In Part 3 of this series we discussed Manuscript B of Story of a Soul, the mystical charter of the Little Way, where Thérèse came to recognize her vocation as love. In the Body of Christ she would be the heart.
Having discussed the spirituality of the Little Way, in this post I want to turn to practical matters. How do I, practically speaking, follow the Little Way?
Most of the material relevant to the practice of the Little Way can be found in Manuscript C, the final two chapters of Story of a Soul.
Earlier in this series we noted how Thérèse compared the Little Way to the "science of love." At the start of Manuscript C she uses another striking metaphor: The Little Way as an elevator to Jesus:
We are living now in an age of inventions, and we no longer have to take the trouble of climbing stairs, for, in the homes of the rich, an elevator has replaced these very successfully. I wanted to find an elevator which would raise me to Jesus, for I am too small to climb the rough stairway of perfection.Again, Thérèse was dreaming big dreams, spiritually speaking. Before the elevator metaphor she writes:
You know, Mother, that I have always wanted to be a saint. Alas! I have always noticed that when I compared myself to the saints, there is between them and me the same difference that exists between a mountain whose summit is lost in the clouds and the obscure grain of sand trampled underfoot by passers-by.I'm guessing we all can identify. The lives of the saints appear to be Mount Everest's of holiness. How to get up that high? Thérèse continues...
Instead of being discouraged, I said to myself: God cannot inspire unrealizable desires. I can, then, in spite of my littleness, aspire to holiness.Refusing to give up her aspirations to holiness, and despite the daunting climb before her, Thérèse set herself the task of finding an elevator to Jesus. And thus was born the Little Way.
Thérèse discovered the Little Way by contemplating the words of Jesus in the gospels. These passages in particular:
Matthew 22.39As Thérèse pondered these words she realized that she didn't love the people around her--her fellow Sisters--as Jesus loved them: "I realized how imperfect was my love for my Sisters." Convicted by this, Thérèse began striving to allow the heart of Jesus to emerge within her, to allow Jesus to love her fellow Sisters through her life, words and actions:
"The second commandment is like the first: You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Ah! Lord, I know you don't command the impossible. You know better than I do my weaknesses and imperfection; You know very well that never would I be able to love my Sisters as You love them, unless You, O my Jesus, loved them in me...Your Will is to love in me all those You commanded me to love!So, how does all this look in practice?
Yes, I feel it, when I am charitable, it is Jesus alone who is acting in me, and the more united I am to Him, the more also do I love my Sisters.
There is a pretty large literature that unpacks, systematizes, and interprets the Little Way. I've read very, very little of this literature. So for my part I will simply gather stories from Story of a Soul that show Thérèse practicing the Little Way in her day to day life. These stories show Thérèse demonstrating little acts of charity and self-mortification.
Let me first, however, say a word about self-mortification and its relation to charity and the Little Way. Thérèse was a Catholic monastic. Consequently, self-mortification was part and parcel of her spiritual walk. But self-mortification often doesn't sit well with many Protestants. More, we don't understand it's relationship to love.
This is unfortunate because self-mortification--dying to self--was an important teaching of Jesus. At root, self-mortification is wrestling with and overcoming selfishness, self-love, and self-absorption so we can become available to and make room for others. When it comes to self-mortification we shouldn't be thinking of hair shirts. Rather, we should call to mind something like this:
Luke 14.7-8a,10This is, in fact, one of the acts of self-mortification Thérèse mentions in Story of a Soul: "I don't hasten to the first place but to the last."
When Jesus noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor...But when you are invited, take the lowest place...
These are the acts of self-mortification that Thérèse is speaking about in the Little Way. Acts of humility, restraint, self-control, forbearance, perseverance, patience and long-suffering. It is about "bearing with" people. Self-mortification is less about fasting for forty days than it is about holding your tongue, waiting patiently, mastering your irritation, avoiding the the spotlight, refusing to respond to insults, allowing others to cut in line, being first to apologize, and not seeking to win every argument. In all this we begin to see how self-mortification is related to love. For example, is forgiveness an act of self-mortification or charity? It's both. It's an extension of grace that flows out of an act of self-overcoming. With your ego out of the way it's easier to be open to the other. Thus Thérèse argues,
Love is nourished only by sacrifices, and the more a soul refuses natural satisfactions, the stronger and more disinterested becomes her tenderness.With that in mind, let's turn to illustrations of the Little Way. There are many, almost maxim-like, nuggets sprinkled throughout Story of the Soul related to the Little Way...
