Those who concentrate on the life and doctrine of this child of Carmel who died at the age of twenty-four are seized with wonder and admiration. They discover, in fact, that her contribution to spirituality is as original as it is profoundly traditional. They also discover that under the Gospel-like simplicity of her message of
"the little way of childhood"
is hidden a spiritual structure both strong and perfectly balanced from the theological point of view.
No doubt this structure embodies the most authentic elements of the Order to which Theresa belongs;
but Theresa has divided and arranged them according to her own genius. Better still, a very sure instinct, given by the Holy Spirit, enabled her to discern and sometimes to rediscover, not without merit, Carmel's purest spirit.
Saint Theresa of the Child Jesus truly made this interior and radiant spirit incarnate. Her life of love of the absolute and of absolute love is of rare depth and fullness. It was a combination of certain inter-related spiritual principles and constitutes a true doctrine: this is
"the little way of childhood"
that we must now try to describe.
This doctrine is derived from a re-discovery of the central teaching of the Gospel which may be expressed in this sentence: We are, in Christ, God's children and we ought to love our Father in heaven with a filial love full of confidence and abandonment.
Christ taught us that God is our Father. Saint Theresa adheres to this teaching with all her strength and gives to it its whole meaning.
She had a deep understanding of the truth that such a teaching has two complementary aspects: a keen realization of God's fatherhood toward us;
and the need of developing in us a filial attitude of absolute confidence toward God our Father.
If the confidence of Saint Theresa in the goodness of her Father in heaven is absolute, this is because God is a father and this father is God. She comes to this basic affirmation:
"We can never have enough confidence in God who is so good, so powerful, so merciful".
From this we can understand how on her lips the words
"Papa the good God"
are not childish. On the contrary they testify to the simplicity of her intimate relations with Him and to a confidence so absolute that she can dare to say:
"I know what it means to count on His mercy".
One might be tempted to believe that such confidence was based on the assurance that had been given her that she
"had never committed any mortal sins". But she hastens to correct this idea:
"Make it clear, Mother, that if I had committed all possible crimes, I would still have the same confidence. I would feel that this multitude of offenses would be like a drop of water cast into a blazing fire"
"How could there be any limits to my confidence?"
Saint Theresa could not have reached this point, it is certain, had she not had a deep experience of God's love. Even though she always claimed that she had not known extraordinary graces, and she never stressed the graces she did receive, it cannot be doubted that she had attained to a very high mystical life during a most painful night of faith.
But what might be illusory is that this mystical life was lived under the voluntarily obscure and detached sign of the little way of spiritual childhood. Was not Saint Theresa eager not to do anything that
could not imitate?
What does this mean?
Saint Theresa had very great desires, yet she would never admit that she was a great soul or that she had the strength necessary to do great things, like the saints who had been proposed to her as models. So she had to find a way in keeping with this littleness of which she was so deeply conscious.
More than this: she sought a way that depended on this very weakness. Had not the Apostle said:
"When I am weak then I am strong"
(2 Cor. 12: 10). So that in searching the Gospels she found the words of the Master:
"Let the little children be, and do not hinder them from coming to me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven"
(Matt. 19: 14).
Such a statement corresponded too well to her knowledge, both of her weakness and also of God's fatherly heart, for it not to have been a true light. It served, too, as a link between her spirit of childhood and her confidence in the divine fatherhood.
"I leave to great souls and lofty minds the beautiful books I cannot understand, much less put into practice and I rejoice that I am little because children alone and those who resemble them will be admitted to the heavenly banquet. I am glad that there are many mansions in the Kingdom of God, because if there were only those whose description and whose road seem to me incomprehensible, I could never enter there."
This, therefore, was her way. God Himself had pointed it out and declared its efficacy. On it Theresa was to advance unfalteringly and to draw all the necessary conclusions with courage.
No one will deny that weakness is the characteristic of little children. But this weakness is the surest of guarantees to those who care for them and love them. Teresa remembered a text of Isaias that she copied in a little notebook she used:
"You shall be carried at the breasts, And upon the knees they shall caress you. As one whom the mother caresseth, So will I comfort you"
(Is. 66: 12).
Moreover, having learned from experience about this
goodness of God, and knowing that the smaller the child, the more it can count on merciful help and attentive care, Theresa intended to remain little, that is to say, she would no more be concerned about her powerlessness, on the contrary she would rejoice in it.
"How happy I am to realize that I am little and weak, how happy I am to see myself so imperfect". She does not count on her works, or on her merits, she
"keeps nothing in reserve"
and she is not to be discouraged even about her faults.
"It is needful to remain little before God and to remain little is to recognize one's nothingness, expect all things from the good God just as a little child expects all things from its father;
it is not to be troubled by anything, not to try to make a fortune. Even among poor people, a child is given all it needs, as long as it is very little, but as soon as it has grown up, the father does not want to support it any longer and says:
"Work, now you are able to take care of yourself". Because I never want to hear these words I do not want to grow up, feeling that I can never earn my living, that is, eternal life in heaven. So I have stayed little, and have no other occupation than of gathering flowers of love and sacrifice and of offering them to the good God to please Him.
