St. Therese of Lisieux, in her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, offers a wonderful path to grow in virtue. Therese wanted to be a great saint but did not see the attributes in herself to achieve this. Instead, she chose humility and love to guide her. Being little instead of pursuing great deeds, led her to become the great saint that we look up to today.

Anyone can pursue St. Therese’s little way. It is easy to get started and requires no special skill, talent or ability. It is easy if we but try.

The challenge with Therese’s plan is that everything we see in the world tempts us and distracts us. We must resolve to follow her little way and strive to persevere. The challenge is being consistent in action, not the difficulty of any of the actions.

St. Therese’s little way is very consistent with St. Hildegard’s. St. Hildegard provided seven steps to grow in humility, slowly renouncing our will in favor of following God’s will. St. Therese teaches how we can renounce our desires in little ways, tiny sacrifices for others, and thereby, grow progressively in humility and love. The path is the same, with St. Therese expressing this path in her own beautiful way.

St. Therese of Lisieux

The Goal: To become a Saint

St. Therese has a wonderful boldness. She knows that she was made for heaven, and she is resolved to get there. Many people struggle with finding purpose in their lives. St. Therese is a great role model for this. Follow God’s will. Become a saint. Never deviate from this goal.

The boldness of St. Therese is exceeded by her humility. She knows how little she is. In this quote, she notes that she has no merits. There is nothing she has done, or could ever do, that would merit being a saint. She knows she is not deserving of what she seeks based on her deeds.

St. Therese understands the purpose of the Incarnation and the sacrifice of Jesus. Jesus sacrificed Himself to give the Father an infinite act of love and sacrifice. In the Incarnation, Jesus took on our nature, so that we could take on His. Jesus gives us His infinite act of love to be ours so we can give it to the Father. It is through the merits of Jesus that we become saints and are made deserving of union with God.

This is incredibly hopeful. We can trust that Jesus, the Son of God, provided a worthy sacrifice to enter heaven. We can also trust that Jesus gives this sacrifice to us to offer the Father. With this in mind, it no longer seems bold to say that we can become great saints. Instead, it seems bolder for us in our pride to consider ourselves wiser than God and reject becoming a saint. The work has been done for us, and we just need to accept it.

“This aspiration may seem presumptuous, considering how imperfect I was and still am, even after so many years in religion; yet I am daringly confident that one day I shall become a great Saint. I am not relying on my own merits, because I haven’t any. I hope in Him who is Virtue and Sanctity itself; He alone, content with my frail efforts, will lift me up to Himself, clothe me with His own merits and make me a Saint.” -The Story of a Soul, St. Therese of Lisieux

A Little Way to Heaven

“You know that I have always wanted to be a Saint; but compared with real Saints, I know perfectly well that I am no more like them than a grain of sand trodden beneath the feet of passers-by is like a mountain with its summit lost in the clouds.

Instead of allowing this to discourage me, I say to myself: ‘God would never inspire me with desires which cannot be realized; so, in spite of my littleness, I can hope to be a Saint.  I could never grow up.  I must put up with myself as I am, full of imperfections, but I will find a little way to Heaven, very short and direct, an entirely new way.’

‘We live in the age of inventions now, and the wealthy no longer have to take the trouble to climb the stairs; they take an elevator.  That is what I must find, an elevator to take me straight up to Jesus, because I am too little to climb the steep stairway of perfection.’

So, I searched the Scriptures for some hint of my desired elevator, until I came upon these words from the lips of Eternal Wisdom: ‘Whosoever is a little one, let him come to Me.’ (Prov. 9:4).  I went closer to God, feeling sure that I was on the right path, but as I wanted to know what He would do to a ‘little one,’ I continued my search.  This is what I found: ‘You shall be carried at the breasts and upon the knees; as one whom the mother caresseth, so will I comfort you.’ (Is 66:12, 13).  My heart had never been moved by such tender and consoling words before!

Your arms, My Jesus, are the elevator which will take me up to Heaven.  There is no need for me to grow up; on the contrary, I must stay little, and become more and more so.” -The Story of a Soul, St. Therese of Lisieux

St. Therese sees that she is not just undeserving of heaven, but insignificant compared to the great saints that we hold up as role models. Despite this, she craves becoming much more than she is. This is not a prideful desire, but instead, it is the longing we all have to become the person that God made us to be. We are made for greatness, but greatness does not lie in what we do.

