Therese & the Little Way: September 2003 Archives

from St. Benedict and St. Thérèse
Dwight Longenecker

In the end Thérèse made a heroic sacrifice. Her painful death, combined with a terrible spiritual darkness, took her into a full identification with the Lamb of God; but in keeping with her little way, she never aspired to a sensational sacrifice. The way of the Lamb was found through the daily routine of self-sacrificial living. "Sensational acts of piety are not for me--this shall be my life, to miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word, always doing the tiniest things right and doing it for love."

This relates indirectly to a discussion at John da Fiesole's on hypocrisy. Was Thérèse a hypocrite because she smiled when she didn't feel like it? Were these small sacrifices a sign of an interior haughtiness and hypocrisy--a servile and sniveling way to curry God's favor?

Rather, I think that the exterior actions and the will to them, gave rise to a heart of love. Yes, she did view them as sacrifices, they were small labors, but labors willingly undertaken because they gave Love a home. The actions were not hypocrisy, but humility. It was not hypocritical for Thérèse to note that there was a sister among them at whom no one would smile willingly and that she undertook to do so. Had she done so in order to win the Sister to herself, that might at least be labeled flattery. But Thérèse did so because that is what love demanded. She did so because she could bring a soul to God if only for a moment.

It is in actions like these that we get the clearest understanding of what the Little Way is and what we can do to emulate it. Starting the day with the love of God firmly in our hearts, we make an attempt to be pleasant before we've had our morning coffee. We restrain the broad spectrum of the ways to express ourselves at those who feel traffic regulations are for other people. We smile and treat pleasantly people who we would rather have nothing whatsoever to do with. And we do it not to curry favor with people, and not to get on God's good side, but to be for just a moment a placid reflection of God in a life of turmoil. We offer a momentary glimpse, a taste of salvation--in the words of Omar Khayyam:

"A momentary taste of being
from the well amid the waste."

That is what the Little Way offers to the world. What it offers to us is the possibility of a life of daily joyous sacrifice, of doing God's will and not our own wills, of working in humble obedience toward the spread of Love and the news of Jesus' saving work. Ultimately the sweetness we offer in a brief respite from the usual actions of our society can make a "Kingdom of Heaven" here on Earth. And always we do what we do because we love Jesus.

St. James taught us that "Faith without works is dead." St. Thérèse in her ageless ever-young wisdom added "Love without works is dead." Love without sacrifice is no reflection of the One True Love shown for all eternity by arms outstretched on the cross.

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On Miracles and Simplicity

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In this passage, Mr. Longenecker makes some incisive and interesting points:

from St. Benedict and St. Thérèse: The Little Rule and the Little Way
Dwight Longenecker

To speak plainly, the main problem for sophisticated people is not that miracles are incredible, but that they are an error in taste. To profess belief in miracles takes one perilously close to faith healers, the souvenir stalls of Lourdes, and lurid pictures of Jesus with googly eyes. There is a breed of spiritually minded people who reduce Christianity to the highest form of aesthetics. Beauty us to Truth, but beauty without truth is false, and that which is false and beautiful does not remain beautiful for very long. If the faith is no more than a pretty face, then the aesthetes are also atheists. Since miracles are an error in taste, it is far more subversive and therefore far more Christian to accept the miracles. It's also much more fun--rather like wearing a hideous hat on purpose.

If Benedict's biography gives the sophisticated soul miracles to stumble over, Thérèse's story gives tasteful grown-ups an even bigger obstacle. To find Thérèse, the modern soul has to climb over the stumbling block of her style. We modern-day pilgrims are presented with a nineteenth-century teenage nun with a pretty smile and schoolgirl enthusiasms. She speaks in language that seems archaic and sickly sweet. Among other sentimental touches she calls herself a little flower of Jesus and a little ball for the child Jesus to play with. She thinks God is her "Papa" and likens herself to a bowl of milk that kittens come to drink from. It's easy to turn away such greeting-card spirituality in distaste, but this is precisely the first test. Thérèse swamps tasteful people with sentimentality and sweetness, and only when they survive the taste test can they begin to appreciate her wisdom. She is one of the best examples of the secret Catholic truth that says the tasteful cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. (p. 46-47)

There is so much more profound and interesting insight on these pages that I must encourage you all to get the book if you can. This passage continues and says many wonderful and remarkable things about the style and what Thérèse was and what she was trying to do.