To be little also means not to attribute to one's self the virtues that one practices, believing that one can do something, but to acknowledge that the good God has placed these treasures in the hands of His little child so that the child can make use of them as needed, but always as the treasures of the good God.
Finally, it means not be to discouraged by one's faults because children often fall but they are too little to hurt themselves badly."
This is a pleasant intuition and one that affords many fruitful applications for the spiritual life.
Most especially it drew Theresa along the path of a confidence that was not only a virtue but the life in us of the true theological virtue of hope. Advancing with great boldness to the end of this hope and wishing to place no limits to God's mercy for those who love Him with filial love, she wrote to a sister:
"You are not sufficiently trusting, you fear God too much. I assure you that this grieves Him. Do not be afraid of going to purgatory because of its pain, but rather long not to go there because this pleases God who imposes this expiation so regretfully. From the moment that you try to please Him in all things, if you have the unshakable confidence that He will purify you at every instant in His love and will leave in you no trace of sin, be very sure that you will not go to purgatory."
"O, how you hurt me, how greatly you injure the good God when you believe you are going to purgatory. For one who loves there can be no purgatory.
It seems to me that there will be no judgment for victims of love, or rather, the good God will hasten to reward, with eternal delights, His own love which He will see burning in their hearts."
Saint Theresa's confidence in God's infinite mercy leads her to this other certitude, as theologically sound as the preceding, that if God divides His graces unequally, He does so because of the same love.
"For a long time I had been asking myself why souls did not all receive the same amount of grace. Jesus deigned to instruct me about this mystery. Before my eyes He placed the book of nature and I understood that all the flowers created by Him are beautiful… that, if all the little flowers wanted to be roses, nature would lose her springtime garb. The same is true of the world of souls, the Lord's living garden.
God's love is revealed just as much in the most simple soul who does not resist His graces as in the most sublime."
Lastly this confidence in God leads Saint Theresa, by paths of poverty of spirit and self-forgetfulness, to a wonderful simplification of spiritual life. In fact, how could she have failed to notice that the kingdom of heaven is offered not only to little children but also to the poor in spirit, and almost in the same words:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven"
(Matt. 5: 3).
"Unless you turn and become like little children, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven"
(Matt. 1 8: 3).
"Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for of such is the kingdom of God"
(Mark 10: 14).
As Theresa made spiritual childhood her own, so she made her own poverty of spirit. She aspires to be nothing more than
"a poor little child"
who looks to her Father for everything and who obtains everything from Him because of this same poverty. She cultivates this poverty and wants to keep nothing for herself, not even her merits and her good works.
"There is only one way to force the good God not to judge at all, and that is to present one's self to Him with empty hands.
When I think of this word: 'I will soon come and I carry My reward with Me to give to each one according to his works ', I say to myself, He will be very embarrassed for me because I have no works. Well, He will have to give me according to His own works."
She is forgetful of herself and counts on nothing, she is truly poor:
"It is necessary to consent to remain poor and weak;
this is hard
"I have always longed to be unknown, I am resigned to being forgotten".
"It is necessary to count on nothing".
Theresa arrived at perfect detachment but in her own humble, hidden
"I know well that it is not my great desires that please God in my little soul, what He likes to see is the way I love my littleness and my poverty;
it is my blind hope in His mercy, this is my only treasure…. The weaker one is, without desires or virtues the more ready one is for the operations of this consuming and transforming love…. God rejoices more in what He can do in a soul humbly resigned to its poverty than in the creation of millions of suns and the vast stretch of the heavens."
She buries herself with delight deep in this radical poverty.
"I tell you that it is enough to recognize one's nothingness and to abandon one's self like a child in the arms of God.
Theresa is marvelously free from herself and marvelously free for God. Her soul is wide open to the invasions of divine love. We, in fact, prevent God from coming to us and
"flooding our souls with waves of His tenderness", because we do not open to Him the place He wants to occupy. Only when poverty is united with confidence, is He able to realize in us the desires of His love. It is difficult for us to understand much less to describe how great was Saint Theresa's desire to love. Nevertheless she who wished
"to love and to make Love loved", perhaps wished even more
"to be loved"
by this infinite Love. The deep reason for this will be evident when we remember that she wrote:
"Merit is not to be found in doing much or in giving much, but rather in receiving and in loving much. It is said that it is far sweeter to give than to receive, and this is true. But when Jesus wants for Himself the sweetness of giving, it would not be gracious to refuse. Let Him take and give whatever He wants."
To take and to give, in these two cases, Theresa will remain poor, in order that she can receive the love that God thirsts to pour out on her.
"I beg You to allow the waves of infinite tenderness hidden in You to overflow into my soul so that I may become a martyr of Your love."
Because she will not keep this love for herself but will pour it out on others, she adds:
"As for me, if I live until I am eighty I shall always be just as poor, I do not know how to economize. All that I have, I spend immediately to buy souls."