St. Therese found her little way. She likens it to an elevator. Instead of working hard step by step, she wanted, and found, a way to be lifted to heaven.

This little way is the pursuit of humility. When we make ourselves small, we become great. It is a great paradox. If you strive to be great, you will fail. If you strive to be small and humble, you will find greatness.

The best part of this journey is the elevator. When we make ourselves small, God reaches down and lifts us like a child to Him. We cannot climb to heaven on our own, and cannot even climb a single step. We need God to lift us. When we are humble and become like children, He lifts all the way to His chest to be caressed and comforted by Him.

The Practice of Virtue

St. Therese describes her practice of virtue as mortification. Mortifications are acts of disciplining the body against temptations, and often refer to physical punishments of the body such as fasting. St. Therese recognizes that mortifications do not have to be physical. Anytime we reject our desire, we are practicing a mortification. These acts are simple things done for others when we desired to do something for ourselves. The result of this practice is growth in humility.
“I made up my mind to more serious mortification than ever.  When I say mortification, I do not mean that sort of penance the Saints undertake.  I was not like those grand souls who practice all kinds of penances from childhood.  My mortification consisted in checking my self-will, keeping back an impatient word, doing little things for those around me without their knowing and countless things like that. By these little things, I made ready to become the spouse of Jesus, and I cannot tell you how I grew in abandonment, humility and other virtues as a result.-The Story of a Soul, St. Therese of Lisieux
“I concentrated most of all on hidden acts of virtue; I used to like folding up the Sisters’ choir mantles when they had forgotten them and would seek out a thousand ways of doing things for them.-The Story of a Soul, St. Therese of Lisieux
The practice of virtue should never be for recognition or reward. If it is, then the act ceases to be virtuous. St. Therese seeks to grow in love of God and to serve Him, so she is unconcerned about others seeing her actions. Instead, she seeks to act in secret. It is important to note that St. Therese’s autobiography was written at the direction of her superiors in the convent. They did this because Therese’s sanctity was apparent, but she never talked about what she was doing. If they had not ordered St. Therese to record her life story, we would never have known anything of what she did or her little way.
We are often quick to point out the failings of others. Even if we do not speak about them, we see the faults of others much more than we see our own. St. Therese recognized that we need to accept the faults of others, and praise them for the virtue. What a wonderful act of charity. This does not mean that Therese allowed sin to persist. She also writes about the importance of correcting others, and at times, doing so sternly. We have an obligation to help others become saints, and allowing someone to persist in sin does not help them. Outside of sin, there are plenty of personality quirks and characteristics in people that we may find bothersome or frustrating. When we bear these frustrations joyfully, we act with great charity and love.
“I see now that true charity consists in bearing with the faults of those about us, never being surprised at their weaknesses, but edified at the least sign of virtue.  I see above all that charity must not remain hidden in the bottom of our hearts, for “no man lighteth a candle and putteth it in a hidden place, nor under a bushel; but upon a candlestick, that they who come in may see the light.” (Luke 11:33).  It seems to me that this candle is the symbol of charity; it must shine out not only to cheer those we love best, but ALL those who are of the household.-The Story of a Soul, St. Therese of Lisieux
“Whenever I am talking to one of the novices, I take care to mortify myself by never asking questions out of curiosity. If she begins to talk about something very interesting, then changes the subject to something that does not interest me at all, I never draw her attention to the fact, for I am sure that self-seeking leads to no good.-The Story of a Soul, St. Therese of Lisieux
St. Therese’s little way is so simple, but it is also radical and challenging. One of her mortifications was to avoid directing conversations to topics she was interested in discussing. She sacrificed her interest in order to allow the other person to talk about what they wanted. This is such a small act that it is unlikely anyone ever noticed. Despite that, it is an incredible act of love. In this act, Therese grew in humility and virtue.

