ABANDONMENT THROUGH SUFFERING
Msgr. Vernon Johnson
But what about suffering and sorrow and all the pain and evil of life? Has the Little Way any answer to this, the central tragedy of human existence? When the little soul finds that even pain and suffering are all within the heavenly Father’s love, are all precious gifts from the heavenly Father to His child, by which that child is cradled in His arms more securely than by anything else, it knows then that nothing can hurt it. “Jesus was pleased to show me,” Saint Therese says, “the only path which leads to the divine love. This path is the abandonment of the little child who sleeps without fear in its Father’s arms.”
Some people have misunderstood this imagery and think that the little soul thus depicted rests inert and lifeless in the arms of God. But what the little child does by instinct in the natural sphere, the soul must do by grace in the supernatural. The sleep of the little child is the parable of that peace which comes from a completely surrendered will, a will entirely surrendered from moment to moment. This demands continual activity, an activity comparable with the activity of a drowning man who, suppressing his natural instinct to trust in his own efforts, in abandoning himself, entirely, to the man who swims to his rescue, an act demanding the highest courage and the most perfect self-control.
That this abandonment is an active thing is apparent every time Saint Therese speaks of it. On the day of her Profession she prays: “I offer myself to Thee, O my Beloved, that Thou mayest perfectly accomplish in me Thy holy will.” A few years latter, writing to her sister, she says: “My desire is to do always the will of Jesus. Let us leave Him free to take and to give whatever He wills. Perfection consists in doing His will, surrendering ourselves wholly to Him... The more content a soul is to accomplish His will, the more perfect it is.”
“From my childhood these words of Job’s delighted me: ‘Though he killed me, yet will I trust in him.’ But I confess it was long before I was established in this degree of abandonment. Now I am there. The Lord took me and placed me there.” From this ceaseless activity issued her peace. “To suffer peacefully is not always to find consolation in the suffering, for peace is not always accompanied by joy, not at least by sensible joy. To suffer with peace it suffices that we truly will all that God wills.”
From this we see, and it is most important that this should be understood, that the abandonment of the little soul is in no sense a gesture of despair, as the English word might lead us to suppose. It is, on the contrary, that act of reckless joy with which a little child flings itself into its mother’s arms. Such is the philosophy of the little saint whom God has chosen to guide us by her Little Way. This abandonment of hers was tested to the uttermost in the terrible spiritual desolation which her heavenly Father allowed her to pass through during her last illness. How does she meet it? With the absolute simplicity of a little child.
In her suffering at the end of her life she reveals that it was this which gave her so much strength. “If I did not simply live from one moment to another it would be impossible for me to be patient, but I look only at the present. I forget the past and I take good care not to forestall the future. When we yield to discouragement or despair, it is usually because we think too much about the past or the future.
Nor is this all. The little soul is drawn into a deeper mystery still. As it suffers with Him, it shares not only in the pain of His Cross but in the redemptive power of that Cross; and its sufferings, in union with His, call down from Calvary graces upon other souls. Writing to her sister, Saint Therese says: “Let us offer our sufferings to Jesus for the salvation of souls.” In these simple words lies all the theology of Saint Paul regarding the mutual sufferings of the Mystical Body, whereby the sufferings of one member avail for the succor of another member in virtue of their union with their common head. “I rejoice in my sufferings for you and fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for his body which is the Church.” (Col 1:24).
It was this secret - that her pain and suffering were the supreme means of union between her soul and our Blessed Lord, and were also the means of sharing in the redemptive work of His Cross - that made suffering and pain to her a most precious thing. “Far from complaining to Jesus of the cross that He sends us, I cannot fathom the infinite love that has led Him to treat us thus.” “I thank Thee, O my God, for all the graces Thou hast bestowed on me, and particularly for having made me pass through the crucible of suffering.”
So she passed along her Little Way smiling always and with a song of joy on her lips, “I will sing. I will always sing, even though I have to pluck my roses from amidst the thorns; and the sharper and the longer the thorns, the sweeter shall be my song,” no mere words. For eighteen months she was the victim of tuberculosis in its most painful possible form. The doctor who attended her said: “If you only knew what she has to endure! I have never seen anyone suffer so intensely with such a look of supernatural joy.”
But, more even than this, her heavenly Father gave to her the further gift of spiritual desolation, which is so often the mark of His tender love for the saints. To her sister Saint Therese describes this trial: “If you were to judge by the poems I have composed this year, it must seem as though I had been flooded with consolations, like a child for whom the veil of Faith has almost been rent asunder and yet it is not a veil, it is a wall which rises to the very heavens and shuts out the starry sky. When I sing of the happiness of Heaven and the eternal possession of God, I do not feel any joy therein, for I sing only of what I wish to believe.”
The condition of all supernatural life is the complete dying to self and birth into love which is the work of Calvary in the individual soul. “Unless the grain of wheat falling into the ground die, itself remains alone. But if it die, it brings forth much fruit. He who loves his life shall lose it, and he who hates his life in this world keeps it unto life eternal” (Jn 12:24-25). It is the complete taking possession of the soul by the heavenly Father’s love so that, emptied of self, it may be filled with that divine love, caught up into the divine love. The more completely the little soul is consumed by the divine love, the more it is transformed into the divine life of union with God through love.
Thus God crowns the abandonment of His little child: thus, abandonment makes all things sweet. And this is all worked out through just the little things of everyday life which the heavenly Father presents to us, His children, as little means of sacrifice whereby we may become complete victims of His love. In the Little Way of Spiritual Childhood the little soul does not ask for suffering, but gladly welcomes all that the Father gives. It is this complete abandonment of the little victim that shines out so wonderfully in the last illness of the Saint, and enabled her to bear indescribable pain with joy.
A few days before her death she said to her sister: “Do not be troubled if I suffer much and show no sign of peace at the end. Did not our Lord Himself die a victim of love, and see how great was His agony!” Almost her last words were: “Yes, all that I have written about my thirst for suffering is really true. I do not regret having surrendered myself to love.” Then, looking at her crucifix, she said: “Oh, I love Him. My God... I love... Thee.” These were her last words. Suddenly she raised herself, as though called by a mysterious voice, and opening her eyes, which shone with an unutterable happiness and peace, she surrendered her soul into her heavenly Father’s arms, to the end His little child.