Saint Theresa was really flooded with divine love and that is why her life bore such fruit. This charity transfigured two qualities that in her were always to remain united: love of God and love of neighbor. And when we consider her fraternal charity which was so practical, so delicate, so heroic and which flowed from a charity for God that was so faithful that
"from the age of three she had never refused"
Him anything and was willing to suffer all things in silence for His love and for the love of souls, then no one can any longer oppose contemplation and action, prayer and the apostolate, the service of God and the service of the Church.
She who had carried so far confidence and abandonment never ceased to multiply her own most concrete and generous efforts.
It is because of this confidence and fidelity that God could communicate the plenitude of His own life that transformed her soul and opened it to the dimensions of infinite Love.
From the beginning of her religious life, Theresa, like a true daughter of Elias, is devoured with apostolic ardor. Was it not love for souls, especially for the souls of priests, that she came to Carmel?
To save souls she would have liked to have fulfilled all vocations. She would have liked to have been preacher, apostle, missionary, martyr.
Yet it was only after she had offered herself to the divine outpouring and surrendered herself to merciful Love that she discovered the vocation God destined for her.
"I understand that love includes all vocations. I realize that all my desires are fulfilled. I have found my vocation. In the heart of the Church, my mother, I will be love."
It was only then, too, that her vocation reached its full apostolic dimension and revealed its limitless fruitfulness. In fact, henceforth, Theresa was to think and to speak only in universal terms:
"I shall spend my heaven in doing good upon earth".
"Yes, until the number of the elect shall be complete, I shall take no rest".
Just as blood flows from the heart and moves with life-giving power into every part of the whole body, so this apostolic spirit springs from the love that possesses her and extends to the whole Church.
"From her little cell, as from a broadcasting station, wonderful waves escape night and day. The souls whom they reach are unaware of their origin. They merely murmur: 'Someone has prayed for me.'"
Theresa has given us the secret of this outpouring of love and its apostolic fruitfulness: her love is crucified. In offering herself to merciful Love, she gave herself up without any reserve to trial and suffering which from this moment mark her life as with a seal. From the day that
"love penetrated and possessed her"
suffering seized her as if she were its prey. The victim offered in holocaust had been accepted. Love was to consume her body, by a most painful illness, and her soul, by a terrible trial:
"A wall rose up to heaven and hid God from me".
"O Mother, I did not believe that it was possible to suffer so much… I can only explain it by my very great desire to save souls".
But knowing that God had never before shown her so much love and that such trials also made it possible to prove her love for Him, Theresa accepted them with heroic generosity and even with joy.
"I would not want to suffer less.
"She offered her sufferings for souls until the last ounce of her strength:
"I walk… for a missionary".
Before departure she gave us not only the assurance of a wonderfully efficacious help:
"Because I never did my will on earth, the good God will do all that I want in heaven", but she told us how she was able to realize her contemplative and missionary vocation in all its fullness:
"I do not regret having surrendered myself to Love".
When we look at the life of Saint Theresa of the Child Jesus we are struck by its simplicity and wonderful transparency. We are amazed to discover through her, not only the purest Gospel teaching but Christ Himself. We also notice that the unity of her spiritual life is unique and profound. In fact all her words, acts, sufferings, life and death are of a piece, yield the same tone and are proof of an equal plenitude. Like her Master, Theresa is true, and also like Him, her person and her message are one.
It must also be noticed that the Christian instinct was not deceived. In search of a spirituality that is adapted to life and is livable men turned to Saint Theresa. Not the least original thing about this cloistered religious who died at the age of twenty-four was that she has given to our times the most
and at the same time the most supernatural doctrine that there is. Transcendence and immanence. Her life prolongs the message of the Gospel in our midst. This, no doubt, is the reason that devotion to her, surprisingly enough, was not limited by the boundaries of France but became worldwide, truly universal, because her spirit is truly Catholic.
Saint Theresa brought a maximum of depth and supernatural efficacy to spiritual life. She is as apostolic as she is contemplative, and that with a minimum of means.
"Purely and simply", she succeeded in being both.
It is not only our utilitarian age (and this is true even in spiritual matters)
that is conscious of her success, it is Christian life in general which has been enriched by a new way leading to sanctity, a way as quick and sure as it is evangelical.
If Saint Theresa received from Carmelite spirituality a great part of the wealth she used--and they are forgetful who fail to connect her with her
or who minimize what she owes it--she knew how to increase her heritage. She offers us a style of spiritual life that is so detached, so simply reduced to the essential, so supple in its absolute surrender to love, so generous in the gift to the Church and to her brothers. She made her life a reality that is so near to us and so lived in God, that to breathe the fragrance of this flower of Carmel is to breathe the fragrance of eternal life.
Letter of September 14, 1896.
Letter of May 15, 1897 to Father Roulland.
"Novissima verba, p. 125 etc.
Extract of a circular letter from Lisieux signed by R. M. Agnes, February 17, 1924.
Extract from a letter of Sister Marie de l'Eucharistie to M. Guerin, August 7, 1897.
"Story of a Soul,"
Ibid., p. 5.
Letter of May 9, 1897.
"Story of a Soul"
Counsels and Souvenirs.
ABBE THELLIER DE PONCHEVILLE.