I think style is the biggest complaint I hear about Thérèse; how people can't push themselves through the sticky images and the sweetness and light. And I sympathize--greatly. Up until the magisterial translation offered by the ICS, I had similar feelings. The Beevers translation and earlier works were just dreadful and incredibly off-putting. I couldn't find any spirituality for all the treacle. When the Carmelite Group proposed reading this piece of school-girl drivel I just about went mad (although, truth to tell, I was instrumental in proposing it.) But when I read it, and really searched it to find out what the Church saw here, I was truly astonished at the depths that opened up before me. What was school-girl drivel suddenly became something else entirely. I can't explain it. All I can say is that this person who prizes above much else elegance of language and expression, sophistication of writing and idea suddenly discovered the elegance of saying precisely what was right for the person who was writing. It opened a door to riches beyond imagination. From saccharine schoolgirl, my image of Thérèse transmuted into Great Saint, perhaps one of the very greatest of Saints--a true Doctor in the sense of conveying in language anyone who wished to could understand profound truths about prayer and our relationship with God.

And in fact, I think Longenecker has hit upon a key point. Entry to Thérèse means submitting with great humility to the fact that a teenaged "silly" schoolgirl has something profound and life-altering to teach those of us who have been in the world approaching twice as long. Surely this babe in the woods could not know anything we have not already learned. And the barrier that demonstrates approach with proper humility is the ability to get past the language and the image. Until then, you are not really permitted a glance at the profound wisdom and truth that is offered through the writings of this unlikely nun.

Thérèse presents more than anything else a challenge to our sensibilities and our aesthetics, a challenge that offers a small taste of the meaning of detachment. We must detach from our own preferences, our own sense of style, our own love of the high language and great art of many of the other saints, and accept a story-book saint--flat, wooden, and girlish. And as in some fairy-tale story, when we do so, she comes alive and tells us truths that will change our lives and our relationship with God.

(Oh--one additional tip for the hopelessly stymied--for whatever reason, all of this that is so off-putting in English, is greatly subdued if you read it in French--this discipline is finally what allowed me to enter the door and sit for a while at this great teacher's feet. Praise God!)

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There are great insights within the book, so many it is impossible to share them all. I thought this excerpt regarding "ordinariness" was especially helpful for those seeking a way.

from St. Benedict and St Thérèse: The Little Rule and the Little Way
Dwight Longenecker

Benedict and Thérèse call ordinary Christians to extraordinary perfection--not by being extraordinarily perfect, but by being perfectly ordinary. Being ordinary means letting go every vestige of snobbery and learning that we are not special after all. Once we grasp this troublesome truth it is easy to make the mistake of thinking that "being ordinary" mean fitting in and becoming "one of the boys." While being ordinary had nothing to do with snobbery it also has nothing to do with being one of the crowd. Snobbery has destroyed many lives through its snooty pride, but the reverse snobbery that will do anything to "fit in" and be part of the hoi polloi is also destructive. It is just as artificial for the aristocrat to affect working-class manners as it is for the social climber to put on an upper-class accent. In that sense, being common is just as false as being uncommon. Being ordinary means being none other than who we are. As a result it is just as possible for a duchess to be as ordinary as a dustman.

