Monday, October 15, 2012

St. Therese of Liseux: Littleness is Greatness

"'Remaining little" means--to recognize one's nothingness, to await everything from the Goodness of God, to avoid being too much troubled at our faults; finally, not to worry over amassing spiritual riches, not be solicitous about anything. Even amongst the poor, while a child is still small, he is given what is necessary; but, once he is grown up, his father will no longer feed him, and tells him to seek work and support himself. Well, it was to avoid hearing this, that I never wished to grow up, for I feel incapable of earning my livelihood, which is Life Eternal!" 
St. Therese of Liseux


The 2000 year history of the Catholic Church is filled with stories of great saints who lived heroic lives, giving everything they had for our Lord and His Church, starting with the apostles who all, with the exception of St. John, died as martyrs.  Our first pope, St. Peter, not only gladly accepted the death of crucifixion, he demanded that the cross be turned upside down because he did not feel worthy to be crucified in the same way as our Lord.

There is St. Ignatius, who died in 107 A.D. when he was thrown to the lions.  St. Ignatius was 72 years old when he was thrown into the lion's den.  The amazing part of his story is that this is what he wanted.  He begged the Church to do nothing to prevent this, and he prayed that the lions' mouths would not be stopped as they often were in the cases of other Christians.  In a 2007 general audience on St. Ignatius of Antioch, Pope Benedict XVI observed that “no Church Father has expressed the longing for union with Christ and for life in him with the intensity of Ignatius.”

Sts. Thomas Moore and John Fisher
At the time of King Henry VIII, there is, of course, St. Thomas Moore who, as Lord Chancellor of England, refused to condone the King's adulterous relationship with Anne Boleyn.  All of the Catholic bishops in England, with the exception of John Fisher, gave their approval to this immoral act by the King and accepted Henry VIII when he declared himself as Supreme Head of the Church of England.  Both Thomas Moore and John Fisher were beheaded for their courage to stand up for the faith of the Church.  St. John Fisher was executed on June 22, the feast of the martyrdom of John the Baptist, who was also beheaded by a king.  From Wikipedia:
Fisher's last moments were thoroughly in keeping with his previous life. He met death with a calm dignified courage which profoundly impressed those present. His body was treated with particular rancour, apparently on Henry's orders, being stripped and left on the scaffold until the evening, when it was taken on pikes and thrown naked into a rough grave in the churchyard of All Hallows' Barking, also known as All Hallows-by-the-Tower. There was no funeral prayer. A fortnight later, his body was laid beside that of Sir Thomas More in the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula within the Tower of London. Fisher's head was stuck upon a pole on London Bridge but its ruddy and lifelike appearance excited so much attention that, after a fortnight, it was thrown into the Thames, its place being taken by that of Sir Thomas More, whose martyrdom, also at Tower Hill, occurred on 6 July.
In our own time there is St. Maximilian Kolbe, who was born in 1894 in Poland and became a priest at the time of the rise of fascism in Europe.  Moralheroes.org tells us:
After becoming an ordained priest, Maximilian returned to the newly independent Poland where he produced more publications, hosted a radio station and founded the monastery of Niepokalanów near Warsaw. Then, in the early 1930’s Kolbe traveled abroad and founded a seminary and a monastery on the outskirts of Nagasaki, Japan. Maximilian especially became popular with the non-catholic population because he respected their national customs, published in their language and instructed the friars to look for and celebrate the good elements even in the systems they believed were evil. The monastery they built would serve as a safe-haven and hospital less than a decade later when the atomic bomb decimated Nagasaki.

Before returning to Poland, Kolbe had traveled to India to set up another monastery and to Russia to learn the language and publish news in Russian. When the Germans invaded in 1939, Maximilian knew that Niepokalanów would be taken over and sent most of the friars home with a warning to avoid joining the armed resistance. Sure enough, the monastery was ransacked and father Kolbe and the remaining 40 friars were transferred to a German holding camp. Four months later, they would be released and returned to Niepokalanów.

