Her spirituality is pure, in the first place, because she is fully enlightened upon the purpose of her mortified life and the end which she must attain, both for herself and for those whom she wishes to help towards heaven. She adores God and realizes that she is made in His image. Her aim, then, is nothing less than, by loving and serving Him, to become divine.
She has no illusions about the comparative value of the means open to her in order to obtain this union with God in eternity. Apart from her rule, she cannot look for any great result from bodily mortifications, for so much self-seeking may find its way into them. But in spiritual austerities she has an all-powerful means, and especially in the interior transformation which arises from Holy Communion and from the very practice of love.
But there is something more. From at least the period of her spiritual maturity, from above 1893 or 1895, she has not the slightest doubt or anxiety about the relation between God’s action upon her and her own spontaneous activity, in other words, between the necessary demands of mortification and her fundamental need of God’s initiative.
The grounds of St. Thérèse’s marvelous spiritual peace and balance seem to justify us in comparing her genius in spiritual science with the genius of a St. Thomas Aquinas in metaphysics and theology.
Just as when first a student reaches a full realization of St. Thomas’ teaching concerning pure being and concerning the work of divine grace, which consists, not in destroying or supplanting nature in its proper sphere, but in restoring and perfecting it, he undergoes a mental revolution; so, in the domain of spiritual things, it seems that St. Thérèse has produced a revolution no less complete and no less fundamental. We hesitate to define its full importance, but clearly it is a proof of the genius of this humble nun, and it will demand from theologians a clarification of some of their teaching.
As I understand her, St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus refuses to make a radical separation between asceticism and mysticism, as if the one could dispense with the other. She would not allow that the first is a necessary antecedent or an efficacious preparation for the second, or that it could be a substitute for the second in souls less favored by God. According to her, asceticism, in the supernatural order to which every Christian belongs, is inconceivable without the very special initiative of God, of the God who has revealed Himself in the Gospel as the Good shepherd going in search of lost sheep, of the God who pardoned the Magdalen, of the God who, in preserving St. Thérèse from sin, can be said but to have pardoned her sins in advance, of the God who has the tenderness not only of a father, but also of a mother, for the children whom He wishes to bear in His arms. On the other hand, how can mysticism dispense with asceticism, for God takes His children into His arms merely to give them the strength they must have in order to do what His love demands? Asceticism and mysticism—one does not prepare for the other, one does not follow after the other, one does not exclude the other, but the one is necessary to the other and both are included in the supernatural order, just as Creator and creature are both necessary if there is to be any kind of action in the natural order.
Such is the deep meaning of the little way of spiritual childhood. It is the union of mysticism and asceticism, so fundamental, so pure that it remains entirely within the domain of pure faith. She did not wish to grow up. Because she was afraid of losing the benefit of God’s initiative. She did not wish to leave the darkness of pure faith, for if she did she would be stopping out of the arena and giving the impression that there could be no perfect spiritual life or holiness until the soul had been led out of the twilight or even of the night.
No! Even St. John of the Cross regarded the dark night as only a stage through which we must pass. Then cannot he who remains always in the darkness reach to the perfect life of union with God? Why not? How can we presume to know God’s plans and imagine that we can confine them within the limits of our human categories or metaphors? May not God’s will be to give to a soul darkness and yet at the same time perfect union with Himself?
“Yes, it may be,” St. Thérèse assures us, relying both upon the Gospel and upon her own experience. She lived her lesson before she taught it. Her union with God was absolute and yet she loved Him, as it were, in the dark. It was a grace from God which she eagerly accepted, and yet it was an agony of martyrdom. Thereby she gave to the whole Christian world the most authentic echo of the Gospel which Carmel ever emitted.
This young girl longed to be, in fact or at least in desire, a martyr of the love of God and of His truth. It was to martyrdom that she aspired and it was martyrdom which she attained—a martyrdom more entrancing than she had dared to hope for. She was sincere even to heroism and the witness she gave was transparently true. The truth to which she bore witness is now made evident to all by her triumph. In all its simplicity and purity it has brought conviction to a multitude of souls that Jesus came to earth and preached His Gospel out of love for each of them.
The great doctors of Carmel have guided to the lofty summits of perfection chosen souls who are the joy and the glory of the Church, but where shall we find an average soul who will believe that St. Thérèse of Avila, and especially St. John of the Cross, teach truths that are within its grasp? They are eagles who raise up towards the divine Sun those souls who have already advanced far in perfection; but they make giddy those whose eyes and wings are yet weak.
