‘The Little Way’ of Love

Soulwork Toward Sunday: self-guided retreat
Proper 26 (year B), November 4, 2012
“The Great Commandment”

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” -Mark 12:28-31

As you can see from the website, the first thing I had to do was pull apart what I thought I meant by God, neighbor, and self. Whenever I manage to complicate spiritual life too much, I turn back to Therese of Lisieux (1873-1897) and her “Little Way.”

Therese, a 19th century cloistered teenage nun with intelligence, creativity and passion, burned with spiritual ambition. She wrote that she longed to be an apostle, a martyr, a missionary, a priest, a warrior for God. But even if she had lived outside her strict (and, to be honest, very dysfunctional monastic community) her gifts would have been thwarted in late 19th century France. After years of frustration and fantasy she had a revelation about her own limitations, both those imposed upon her by her surroundings and those of her own character. Her insight? “Love is my vocation!” To simply love. She most craved love herself and love was the one thing she knew she could give.

Furthermore, Therese realized that her childishness was a weakness she could use as a portal to a mature faith. And so, with childlike trust, she sought to bring love to every annoying, tragic, pitiful, petty act and encounter for the rest of her life. She brought this love and an intensely hard-earned spiritual maturity into her harrowing experience of dying of tuberculosis. After unconscionable and unnecessary suffering, death came mercifully to her at the age of 24.

Ironically, the publication of her short autobiography made her a best selling author, theologian, doctor of the church, and deep influence on millions of people who love her, including me. (Which, honestly, I could not have done without the interpretive lens of feminists like Dorothy Day and Monica Furlong.)

The following paragraph is from Monica Furlong’s biography of Therese.

The Little Way meant trying to get on with life as it actually was, living it with kindness, unselfishness, detailed care – ‘always doing the tiniest thing right, and doing it for love’. It was, in some curious way, the reversal of everything she had been taught, the inflated form of Christianity with its dreams of sanctity and martyrdom. Now she saw that all you were asked to do was to follow the will of God, whatever it might be, and to give yourself unreservedly to that life and to no other. In a moment of revelation she realized that instead of trying to be something she was not – a crusader or an Apostle – she was now free to be Therese with all her little problems, including the babyishness which she had begun to recognize in herself as a kind of permanent imprint. It was as if she had scraped away years of nonsense and found a fundamental truth which had eluded her by its very simplicity. ‘It’s love I ask for, love is all the skill I have.’ It struck her that her very poverty of gifts and of opportunities might make her a kind of representative of all who were poor and inadequate in the world, but who strove to love God. ‘I implore you’, she says to Jesus, ‘to look down in mercy on a whole multitude of souls that share my littleness.’ Praying for those souls, working out the ‘Little Way’ in her own life were, she saw now, her true vocation, and it was one that filled her with joy. She no longer dreamed of dreadful martyrdoms because she saw that, in the present, without manipulations on her part, her life was already a ‘burnt offering’ for a purpose she could only dimly understand but knew that she had chosen.

-Monica Furlong
Therese of Lisieux p.96-7

Have an inspiring All Saints Day (November 1). May love inspire you in the way of sanctity!

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