THE MOST ESSENTIAL ELEMENT IN THE LITTLE WAY.
It is not easy to find one word in English which expresses exactly what St. Thérèse of Lisieux regarded as the heart of her Little Way of Love. In French one could call it L?abandon. The English word, abandonment, does not give its full meaning because generally abandonment means that one is obliged to leave a certain place by adverse circumstances. For example, an army yields a position because of the advance of an enemy. The term ?self-surrender? is perhaps a little nearer but even that sometimes implies that some circumstance has compelled or forced the issue. ?Resignation? is not exact either. By her way of abandonment Thérèse meant that one embraces enthusiastically and joyously a way that may involve immense sacrifice and even death itself with an exaltation of spirit that casts away every fear and anxiety about self and thinks only of the issue. One reads sometimes in the papers about a football team which played with great abandon, meaning that those eleven men played together in a wonderful spirit of exultant enthusiasm with no thought of anything hindering the vehemence with which they threw themselves into the game, determined to win. So the way of Thérèse demands that we are lovers in the sense that we abandon ourselves totally to the will of Him who is Love itself. We are ever conscious that God is Love, that His will is the will of infinite love. When St. Paul told those wise men in Athens that in God they lived and moved and had their being, he could well have said that in love we all live and move and have our being. That was what Thérèse meant.
In July of 1897, Thérèse wrote to her sister, Leonie: ?I am not in the least troubled, for I would not enter heaven one single moment sooner by my own will. The only happiness here below is to live and rejoice in that which God gives us.? In that last sentence is meditation for a life-time. ?That which Jesus gives us.? Is He not in complete control? Do not even the most distasteful things of life happen by His permission? In our own day the political upheavals, the wars, the assassinations, even that attempted of the Vicar of Christ, are they not all permitted by the will of Infinite Love and will not that same Infinite Love draw even greater good out of them? This surrender is a complete way of life. It is really spiritual childhood.
None of us knows when God will call us. It may be within the next hour, within the week or a month or a year or He may permit us to live on for many years yet. We simply do not know, but what we do know is that His call is the call of love and He wants us to be so completely abandoned that we will love that call whenever it comes. We may have set out hearts on doing some great work, we may have a book half finished, a church half built, a convert half instructed. What does it matter? Everything is safe in God?s hands. His call, be it repeated, is the call of Love. If He wills us to die suddenly then Love wills us to die suddenly. If He wills us to endure long suffering, again that is the will of Infinite Love and He will always give us the grace to respond to His call. Only one thing matters and that is to accept His will with all the love we can muster. Indeed, ?accept? is too weak a word. We must delight in His will, rejoice in His will, in every detail in which it expresses itself throughout life.
St. Thérèse believed with all her heart that what the divine Lover was asking of her was the most tremendous, giving joyfully and gladly. For her the will of her infinite Lover was everything; nothing else mattered at all. In her own words: ?Jesus was pleased to show me the only way that leads to Love?s divine furnace: that way is theabandon of a little child who sleeps unafraid in the arms of the father. To ascend the mountain of love Jesus does not ask for great actions, but only abandon and gratitude. He has no need of our works, but only of our love. The very God who declares He has no need to tell us if He be hungry disdained not to beg a little water from the Samaritan woman . . . He is thirsty! But when He said: ?Give me to drink?, it was the love of the creatures for which the Creator of the universe cried out. He was thirsty for Love. Jesus has not changed. From the disciples of the world He receives only indifference and ingratitude; and amongst His very own disciples how few He finds willing to give their hearts up entirely to the tenderness of His Infinite Love.?
That was how Thérèse, towards the end of her life, expressed her doctrine of abandon. Again she wrote: ?Now I have no desire for anything except to love Jesus even unto folly . . . Today the abandonis my only guide, I have no other compass. I no longer ask anything with eagerness, save the perfect accomplishment of God?s will in my soul.?
As early as 1889 Thérèse wrote about the distinction between resignation to God?s will and true abandon. In that year she wrote to Céline: ?The other day I found this admirable passage: ?There is a difference between resignation and oneness of will with God, there is the same difference between them as there is between union and unity. In union there are yet two, in unity there is but one.? Yes, let us be one with God, even in this world, for that we must be more than resigned, we must embrace the cross with joy.?
Again she wrote: ?I no more desire to die than to live. If the Saviour offered me the choice I would choose nothing. I only want what He wants. It is what He does that I love. Even if I recovered, let no one think that will defeat my little plans. Not at all. Age is nothing in God?s sight and I shall know how to remain like a little child even if I have a long life.?
