I first met Thérèse of Lisieux when I was an Anglican priest. I had three months free between jobs and decided to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem from England. One of my first stops was in the French town of Lisieux.
I knew of St. Thérèse, but did not know where Lisieux was, so when I came across the town on the map, I decided to stop. I stayed in the guesthouse next to the Carmelite convent in the town and spent some time getting to know the little French girl who became a saint.
My impression of Thérèse was that she was a sentimental little Catholic girl clutching roses and thanking God for her daddy and mommy. Not exactly my type of saint. Too girly. Too heavenly minded to be much earthly good.
How wrong I was! The more I learned about St. Thérèse, the more I came to realize that she was a tough little sister! Not only was she militant in her love for Jesus, but her spirituality was as practical and down-to-earth as possible.
I came to love a famous picture of her looking up from the floor as she was doing laundry with the other nuns. That said it all. Here was a saint who could scrub floors, fix the flowers, tend to the sick, and do the laundry.
The holy family
Thérèse of Lisieux was born into a large, very devout family in 1873. Her parents — Zélie and Louis Martin — both wished to join a religious order, but when they were unsuccessful in pursuing their vocations, they accepted the call to marriage and family life. Five of their daughters became nuns. The youngest — Thérèse — became a saint, and now Zélie and Louis have been canonized. Their story reminds us that holiness can be found in family life just as it can in the religious vocation.
During Thérèse’s lifetime, the Catholic Church in France was swept by Jansenism — a harsh heresy that emphasizes the sinfulness of humanity and the need for good works in order to please God. In the midst of this often oppressive version of the faith, Thérèse was able to see that the loving mercy of God is available to all if they will only follow in the simplicity and trust of a little child.
Thérèse loved her parents and sisters dearly. Her mother died when Thérèse was only 4 years old. She was devastated by the loss and became attached to her older sister Pauline. Louis Martin moved the family to nearby Lisieux and settled into a family villa named Les Buisonnets. Thérèse grew up there in an atmosphere of a firm but loving discipline.
The love between the Martin girls and their father is an example of the power of love that holds a family together and takes them through the worst of ordeals. If God is love, then that family love participates in the pure and unconditional love of God. It is this foundation that enabled Thérèse to soar to the heights of sanctity. She thought of God as her heavenly Father, and it was her earthly father’s gentle sanctity that helped her to see that God was a loving Father — not a harsh judge.
The Little Way
Thérèse joined three of her sisters in the Carmelite convent in Lisieux when she was just 15. At that age, she was the little sister of all the nuns and somewhat spoiled by them, but she was determined to toughen up.
She disciplined herself to avoid all the little sins that weigh down the soul. She determined never to complain. She decided to obey her religious superior instantly and without question. She worked hard to overcome her petty dislikes and annoyances. When an older sister was noisy in church, Thérèse put up with it. She went out of her way to smile and be kind to one of the sisters who bullied her. She made small sacrifices in daily life without complaining.
The essence of Thérèse’s Little Way is that God gives each one of us both the opportunity and the tools to achieve holiness right where we are in the most ordinary circumstances of life. As the old hymn teaches:
Teach me, my God and King,
in all things thee to see,
and what I do in anything
to do it as for thee.
A servant with this clause
makes drudgery divine:
who sweeps a room, as for thy laws,
makes that and the action fine.
Paying attention to the little things is part of the Little Way. Thérèse said, “In heaven every grain of sand will be a diamond!” In other words, all the little things matter. Every task matters. Every word matters. Every thought matters. All the little things matter because God became little. He took the Little Way when he became a child in Bethlehem.
Thérèse died of tuberculosis in 1897 when she was just 24. Dying so young, she remained a little child, and her legacy is the path of spiritual childhood. As a child she reminds us that Jesus said, “Unless you turn and become like children,you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).
The way of spiritual childhood is pro-life. We see in children the precious love of God radiating through human life. We see in the unborn the potential of a new life. We see in the poor children of the world the possibilities of a full and abundant life. In valuing childhood, we value every human soul.
Spiritual childhood helps us to value our own children and grandchildren, for in them we see who we need to be. We should nurture in our families and in ourselves the good traits of children: a carefree spirit, joy, laughter, trust in the goodness of others, the ability to love and be loved, the capability of being taught, and openhearted wonder.
When the spirituality of childhood is combined with the Little Way, we discover a whole new path for life and a fresh way of confronting life’s challenges. When this becomes the foundation for our own spirituality and that of our home, the family begins to thrive in simple joy.
Simple gifts for the path
There are three disciplines and three practical pointers that can help us nurture the Little Way and the spirituality of childhood in our lives and in our homes.
To live out St. Thérèse’s Little Way, we should practice three small disciplines. First, we should strive to do the little jobs in our lives with care, attention, and love. Washing the dishes, cleaning our rooms, doing the laundry, cooking, shopping, and doing chores are opportunities to take responsibility and show love in action.
Secondly, we should learn obedience. The root of the word obedience is “to listen.” This means we should listen carefully to others in our lives. They deserve our attention, and when we learn what their needs are through listening, we can serve them better in love.
Third, we should stop complaining. If something is wrong, we should be grown up and solve the problem. If we can’t solve the problem, we can choose to avoid it or offer it up as a share in Christ’s sufferings. Complaining never makes things better. It always makes things worse.
There are also three pointers for developing spiritual childhood. First, take time to contemplate the world with gratitude. Slow down and see what wonderful things God is doing. Second, be a learner. Forget the idea that you know everything. It is a humble thing to stop and learn. Third, laugh and play a little.
As you develop these simple gifts, your trust in God will grow, and you and your family will move just a little bit closer to the joyful example of Thérèse of Lisieux, the one St. Pius X called “the greatest saint of modern times.”