Sufficient Grace

Following the example of St. Therese may appear difficult or nearly impossible. She continually sacrificed and gave of herself quietly. It is challenging to sacrifice, and sacrificing all the time would likely cause many of us to become miserable. That is not a reason for us to despair. St. Theresa had the same feeling, but she found that she grew to love her sacrifices. This is what St. Catherine of Sienna describes on the third step of the bridge. With practice, we begin to love virtue and take great joy in it. This is grace working within us and is a gift from God.
“The practice of virtue became attractive and seemed to come more naturally. At first, my face betrayed my inward struggle, but little by little, sacrifice, even at the first moment, became easier.-The Story of a Soul, St. Therese of Lisieux
“Charity took possession of my heart, making me forget myself, and I have been happy ever since.-The Story of a Soul, St. Therese of Lisieux
The spiritual life leads to joy, and St. Therese experiences this. Her little way, with all the sacrifices and mortifications, appears difficult. Certainly, the first few efforts will be difficult as we change our habits, but this is temporary. We will encounter God in our love and sacrifice for others. There is one natural consequence of this encounter: joy. Nothing else can provide this joy. We seek it in so many places: wealth, pleasure, fame and power. None of these can satisfy. Only our union with God can provide joy, and that joy is boundless. When we set out to grow in virtue, we need to know that it will be difficult and dreary at first, but soon, we will begin to feel joy. That initial joy leads to the eternal joy our loving Father wants to give us.
St. Therese describes how she struggled to sacrifice at first. She may be a saint now, but she was like us, struggling to grow in virtue at one time. This struggle did not frustrate her, though. She recognized that Jesus is patient. He does not expect us to jump to perfection in a single step. We can progress slowly, moving a little at first. Jesus works with us. If we cooperate with His grace, then we will progress. At times, that progression may be imperceptible, and then one day we realize how much we have grown. This is a huge comfort. How often do we have doubts, feeling like we cannot make any progress, falling into the same temptations over and over? In these times, we need to maintain trust in our Lord. He is patient and will enlighten us.
“I found it hard to accept such a sacrifice at first, but before long my soul was flooded with divine light… Jesus bore that patiently; He does not like teaching us everything at once, but normally enlightens us a little at a time.-The Story of a Soul, St. Therese of Lisieux

A Far Off Goal

“I soon found, however, that the more one advances, the further off one sees the goal to be.-The Story of a Soul, St. Therese of Lisieux
We must always have hope in our spiritual journey. St. Therese gives ample reason to trust in Jesus and to be confident that His grace will be sufficient for whatever we need. This hope does not mean that the journey will appear easy. We are seeking heaven, and on our own, it is impossible to reach. If we ever think that we can earn entry into heaven, we are wrong, and God will correct us.

As we grow closer to God, our imperfections become easier to see. This can be frustrating as the goal can seem to get further away the more we progress.

One of the things that set St. Therese apart is that she did not despair. Even in times when she felt doubts, she trusted in Jesus. This strengthened her. We need to maintain a similar trust. We know there will be times when we feel close to God and other times we will distant from Him. There will be times when we feel a great enthusiasm in our faith and times of dryness when we feel little or nothing. There will be times when heaven seems right in front of us and times it seems further than ever. These feelings do not reflect the love of God. His love is infinite and eternal. It is impossible for God for even the shortest instant to ever love you less than infinitely. The only thing that changes is whether we feel that love. In the times when we do not feel God close to us, we must follow Therese’s example and trust in God all the more.

Hope Always

St. Therese is truly exceptional, and she knows it. This is not pride. Therese is humble, and in humility, we see ourselves as we truly are. Humility is not demeaning ourselves. That is false humility. We also do not elevate ourselves above where we are. That is pride. Humility is simply seeing the truth of who we are. Therese does this very well and has a tremendous desire help others grow in humility. She has such great love for God and an incredible joy from that love. She wants us to have that love and joy too.

Too often, we try to earn God’s love. We cannot. He already loves us infinitely. Our response is simple: total surrender to Him. We must give up ourselves, renounce the world, and thereby, we enter into His infinite love and joy.

“If only everyone weak and imperfect like me felt as I do, no one would despair of reaching the heights of love, for Jesus does not ask for glorious deeds.  He asks only for self-surrender and for gratitude.-The Story of a Soul, St. Therese of Lisieux

Image:

Author Celine Martin (Sor Genoveva de la Santa Faz), Detail of St. Therese of the Child Jesus in the photograph taken in the courtyard of the monastery of Lisieux Easter Monday, April 15, 1894, {{PD-1923}}