As children grow, they develop best when surrounded with trustworthy, loving guidance. For St. Therese, God existed at the center of her being as the Love of all loves. She saw herself as a small child of a loving Father, and knew that she was incapable of accomplishing anything without him. She chose to enter the realms of glory by a little way of constant joy and sacrifice in every task throughout the day, even the most mundane. By giving each moment of her entire life to God, she gave the most noble offering of love, leading her to the heights of sanctity through the humblest means. Through her little way of spiritual childhood, St. Therese embodied magnanimity, which literally means greatness of soul, transforming even the most ordinary actions into the extraordinary.
Life in the Convent
Therese felt a call to enter the Carmelite convent at the young age of 15, yet she faced rejection by Church authorities, who instead counseled her to return when she turned 21. Therese, ever-determined, felt confident in her call to become a Carmelite and could not bear to wait any longer. In her determination, she travelled to the Vatican to meet personally with the Pope. Amidst her ceaseless prayers and the constant support of her father, her desire was soon fulfilled, and she was given permission to join her two older sisters in the Carmelite convent in Lisieux. Yet convent life was not always easy for Therese as not all of the other sisters took a liking to the young nun, and she sometimes found herself the subject of gossip and harsh criticism. However, through everything, Therese responded with love. Even towards a sister whom she found particularly disagreeable, Therese made an extra effort to act lovingly. Her efforts eventually resulted in the sister asking, “Would you tell me, Sister Therese of the Child Jesus, what attracts you so much toward me; every time you look at me, I see you smile?” (Story of a Soul, translated by John Clarke, pg. 223). In this way, Therese continued to grow in holiness in any situation she found herself in.
Therese’s Little Way
Therese’s little way of love was rooted in her little view of herself in comparison to God’s greatness. She firmly believed that on her own, she was capable of nothing and that mercy alone allowed any good to be brought forth from her. God granted her the grace to understand and appreciate her own littleness as she observed the flowers. “I understood how all the flowers He has created are beautiful, how the splendor of the rose and the whiteness of the Lily do not take away the perfume of the little violet or the delightful simplicity of the daisy” (Clarke 14). She knew herself to be a daisy or a violet, a simple flower, not destined for great acts, but rather to offer small sacrifices of love to God. She understood that “Perfection consists in doing His will, in being what He wills us to be. I understood, too, that Our Lord’s love is revealed as perfectly in the most simple soul who resists His grace is nothing as in the most excellent soul” (14). Thus, in her desire to serve God, she sought to resist God’s grace in nothing. “I applied myself to practicing little virtues, not having the capability of practicing the great. For instance, I loved to fold up the mantles forgotten by the Sisters…” (Clarke 159). Therese’s little way of making love the center of every action requires constant mortification of self-love. In essence, her little way is a way of death—death to self, in order to express truly fervent love for God.
Spiritual childhood is not a matter of age, but of humility. Therese, in her childlikeness, was convinced of her need, but not ashamed of it. She never tired of approaching God and seeking His guidance in her life. She knew that what was most pleasing to God was not success or great accomplishments, but rather to approach Him as a child would approach her father. Therese’s childlike spirit allowed her to see each moment as an opportunity for love. She was not ashamed of the smallness of the acts she was capable of offering to God but performed them with such joy and trust that their significance was magnified.
Therese’s spiritual childhood formed her image of God, her image of herself, and her understanding of the path to holiness that countered the harsh Jansenism that prevailed during her time. First of all, though around her in France, Therese was surrounded by a spiritual climate that urged severe mortifications and prayers of reparation for sin, she did not let this vision obscure her deep, Scriptural understanding of God’s merciful love. She knew that as a child, God was her Father who loved her unconditionally. Second, her image of herself as little did not stem from low self-esteem. Instead, she had a strong character of faith, boldly speaking the truth and facing suffering and trials with a sense of purpose. Her view of herself as a child enabled her to accept her limitations, abandoning her life into God’s love and mercy. Lastly, her understanding of the path to holiness was guided by her spiritual childhood. She knew that she could not attain perfection of love on her own, and thus, she willingly centered her life around God’s mercy.
