Friday, April 20, 2012

St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s "Little Way"

Last week I re-read St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s classic autobiography, Story of a Soul.  St. Thérèse was a Carmelite nun in France who died at the young age of 24 of tuberculosis in 1897.  She completed her autobiography only months before she died, and upon publication, it became an instant classic.  She was beatified in 1923 and canonized in 1925.  In 1997, Pope John Paul II declared her a “Doctor of the Church,” a distinction granted to only 33 figures in the history of Christianity (and to only 3 women).  Her immense popularity continues to this day amongst Christians of various traditions.

When I first read Story of a Soul a few years ago, I must admit that I was somewhat underwhelmed.  I’m not sure what I expected, but I emerged from my reading without a clear sense of why Thérèse is so popular, and even more confused about why she was declared a “Doctor of the Church.”  I’ve read most of the other “Doctors” – including Augustine, Athanasius, Cyril of Alexandria, Thomas Aquinas, Teresa of Avila, etc. – and it seems quite obvious that they merited that distinction because of the profundity of their thought.

But Story of a Soul didn’t strike me as overly profound upon my first reading.  In fact, it struck me as being overly simplistic.

However, after reading it again last week, I realized that it is precisely the book’s supposed simplicity that makes it so profound.  Thérèse describes her spirituality as a “little way,” which means simply that one becomes Christ-like through fidelity in little things.  By this, Thérèse means that we are continually to seek the way of Christ’s humility in everything we do.  Precisely what this could look like is made clear in the following story:

I was in the laundry doing the washing in front of a Sister who was throwing dirty water into my face every time she lifted the handkerchiefs to her bench; my first reaction was to draw back and wipe my face to show the Sister who was sprinkling me that she would do me a favor to be more careful.  But I immediately thought I would be very foolish to refuse these treasures which were being given to me so generously, and I took care not to show my struggle.  I put forth all my efforts to desire receiving very much of this dirty water, and was so successful that in the end I had really taken a liking to this kind of aspersion, and I promised myself to return another time to this nice place where one receives so many treasures (250).

“[Y]ou can see,” Thérèse writes in conclusion, “that I am a very little soul and that I can offer God only very little things.”

Thérèse defines the key barrier to her attaining Christ-likeness as her excessive self-love, by which she means her struggle to put herself ahead of another, to assert her own self over against another.  She endeavoured, therefore, always to put others before herself.  That does not mean that she was a pushover or that she allowed others to walk over her.  Rather, it meant that, in circumstances where asserting the self would simply be a manifestation of a selfish desire to put herself above another, she would resist and would endeavour to love instead.

It was after re-reading Story of a Soul that I quickly became very aware of the many opportunities I have each and every day to assert myself over another, be they my spouse, my children, my students, etc.  It may be as simple as me not wanting to get off the couch in order to help my son find some dress-up clothes; or always feeling the need to express my opinion whether called upon or not; or always thinking about the books I could be reading when I’m involved in another necessary task (these are all examples from yesterday!).  But in these ways, and in so many other ways, my desire to assert myself above another is abundantly clear.

It appears to me that there’s nothing little at all about St. Thérèse’s “little way”.  But there is something compellingly profound and beautiful about it.  Too bad it took me two readings of Story of a Soul to realize it.

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