Upon their return, the monastery became a refugee camp for thousands of Poles and a hiding place for 2,000 Jews. Though they had little in supplies and meager portions, the friars shared everything they had and gained a reputation of true brotherhood. The German Gestapo soon became suspicious of the monastery and Father Maximilian.
Father Kolbe was eventually captured and imprisoned by the Nazis in the Auschwitz concentration camp.  His greatest act of heroism came when one prisoner went missing and they thought he had escaped from the camp (it was later discovered he had drowned in the latrine).  The rule was that if there was an escape, ten men would be executed.  One of the men chosen to be executed begged for his life, saying he was a married man with children.  St. Maximilian Kolbe stepped forward and volunteered to take the man's place.  The Nazis gladly accepted the chance to kill a Catholic priest.  From Moralheroes.org:
Maximilian Kolbe and the 9 other men were thrown into the starvation bunker. To ease their suffering, Kolbe led the men in songs and prayers each day. Eventually, the men began to die and after two weeks only four remained. Needing the cell for more victims, the remaining four were injected with a lethal dose of carbolic acid on August 14, 1941. Bruno Borgowiec, one of the men stationed in the starvation bunker recalls that Maximilian was the only person conscious during the injection. He shocked those watching when he raised his arm for the injection and prayed for the executioner.
Franciszek Gajowniczek
The man whose life was spared, Franciszek Gajowniczek, was at the canonization of St. Maximilian Kolbe in 1982.  He lived until 1995, dying at the age of 95. 

Also from Poland and living at this same time as St. Maximilian Kolbe was a Jewish convert who became a Carmelite nun, Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, known as Edith Stein before taking her religious vows.  But even though she converted, the Nazis still saw her as a Jew and killed her in Auschwitz on August 9, 1942, one year after St. Maximilian Kolbe was killed.  Also living in Poland at the same time as St. Maximilian Kolbe and Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross was St. Faustina, born in 1905 and dying of tuberculosis at the young age of 33 years in 1938.  St. Faustina was a humble little nun of the order of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy to whom our Lord appeared and gave the great message of divine mercy.

Edith Stein a/k/a
Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross
These are just a couple of examples of the thousands and thousands of great saints of the Catholic Church and their stories.  Most of us look at these saints and feel completely awed and overwhelmed.  I, for one, look at them and say I can't even handle a headache.  How could I ever find the courage to stand up when threatened with a torturous death? How can I ever develop the kind of faith and heroic virtue I see in these great saints?

Well, I got my answer just recently from one of our most beloved saints, St. Therese of Liseux, known as The Little Flower.  I finally read "The Story of A Soul," St. Therese's autobiography, which I have been putting off for years, much to my detriment.  We recently celebrated St. Therese's feast day, and I decided it was time I read her story.  In actual fact, I did not read this.  I downloaded it for free from librivox.org and listened to it.  Just as an aside, I cannot recommend this site highly enough.  It is filled with audios of the great classics, including many great spiritual books, and you can download them all for free.  I listened to this when I was doing chores around the apartment, while I was commuting or walking to the store, etc.  We don't always have time to just sit down and read, and this is the next best thing.  I finished this book in just a few days time.

Back to our story. 

"Above all, let us be little--so little
that everyone might tread us
underfoot without our even
 seeming to suffer pain."
The Little Flower
St. Therese was a Carmelite nun who lived what most would deem an obscure, uneventful life.  Therese was born in 1873 to very pious parents.  Her mother died when Therese was only 4 years old.  She entered the order of the Carmelites at age 15 and died at the young age of 24, never leaving the Carmelite monastery.  Yet, she is a patron saint of Catholic missions, and is known and loved around the world.  She is a doctor of the church and considered one of our very greatest saints.  Despite the fact that she did no visibly great deeds as compared with other saints, St. Therese lived a life that was as heroic as any of the great saints.  But it was quiet and understated, and no one really knew.  St. Therese never founded any monasteries, she did not stand up against evil governments, she was not a great martyr or missionary, at least not in the classical sense as we define it. But she approached life in a humble, sacrificial way that equals the greatest of heroic virtue and which she described as her "little way."  Catholic Online explains what the "little way" means:
[St. Therese] didn't want to just be good, she wanted to be a saint. She thought there must be a way for people living hidden, little lives like hers. "I have always wanted to become a saint. Unfortunately when I have compared myself with the saints, I have always found that there is the same difference between the saints and me as there is between a mountain whose summit is lost in the clouds and a humble grain of sand trodden underfoot by passers-by. [Oh, how I can relate to that!] Instead of being discouraged, I told myself: God would not make me wish for something impossible and so, in spite of my littleness, I can aim at being a saint. It is impossible for me to grow bigger, so I put up with myself as I am, with all my countless faults. But I will look for some means of going to heaven by a little way which is very short and very straight, a little way that is quite new.

