Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Little Way Of Love

I recently started to re-read Saint Thérèse of Lisieux's autobiography, "Story of a Soul." I love this book for so many reasons. This great saint's theology is as profound as any that of any other saint in Church history, and at the same time this Doctor of the Church writes with utter simplicity and clarity. One of the main reasons I love her book is that, like her namesake, St. Teresa of Avila, she allows the reader to get completely into her mind and see life exactly as she saw it. She hides nothing. She allows us to see all of her inner struggles and fears. There were two goals in St. Thérèse's writings: to glorify God and to bring salvation to others.

In the eyes of the world, St. Thérèse was as perfect as any human being could be. Even her confessor declared that she had never committed a mortal sin. Once she was baptized, she was on the road to heaven and never deviated from that path. 

 And yet, her autobiography tells the story of a tortured soul, living often in great fear and anxiety, constantly at war with herself. Ironically, it was the realization of  her spiritual failings that actually gave her peace of mind:
"How happy I am to realize that I am little and weak, how happy I am to see myself so imperfect"

This statement makes no sense to a world that celebrates only the biggest and the best, and even many who call themselves Christian will see little logic in rejoicing in imperfection.  Just recently I heard a person who identifies as a "traditional Catholic" reject the little way of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux because she was too "mousey."  This person wants to follow someone who is more of a "take charge" leader.  This person shows a lack of understanding of what it means to follow Jesus Christ.

There are thousands, maybe millions or even billions, of beliefs and philosophies in the world. People are attracted to one form of belief or another because they feel it will bring them peace and happiness and/or gain the approval and applause of others. We all want to ultimately feel good about ourselves. just like Al Franken's character, Stuart Smalley:

Christianity will ultimately lead to eternal happiness and bliss beyond anything we as mortal humans can even imagine.  But to get there, we have to follow the Founder of Christianity - Jesus Christ - and His road is that of suffering and self denial.

St. Paul described this in Philippians 3:8-11:
Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God depends on faith; that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his suffering, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead 
Ironically, the more you grow in the knowledge of Jesus Christ, the more you desire to follow Him, the more you will become aware of your sinfulness and how totally incapable you are of attaining that goal of spiritual perfection.  As St. Paul wrote in Romans 7:14-15:
We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.  do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.
The truth is, Jesus Christ has called us to do the impossible - to overcome our sinful natures.  But as St. Thérèse taught us, once we admit to Jesus Christ and even more importantly, once we admit to ourselves that we are sinners without hope, that is when Christ can give us all that we lack.  But it is a hard road, and even though our sins are forgiven and the penalties have been wiped away through God's forgiveness, we still struggle with the effects of sin.  And we most certainly still struggle with the pull of sin.

True Christianity leads to an intense scrutiny of our sinful selves.  It is like looking at your face in a magnified mirror and seeing all the imperfections, blotches, blemishes and wrinkles.  The light of Jesus Christ, like a magnifying mirror, illumines all of our sins and imperfections.  In fact, the light of Jesus Christ can become so bright, that those who are truly on the road to perfection can often live in what seems like total darkness, described as the dark night of the soul, in which prayers seem to go nowhere, there is no feeling of God's presence whatsoever.  St. Teresa of Calcutta, as one example, lived in this darkness for 50 years.

The Little Flower experienced this darkness for almost her entire time in the monastery.  Like St. Teresa of Calcutta, she also questioned the existence of God and whether there really is life after death.  But even in this suffering, The Little Flower still gave thanks, and offered up her suffering for the salvation of others.

Why would Our Lord allow those He loves to suffer so much?  They have given their lives to Him, they want above all to please Him and spread the message of His Love and Mercy to all mankind.  And yet they suffer, sometimes to the point that they feel not forgiven and loved by Jesus Christ but instead like condemned sinners.

Why is there a need for such intense suffering on the part of those who love Our Lord so completely? We have to be cleansed of every sin, no matter how "small" and "trifling."  There can be no sin in the presence of God, not even the desire for sin.  We must become a new person, as St. Paul said in Ephesians 4:22-24:
that ye put away, as concerning your former manner of life, the old man, which waxeth corrupt after the lusts of deceit; and that ye be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new man, which after God hath been created in righteousness and holiness of truth.
Suffering burns away sin.  It changes us and creates the "new man" in a way that nothing else can.  Uniting our suffering with Jesus on the Cross brings salvation to the world.

There is another reason for the suffering.  When we suffer, when we seem to lose even God Himself in the dark night of the soul, it develops compassion and empathy for all those poor souls who are truly cut off from God because of their sin.  They don't know enough to even be aware of their misery and their hopelessness, and if this should come through their consciousness, they will block it out.  But those who suffer for God do understand the depth of misery in which sinners live.

The suffering experienced by St. Thérèse actually helped her see "poor souls" as her brothers and sisters.  She never looked down on them or judged them, but only wanted to reach out to them in love.  She actually thanked God for her suffering so that she could use that suffering to save sinners:
On each fresh occasion of combat, when the enemy desires to challenge me, I conduct myself valiantly: knowing that to fight a duel is an unworthy act, I turn my back upon the adversary without ever looking him in the face; then I run to my Jesus and tell Him I am ready to shed every drop of blood in testimony of my belief that there is a Heaven, I tell Him I am glad to be unable to contemplate, while on earth, with the eyes of the soul, the beautiful Heaven that awaits me so He will deign to open it for eternity to poor unbelievers.
St.  Thérèse's little way is that of making the self so small that we can't even be seen, and of giving all glory and honor to Jesus Christ  It is never about condemning others but instead be willing to suffer and offer up that suffering for others.

The Little Way is the Way of Love.

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