On Spiritual Childhood

by Kilian McGowan, C. P.

Our blessed Lord loves the Church He founded with an infinite love. Prompted by this love, His wise providence provides for and oversees all its needs. An ever-present need of the Church is for holiness, -- and not in the abstract -- but as seen in the living personality of the human being. Thus, in each age, He raises various members of His Church to the heroic love of sainthood -- but in accord with the needs of the age.

For example: at the turn of the fourth century He gave Augustine, a great philosopher and theologian, to combat the heresies of that time. As the Roman Empire crumbled, He raised up Benedict, the great organizer and founder of the Benedictines, whose thousands of monasteries throughout the Empire formed the nucleus of a Christian life and culture. In the 12th and 13th centuries, Dominic and Francis of Assisi appeared to preach the blessedness of the evangelical counsels, to exhibit the simplicity and power of the Gospel way-of-life.

In the 16th century, Ignatius and his spiritual light militia fought the battles of the Church. In the 17th century, Francis De Sales proved that the devout life is for the home and the court as well as for the convent and the monastery. Finally, among the jewels of holiness adorning His twentieth century Church, we discover that brilliant gem called "The Little Flower."

"The World Will Love Me"

This saint who died before the completion of her 25th year has made some amazing prophecies:

"I shall come down . . . I shall go quickly all around the world" . . . and "the world will love me."

These are surprising words for a young, unknown, 20-year-old girl stuck away in a small convent in a corner of France. But the amazing fact is that they were valid prophecies -- because all have taken place!

St Therese of LisieuxApparently, she is spending her heaven doing good upon earth, for no sooner had she died, scores of miracles happened at her intercession. Quickly, she sped about relieving every illness of the soul and body. She has made her kindness and love for souls felt in the deepest depths of the African jungle, in the Arctic wastes, in Europe, Asia and South America. Little Thérèse is known to the Moslem as well as the Christian. She is prayed to in every dialect in the world. Her "Autobiography" has been translated into a great number of languages, The merciful rain of her "shower of roses" continues to fall on the world.

There must be some reason why St. Thérèse is so universally beloved. In the fascinating catalog of God's saints, why is it that she stands out with such brilliance and appeal? I think it's because she emphasized, in her own life, "the common denominator of holiness"; that she reduced the art of becoming a saint to its simplest terms; that she courageously discarded anything accidental to holiness.

Pope Pius X called her "the greatest saint of modern times." Pope Benedict XV extolled the sanctifying power of her way of spiritual childhood. Pope Pius XI successively proclaimed her: "Patroness of the Missions," "Patroness of Carmelite Novices," "Protectress of Russia and Mexico," "Herald of the new message of holiness" and "Star of his pontificate." Finally, the personal devotion of Pope Pius XII to the Little Flower is well-known.

She is indeed a favorite child of the Holy Fathers, as well as the whole world. The amazing prophecy that "the world will love me" has come true.

Discovery of the "Little Way"

Let's first consider how she discovered her special way to sainthood.

Ever since Thérèse had knelt in spirit at the feet of Jesus and listened to His invitation in the Sermon on the Mount: "Be you perfect as your Father is perfect," there was born in her a consuming desire for Christian perfection. From her earliest years she longed for the heights of holiness.

Seeking the shortest and easiest way to this goal, she carefully studied the works of some spiritual authors. But she failed to find the road she was seeking. These learned treatises, presenting so many obstacles to perfection, "tired my poor head" and "dried up my heart," as she wrote in her "Story of a Soul."

She turned to the Holy Spirit for guidance. Finding the stairway to perfection (at least as described by some authors) too steep for someone so small and weak, she asked for an elevator to Heaven.

She found the answer to her prayer in the Sacred Scriptures. Opening the Book of Wisdom, her eyes fell on these lines: "If anyone is very small, let him come to me."

Further on in the Gospels she read in St.Matthew (18:3) "Unless you become converted and become as little children, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven;" and "for such is the kingdom of God." (Mk 10:34)

Here it was! This is what her heart had been seeking. This discovery was the turning point in the life of Thérèse! It marked the beginning of the development of her "little way" -- "an entirely new way" which would bring her and so many thousands of "little" souls to union with God.

She then proceeded to work out the principles of spiritual childhood into every phase of her life. Her message is a rediscovery of what our Lord had preached in the Gospel. But perhaps never since our divine Teacher first preached that inspiring doctrine has this way been preached in so appealing a manner.

Let's analyse the "Little Way to Spiritual Childhood" -- pointing out the essential characteristics.