Very early in her short life Thérèse understood, with the special charism of the Holy Spirit, that the only way to true peace of heart is the way of total abandon to the will and good pleasure of God. There is no other way. She discovered this truth in the words of our Lord: ?In the world you shall have tribulations, but in me peace. Peace I give unto you, not as this world gives do I give to you. For the peace that I give this world cannot give, neither can it take away.? The peace of Christ rests on a will that is utterly and wholly united to His will, a will that is not only surrendered to His will but looks for and wishes for and desires nothing except His good pleasure in all things. He must be allowed to do what He will with His own. Thérèse wanted those who embrace her Little Way to give themselves wholly and utterly to the great Lover. She wanted Him to have and possess them for His own and to do with them exactly what-so-ever pleases Him. There must be no reservation in their giving for they have given everything. What will God do with them? What does the future hold for them? They do not even think. They know they are perfectly secure because He is always thinking of them and loving them. Whatever He does will be their delight, because their one and only delight is in His pleasure.
That was the spirit of Thérèse in practice. Nothing could destroy her peace. In God?s will alone was her peace. Whatever came to her left her quite undismayed and untroubled. Her charism was to believe with immense and intense faith that God loved her with an infinite, everlasting, indescribable, unfathomable love. So nothing could cause trouble or disquiet in the depths of a soul so utterly abandoned.
If all that meant so much to Thérèse in the Carmel at Lisieux where indeed she suffered so much, how much more applicable is it to the people of our day? The world around is so much more alluring. The media are so aggressive and inescapable. The news of the world is thrust on us whether we like it or not. A spirit utterly opposed to the spirit of Christ seems to dominate the world around us. We need a refuge. That is why God gave Thérèse to this generation. Her Little Way of abandon is the refuge for every soul from the troubles of the modern world. Those who adopt the Little Way of Thérèse with complete faith find their whole outlook upon life changed. The world becomes another place. The light of love makes its apparently incomprehensible mysteries become clear. Everything is dominated by the will of Love. Everything is seen to be happening under the governance of Love who at the same time is limitless Wisdom.
We remember a story Thérèse herself told: ?Some days after I had taken the habit I was with our Mother. A lay sister who happened to be there remarked: ?Mother, you have received a novice who does you credit. How well she looks! I hope she may be able to observe the rule for many years!? I was feeling pleased with the compliment when another sister arrived, and looking at me said: ?My poor little Sister Thérèse. How dreadfully tired you look! You make me tremble; if you go on like this you will not be able to follow the rule for long.??For Thérèse it was enough for her to see herself in God?s eyes. What others thought of her did not matter one little bit.
We can apply this to every aspect of our work as priests. Recall the time when Thérèse had been trying to comfort somebody in the parlour. She seemed to have failed but she wrote: ?Jesus made me understand that I was incapable of comforting a soul. From that day I was no longer grieved when my visitors went away still sad. I confided their sufferings to God and was sure my prayers were heard. At the next visit I learned that I was not mistaken. After that experience, I never worry myself when I have involuntarily given pain. I just ask Jesus to repair what I have done.?
Similarly, she spoke of her novices: ?I throw to the right and to the left to my little birds the good grain God gives into my hands. And then that comes which will! I trouble myself no further. Sometimes it is as if I have thrown nothing; at others it does good. But God says to me: ?Give, give always without troubling yourself about the result?. After all, it is God who gives the increase! What we have to do, all He asks of us is to do our part, and then having done it, leave results to him.?
?We must realize the moment when our work is done, or rather the work God has given us to do for Him, and when we have to step aside and leave the rest to Him. So many souls fill themselves with utterly needless disquiet, wondering whether what they have done will be crowned with success, whether they ought not to have said or done something in a different way to what they have done. No! What is done has been done, and now leave the rest to God. The work is His not ours, and we are stupidly blind and hopelessly foolish if we think He does not know how to look after His own work. Yet, how many fail here; they want to put out their arms to steady the Ark of God when God Himself is within it, as if He was not well able to guard His own. All we have to do is to rest with complete abandonment in His good pleasure and be pleased with the issue He gives, whatever it be.? We can apply that to almost everything we do in our priestly lives.
But let us read more of our Little Saint: ?Each day brings with it both its own joys and sorrows and duties. Some days almost everything seems to go wrong from the beginning. Our words are misunderstood, our actions misinterpreted, and it seems as if we could not do or say or think anything that is not grounds for some complaint.?
