Network subscriber — which Saint Thérèse would heartily approve of.