Besides noting that Our Sunday Visitor needs a careful copyeditor--the insights to be gained from this passage are enormous. I particularly like the notion of being called to the extraordinary not by extraordinary endeavors but by the perfection of the ordinary. In other words, become who you REALLY are in Christ and you are more than halfway to your goal. Your responsibility is not to perfect the gifts given to others, but those given to you. While I might look on with admiration at some of my very favorites reasoners--John da Fiesole at Disputations, and Mark at Minute Particulars, or with a certain awe at Mothers who want to be and are extraordinary (as there tends to be a raft of blushing among this set, I will not venture names), or any number of other gifts I observe in all my blogland travels--humor, political insight, knowledge of the present state of the world, etc. --I am not called to perfect any of those remarkable talents or virtues. I am called only to recognize those gifts God gave me and to offer them back to Him, well cared for, polished, and in better condition than they came to me.

Too often we deride our own accomplishments and our own endeavors with some sort of apology--either looking for compliments or encouragement, or genuinely reflecting our puzzlement over our own unique constitution. We are, each of us, what we are and that is all we should be, in the sense that we are not called to be other than what we are in Christ. We are called to be perfected in Christ. Anything less does not honor God, it buries the talents He gave us to be returned without interest. However, when we follow our calling in constant prayer and devotion, seeking always to cleave to God's path and not our own, we will, through His grace, return a harvest of souls that we have not been privileged to see--saved and brought to God through our work. Nevertheless, the work of our own perfection must, of necessity affect those around us. In achieving perfection, we drag into the Torrent of His love countless souls whom we may simply have passed in a hallway and smiled at.

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Our Fallen Condition

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I spend an awful lot of time wondering why I am so good at not doing what I should. It's not remarkable: Paul said, "I do the things I would not do, I don't do the things I would do and I have no strength in me." What I fail to find amid the consolation of numbers and longevity is the real solution to the problem. Of ourselves, we are capable of so little, and everything is dependent upon grace.

So I come back around to the "little way" and wonder. Perhaps the will is so weak that it is a matter of one thing at a time with th conscious deliberation. Perhaps that is what the little way is about. Little children have many "deficiencies" compared to adults. But one thing that they have to their advantage--when they are focused on something, nothing else in the entire world exists. A common ploy from childrearing books suggests that when your child is focused on the electrical outlets or your version of a Ming vase, the best thing to do is refocus.

Perhaps what I lack is sufficient focus on the moment. My mind is here, there, or somewhere else, and the moment is left to fend for itself as I'm battling the monsters of the future or the past, or indulging in the dreams of grandeur and wealth, or at least the delights of the thought of a new plaything (PDA, PDA).

Perhaps part of the little way is not only to do little things, but to take on the focus of the little child and in the moment that is before us, here and now, to make the right choice, with the help of grace. And these moments, one at a time, ultimately lead to Glory. If each choice is made in obedience to God, then we foster both trust and love of God and we move onward.

The little way sounds so simple. It sounds as though no doctrine at all, but the depths and the subtleties of it are such that I am not certain that we will ever plumb the fullness of it.

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More on St. Thérèse

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Regarding the difficulties many have with reading the work of the Little Flower

from St. Benedict and St. Thérèse: The Little Rule and the Little Way
Dwight Longenecker

If the first-time reader has to struggle with the mundane minutiae of sixth-century monastic life in Benedict, then in Thérèse he has to struggle with an even more difficult dose of "ordinariness." At least there is some historical interest in reading about the sleeping arrangements of sixth-century monks, but Thérèse takes us into the detailed life of the nineteenth century French bourgeoisie. Her writings are full of spiritual points made through the events of ordinary days. So we are plunged into the details of visits to relatives, a first train ride, trips to the seaside, and the traumas of a little girl's school days. We are told about playtime with her sisters, quarrels with the maid, and the joy of cuddle with Mommy and Daddy. Those who are looking for a lofty spiritual treatise will find in both Benedict and Thérèse a hefty does of ordinary life instead.