?Well! We must say to ourselves: ?This is the day that the Lord has made; I shall rejoice and be glad in it?. Yes, this day which seems so impossible when I am asked to do one thing after another until it seems I shall never see either the end of the day or the work! This is the day the Lord has made ? and He has made it from all eternity, knew exactly every single incident of it, knew how everything I did and said today would turn out, knew all I should have to put up with, knew it would seem endless and calls on my goodwill almost beyond endurance. It is His day and He has made it. Well then, what can I do but rejoice and be glad in it. The more there is to be done in it, the more there is to suffer, the more I must rejoice. It is the Lord who has made this day; had the making been mine it would almost certainly have been very different. It is the Lord?s day! Well then, I must be filled with joy and gladness when I realize that He has made it and every happening in it.? How different would the life of every priest be who accepted this teaching in all its fullness.
But we have not finished with Thérèse yet. She continues: ?It is true it has taken a lot out of us, and when it comes to the end it seems as if it had been a year rather than a day, but if we have embraced all that it has brought us, joyously and courageously, it has been a happy day indeed?.
??Those were great days and I did not know it? ? the words of one who realized looking back on an experience in the past, how great those days had been, when it was too late. Well, for those who tread the sure way of love and abandon every day is a great day, because in it they can combat and suffer for the Lord they love, give glory to Him, and by their prayers and suffering win souls who will be their crown of glory in heaven. Let us rather say when the days are strenuous and the battle long: ?These are great days and I know it?. I am going to give God every heart-beat and every action of this day; I shall spend it all for Him.??
??These are great days?, yes! Even when we wake in the morning, so utterly exhausted we feel if we move we must die. That makes it a great day at the very beginning. And if the day is spent in pain and weakness, go on cheerfully and happily, and above all else keep smiling and perform all the duties of the day as if in perfect health, and then, when utterly worn out, evening comes at last, you can say in truth: ?This has been a great day, and I know it!??
?Those are great days in which, when we have planned to have a good day?s work, all our calculations are upset by an unexpected series of happenings. Interruption succeeds interruption until night comes and we have done nothing. A day wasted! No, a day spent just as the Lord willed, so a great day for two reasons, first, because our own arrangements have been upset; second, because the Lord has arranged it according to His own liking. So we rejoice and are glad.?
Even Thérèse?s own sisters never knew how the cold troubled her during the nine years of her life in Carmel. Her acceptance of what God sent was so complete. Yet she wrote in her private notes: ?Oh! The cold! How I have suffered from it. Ah! I thought I should have died of it.? If Thérèse found it difficult to abandon herself to the weather, what a test that is for us priests. It is almost constantly a topic of conversation. But do we let it affect us too much? Do we allow it to interfere too much with our work? Do we accept it always as God?s will? For example, when we have to go out to a graveyard in pouring rain or on a sick call in deep snow. Do we grumble when the Sunday is wet and our collections are down?
Thérèse mentioned interruptions. How familiar we are with them! We settle down to work or to our Office and the door bell or the telephone rings. Our plans are interrupted. Perhaps we could think about the time when Thérèse had planned to have a good evening?s work. She went to take her lamp thinking of how much she could do. Some other sister had carried it off thinking it was hers. Thérèse tells us: ?It was the hour of the great silence so I could not ask for its return. But must I pass the whole hour in darkness on account of the mistake? Quite rightly I had reckoned on getting through a lot of work during that time. Without the interior light of grace, I should have certainly pitied myself, but instead, reflecting that poverty consists in being deprived not only of agreeable but even necessary things, I was quite happy, and in the midst of the darkness my soul was illuminated by divine light.? Thérèse tells us how she found a source of peace in obeying the call of obedience even if it meant leaving a single letter incomplete.
Perhaps all this applies especially to our life of prayer. We have probably experienced the dark nights of the senses and of the spirit. We have to direct others through them also. For the greater
part of her religious life our Lord led Thérèse through the way of spiritual darkness and blindness. She rejoiced saying: ?I thank Jesus for making me walk in darkness, and in this darkness I enjoy a most profound peace?. And: ?Your Thérèse is not found up in the heights these moments; but when in this dryness and incapacity for prayer, in order to practise virtue, I look for those small occasions, those trifles in order to give pleasure to Jesus, a smile, or a kind word for instance, when I would wish to be silent. If these occasions do not come I at least try to tell Him often how much I love Him . This is not difficult and helps to keep the fire of love burning in my heart . . . . What I have to do is to give myself entirely, without any reserve, without the joy of knowing what it is bringing me . . . . After all, I am not the prodigal child, so Jesus had no need to make a feast for me who am ever with Him.?