Therese’s little way revealed a paradox of the path to sanctity: God seeks complete fidelity, but all are sinful and weak. Therefore, only by being grounded in hope, which comes in trusting in God’s mercy, can one truly participate in Christ’s mission, which entails complete commitment and faithfulness. Therese, in seeking to center her life around the little, mundane acts of each day, did not eliminate heroism, but rather, brought it within the reach of the poor in spirit. The smallest acts of love which the world deemed to be nothing, such as a simple smile, or even just good will and effort that seemingly came to little fruition, led her to the highest heights of sanctity.
The true essence of her childlike way is one of total confidence in God. To be a spiritual child means to know nothing of spiritual pride. Therese did not glory in any graces she received but joyfully accepted them purely as gifts. She possessed no self-reliance in the face of trials and temptations and instead offered up immediate petitions for divine aid. Even in the face of the painful illness at the end of her life, she continued to hope with such strength and confidence that nothing could shake her. She peacefully trusted that in whatever situation she found herself in, God would transform her into the great saint she so fervently longed to be.
Therese made love the center of every action, constantly transforming every moment into an opportunity for mortification of self-love. In this way, though her way was little, it led to tremendous growth in holiness. Though it may seem paradoxical to refer to Therese’s little way as an expression of magnanimity, inasmuch as she lived in complete surrender to God, offering Him all the love in her heart, her life comprised the epitome of the greatness of soul. “I look upon myself as a weak little bird, with only a light down as covering. I am not an eagle, but I have only an eagle’s EYES AND HEART. In spite of my extreme littleness, I still dare to gaze upon the Divine Sun, the Sun of Love, and my heart feels within it all the aspirations of an Eagle” (Clarke 198). Therese’s certainty of spirit in the face of her childlikeness allowed her soul to reach a height of sanctity that surpassed the seeming insignificance of her outward actions.
Therese is known as “The Little Flower” because her path to holiness consisted of pure humility and a deep awareness of her littleness in comparison to God. Yet inside her childlike nature, she had the “heart of an eagle,” burning with charity and zeal to serve God with her entire life. Her joy was not dependent on her circumstances, but rather poured forth from the inner chambers of her heart the more she loved. Her greatness of soul came from performing the noblest act of loving God in every action, even in the smallest ones. In this way, she transformed the ordinary into the extraordinary through complete faithfulness and trust in God’s fatherly love for her. Therese’s life remains a bright witness to how true greatness is reached through an interior disposition of heart rather than exterior accomplishments.
“Amen I say to you, unless you turn and become like little children, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). Therese lived her life as a little child, not in immaturity, but in her disposition of openness towards God. She recognized her littleness, her nothingness and expected all from her beloved Father. She did not attribute any of her virtues to herself, but to the gifts, God was pleased to grant her. Even when she fell, she did not become discouraged, but maintained an attitude of peace, standing up again and striving along the same path of charity and trust. She understood that “Jesus does not demand great actions from us but simply surrender and gratitude” (Clarke 188). Consequently, Therese’s little way of spiritual childhood allowed her to be led along the path of true greatness, as it expanded her soul even as she remained small in humility. With poverty of spirit, purity of heart, and humble confidence, Therese transformed the simplest actions into extraordinary moments of grace and charity.
Lessons for Our Times
Let us be confident in this: sainthood is not reserved solely for those who enter religious life or for those who are admired by many for their achievements. Sainthood is a calling for each of us. As can be seen from the example of St. Therese’s life, the lives of saints sometimes appear ordinary to the world. And yet, at the end of her life, Therese remained so confident that God would make her a saint that she saved her nail clippings to be used as relics after she died. From the tedium of the stay-at-home mother who folds piles of laundry and prepares meals for her children and husband, to the grinding routine of the company man who spends hours at a desk and finishes the day exhausted, but still musters up enough energy to spend time with his family, sainthood is not out of reach.
Becoming a saint means taking a series of baby steps towards Christ each day. Even a simple smile, kind word, or small act of service, if done with love, can transform these seemingly mundane actions into beautiful offerings to God. So the next time you feel the exhaustion hit you as you stare at the sink full of dishes or as you sit in heavy traffic after a long day at work, try to see these moments as opportunities to grow in love. Imagine that you are washing the dishes for Christ, or while you are waiting in traffic, take time to thank God for the blessings in your life. What we do or accomplish is not as important as how much we love. Let us learn from St. Therese that God can make us into saints no matter our life circumstances.