This humble nun of Lisieux spread her teaching in a more attractive way. First she shut up all her books, except the Gospel. Then she gave herself in unreserved acceptance to the Cross, even unto death. Before beginning to speak to the world or exercise her divinely appointed mission to it, she worked an amazing number of astonishing miracles. At her name, the blind saw, the lame walked, the deaf heard, the sick were healed, the sorrowful were comforted. The days when Our Lord walked upon earth were thus recalled, and then came the last miracle, the miracle that Christ placed even above the raising of the dead, the greatest miracle of all—the poor had the Gospel preached to them. Those who were poor in the spiritual sense receive the assurance of their salvation and of their high supernatural worth.
And who are these poor? Why, all of us. All those souls who expected to find in their own efforts the strength to reach perfection, all those who took such complacency in the rigor of their austerities, those who did not distinguish the teachings of the ancient stoics from the holiness demanded by the Gospel; those who clung to old time ideas of honor which were but a cloak of their pride—all of these learn from St. Thérèse their poverty and nothingness. These, who think themselves so rich, must begin over again.
But the innumerable multitude of souls who are left without guidance by the great specialists in spiritual direction; all the poor lowly souls who have but their faith, their timid good will, their humble reception of the sacraments, and sometimes their stubborn faults—all these now hear the Gospel preached in its purity by the little Saint whose hands are filled with roses. The Good News—the only news that is truly good—is brought home to their hearts. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” says Our Lord. “Do not envy the rich, the great ones who trust in their own strength,” says Thérèse. “Believe that God is always near you and within you, longing to enrich you with the abundance of His graces, for your poverty is a special claim upon His generosity. Love Him who is love itself, even and especially in His justice. All that He asks of you is that you should allow yourselves to be raised up by His power, that you should not refuse the demands of His mercy which has, says Our Lord. “Do not envy the rich, the great ones who trust in their own strength,” says Thérèse. “Believe that God is always near you and within you, longing to enrich you with the abundance of His graces, for your poverty is a special claim upon His generosity. Love Him who is love itself, even and especially in His justice. All that He asks of you is that you should allow yourselves to be raised up by His power, that you should not refuse the demands of His mercy which has such great things in store for you, and that, poor and lowly as you are, you should enroll yourselves among the number of those souls who have consecrated and surrendered themselves to His Love.”
St. Thérèse’s message has come to our sick world like a breath of fresh air from the Gospel. It is without precedent throughout the twenty centuries of Christian history. We can understand now the meaning of the homily Pius XI preached at the Mass of her canonization: “If this way of spiritual childhood were to be adopted by all, there would be no difficulty in carrying through that reform of human society which We put before Us as Our aim at the beginning of Our pontificate.”
Obviously, because if all will offer themselves to the infinite love of God, as the Saint’s teaching directs, they will open the way to the action of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost for their redemption.
Today, even more than in 1925, we realize how necessary is the general adoption of Saint Thérèse’s teaching. May the fiftieth anniversary of her death, which is now close at hand, bring it to pass. In this hope and for this intention, let us often repeat the words with which the Pope concluded his homily: “We make Our own, then, the prayer with which St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, the newly canonized saint, concludes her invaluable autobiography: ‘O Jesus, we beg you to look down from heaven upon a multitude of lowly souls, and to choose in this world a legion of little victims worthy of Your love.’”
Following the example of the Vicar of Christ, should we not too make our study of St. Thérèse’s spirituality find its practical expression in our prayers? All that she loved, all that she still loves with the unwearying fidelity of an eternal love, is in these days at stake. By the purity of her testimony and the splendor of her hidden martyrdom, let us ask her to deliver us from all that hinders our following her to the end along her Little Way. Let us ask her to rid us of all the impurities that corrupt our faith, to cure us of the weaknesses which make our activities so ineffectual, who so often despite their nominal adherence to Catholicism are unconsciously inspired by pagan culture, to restore to these a true and vivid understanding of divine revelation. Let us ask her to teach us to cultivate the simplicity of the Gospel and to have no part with skepticism and doubt, to cling without compromise to the truth and to repudiate all error. Let us ask her to show us once again that there is only one real danger for the Catholic, namely to forget that his main task in life is to bear witness to Jesus Christ who died for love of him.
May St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus obtain for us this grace, because such is her spirit, and such is, for these our times of mingled misery and heroism, her supreme and final message.