Charity consists in bearing with the faults of others, in not being surprised by their weaknesses, in being edified by the smallest acts of virtue we see them practice....but the most extended and practical description of the Little Way is found in the final chapter:
It is no longer a question of loving one's neighbor as oneself but of loving him as He, Jesus, has loved him.
When I wish to increase this love in me, and when especially the devil tries to place before the eyes of my soul the faults of such and such a Sister who is less attractive to me, I hasten to search out her virtues, her good intentions...
I want to be charitable in my thoughts toward others at all times, for Jesus has said: "Judge not, and you shall not be judged."
I have noticed (and this is very natural) that the most saintly Sisters are the most loved. We seek their company; we render them services without their asking; finally, these souls so capable of bearing the lack of respect and consideration of others see themselves surrounded with everyone's affection...This is the practice of the Little Way, or a central part of the practice. It is to seek out "the imperfect souls" in our lives (I'm sure people are coming to mind) who we generally, along with others, seek to avoid. As Thérèse describes, these people are touchy, irritable, and generally lacking in social graces, among other faults. More, these faults are chronic, personality-based issues that aren't ever going to change (get "cured" to use Thérèse's word).
On the other hand, imperfect souls are not sought out. No doubt we remain within the limits of religious politeness in their regard, but we generally avoid them, fearing lest we say something which isn't too amiable. When I speak of imperfect souls, I don't want to speak of spiritual imperfections since most holy souls will be perfect in heaven; but I want to speak of a lack of judgment, good manners, touchiness in certain characters; all these things which don't make life agreeable. I know very well that these moral infirmities are chronic, that there is no hope of a cure, but I also know that my Mother would not cease to take care of me, to try to console me, if I remained sick all my life. This is the conclusion I draw from this: I must seek out in recreation, on free days, the company of Sisters who are the least agreeable to me in order to carry out with regard to these wounded souls the office of the Good Samaritan. A word, an amiable smile, often suffice to make a sad soul bloom...I want to be friendly with everybody (and especially with the least amiable Sisters) to give joy to Jesus.
The Little Way is to see these souls as "wounded" on the side of the road and to respond to them like the Good Samaritan. Or, to use Thérèse's other image, we can see these souls as chronically ill and respond to them like a Mother caring for her child ("I know that my Mother would not cease to take care of me, to try to console me, if I remained sick all my life"). Practically, this means we seek out the company of these individuals. And finding them we offer kindness and friendliness.
This is the crux of the Little Way: Seeking out the unlikable people in our world and offering them kindness. Thérèse describes this as being faithful to Jesus's command to love both our friends and our enemies:
The Lord, in the Gospel, explains in what His new commandment consists. He says in St. Matthew: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies...pray for those who persecute you." No doubt, we don't have any enemies in Carmel, but there are feelings. One feels attracted to this Sister, whereas with regard to another, one would make a long detour in order to avoid meeting her. And so, without knowing it, she becomes the subject of persecution. Well, Jesus is telling me that it is this Sister who must be loved...That's a great phrase. "We don't have any enemies in Carmel, but there are feelings." I'm sure you can relate. "I don't have any enemies per se at the office but there are, well, feelings." Those feelings are the focus of the Little Way. And we see the central theme again: Overcoming natural attractions and aversions to seek out the one who isn't an object of affection. I'm particularly struck by how Thérèse compares social avoidance--taking "detours" in order to avoid annoying people--as a from of social persecution.
Goodness, I can identify with that. The avoiding people. The "detouring" around them. The Little Way challenges this natural impulse of mine. And it help me see that seeking these people out and spending some time in friendly conversation is a way I might respond to the Parable of the Good Samaritan in my day to day life. I don't have to wait to find a bloody body in a ditch to act like Jesus's model of love. I can do something "little" but just as heroic this very day: I can stop taking those detours and thereby crack the bubbles of social persecution in my workplace (or anywhere else).
