Even if we’ve heard about God’ great mercy, we may unknowingly deprive ourselves of what His love wants to give us, as I’ve discovered in my own life. For as long as I can remember, I have battled perfectionism. Just when I think it’s gone away, it rears its ugly head, both at work and in my personal life. It nags, telling me I’m not good enough, pretty enough, or deserving of love. It says, “If you did this, then that would happen,” or “If you can do this, then you’ll finally arrive at where you want to be.” It can be an endless cycle of attempted achievements and self-ridicule. Unfortunately, this pursuit of perfection can often bleed over into my religious devotions: Did I spend enough time in prayer this morning? Did I pray long enough at Mass? Was I kind enough to those who needed it the most? Am I enough?
Thankfully, in 2 Corinthians 12, Our Lord told St. Paul that “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness”. However, we (myself included) often find ourselves leaning on our own works and good deeds. I sometimes catch myself thinking, “I prayed the Rosary every day this week, read the Daily Readings and made it to daily Mass in addition to Sunday! I’m really doing so much for Jesus.” Like many of my fellow Catholics, I am proud of my accomplishments. I feel as if I am achieving greatness on behalf of the Kingdom. I forget that God’s grace is sufficient and that I must become like a little child to enter Heaven (Matthew 18:3). Yet becoming little is difficult. Sometimes accepting God’s mercy is even more difficult for those struggling with perfectionism.
Life Before “the Little Way”
This Lent, I am pursuing the mercy of Christ by reading Fr. Michael Gaitley’s 33 Days to Merciful Love: A Do-It-Yourself Consecration to Divine Mercy. One special feature of Merciful Love is that it walks readers through 33 days of readings with the help of a great saint, St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower of Jesus and Doctor of the Church. For those who don’t know, St. Therese was a French Carmelite nun who died at the young age of 24 in 1897. At the time of her death. St. Therese was known only to her family and her cloister.
During her brief life on earth, Therese was in contact with the heretical teaching of Jansenism: a theology that taught that only a few are saved, one must be perfect to approach God, and that one can find salvation through good works (Gaitley, 48). This legalistic outlook affected Therese, especially during an adolescent period in which, when she committed the slightest sin, she would become anxious with scrupulous thoughts and obsessive practices (Gaitley, 48). While preparing for her First Holy Communion, St. Therese is recorded as making “1,949 small sacrifices and [recorded] 2773 short prayers” (Gaitley, 48). Even after entering the convent, she mentions that “I had such a great fear of soiling my baptismal robe” (Story of a Soul, chapter VII).
Before discovering the Little Way that she wrote about so often while living in the cloister, it is evident from history that St. Therese faced battles with anxiety and scrupulosity and strove for unattainable perfection. Like many of us today, it’s certain that our saintly friend knew what it was to feel dejected and unworthy of God’s never-ending love. While I am certainly not on the spiritual level of St. Therese, like her, I know what it’s like not to pursue a “Little Way”: to be obsessed with storing up my own self-perceived goodness and works, hoping that, somehow, my deeds will impress Our Lord. While I thought I was on the “Little Way,” I was really pursuing my own big way that removed the mercy of Christ from my life.
Experiencing Divine Mercy and Littleness
Before beginning my retreat with the Merciful Love text, I was only a little bit familiar with St. Therese’s theology of the Little Way. While I had read St. Therese’s biography Story of a Soul before my conversion years ago, I never quite understood the message of littleness. To me, “The Little Way” was encouraging quotes found on T-shirts and coffee mugs marketed towards Catholic women. I never connected the message of Divine Mercy to that of St. Therese’s writings regarding the littleness of our souls.
In Story of a Soul, Therese writes how she desired to be a great saint, like St. Teresa of Avila. Though she wanted to soar like an eagle for God, Therese knew that she was not yet a majestic creature, but a “weak little bird” who possessed the eyes and heart of a spiritual eagle (Gaitley, 50). By acknowledging her littleness, St. Therese was able to experience Divine Mercy, as Christ “lowered Himself to [her]…and instructed me in the things of His love” (Gaitley, 51). It was ultimately through her own surrender to the love and will of Christ that St. Therese experienced Divine Mercy. This was in a wildly different contrast to the legalistic religious tone of the era that placed an emphasis on earning one’s salvation and meriting God’s love (Gaitley, 51-52).
After reading this information in the retreat text, I was stunned. All too often, I equated Divine Mercy with what I could do for others and for God: how could I, in my own power, show mercy to others? While Divine Mercy is about showing the mercy of Christ to those in need, it’s not about relying on your own power to do so. Instead, by becoming “little” in the spiritual sense, we allow Christ to form us into what He wants from us. From there, and with His grace alone, we can live out the merciful, little way of St. Therese.
Letting Go of Perfectionism
Before encountering St. Therese’s Little Way through Merciful Love, I was tangled in the belief that my works would ultimately make me good. Of course, I believed in God’s mercy and the loving sacrifice of Christ, but I always relied on my own power to do good. It was difficult to become a “little one” for Christ because I believed that even though I am a sinner, I can somehow do all of the right things and justify myself (and if we’re completely honest with ourselves, we’ll all probably remember struggling with these feelings).
Yet St. Therese is helping me embrace true Divine Mercy and the love of Christ. She writes that the arms of Jesus are an “elevator” that take us to Heaven (Gaitley, 52). Ultimately, we are too weak to climb to Heaven on our own. Any attempts to do so would result in a disaster. When we lean on the arms of Jesus and become like little children, we recognize that we can do nothing on our own. For perfectionists, sinners, and everyone in between, this is the core of the Good News: God is merciful, able, and just. We just have to be willing to let go and begin walking on the Little Way towards Him.