Saint Thérèse for President

Certainly now, we are not promoting an unlikely write-in campaign; neither do we think the Little Flower would accept if nominated or serve if elected. No, this is pure opportunism, in the best meaning of that term. In an election cycle growing to a deafening crescendo, we would like to shout above the pundits with a little Catholic message from our favorite French Carmelite.

She is, after all, one of our Congregation’s patrons, along with Saint Benedict, Saint Scholastica, Saint John of the Cross, Saint Teresa of Avila, and Saint Louis Marie de Montfort. Her special contribution to our spirituality is “the Little Way” that she so delightfully articulated in her autobiography, Story of a Soul.

The “Little Way” consists of doing well one’s daily duty, and doing it for the Love of God. In this way, everything is done in the spirit of faith, a disposition of mind which makes us see things sub specie aeternitatis (under the species of eternity), as they relate to God, our last End and greatest Good. By the spirit of faith, the soul recognizes the enduring value of little things, and the importance of immolating self-will and self-love in all things. Saint Thérèse made use of all opportunities to please God, whom she loved and whom she knew loved her. Her spirituality, which comes recommended by popes and great masters of ascetical and mystical theology, imbues in its practitioner a childlike confidence in his loving and merciful Father.

For all that, there is a downside to Saint Thérèse, a disadvantage to the saint’s approach that I think worth mentioning, especially for my male readership. It came to mind recently when one of our brothers recommended the saint’s writings to a young man we know. This youngster – a burly, masculine lad used to farm chores, football, and hockey – rather resented all the talk about flowers, gardens, birds, and other “feminine” things. I couldn’t help thinking that he had a point. No matter how Catholic they are, we would expect there to be a marked difference in the outlook of a sensitive, refined, and feminine French girl of her class and the modern American boy I just described. The contemporary cult of gender ambiguity, which would minimize the differences between the two, is something repulsive in both the order of nature and the order of grace. There is plenty of “masculine” spiritual reading available without encouraging our boys to appreciate ribbons and such. We can teach Saint Thérèse’s principles in other words and let them read her later, when a maturity of mind will allow them to appreciate these feminine realities for what they are without in any way being softened by them.

I can almost picture our lad revisiting the Little Flower in a few years, and saying, “thank heaven for little girls.”

When that time comes, when he can read Saint Thérèse profitably, what will our man find there? A very rich spiritual treasure wrapped up in a tidy package – and yes, with a ribbon on it. But it is the package’s essential compactness that is the marvel. It is at once simple, theological, practical, easy to begin, and unsentimental. Like the Manna of the desert, it is light, but it has in it all sweetness.

It is compact. Practically a Summa of the Gospel, the Little Way concentrates the most important virtues into one neat bundle: faith, hope, charity, humility, and abandonment to the will of God. Father Mary Eugene Boylan considers these five virtues the most essential to growth in sanctity. In the Little Way, they stand out as the “spirit of faith” we have already mentioned, the unconquerable confidence of a child in her loving Father, an ardent love that seeks to consume itself (that she died of tuberculosis, “consumption”, as it was then called, is apt), a self-effacing humility that regards everything as a gift from God, and an abandonment to God’s good pleasure, fortifying the soul for the greatest trials love can demand.

It is simple. Quite literally, we can call it childlike, as it is a way of spiritual childhood in perfect keeping with the Gospel admonition: “Amen I say to you, unless you be converted and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Appropriately, the Church has set Matthew 18:1-5, containing this verse, as the Gospel reading for the feast of Saint Thérèse (October 3). To draw more from that feast’s propers – a liturgical masterpiece – I cite the oration, which contains the same verse: “O Lord, Who hast said: Unless ye become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven, grant unto us, we beseech Thee, so to follow the footsteps of blessed Teresa, virgin, in lowliness and simplicity of heart that we may gain everlasting rewards.”

It is deeply theological. Assigning a primacy to theological charity in the spiritual life, the Little Way enshrines a great truth of ascetical and mystical theology: that the virtues have both elicited and commanded acts. According to Saint Thomas (Cf. ST IIa IIae, Q. 32, A. 1, ad 2) and other doctors, a virtue as a stable habit draws forth an act proper to itself, but it can also be the motive force for an act proper to another virtue. For example, an act proper to the virtue of chastity can be commanded by the virtue of religion. The soul who does this practices and strengthens two virtues at once, and elevates chastity to the service of God (by an act of religion). Prudence, as the “traffic cop” of all the moral virtues, does this all the time. But when every act we do is not only an act of its proper virtue, but a “commanded act” of the virtue of charity (“the greatest of these”), our hearts are dilated with the holy Love of God.

Many spiritual writers have treated the virtues as so many rungs on a latter we ascend, the lower rungs being the moral virtues, and the theological virtues forming the higher rungs. Without fully commenting on this approach (which does contain some truth), I will note that it leaves out this important fact concerning the virtues, and often had the practical effect of putting off charity to the end of the spiritual life. Far from neglecting the moral virtues, Saint Thérèse, from the beginnings of her spiritual live, gave full attention to charity. Because the Love of God “commanded” the acts of the other virtues, every good act she performed was an act of charity as well as an act of its proper virtue. Is it any wonder she wounded the heart of her Divine Bridegroom? And if that sounds too “mushy” to us, we should read the Introit for her feast: “Come from Libanus, my spouse, come from Libanus, come: Thou hast wounded my heart, my sister, my spouse: Thou hast wounded my heart Ps. 112, 1. Praise the Lord, ye children: Praise ye the name of the Lord.”

It is practical and easy to begin. Practically, the Doctor of the Little Way teaches us how to transform every little thing into something of great weight in eternity. Given what was just said about charity, it is not too hard to see how life’s simplest acts can be turned into opportunities for loving God and growing in His grace.

Finally, despite its feminine dressing, it is not sentimental. As Gary Potter has rightly pointed out, we Americans tend to be very sentimental. Strive as we may to express authentic emotion, most of us do not get beyond a very bourgeoisie sentimentality: an “unearned emotion,” which is essentially comfort seeking. The Little Flower’s florid décor aside – she lived, let us recall, in the romantic era, and that would have some impact on her prose – her doctrine is very unsentimental. Consider how she thought of herself: She was Jesus’ little toy (ball?). He could play with this ball or not, and she would be content. Abandoned to God’s will, it was for her a matter of indifference whether or not the Divine Child she so loved wanted to show her any attention. The figure sounds sentimental, but the doctrine it contains is decidedly not. Indeed, she has distilled the robust teaching of her Carmelite spiritual masters: Saint John of the Cross and Saint Theresa of Avila. What she is saying in this familiar figure is that Jesus can abandon her to the most torturous aridity of spirit and she will still love him, not with her “feelings,” but with her will, as Jesus loved her on the Cross when all He could feel in his exterior and interior senses was agony. Far from sentimental, this is strong stuff. The frightful abandonment that the Saint endured so admirably toward the end proves the spiritual virility of her Little Way.

As October 3 draws near, we would do well to give more attention to Saint Thérèse’ Little Way. One volume worth reading is The Intimate Life of Saint Thérèse. The article we have recently posted, “Saint Thérèse of Lisieux: The Strong Virgin,” is also worth a read.

As for the little nun herself, it’s hard not to love her, isn’t it? One thing is for sure: She’s got my vote!