"We live in an age of inventions. We need no longer climb laboriously up flights of stairs; in well-to-do houses there are lifts. And I was determined to find a lift to carry me to Jesus, for I was far too small to climb the steep stairs of perfection. So I sought in holy
Scripture some idea of what this life I wanted would be, and I read these words: "Whosoever is a little one, come to me." It is your arms, Jesus, that are the lift to carry me to heaven. And so there is no need for me to grow up: I must stay little and become less and less."

She worried about her vocation: " I feel in me the vocation of the Priest. I have the vocation of the Apostle. Martyrdom was the dream of my youth and this dream has grown with me. Considering the mystical body of the Church, I desired to see myself in them all. Charity gave me the key to my vocation. I understood that the Church had a Heart and that this Heart was burning with love. 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!"
This past Sunday I was talking with a good and holy priest who told me that it is very dangerous spiritually to become "great."  "Greatness", as the world defines it, leaves us wide open for pride to enter in and destroy us.  We see "our" accomplishments and instead of trusting in Jesus, we start trusting in ourselves, which is spiritually deadly.  He gave the example of the Virgin Mary, who was chosen to become the Mother of God.  He said if she had had one speck of sin when chosen as the Mother of God, the greatest calling of any human being, it could have destroyed her because of the danger of pride. 

St. Therese addressed this issue when she said:  "Honours are always dangerous.  What poisonous food is served daily to those in high positions!  What deadly fumes of incense!  A soul must be well detached from herself to pass unscathed through it all."  There are not many for whom honours and greatness are not dangerous.  St. Therese warns us not to seek out honor and greatness.  That can destroy our souls.

The Little Flower tells us that to become saints, we must "stay little and become less and less."  This is exactly what our Blessed Mother did when she said, "My soul does magnify the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, For He has regarded the low estate of His handmaiden."  St. Therese gives wonderful examples of little martrydoms from her own life.  Here is an excerpt from her book, which I think all of us can relate to:
The practice of charity has not always been so pleasant as I have just pointed out, dear Mother, and to prove it I will recount some of my many struggles.

For a long time my place at meditation was near a Sister who fidgeted continually, either with her Rosary, or something else; possibly, as I am very quick of hearing, I alone heard her, but I cannot tell you how much it tried me. I should have liked to turn round, and by looking at the offender, make her stop the noise; but in my heart I knew that I ought to bear it tranquilly, both for the love of God and to avoid giving pain. So I kept quiet, but the effort cost me so much that sometimes I was bathed in perspiration, and my meditation consisted merely in suffering with patience. After a time I tried to endure it in peace and joy, at least deep down in my soul, and I strove to take actual pleasure in the disagreeable little noise. Instead of trying not to hear it, which was impossible, I set myself to listen, as though it had been some delightful music, and my meditation—which was not the “prayer of quiet”—was passed in offering this music to Our Lord.

Another time I was working in the laundry, and the Sister opposite, while washing handkerchiefs, repeatedly splashed me with dirty water. My first impulse was to draw back and wipe my face, to show the offender I should be glad if she would behave more quietly; but the next minute I thought how foolish it was to refuse the treasures God offered me so generously, and I refrained from betraying my annoyance. On the contrary, I made such efforts to welcome the shower of dirty water, that at the end of half an hour I had taken quite a fancy to this novel kind of aspersion, and I resolved to come as often as I could to the happy spot where such treasures were freely bestowed.

