Growing Young: St. Therese of Lisieux and Spiritual Childhood

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Saints have the uncanny ability to startle us with their insights into the basic truths of our faith. Until a holy person comes along and embodies the Gospel, its radical demands might suffer the fate of a museum piece—safely under glass, to be admired but not handled. In Saints we witness how grace works “in the flesh,” transforming people like ourselves into icons of the living God—making the “ever ancient, ever new” quality of Gospel teaching strike a new generation with its relevance and urgency.

Few saints have accomplished this with greater swiftness and scope than St Therese of Lisieux (1873-1897). Venerable Pope Pius XII claimed that the young Carmelite had done no less than rediscover the Gospel for the modern world: “It is the Gospel itself, it is the heart of the Gospel that she rediscovered; but with what grace and freshness: ‘If you do not become like children, you shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven’” (Mt 18:3).[1]

To say that she had recovered not only a neglected truth but the very “heart of the Gospel” is like announcing that someone has unearthed the treasure buried in the field or found the pearl of great price. It suggests that the mysteries that Christ once spoke openly to the world have been received anew by one with ears to hear. And thus the ancient thunder of Gospel teaching reechoes through the voice of an unlikely herald: a girl cloistered from the world in a small Carmel located—not even in Paris—but in a forgotten French town.

THE LITTLE WAY

St Therese reintroduced modern people to what it means to be a child of God more than in name only. Her teaching may not come across in the sweeping, apocalyptic tenor of a prophet, nor with the urgency of a private revelation. Yet for those with ears to hear, the muted tones of her “little way” of spiritual childhood resonate with the equally subdued character of daily life. Woven of aspirations, trials, successes and setbacks, our daily experiences spontaneously converge in a cry for God’s help. How often do we find ourselves needing and asking for strength—even courage—to make it through the ordinary duties and pressures of life?

St Therese’s little way defuses the distress that our weaknesses might cause by encouraging an open avowal of one’s limitations. She declares: “It is so good to feel that one is weak and little!”[2] This is because Jesus reserves His saving mission for the lost, the sick, and the forsaken. When we recognize our place in one or more of those categories, then we reach the same conclusion as St Paul who not only refused to conceal but preferred to boast of his weaknesses (cf. 2 Cor 11:30; 12:9-10).

Therese explains her little way:

“It is to recognize our nothingness, to expect everything from God as a little child expects everything from its father … to be disquieted about nothing, and not to be set on gaining our living,” that is, “the eternal life of heaven.”[3]

Therefore she resolves: “I never wanted to grow up,”[4] in spirit, so as to avoid taking credit for whatever good she might do. Rather, to remain little means “believing oneself capable of anything,” while never becoming discouraged over failures, “for children fall often, but they are too little to hurt themselves very much.”[5]

CHILDREN OF GOD

For those who seek signs and wonders this is not the way. But for all who seek to know “the only true God and Jesus Christ” (cf. Jn 17:3), it is all one needs to know. Knowing God as He has revealed Himself, speaking to Him in the language He has given us, loving Him on the terms that most please His heart, instinctively leads St Therese to converse freely of “Papa, God,”[6] echoing Jesus’ own use of the intimate “Abba.” St Paul will offer this as evidence of the indwelling Spirit: “You have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (cf. Rm 8:15-16).

Our Lord undeniably wants our interior life revolutionized by this teaching, as He proves in settling the Apostles’ dispute over which of them was the greatest (cf. Lk 9:46-48; Mt 18:1-4). Jesus responded with a surprising but concrete visual aid. He inserted a child into the midst of grown men and, once all eyes and ears were trained on the spectacle, laid down the entrance requirement for His kingdom: Be like this. You will not enter the kingdom of God unless you become like this child.

To big and strong men who had other ideas about what it meant to be great, this is the answer they get. And Jesus leaves them to contemplate and apply the meaning: Somehow the child that we see out there in the arms of Jesus has to become who we are on the inside.

A CALL TO HUMILITY

This unambiguous call to humility, to childlike dependence and trust, also leaves us to wonder: In practice, what does it look like for me to receive the kingdom of God like a child? St Augustine of Hippo offers a concise and eloquent hint: “Man, grown old through sin, is rejuvenated through grace.”[7] Just as sin “ages” the soul not only by debilitating but by hardening it, so grace renews us. It is only to the humble that God gives grace, not from any stinginess on His part, but because a proud, “grown-up” soul is incapable of receiving grace or any gift in a fruitful way: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (Jas 4:6).

Being a child spiritually is not a matter of age, but of humility. Thus the profile of a childlike adult looks like this: one who is not only convinced of his need, but also not ashamed of it. Such a child never tires of approaching the Lord, never feels like a bother to Him: “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them,” says our God to us (Mt 19:14).

The truth that we are God’s children is, possibly, a neglected truth because it is most fundamental to Christian identity. We don’t think much about a building’s foundations, we just live and work in it. But those who would build their house on weak foundations will falter and fall sooner or later (cf. Mt 7:24-27).

Thus urges St Josemaria: “Do not forget: anyone who does not realize that he is a child of God is unaware of the deepest truth about himself” (Friends of God, no. 26). If we don’t consider this the deepest truth about who we are, then on what foundation does our identity stand? Our ethnicity? Our hobbies, career, being somehow “better” than others?

But if God were to ask us: When do you think you are most pleasing to me? When are you most yourself? Would we answer: “When I’m successful? When I’m a winner? When I’m appreciated by others?” I think the Lord would answer us: You are most pleasing to me, most yourself, when you are most like a child. You can lose just about anything—success, esteem, reputation—but not your adoption.

St Therese (and St Josemaria) would have us remember that, wherever we are and whatever we do, this is the heart of Gospel—which can be not only rediscovered but relived daily, renewing us in spirit all the while.


[1] Radio Message of Pope Pius XII for the Consecration of the Basilica of Saint Therese of Lisieux: http://w2.vatican.va/content/pius-xii/fr/speeches/1954/documents/hf_p-xii_spe_19540711_lisieux.html

[2] St. Therese of Lisieux, Her Last Conversations, tr. J. Clarke, OCD (Washington, D.C.: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1977), p. 74.

[3] Conversations, p. 139.

[4] Conversations, p. 139.

[5] Conversations, p. 139.

[6] Conversations, p. 57.

[7] See Saint Augustine’s Commentaries on the Psalms: Psalm 149, i. Augustine’s original sentence: “Inveteravit homo per peccatum, innovatur per gratiam.”

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Rev. John Henry Hanson, O. Praem.
Father John Henry Hanson, O. Praem., is a Norbertine priest of St Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, California. He entered the community in 1995, earned his STB and Masters in Theology at the Pontifical University of St Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome, and was ordained to the priesthood in 2006. Currently, he teaches English at St Michael’s Preparatory School, the boarding school operated by the Norbertine Fathers. He also preaches retreats, is chaplain to the cloistered Norbertine Nuns in Tehachapi, California, and serves Armenian rite Catholics at the Cathedral of St Gregory the Illuminator in Glendale, California (Our Lady of Nareg Eparchy). He and his community are cooperators of Opus Dei.

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