No Extraordinary Mortifications

There were no great penances in the life of the "Little Flower." Nevertheless, she had a great spirit of self-denial. The average Catholic usually associates holiness with the practice of every kind of frightening mortification. The saint, to them, is a person who rarely sleeps or eats -- a person who never gives one's poor body a decent break -- one who does the very best to take all the joy out of life. Anyone who fails to measure up to this standard is considered hardly fit for the honors of the altar.

Saint Thérèse had a great attraction for penance. Still, she courageously avoided what she called "the macerations of the saints." She not only was opposed to them, she even suspected them, believing that there is a strong element of self-will and self-choice in them.

There was a time when Thérèse sought an outlet for her spirit of mortification in certain little practices (studded iron cross). But when these resulted in sickness, she realized it was not intended to be a part of her "little way." She resolutely put them aside.

Saint Thérèse was attracted to penance, but she firmly avoided the extreme penances of some of the saints. She concentrated her desire for penance in the mortification of her self-love, which, as she put it, "did me more good than bodily penance . . . the unlooked-for mortification seems to me safer and more sanctifying" and "I went to war against myself in the spiritual domain of self-denial and little hidden sacrifices. I found humility and peace in this hidden combat in which selfish nature can get no hold." These and other quotations indicate the simplicity and good sense of her spirit of penance.

In fact, as her sister, Mother Agnes, remarked, "I saw her practice mortification with ever-increasing simplicity and moderation as she approached the end of her life." Thérèse feared any penance that would preoccupy her and cause her to be prevented from applying herself to God.

And so, Thérèse founded the "asceticism of littleness." When the Church canonized her, she canonized her doctrine. This declared to the world that the asceticism of littleness is no less productive of holiness than the extreme asceticism of other great saints.

No Unusual Mystical Phenomena

The second characteristic we discover in the life of Saint Thérèse is the lack of the remarkable gifts so abundant in the lives of so many of God's saints. Search as we will through the "Autobiography," there is little evidence of mystical graces such as visions, revelations, stigmata, appearances of the saints, the power of prophecy, miracle-working, or even of the devil.

This was surely in contrast with St. Teresa of Avila who could fall as easily into an ecstasy in the kitchen or the recreation room, the chapel or in her cell -- who was gifted with visions of Christ crucified, favored with the grace of spiritual marriage with Christ, and even 'tasted' the presence of the adorable Trinity in her soul, enjoying a foretaste of Heaven.

But none of this for the creative genius of the way of spiritual childhood. The Divine Vine-Dresser trimmed to utter simplicity the vine of her holiness, fashioning it on simple and essential lines. He purged from her life the accidentals of sanctity, so that the essence of her holiness would stand in greater relief.

There were just a few such gifts, such as the vision of Mary, the flame of love, and the ecstasy of her death -- graces such as are found in many ordinary lives.

Her life is the living expression of the words of St. Paul: "Faith that finds its expression in love is all that matters." (Gal 5:6) Thérèse realized the dangers of these free gifts of God -- how they could encourage vanity and pride in souls. So she wrote, "to all ecstasies I prefer the monotony of obscure sacrifice." Only the spiritually immature seek holiness in the novel and the extraordinary.

No Method of Prayer

The third outstanding characteristic of Thérèse is the lack of a method of prayer. This will surely come as a note of encouragement to those who have great difficulty in fitting their thoughts and aspirations into a methodical groove.

What a contrast are her few simple yet fundamental ideas on prayer as compared with the writing of St. Theresa (of Avila) in her treatise called "The Seven Mansions."

She knew the treatises of St. John of the Cross, her only spiritual reading diet for two solid years. And she had read and re-read all the writings of her spiritual mother, Teresa of Avila. Yet, the confident, child-like surges of her soul toward her heavenly Father could not be confined within the framework of methodical prayer.

Even as a child, when her father would speak to her of the great feasts of the Liturgy, she would recline on the grass and become absorbed in meditation. Before she even knew what meditation was, her soul was absorbed in real prayer. Later, in her holiday from school, she often retired to her room and there gave herself to serious thought on God, on shortness of life, on eternity, etc.

While attending Mass at school, she often found difficulty in following the dialogue Mass because some passage would carry her soul into deep contemplative prayer. Realizing that the the essential worth of prayer was derived from the faith and love that animated it, rather than the multiplication of the prayers themselves, she had a positive horror for novelties in prayers and devotions.

Her favorites were the Divine Office, the 'Our Father' and the 'Hail Mary.' This last statement is true especially of her years in the convent, at a time when she was habitually dry at prayer -- when, as she said, "The Gospels above all help me at prayer. There I find everything that my poor soul needs."