Dear Mother, you see that I am a very little soul, who can only offer very little things to Our Lord. It still happens that I frequently let slip the occasion of these slender sacrifices, which bring so much peace, but this does not discourage me; I bear the loss of a little peace, and I try to be more watchful for the future.

St. Therese is telling us that life is constantly offering us opportunities to make sacrifices and grow in sanctity, and it is important that we be open to these opportunities and take advantage of them. She said, "Believe me, the writing of pious books, the composing of the sublimest poetry, all that does not equal the small act of self-denial."

"Since I have abandoned all thought
of self-seeking, I lived the
happiest life possible."
Are we willing to put up with someone's fidgeting or be willing to have dirty water splashed in our faces and not complain as St. Therese did?  These are daily martyrdoms that we can all make a part of our lives.  When someone cuts you off in traffic, your immediate reaction might be to let the person know what a jerk he is in no uncertain terms.  St. Therese says sanctity means to just accept it and offer it up to our Lord.  Think of our Lord who accepted the slaps and curses from his Roman torturers without a word or complaint, or even our Blessed Mother who stood at the foot of the Cross and watched the unjust execution of her Son with no bitterness or anger towards those involved.  In our world today people are ready to sue one another at the slightest insult.  We all have our "rights".  The world looks at the command of our Lord to "turn the other cheek" as a sign of weakness, when in actuality, it takes great strength to do this.  It is strength that we do not have within ourselves but that which we must receive from the Lord. 

As part of her littleness, St. Therese emphasized that we must always take responsibility for our actions or inactions, as the case may be.  She said:  "When we are guilty of a fault we must never attribute it to some physical cause, such as illness or the weather.  We must ascribe it to our own imperfections, without being discouraged thereby.  'Occasions do not make a man frail, but show what he is.' [From "Imitation of Christ."]


"Littleness" is another word for humility.  Humility does not mean thinking less of ourselves than we are.  It means seeing ourselves as we really are:  sinful human beings, filled with pride and self love, in desperate need of a Saviour.  The antidote to sin is humility, loving God and others so much that we are willing to take offense and put ourselves in the lower place.  From The Little Flower:
"The one thing which is not open to envy is the lowest place. Here alone, therefore, there is neither vanity nor affliction of spirit. Yet, 'the way of man is not his own,' and sometimes we find ourselves wishing for what dazzles. In that hour let us in all humility take our place among the imperfect, and look upon ourselves as little souls who at every instant need to be upheld by the goodness of God. From the moment He sees us fully convinced of our nothingness, and hears us cry out: 'My foot stumbles, Lord, but Thy Mercy is my strength,' He reaches out His Hand to us.

But, should we attempt great things, even under pretext of zeal, He deserts us. It suffices, therefore, to humble ourselves, to bear with meekness our imperfections. Herein lies--for us--true holiness."
"This is the one I esteem: he who is
humble and contrite in spirit,
and trembles at my word." Isaiah 66:2
One common denominator you will find among all saints is humility.  None of them placed confidence in themselves.  None of them looked for greatness.  In fact, the only reason they achieved what we call "greatness" is because they were not looking for it.  All of their energies and thoughts were directed heavenward.  St. Faustina, through whom we were given Divine Mercy, worked as a doorkeeper and in the kitchen, both very lowly jobs.  St. Padre Pio, one of the greatest saints of the 20th Century, is a wonderful example of humility.  In 1922, false accusations were made against St. Padre Pio, and he had restrictions placed upon him and his ministry.  He was exiled  to San Giovanni Rotondo because it was considered remote and isolated.  From 1931 to 1933 he, the greatest confessor of our time, was forbidden to perform any of his priestly duties except for the celebration of Mass, and that was to be done only in private.  He took this calmly and without complaint, waiting patiently upon our Lord.  Finally, in 1933, Pope Pius XI realized what a great injustice had been done and reversed this ban on Padre Pio.  But if St. Padre Pio had protested and loudly proclaimed his innocence, it is possible our Lord would have never used him as he did. 

