THE LITTLE WAY
Msgr. Vernon Johnson
In ordinary human life, what is the supreme relationship between a little child and its mother? It is love. It is the mother’s love that has brought the little child into being, and by its mother’s love it is supported every moment. Above all, the thing which the mother wants supremely form her little child is love. If she possesses all else but does not possess that, her heart is left aching. Now, form the point of the little one, what does the little child want? It wants love. Without its mother’s love it is not merely restless, it is completely lost. Again, in its helplessness the only gift that the little child can give to its mother is its love. Between a mother and her child all is love, and if this should not exist, then all society cries out in horror that things are wrong.
Now in the supernatural life this is precisely, theologically true. God is our heavenly Father. He has created us because He loves us. By His love we are supported every moment. The one thing which this heavenly Father wants from us, His children, is our love. Without it, His heart is left aching. We, on our side, we, His little children, we want supremely the love of our heavenly Father. Without it we are restless and dissatisfied. Why is the world so unhappy? Because it is trying to satisfy itself with something less than the love of God.
In the eyes of Saint Therese this was everything: “My Little Way is all love.” Sometimes it is the love of her heavenly Father which absorbs her; her continual cry was “God thirst for our love.” At other times it is the love of her own heart; her love goes out in response to her Father’s love. “Let us love,” she writes, “for love alone our hearts are made.” Sometimes it is the two together which captivate her soul. “Oh, my God, I know it. Love is repaid by love alone. Therefore I have sought, I have found how to ease my heart by giving You love for love.” We depend upon Him for our existence but, far more important still, we owe entirely to Him the capacity which we possess to love Him in the only way which can satisfy His heart. “Let us love God because God first has love us” (1 Jn 4:19). That is the order. The little, that is to say, childlike soul, who treads the Little Way, looking at its heavenly Father, puts aside all His other attributes, His omniscience, His omnipotence, and sees just one overwhelming thing, His love.
This, then, is the first foundation of the Little Way of Spiritual Childhood. To those who walk in this Little way all is love between the heavenly Father and His child; and it is precisely the little, childlike soul that, putting aside all other truths that might complicate its vision, goes straight to the heart of things and sees just the overwhelming truth of the Father’s love. To the little soul the whole burden of Scripture is the coming down of the Father’s love to dwell in the soul of His little child, and so lift it up to Him; and the whole of the Catholic Church, its hierarchy and its sacraments, exist for one purpose and one end, namely, the planting of that seed of divine love in each individual soul. And therefore it is the Blessed Sacrament which is, above all, the center and the inspiration off the Little Way, because in it this truth is focused to a point with such complete simplicity. And it is the little soul which, with its complete simplicity of outlook, sees this most directly; just as in the case of a little child, the only thing it sees in its parent is love.
And what is littleness in a soul? It is humility. Humility is the virtue which enables us to see how utterly dependent we are upon the heavenly Father. And so Saint Therese loved humility above all else. It was the essential foundation of her Little Way. That is why the Little Way is so sure, so safe. Pride and humility in deadly conflict, that is the whole process of redemption. To be emptied of self so as to be filled with the divine love needs a new birth, a conversion. “Unless you be converted an become as little children you cannot enter the kingdom of Heaven” (Mt 18:3). As pride is the root of all sin, making us think we can live independently of God and thereby separating us form Him, teaching us, in fact, to let go the heavenly Father’s hand, so humility is the foundation of all holiness, teaching us our essential dependence upon God, placing our hand once again firmly in that of the heavenly Father.
And so Saint Therese learned to be glad at the knowledge of her failings just because that taught her littleness, which was so precious in her eyes because it was so precious to our Lord. “That which pleases Jesus in my little soul is to see me love my littleness,” the littleness which enabled her to keep firm hold of her Father’s hand. This humility is no weak or negative thing. It is the most powerful thing in the world, for it is the key which unlocks the soul to grace. By ourselves we can do nothing to increase in us the supernatural love for which we were made, but by grace we help by removing that which is in the way of the divine love, namely, self-love. With every act of humility, every time we accept a humiliation lovingly, more of self is removed, and therefore there is more room for the divine love to dwell in the soul.
From humility springs the next foundation for the Little Way of Spiritual Childhood. In the natural sphere, what is it that springs from the dependence of the little child? Out of its utter dependence springs an unquestioning confidence. The mysteries of our Holy Faith, which are the proofs to the little, humble soul of the heavenly Father’s love, are also to the humble soul the grounds of its confidence. Bethlehem, Calvary, the Resurrection, the indwelling of the Holy Trinity in the soul, the Blessed Sacrament, all spell one word, confidence. “He that spared not even his own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how has He not also, with Him given us all things?” (Rom 8:32). It was this that gave Saint Therese her invincible confidence. “My Way is all love and confidence in God. I cannot understand those souls who are afraid of so tender a friend... What offends Jesus, what wounds Him to the heart, is our want of confidence... We cannot have too much confidence in the good God, so mighty, so merciful.”
