The Little Way

There’s something about St. Thérèse. Until a year or two ago I’d never heard of Thérèse of Lisieux.  I was introduced to her by Tomas Halik in his book Patience with God. There he wrote about her “dark night of the soul” leading up to her death, where she seemed to have lost her faith almost completely. But he also wrote about the things that had later led to the Catholic church canonizing her as a saint, especially her devotion to what she called “the little way.” Since then, I’ve heard her name come up in several different contexts: a few blogs I read have mentioned her in passing, two different friends on separate occasions have told me that she’s an inspiration; and most recently, Richard Beck has been blogging about “the little way” on his Experimental Theology blog. I still haven’t read the book she is remembered for, her autobiography The Story of a Soul (L’histoire d’une âme), but I want to take a closer look at what “the little way” is all about.

As Beck describes it, Thérèse had a desire to do great things, to be a martyr, to find a great and high vocation. And yet, she did not see that as a possibility for her life, and she desperately sought to know what God was calling her to do. The answer she received was that He was calling her to do something on a much smaller level, but just as great in importance: to become love in the simple, small, everyday things of her life. Beck describes it this way:

At last, she had found her vocation. The key to the Little Way. What part of the body would she be?

She would be the heart:

I finally had rest…Charity gave me the key to my vocation. I understood that if the Church had a body composed of different members, the most necessary and most noble of all could not be lacking to it, and so I understood that the Church had a Heart and that this Heart is BURNING WITH LOVE. I understood that it was Love alone that made the Church’s members act, that ifLove ever became extinct, apostles would not preach the gospel and martyrs would not shed their blood. I understood that LOVE COMPRISED ALL VOCATIONS, THAT LOVE WAS EVERYTHING, THAT IT EMBRACED ALL TIMES AND PLACES….IN A WORD, THAT IT WAS ETERNAL!

Then, in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out: O Jesus, my Love…my vocation, at last I have found it….MY VOCATION IS LOVE!

Yes, I found my place in the Church…I shall be Love. Thus I shall be everything…

This is the mystical core of the Little Way. To follow the Little Way is to commit to being the heart of the church. The Little Way is to become love incarnate in your day to day existence with others. No grand overseas adventures. No speaking to massive crowds. No riding off like Joan of Arc. Simply becoming love. Right here. Right now.

There’s such an appeal in that – that every one of us has an opportunity to do participate in something miraculous no matter how small it may seem. And yet, it’s not an easy path. In his most recent post, Beck describes the practical side of the Little Way, and explains why it is so difficult:

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.

When you put it that way, it’s hard not to be convicted by these words. The Little Way is ultimately about bringing love down to the smallest scale, the everyday interactions. It’s about loving people who annoy us, trying to love them through the annoying things they do. Beck sums it up:

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.

I would add to that, that even then it takes an almost greater act of humility and prayer not to feel superior to all those other people who still get annoyed at each other, who haven’t achieved that “narrative arch” of the great saints and martyrs.

The Little Way reminds me a great deal of the description of “charity itself” in the Writings for the New Church. True Christian Religion 422 says, “Charity itself is to act justly and faithfully in the office, business and employment in which one is engaged, and towards those with whom one has any dealings.” Often we focus on the first part of this, which is important: that charity means fulfilling whatever role we are called to, since in that way we perform a unique use for the whole of the human race (and New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Doctrine 102 makes it clear that this is not about a “job,” but about any particular roles we play, e.g. as parents, citizens, etc.). But that second part is equally important, and seems to be getting at the same thing as the Little Way – to act justly and faithfully with everyone we deal with.  It is charity itself not only because we are playing a particular, useful role, but because we are doing it daily, constantly – it becomes who were are. True Christian Religion 423 explains:

This is charity itself, because charity may be defined as doing good to the neighbor daily and continually, not only to the neighbor individually, but also to the neighbor collectively; and this can be done only through what is good and just in the office, business, and employment in which a person is engaged, and with those with whom he has any dealings; for this is one’s daily work, and when he is not doing it it still occupies his mind continually, and he has it in thought and intention. The person who thus practices charity, becomes more and more charity in form; for justice and fidelity form his mind, and the practice of these forms his body; and because of his form he gradually comes to will and think only such things as pertain to charity. (emphasis added.)

Charity in True Christian Religion is defined as love toward the neighbor; and so becoming “charity in form” is the very thing that Thérèse strove for, to become love. But of course, as she described, that daily kind of love takes an incredible amount of prayer and effort, with a person fighting every bit as if from himself, even while acknowledging that it’s from the Lord; as True Christian Religion 435 says, “The first thing of charity is to put away evils; and the second is to do good things that are of use to the neighbor.” That’s what opens the way to the Lord’s love; that same passage, True Christian Religion 435, says that this tenet is “like a door to the doctrine of charity.”

The thing I love about Thérèse’s writing (as quoted in Beck’s posts, anyway) is the very, very practical examples of living this kind of daily spirituality, even down to addressing that oh-so-familiar experience of getting annoyed at someone making a repetitive sound in church. I won’t spoil it here, but go read Beck’s most recent post for Thérèse’s way of dealing with that, and the way that she transforms an annoyance into an opportunity for love.

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