Our Lord can only use those who are humble, who realize their "littleness" and total dependence upon Him who gives us life.  At the same time, don't think you can be "humble" just by willing it.  This is a spiritual virtue which comes as one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit.

We should also realize that humility does not mean to be a wallflower and hide out from the world.  Our Lord told that a candle is not to be hidden under a bushel basket.  We must let the light we receive from the Holy Spirit shine through us. 

I have emphasized the smallness of The Little Flower's way, but it is this very smallness which will lead to the greatness of the saints, a greatness that points to God and never to ourselves. But although our Lord may use us to do great things, we must always remain little in our own sight. The only greatness we can ever look to is the love of Jesus Christ in us. Here is a wonderful definition of humility from Father Nicolás Schwizer as found on catholic.net:
Humility as smallness and greatness  Humility contains two life sentiments which are apparently in opposition: smallness and greatness. Whoever only experiences his own smallness will in the long run fall into an inferiority complex. On the contrary, whoever only experiences his own greatness will become proud and presumptuous. In Mary, the human being par excellence, there is the perfect equilibrium: within herself she feels small, but at the same time, she feels loved and exalted by God.
Humility as greatness is, then, to feel accepted, valued and loved by the Father. It is the resting in God which gives us security. It is the experience which tranquilizes our hearts and permits us to accept smallness and limitations without anxiety. We can feel loved and, therefore, great and important in the eyes of God.
Humility as smallness is to accept ourselves as limited and sinful creatures before the perfect and holy God. Thus Saint Teresa says that humility is truth. The authentic man finds himself well when he is truthful: it is the spontaneity of the person who has nothing to hide, it is the spontaneity of the child.
Therefore, humility is not hiding one’s own talents. The Biblical ideal of meekness is not the same as a lack of personality; patience is not cowardice and passivism; smallness and simplicity is not mediocrity. When Jesus speaks of those who are “afflicted and troubled” He is not referring to sick melancholy.

If we do not wrap our minds around the true humility, we will never be truly free people. On the contrary, hiding our own personalities, being cowards, adepts of mediocrity, and irresponsibly permissive will easily push us into psychological problems and even a physiological ones.
Father Schwizer concludes with this:
If I do not give importance to myself and only give it to God the Father and his work, then he gives importance to me. The less importance I give to myself, the more I am important to Him. It is the mystery of authentic childlikeness: because I am small, I please God the Father; because I am small, therefore, I am great.
Our Lord said, "He who seeks to save his life shall lose it.  He who loses his life for my sake shall find it."  (Matthew 10:39).  Jesus also said, "The first shall be last, the last shall be first."  (Matthew 20:16).  We can also say, he who seeks to be great will be made small and unimportant.  He who seeks to be humble and small shall be made great. 

The priest I was talking to yesterday said in his sermon that every encounter with Christ leads us to be more human.  That is what Father Schwizer means when he says, "The authentic man finds himself well when he is truthful: it is the spontaneity of the person who has nothing to hide, it is the spontaneity of the child."  Pride means hiding our true selves, only letting others and even ourselves see what we want them to see.  When we are prideful, we are presenting a false self and as a result, there is no love.  When we are humble, when we are authentic and truthful both to ourselves and to God, then we are most fully human, as our Lord was.
Do you not understand that to love Jesus and to be His Victim of Love, the more weak and wretched we are the better material do we make for this consuming and transfiguring Love? . . . The simple desire to be a Victim suffices, but we must also consent to ever remain poor and helpless, and here lies the difficulty: "Where shall we find one that is truly poor in spirit? We must seek him afar off," says the author of the Imitation [of Christ]. He does not say that we must search among great souls, but "afar off"-- that is to say, in abasement and in nothingness. Let us remain far from all that dazzles, loving our littleness, and content to have no joy. Then we shall be truly poor in spirit and Jesus will come to seek us however far off we may be, and transform us into flames of Love.
St. Therese of Liseux

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