Stop to Appreciate the 'Little Flower'

Another metaphor that Therese used to make sense of her spiritual journey was the metaphor of the "little flower." In fact, several times in her autobiography she refers to herself as "the little flower," and this has been her ecclesiastical "nickname" ever since. She was not trying to be cute or precious; rather, she had loved and cultivated flowers ever since she was very young and she saw that flowers needed constant care and nurture if they were to grow and blossom - a symbol of God's personal care for her soul as she grew in spirit. For example, on the day St. Therese asked her father's permission to enter the Carmel of Lisieux - a consent he gave without hesitation - she describes their walk together in the garden with these words:


Papa seemed to be rejoicing with the joy that comes from a sacrifice already made. He spoke just like a saint, and I'd love to recall his words and write them down, but all I preserved of them is a memory too sacred to be expressed. What I do recall, however, is a symbolic action my dear King performed, not realizing its full meaning. Going up to a low wall, he pointed to some little white flowers, like lilies in miniature, and plucking one of them, he gave it to me, explaining the care with which God brought it into being and preserved it to that very day. While I listened I believed I was hearing my own story, so great was the resemblance between what Jesus had done for the little flower and little Therese. I accepted it as a relic and noticed that, in gathering it, Papa had pulled all its roots out without breaking them. It seemed destined to live on in another soil more fertile than the tender moss where it had spent its first days. This was really the same action Papa had performed a few moments before when he allowed me to climb Mount Carmel and leave the sweet valley which had witnessed my first steps in this life.

What is the common thread that ties together all of these metaphors - "little boat," "little flower," etc? The common thread is "littleness." Indeed, she called her own understanding of the spiritual life her "Little Way."

Why so much emphasis on "littleness?" On the one hand, she was the youngest child of the Martin household, and seeing herself as a "little one" surely came naturally to her, so that she also found it easy to see her relationship with God in terms of her own "littleness." However, when the Lord fashions His saints he utilizes their natural dispositions for supernatural purposes. Fr. Vernon Johnson wrote a classic study of this aspect of the life of St. Therese in his book Spiritual Childhood, showing that God had a special purpose in mind in leading Therese to appreciate the meaning and importance of "littleness" (Ignatius Press edition, 2001, pp. 10-11):

Unless you be converted and become as little children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.... Our Lord did not merely say that she must be converted and become a child; He said she must become a little child. Now a child can have to a certain extent an independent life of its own, calling upon its parent only in moments of need. A little child cannot do this: It has no life of its own; it is completely dependent on its parent and so lives with perfect serenity and trust within that parent's protection. For St. Therese the word "little," which many would like to eliminate from her teaching, is the key to everything. She has made the Fatherhood of God live afresh for thousands of the faithful by calling us back from being children with a more or less independent life of our own, to become, as Our Lord would have us, little children, with no independent life at all, but depending absolutely on our heavenly Father. In so calling us to a fresh realization of the fatherhood of God, she enables us to move through life with serenity and confidence which is the prerogative of the childlike soul, for she makes known to us one of those secrets which God hides from the wise and prudent, and reveals only to little ones. It is in this sense that the present bishop of Lisieux is never weary of saying that St. Therese has shed a new light on one of the oldest and most fundamental of Catholic doctrines: God is our Father.

The heart of St. Therese's "Little Way" is therefore the way of spiritual childhood, a way of trust and complete self-surrender. Therese knew that in almost every respect she was not a very remarkable person. She was not an intellectual giant, nor did she have great natural talents, nor was she likely to achieve much of anything in her life. She was not able to be a great missionary, preacher, martyr, or hero for the Faith. Yet she did long in her heart to be a saint. As a result, her underlying struggle was: "How can a simple, ordinary person like me become one of Jesus' beloved saints?" It is a question that most of us who follow Christ want to have answered, because like Therese, most of us are not destined for earthly "greatness." We are ordinary people, with ordinary talents, in ordinary circumstances. St. Therese's answer to this dilemma was her "Little Way." She describes her discovery of this in her autobiography:

You know, Mother, I have always wanted to be a saint. Alas! I have always noticed that when I compared myself to the saints, there is between them and me the same difference that exists between a mountain whose summit is lost in the clouds and the obscure grain of sand trampled underfoot by passers-by. Instead of becoming discouraged, I said to myself: God cannot inspire unrealizable desires. I can, then, in spite of my littleness, aspire to holiness. It is impossible for me to grow up, and so I must bear with myself such as I am, with all my imperfections. But I want to seek out a means of going to heaven by a little way, a way that is very straight, very short, and totally new.

We are living now in an age of inventions, and we no longer have to take the trouble of climbing stairs, for, in the homes of the rich, an elevator has replaced these very successfully. I wanted to find an elevator which would raise me to Jesus, for I am too small to climb the rough stairway to perfection. I searched then in the Scriptures for some sign of this elevator, the object of my desires, and I read these words coming from the mouth of Eternal Wisdom: "Whosoever is a LITTLE ONE, let him come to me" (Pr. 9:4). And so I succeeded. I felt I had found what I was looking for. But wanting to know, O my God, what You would do to the very little one who answered Your call, I continued my search and this is what I discovered: "As one whom a mother caresses, so will I comfort you; you shall be carried at the breasts, and upon the knees they shall caress you" (Is. 66:13,12). Ah! Never did words more tender and more melodious come to give joy to my soul. The elevator which must raise me to heaven is Your arms, O Jesus! And for this I had no need to grow up, but rather had to remain little and become this more and more.

O my God, You surpassed all my expectation. I want only to sing Your mercies ...

(This series continues next week on the Divine Mercy spirituality of St. Therese of Lisieux).


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