And doesn't this just make perfect, natural sense. Ordinary life is where our spirituality plays out. Even if are advanced contemplatives, we are not transported bodily from where we spend time sweeping the floors and caring for children. God speaks to us in the trauma of our children, in the difficulty of getting a stain out of the carpet, in the trials of cleaning baked-on cheese and who knows what-all off of the casserole. He speaks to us in the commute to work and in the trials of the day (getting enough paperclips--getting rid of too many paperclips, the copier is skipping pages--the copier is making two copies of every other page). Spirituality is not divorced from life, it is reinforced by life. Our reactions and our actions of each day are what come out of our hearts. They are where we are most real, where we have the least time to don a mask and put on the "company face." And so they are the best mirror of our spiritual life. Exalted states of prayer are, for most of us, the exception rather than the rule. As Longenecker says elsewhere in the book, "The divine is in the details." And the details are ordinary.

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On the Little Way


Dwight Longenecker, a contributor over at Envoy, has written a delightful and insightful book titled St. Benedict and St. Thérèse: The Little Rule and the Little Way in which he talks at some length about the convergences of the twain:

fromSt. Benedict and St. Thérèse: The Little Rule and the Little Way
Dwight Longenecker

Benedict and Thérèse call for a kind of childhood in which perfect freedom is found in strict adherence to the rules.

If Father Benedict and Sister Thérèse silence the theologians, they silence the religious leaders too. All those who would divide the Church over grace or works, Scripture or Tradition, sacraments or word, service or sanctity, will be united in the wisdom of Benedict and Thérèse. If any Christian reads the two saints of the little way, they will also be united with every other disciple of Christ. Benedict draws all Christians together because he speaks from a time before the terrible divisions in Christ's Church. Thérèse unites Christians because her little doctirne of grace alone is a magnet to both Catholics and Protestants. Balthasar says, "One would have to be blind not to see that Thérèse's doctrine of the little way answers point by point the program outlined by the Reformers and that she presents the Church's bold, irrefutable answer to Protestant spirituality." (p. 42)

There is much, much more worthy of your attention in the pages. And I have to say that browsing through the IVP catalog--a mainstay of evangelical publishing, I've been quite surprised by recent offerings. Naturally, they offer all the Church Fathers. But they also are offering books on other saints. Notably they offer a biography of St. Francis of Assisi (an easy Saint to like and even to admire), but mysteriously, they offer a biography of St. Teresa of Avila, who while very engaging and likeable, did not put too fine a point on what she thought about Luther and his ilk stirring up trouble for the Church.

While I know that it is not humanly possible, I do not refrain from the prayer "E pluribus unum." As we once were, one church, so we should work to become again. But I say this cautiously because in the course of returning to Christ's intention for the world, we should not be willing to compromise or sacrifice one iota of the revealed truth of Jesus Christ, either through Biblical Revelation or the understandings of Tradition including the magisterium of the Church. This will forge a weak and false unity. However, so long as there are LaHaye and Jenkins types who fear "one world church" we need not worry too much about unity--and that is a terrible shame.

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From the Root to the Tree

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Following on the post below, it occurs to me that if we accept God as Father, the next step stemming from the radical image is to truly regard each human being as brother and sister. Again, we're good at using the words, but for most of us that fact has no reality because it does not influence in the slightest the way we live. That is where the truth of our beliefs lay--if they shape what we do they are real. If they are silent and do not inform us, they are dead, beliefs in word only.

The reality of the human race as family escapes many of us. Perhaps it escapes most of us. Maybe only the great missionary saints really have any idea of what it meant. But it stems from the fact that God is our Father. He is our Father in more than a distant and fearsome way. He is our Father in a way that will transform and change us, if we allow it. More,

from Psalm 139:13-16
13 For thou hast possessed my reins: thou hast covered me in my mother's womb.
14 I will praise thee; for I am fearfully [and] wonderfully made: marvellous [are] thy works; and [that] my soul knoweth right well.
15 My substance was not hid from Thee when I was made in secret, and intricately wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.
16 Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being imperfect; and in Thy book all my members were written, which in continuity were fashioned, when as yet there were none of them.