To Therese the heavenly Father’s love is supremely a merciful love. Just because she was so conscious of her littleness and weakness she saw, with a clearness impossible to a soul less conscious of its weakness, that the supreme quality of the heavenly Father’s love was its mercy. Her soul’s delight was to meditate on the merciful love of God Incarnate stooping down to earth and reaching out to that which is weakest, most soiled, most miserable. That, to her, was the supreme motive of the merciful love of God, namely, pity for that which is weak. She knew her weakness would cry to the heavenly Father’s mercy as nothing else could do. From this sprang her invincible confidence. She says: “Indeed, I hope as much from the justice of God as from His mercy. It is because He is just that He is compassionate and merciful, long-suffering, plenteous in mercy. For He knows our frame, He remembers that we are but dust. ‘As the Father has compassion on His children, so has the Lord compassion on us.’ What joy to think that our Lord is just, that He takes into account all our weaknesses and He knows perfectly all the frailty of our nature. How, then, can I be afraid?”
“I am certain that, even if I had on my conscience every imaginable sin, I should lose nothing of my confidence, but would throw myself, heartbroken with sorrow, into the arms of my Saviour. I remember His love for the Prodigal Son; I have heard His words to Mary Magdalene, to the woman taken in adultery, and to the woman of Samaria. No, there is no one who could frighten me, for I know too well what to believe concerning His mercy and His love.”
But if, on the one hand, the Little Way gives confidence to great sinners, it also gives confidence to those who are tortured by scruples because of their little failings. In the natural sphere “little children do not fall very far, and, if they do fall, they do not hurt themselves very much, and the mother’s arms are round them almost before they fall.” Saint Therese tells us it is the same in the spiritual sphere. In fact these little failing and miseries can be turned into a blessing, for they teach the little soul its weakness and so throw it back once more into its Father’s arms. “What does it matter to me to fall each moment? By that I feel my weakness and therein I find great profit. My God, you see what I can do if You do not carry me in your arms.”
Every Christian knows the philosophy of living just for today; how, if we live for today, it lessens the power of our temptations, because we are tempted only for today; how it takes away the power of pain if we have to suffer only for today. But Saint Therese, with her Little Way, throws completely new light on it. For she says that all this is secondary, that the real thing is to think of today as the only day we have in which to love God. What quality then will we put into our love! If we love Him today as though we had no other day in which to love Him, then of course, automatically, all our pain becomes easier to bear, all our temptations lose their strength. But it is the love which is the key to it all. “I notice,” she says, “that our Lord does not give me provisions, but nourishes me from moment to moment with food that is ever new. I do not know how it happens, but I just believe that it is Jesus, hidden in the depth of my soul, inspiring me and giving me the power, moment by moment, to do what He wishes.”
A little child relates everything to its mother in little acts of love. And, all the time, it can only do it because its mother is there, watching it, supporting it with her care and ready to receive its offering. Without her its love would have no object; all would be chaos and confusion. In the Little Way of Spiritual Childhood it is precisely the same. The little soul can only cooperate with the Father’s love, can only express its own love by little things, by relating everything to the heavenly Father as an expression of its love. Thus, she took every little incident, every joy, every disappointment and misunderstanding, everything that came her way, some little word or action, something easy, something difficult, she grasped each, as a little child plucks a flower, an laid it at our Lord’s feet as an expression of her love for Him. “I work for His pleasure alone.”
This entirely puts an end to the temptation to divide our life into spiritual and secular, the temptation to think of God only when we are upon our knees and to forget Him in our work. Everything is an instrument to express our love, every humiliation taken patiently, every difficulty faced calmly, every sorrow borne courageously, every disappointment met bravely, every weary detail taken cheerily, every little duty in the home or business done to the best of our ability, all of these are offerings, little flowers by which to express our love of our heavenly Father. The little soul makes these acts of love just as much in the gray days as in the days when all is bright and sunny. “In the times of dryness when I am incapable of praying and practicing virtue, I seek little opportunities, mere trifles, to give pleasure to Jesus: for instance, a smile, a pleasant word when inclined to show weariness. If I have no opportunities I at least tell Him again and again that I love him.”
Next to our love for our heavenly Father comes our love for our neighbor, those men and women with whom we live our daily life. The source of saint Therese’s love to those around her was the supernatural love which the heavenly Father placed in the soul of His child. “Oh, my Jesus, you never ask what is impossible. You know I can never love my sisters as you have loved them unless within me you love them, dear Lord... Yes, I know when I show charity to others it is simply Jesus acting in me, and the more closely I am united to Him the more clearly I love my sisters.” So only can the little soul fulfill our Blessed Lord’s commandment: “Little children, love one another, as I have loved you” (Jn 13:34). By this the little soul is saved from all those unworthy motives which destroy the peace of so many - jealousies, envies, criticisms, scandals.
The little soul sees others only in their relationship to their heavenly Father. Apart from this, it is unmoved by their actions, their motives, their temperaments, whether they be attractive or otherwise. The little child does not judge. “Is there anything more sweet,” says Saint Therese, “than the inward joy of thinking well of our neighbor?” This sounds too high an ideal for human nature. It is indeed only those souls who are little enough to see only the Father’s love that can attain to it.
So she trod her Little way with childlike confidence right to the end.