Prayer is essentially the loving conversation of a faithful child with one's heavenly Father. Thérèse's concept of prayer is best summed up in her own words: "I act like a child who cannot read. I just say what I want to say to God, quietly, simply, and He never fails to understand."

No Remarkable Actions

The fourth characteristic of the way of spiritual childhood is the absence of remarkable actions. Again, Thérèse stands out in stark contrast with so many of God's saints, mighty in word and deed.

There was no achievement in the realm of knowledge as with St. Augustine and St. Thomas. No marvelous preaching embellished by miracles as with St. Vincent Ferrer. No pagan multitudes drawn to the knowledge and love of Christ as through the missionary work of Francis Xavier. No delightful array of miracles as with St. Anthony the Wonderworker.

Then, what did she do that was so saintly? There is surely nothing very spectacular in her duties mentioned in her "Story of a Soul." She was successively the laundress, refectorian, sacristan, portress, and finally a sub-mistress of novices.

If one were to judge the exterior alone, her life was above all, commonplace. But in a world so eager for display and show, she established 'the primacy of being over doing' and of 'much loving over much ado about nothing.' She proved that true greatness is found in the quiet fidelity of a life entirely consecrated to God and the performance of His Will.

This fact will appeal above all to those souls who must unravel the actions of their lives from the spool of ordinary events.

"Do not imagine," Thérèse told her novices repeatedly, "that to become perfect it is necessary to do great things . . . Our Lord needs neither remarkable deeds or beautiful thoughts . . . So it is neither intellect nor talent that He seeks here below . . . He loves simplicity . . . Even the greatest works are of no value without love."

That last word strikes the keynote of her great holiness: -- love alone constitutes our perfection -- love alone is within the reach of everyone! As St. Thérèse put it: "To love, to be loved, and to return to earth to make Love loved."

Nature of Spiritual Childhood

Having reviewed these four characteristics of Thérèse of Liseux's holiness, we can study the basic principle determining the nature of spiritual childhood.

As the name suggests, the soul of her spirituality is the "spirit of childhood in all our dealings with God." (Pope Pius XI) This is the essence of the "little way, entirely new."

This was the fundamental idea dominating the Sermon of Jesus on the Mount. This idea became a prayer when Jesus taught us the "Our Father." This idea determined the course of the life of Thérèse -- to live in intimacy with God as with the soul of a child.

To think as a child . . . She realized with the intuition of her penetrating faith that in the heart of our heavenly Father there is only mercy and love. She took the words of the Lord at face value, and deliberately sought out in Scripture those texts emphasizing the mercy and merciful love of God. When she made her oblation of love, it was not to the justice of God, but as victim of the merciful Love.

To act as a child . . . Then she practiced the characteristic virtues of a child. As Pope Pius XI wrote concerning spiritual childhood: "It consists in thinking and acting under the influence of grace as a child thinks and acts."

As God's mercy demands our nothingness and weakness as an essential complement, Thérèse lived her life permeated with the consciousness of her own nothingness and God's all-ness.

Our Lord has told us "Learn of Me for I am meek and humble of heart" and "Without Me you can do nothing." Humility, therefore, provides a firm foundation for the edifice of spiritual childhood.

Thérèse actually rejoiced in her imperfections and weakness. She wished to be ignored and forgotten.

Having abandoned herself completely to merciful Love, the past she threw upon the mercy of God and the future she placed in the hands of His Providence. Then she simply and confidently concerned herself with the loving performance of His Will as manifested in the duties of the present moment.

There was no useless or paralyzing preoccupation with self -- no anxiety or demoralizing fears. Each moment brought her God and what God desired from her in return. Every moment brought her God, His Will, His grace and His reward. And at every moment she returned her attention, her faith, her love.

As one of her novices later wrote: "Sister Thérèse knew how to transform all her actions into acts of love -- even the most indifferent ones." The secret of her great success is summed up in one sentence she spoke shortly before her death: "I have never given God anything but love!"

And this is the fundamental law of her spirituality of the Christian life. This doctrine makes the heights of Christian perfection available to all in every walk of life.

Holiness does not consist in great penances or extraordinary mortifications. It is not found in visions or ecstacies. It is not proved by remarkable achievements. Rather, it's achieved by the unswerving and loving accomplishments of our commonplace daily duties and tasks.

The measure of our holiness is the measure of our love of God. And the fundamental drive of all our activity should be -- in Thérèse of Liseux's own words -- "To please God and to save souls for Him!"

Kilian McGowan, C.P. was founding editor of the Passionists Compassion and edited the magazine until his death in July, 1998.

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