He has thought us, each one, individually into being. He has guided our making with a tender hand. He is the founder and root of our being. Our parents conceived us, but He guarded us on the way to our birth, and He nurtured and knew us in the womb. How much more a Father then, than one who may only supply the genetic material.

We are family. We so often show it through sibling rivalry and our attempts to beat each other up. Perhaps it would be better if we thought of ourselves all sitting down to Thanksgiving Dinner after a pleasant day of preparation and reacquaintance. Perhaps we should try to be on our best behavior rather than parade our "us and them" attitude.

The logical consequence of truly believing that God is our Father is to believe that we are all brothers and sisters. If we do believe this then it is time to stop making excuses about why we cannot express it, or how we aren't called to this or that ministry, and make the attempt to treat the people we encounter each day more than civilly. We must learn to treat them with a deep-rooted love of a family with so loving a Father.

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The Radical Fatherhood of God

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Perhaps the chief contribution of St. Thérèse to the understanding of the Church is the radical understanding of the Fatherhood of God. I use "radical" in its etymological fullness. The Fatherhood of God is the Radix or root of how He wishes us to approach and understand him. This became clear to me while reading a passage of a book by Vernon Johnson titled Spiritual Childhood. I paraphrase the passage that affected me. Johnson wrote that when Jesus taught the disciples how to pray, he did not start with "Oh Invisible Creator of the Universe," "Oh King of all that is and ever will be," "Oh majesty ineluctable and unknowable by man." Rather He started with "Our Father."

We know this. We pray it every day. We pray it so much, in fact, that it has become threadbare and nearly meaningless. More than that, many of us have enough problems with the Earthly image of Father that having another Father isn't particularly appealing. And yet, this is how God wishes to be known first. He wants us to understand that He is our Father. He is the one who gives everything to protect us. He is the one who nurtures us and encourages us in the expression of His gifts to us. He delights in our triumphs, he sorrows in our failures and our rebellions. He chastises as all good fathers must do if they hope to help the child succeed in the world. Only the world He wants us to succeed in is not this material realm, but the world that comes next, for which this is the training ground.

Why does it matter that we understand God as Father first? Primarily because all other understanding stems from that. He is all of the other titles listed above and more, but all of that reality only makes sense when it is seen in light of the root understanding God as Father. In other words, God as King can be daunting, terrifying, unnerving. Approaching the throne-room of a king is not a prospect pleasing to most peasants. However, when that throne-room is Daddy's office, the prospect is much less daunting. Yes, He still commands our respect and our awe (the fear from which proceeds all wisdom) just as when we were very little children our fathers commanded our attention and respect and sometimes awe. But above all these other mingled emotions is our love. When God is Father first, our first reaction to Him is the seemingly limitless love that a child feels for his father and mother. That why Father is root. We are to approach Him as a "little child." Not as a rebellious teenager, not as a mature adult, but as a little child, one for whom trust has not been eroded away--one for whom love is still a reality. We need to return to the place when God dwells within and come out renewed, ready to love and to accept Our Father.

Thus, in Thérèse's little way, we must first understand and encounter God as father, and we must reify that. In other words, this is not an intellectual understanding or a game with words. The reason the family is so fundamentally important in the life of the Church is that it gives us both a glimpse of the life of the Trinity AND it gives us the experience to understand the truths of the Bible. Without experience of Father, it becomes very difficult to relate to God in the way He most desires. One of the great horrors of divorce is that often the rift in the family means that there is no real understanding for young children of the nature of Father.

God is Father first. He wants our love as Father. He wants our trust as Father. He wants our acceptance and unstinting love. He wants our unconditional love.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Therese & the Little Way category from September 2003.

Therese & the Little Way: June 2003 is the previous archive.

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