Pere Liagre, CS.Sp. writing in his book “A Retreat with St. Therese” :
I propose to take two pages from her book. The more I meditate on these two pages, the more they seem to sum up the whole of Therese’s ascetic doctrine. The first passage, seems to me to be, in plain and simple language, the very expression of St. Paul’s “Whosoever are led by the Spirit of God … ” This is what she says: “I have always longed to become a Saint…but, alas, 1 have always found that when I compare myself to them, there is the same difference that we see in nature between the mountain peak lost in the clouds, and the tiny grain of sand trodden under the feet of the passers-, by. Far from being discouraged, 1 say to myself: God, would never put unrealizable desires into our heart.”
Let us pause here for a moment. The Saint’s reasoning is admirable. God, the Holy Ghost, never inspires the soul with desires that cannot be gratified; He only awakens desires in order to satisfy them and more completely than we can imagine or ask for.
The desires of the soul, therefore, come wholly from God! The word ‘desire’ is constantly on Therese’s lips, and this, by itself, says much. Her personal desires are classical; they pass all bounds, even all reason; they are immense, infinite. “I told myself; God cannot inspire unrealizable desires: therefore, in spite of my littleness, I can aspire to sanctity. I cannot make myself bigger. Therefore, I must be content to stay as I am with my innumerable imperfections. But I want to try and find a very direct little way to heaven – a short cut- a perfectly new little way.
Ours is a century of inventions; there is no need now to climb a staircase step by step; in rich men’s houses a lift is a very convenient substitute: I, too, want to discover a lift to carry me up to Jesus, for I am far too little to climb the steep stairway of perfection. ” How many souls say the same thing, and remain discouraged at the foot of the stairs!
“Then I began to search the Holy Scriptures for some indication of this lift which my soul desired: and I read these words, straight from the lips of Wisdom Himself: ‘Whosoever is a little one. let him come to Me! … ‘ Then God drew near, for I knew I had found what I was looking for. Wanting now to know what he would do to the little one, I went on with my search, and this is what I found: ‘As one whom the mother caresseth, so will I comfort you … I will carry you in my bosom, and I will caress you upon my knees.’ Oh, never did tenderer, sweeter words gladden my heart, The lift which is to carry to heaven is Thy arms, 0 Jesus! There is no need for me to grow bigger; on the contrary, I must stay little, and I must become so more and more.”
This is for me the whole of her sanctity, the whole of her spirituality. First, the desire to love God, to love Him perfectly; then humility: “Whosover is a little one” and lastly, confidence: “Let him come to me.” The soul surrenders itself; it steps into the lift; it is borne upwards, “led by the Spirit of God”.
Having tried to reduce Therese’s “Little Way” to its theological elements, I repeat that I think her whole doctrine is contained in this page. But, it may be asked, what about correcting faults and acquiring virtues? What of the human co-operation in the path of perfection? I am certain that, for Therese, all this was contained in a better way in the simple formula, self-surrender with humility and confidence. The soul must be sincere in this gift of self, yielding itself just as it is, with all its shortcomings and all its wretchedness to the all-powerful Compassionate Love in Whom it believes.
In whom it believes, I say, for here we see the sovereign importance of faith in the Love, in the Compassionate Love, of our Heavenly Father for our wretchedness. The soul is not, of course, dispensed from taking its part, from working and striving. But in doing so, it looks more to God than to itself; it puts its confidence in God and surrenders itself to God’s action rather than acts itself. “Led by the spirit of God” Throughout, the chief part, the first movement, the primary action is God’s. The soul acts and strives, but it is aware that, first and foremost, it is carried by God,.
Love, it knows itself loved. Hence its confidence, which is its strength. Its efforts, too are humble and calm without disturbance or impatience, without haste or anxiety and, more important than all, without discouragement.
Let us now turn to the second page I mentioned. This page, which treats directly of the soul’s striving, clarifies and completes the theology of the life in a wonderful way. Therese was then Novice Mistress. One of the novices was discouraged, at her failure to correct her imperfections. “You remind me,” said Therese, “of a tiny child beginning to stand upright, but unable as yet to walk. Longing to reach her mother at the top of the stairs, she keeps on lifting her little foot to mount the first step; a fruitless task. She falls over again and again, unable to make any progress Well! you must be that little child. By the practice of every virtue, keep on lifting your little foot to scale the stair of perfection, and do not imagine that you will be able to mount the first step! No, but God does not ask more than your goodwill. From the top of the stairs He is lovingly watching you. Soon,.won by your fruitless efforts,. He will Himself come down, and taking you in His arms and will bear you away forever to His kingdom-which you will never leave again.”
That is an exact description of our co-operation.in the work of our sanctification: that is what God wants: our goodwill, our desire to please Him, and our own poor little efforts. That is all we are capable of, little fruitless efforts. When God decides that we have shown enough goodwill, that is to say, when we go on humbly and patiently always t:rying to please Him, in spite of the uselessness of all we do, then He comes down and takes us in His arms and carries us : it is the lift again! But this time our part and God’s.
What peace, what calm there is in her way of describing the striving after perfection, the labor of acquiring the virtues! We feel that the soul is wholly turned to God, wholly rests in Him, even when it is acting and working, confiding in Him, even in its failures and imperfections. We feel that the soul is too busy with God to think of itself, so that, even when striving to make this or that progress, to gain this or that virtue, its aim is. more to make itself pleasing to God than to perfect itself, which is, in fact, a very different thing,.
To surrender oneself, to yield oneself without thought of self or preoccupation with self: renunciation. That is all! That is why holiness is not to be found in this or that practice. It consists in a disposition of the heart which yields us humble and little into God’s arms, conscious of our weakness and wholly and utterly confident in His fatherly goodness. But how few there are who know how to do this? We must be willing to remain little and weak always and there is the difficulty.
Let us love our littleness, love to feel our nothingness, then we shall be truly poor in spirit, and, however far away we are, Jesus will come and seek us. He will transform us into living flames of love. Everything, then, serves to unite the soul to God, which is the one thing necessary. Such is the state in which Therese invites souls, “little souls,” to establish themselves; that of a child of God who in all things lets himself be drawn, lifted, carried by the arms of Jesus, that is to say, by the Spirit of Love. It is the Gospel teaching. Let us become little children again!
“The arms of Jesus” -in theological terms this metaphor means the Spirit of Jesus, the Holy Ghost with His Gifts, which are, as it were, the arms with which He lifts us up. “Lift” is a wonderfully apt description of the Holy Ghost. It is the modern equivalent of St. Paul’s: “Whosoever are led by the Spirit of God. ” In the matter of sanctity it is indeed the Holy Ghost who sets us in motion and lifts us up, who carries us and raises us to the perfection of love, to sanctity.
What is required from us? Humility and confidence: “Whosover is a little one, let him come to me!” Enlightened by the Holy Ghost, Therese perfectly understood these words of Wisdom. “To be wholly little,” that is to say, to know and love our helplessness, and for that reason “to go to him” that is to Infinite Love; this is how we enter the lift. And then He carries us up; He does it, not we ourselves. All we have to do is not to interfere, to yeild ourselves to His upward movement. He will lift us up above ourselves, above our wretchedness and our shortcomings, and little by little, will free us from ourselves, from our egoism! That is His work, His essential work. He will do this Divine work if, while desiring its realization in us, we rely in no way ourselves, but rather, fearlessly, unhesitatingly and . unreservedly on Him, on His gratuitous and all-powerful Love. The desire to love, humility, confidence; that is all.