In Story of a Soul Thérèse gives an example of doing this very thing:
There is in the Community a Sister who has the faculty of displeasing me in everything, in her ways, her words, her character, everything seems very disagreeable to me...Not wishing to give in to the natural antipathy I was experiencing, I told myself that charity must not consist in feelings but in works; then I set myself to doing for this Sister what I would do for the person I loved the most. Each time I met her I prayed to God for her...[But] I wasn't content simply with praying very much for this Sister who gave me so many struggles, but I took care to render her all the services possible, and when I was tempted to answer her back in a disagreeable manner, I was content with giving her my most friendly smile, and with changing the subject of our conversation...A couple of observations about this example of Thérèse's own practice of the Little Way. First, we again see the seeking out of a person who Thérèse found "very disagreeable," and pretty disagreeable across the board--personality, manner, speech. Second, Thérèse moves beyond prayer to focus on actions, doing good things for this person. Third, we see patience and restraint in interacting with this Sister, Thérèse watching her words, keeping a smile on her face, and sometimes changing the topic of conversation. Finally and most importantly, the Sister noticed! This isn't love in the abstract. Thérèse's behavior made an impact.
One day at recreation she asked in almost these words: "Would you tell me Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus, what attracts you so much toward me; every time you look at me, I see you smile?"
I'm sure many of you are starting to shake your heads. "There is no way," you're likely saying, "that I'm going to seek out and be friendly with [insert name of co-worker, family member, etc.]."
Hey, I'm right there with you. I think we're continuing to see how these "little" things aren't so little. And why Thérèse ended up becoming saint for choosing to live this way.
Let me conclude with another example of the Little Way. I love this example because it's such a goofy thing but so very common in day to day life. I'm sure you'll be able to relate to Thérèse's experience:
I am going to recount certain little struggles which will certainly make you smile. For a long time at evening meditation, I was placed in front of a Sister who had a strange habit...This is what I noticed: as soon as this Sister arrived, she began making a strange little noise which resembled the noise one would make when rubbing two shells, one against the other. I was the only one to notice it because I had extremely sensitive hearing (too much so at times). Mother, it would be impossible for me to tell you how much this little noise wearied me. I had a great desire to turn my head and stare at the culprit who was very certainly unaware of her "click."How awesome is this!? And can't you relate? Boy, I can. I often find myself in moods where people irritate me, for no good reason. I don't like the sound of their chewing. The way they are clearing their throat. The way they are standing too close to me. Ever have one of those moods, where little things people are doing are just driving you crazy?
So there she is, Thérèse at prayers getting annoyed at a Sister for making a distracting clicking noise. The story continues...
I remained calm, therefore, and tried to unite myself to God and to forget the little noise. Everything was useless. I felt the perspiration inundate me...Again, what I love about this is how small this story seems and yet so huge. How much of our interactions with others is driven by these experiences of irritation? My day is full of this sort of stuff. And the Little Way is calling us to take these moments of impatience and annoyance and turn them into moments of holiness. Thérèse concludes:
I searched for a way of [listening to the noise] without annoyance and with peace and joy, at least in the interior of my soul. I tried to love the little noise which was so displeasing; instead of trying not to hear it (impossible), I paid close attention so as to hear it well, as though it were a delightful concert, and my prayer (which was not the Prayer of Quiet) was spent offering this concert to Jesus.How to summarize the spiritual heroism of the Little Way? Think of it this way: You can run off to a monastery or hit the mission field or, wait for it, start mastering your irritation. In comparison this last seems, well, pretty little. But upon reflection, each of these seems pretty damn heroic. That's the genius of the Little Way. Finding the experiences of day to day living to be locations of epic spiritual struggle, the narrative arch of the great saints and martyrs.
And yet, this is so hard to see. Because let's admit it. Who thinks mastering your irritation, say, standing in line at Walmart is your St. Francis or Joan of Arc moment? Who thinks putting up with the annoying sound of a co-worker eating potato chips in the break-room is the path to sainthood?
But Thérèse did.
And she called it the elevator to Jesus.