With an abundance of approaches, methods and forms, the spiritual life can sometimes seem quite complicated – you can’t actually get anywhere until you first decide how you are planning to get there; you need to find your way before you do anything else. I suppose it’s a bit like looking at a map as you get into the car, and you put your finger on the destination you hope to reach; but then comes the planning – you need to decide the particular route you will take before you have any hope of getting there. Only then can you set off on the journey.
If you are reading that paragraph and thinking to yourself “yes, that’s me!” – well, you aren’t alone. Many have been there before. One of them was a young nun in a French convent and she, too, had this experience.
Now, this wasn’t just any nun – it was Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. And her particular – and highly successful – approach to this quandary was to find a way of her own, which would later be called her “Little Way”. And the heart of that little way was very simple indeed – it was determining to approach God with the confidence of a little child, or what you might call an attitude of ‘spiritual childhood’.
For Thérèse, it wasn’t so much about what we do – it was about the way in which we do it. Her spiritual childhood was characterised by a sense of complete trust in God, and by a complete dependence upon Him. And so, we can focus much less on a spirituality which tempts us to think that we get to Heaven on a ladder of our own making, each rung of which is comprised of good works or salutary prayers – and instead, coming to see that everything is a gift of the Lord; we reach Heaven not because we somehow ‘deserve’ to do so – for we do not – but purely because the Lord invites us and welcomes us.
Salvation is His gift, not our just reward.
This is not to say that all our prayers, devotions and good works are without meaning – on the contrary, they are very much filled with meaning. But what really matters here is not the acts themselves but the spirit which propels them forward. In prayer, for example, we can tend to focus on how many Rosaries we have said, how long we have been practising this novena or that devotion; and yet Thérèse reminded us that a single glance toward Heaven, one sigh from the heart, can wield enormous power in the spiritual realm, if it is filled with love.
This alone reminds us that our prayers and good works are not our initiative – rather, they are a response to the invitation of the Lord, Who first invites us to this prayer, and Whose Spirit animates them and gives them value.
Thérèse summed this up when she wrote –
That is my prayer. I ask Jesus to draw me to the flames of His love, to unite me so closely to Him that He live and act in in me
If we truly live this out, then we are all too well aware that of ourselves, we are nothing at all. The Heart of Christ is a blazing furnace and we are to be straw in the furnace, so that we burn with His own fire and, in that sense ‘become’ that fire, consumed in it, for nothing is left of us except our desire to be so on fire. In this, there is an echo of the words of St John the Baptist in the Gospel account where John said that “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn.3:30). In essence, this is the goal – that we empty ourselves of ourselves, leaving only Christ. It is the work of a lifetime.
To support us in this work, the Holy Father Pope Francis has now published a new Apostolic Exhortation on the spirituality of Saint Thérèse, called “C’est la Confiance” (‘It Is Confidence’).
In this Apostolic Exhortation, the Pope holds up before us the approach of the Little Flower, telling us that her words on confidence in the loving mercy of God “sum up the genius of her spirituality” and exemplify precisely why she was declared a Doctor of the Church – which means that her spiritual teaching transcends any particular age or time and has an intrinsic value which is beneficial to all people.
Bear in mind that Thérèse did nothing which would be considered ‘extraordinary’ in this life – there were no great miracles, no public visions, no marvels which drew the attention of the world. Quite the opposite, in fact. Her life was simple, the latter part of it lived in the convent and hidden away from the world until her death at the age of twenty-four. It was her spiritual writings which shone a light upon her and brought her to the attention of the Church and the world, but not until after her death.
Her spiritual childhood was the path upon which she walked and upon which she became truly ‘little’, even if the Church would one day see her as something far, far greater. She wrote – “I can, then, in spite of my littleness, aspire to holiness.”
These words should give all of us confidence – for it tells us that we, who are also very little, can become holy too.
Everything that little Thérèse offers us flies in the face of what the world today offers us. The world does not place a value upon littleness, upon silence, upon holiness. Such holiness is an authentic forgetfulness of self, but the world wants us to think of nothing but ourselves, of what we desire and of being entitled to get it. Celebrity, wealth, power, noise – these are the gifts of the world but they are not the fruits of holiness and of true littleness. And so we need to choose carefully what we want – the finite or the infinite. Thérèse shows us what the infinite offers us.