The story of the severity with which Mother Gonzague, who was Thérèse?s Prioress for the first five years of her religious life, treated her is well known. Of those days Thérèse says: ?Illusions! God has preserved me from them by His mercy. I have found the religious life exactly what I had expected, no sacrifice surprised me; and as you know, my Mother, in my first days I found more thorns than roses. To begin with, I had for the daily bread of my soul bitter dryness; moreover, our Lord permitted that I should be treated with more than usual severity by our Mother (Mother Gonzague). I never met her without receiving some reprimand. I remember on one occasion when I had left a cobweb in the cloister she said before the whole community: ?It is easy to see our cloisters are swept by a child of fifteen. What a pity! Go and remove that cobweb and be more careful for the future.? On the rare occasion when she spent an hour with me she scolded me all the time.?
About quarter past four every afternoon during her noviciate Thérèse was sent to weed the garden. Almost invariably she met Mother Gonzague who would remark: ?Why, this child does absolutely nothing. What are we to think of a postulant who has to be sent out into the garden for a walk every day?? Thérèse said that was her ordinary way of dealing with her. But she looked beyond the Superior to God and saw how good this training was for her: ?How I bless God for having given me a training so sound and valuable. What would have become of me had I been, as was supposed in the world, the plaything of the community? Instead of finding our Lord in my superiors, I might have considered only the creatures, and my heart, so well guarded in the world, would have been ensnared by merely human attachments in the cloister. Happily I was saved from such a misfortune.? She even thanked Mother Gonzague for this treatment. In 1896 she wrote: ?How I thank you, Mother, for not sparing me. Jesus knew well how His Little Flower needed the refreshing waters of humiliation; she was too feeble to take root without that help, and it is through you that He has bestowed upon me that inestimable benefit.?
Mother Gonzague changed her method. She made Thérèse Novice Mistress. Still writing for Mother Gonzague, Thérèse could say: ?For some months the Divine Master has changed completely His method of cultivating His Little Flower. Finding no doubt that she had been sufficiently watered, He allowed her to enjoy the warm rays of a brilliant sun. It is His own pleasure to smile on her now, and that smile He gives her through you.?
Every life is different but in every life abandon has its place. Possibly more than other people we priests see around us what the world regards as tragedies. We know that they are the blessings of God. A young child is deprived of a parent by death. We know that that parent is probably in heaven praying for the welfare of that child. A young man is sent home from college where he is training for the priesthood. We recognize God?s will again at work and believe that good will come from it. People in the prime of life are stricken down with cancer which may prove fatal. Again, Infinite Good is at work. Works which have apparently been successful suddenly fail. We know that He who is limitless Love and Wisdom is in control. We cannot see the reason for these things but abandon not only takes away the spirit of rebellion but makes one rejoice in the will of Infinite Love manifested in these ways. One can go on for page after page recounting incidents from one?s own experiences. But the lesson is always the same. God loves us. We live in His love. He died for us. He wants us to come to Him in heaven. The circumstances in which we live are the conditions He has laid down for us to sanctify ourselves. The very things which seem to be the greatest obstacles are in fact the instruments God gives for our sanctification. He is the loving Father, we are the children who ought to appreciate His love. The soul walking along the Little Way in genuine childhood and simplicity rejoices in what is seen to be the conduct of God. A saint prefers to die on the cross of Calvary rather than to live in softness on Tabor. As for prayer, Thérèse knew that the best prayer is that in which one abandons oneself most completely to the dispositions and feelings God sends into one?s soul and in which one studies oneself with more simplicity, humility and conformity to the true will and to the example of our Lord who is infinite love. True simplicity makes us live in a continual death and perfect detachment for it sends us to God by a perfectly straight path without stopping for any creature. Simplicity is not obtained by speculation but by purity of heart, true mortification and contempt for ourselves. We will never enter or persevere in the Little Way if we flee from humiliation, from suffering, from death to self.
If there is a short way to the Little Way it is the way of perfect consecration to our Blessed Lady. Thérèse chose that way. She lived it. In fact the words of the Blessed Mother are a summary of her whole life: ?Be it done to me according to thy word; whatsoever He shall say to you do it?. Yes, the Little Way of Thérèse of Lisieux, the way of complete abandon, simplicity and self surrender, lived in union with Mary, is the greatest help in enabling us to bear with optimism the struggles through which our dear Mother Church is passing in our day.
CANON FRANCIS RIPLEY
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