THE VALUE OF LITTLE THINGS
Those who follow the Way of Spiritual Childhood look upon God, as, above all else, their Father, and their childlike surrender to him runs through everything, and gives to the love, humility, and confidence of the Little Way its unique note of spontaneous gaiety.
They know that love is repaid by love alone, and long to respond to their Father’s love for them by lives which are one continuous act of humble love. They try to surrender themselves so completely to God’s love that it may take entire possession of them, so that they become as Saint Teresa prayed they might – victims of the Merciful Love of God.
Now comes the question, how exactly is that to be done? It sounds very attractive in theory, and in theory we know it is right. Nothing less than that is the vocation to which we are called, but the very ideal it sets before us seems to imply something out of the ordinary, and life, for most of us, is ordinary – very ordinary.
How does the Little Way, with its invitation to become a victim of the Merciful Love of God, fit into our ordinary everyday lives? The answer is simple. Our Lord told his apostles that they must be converted and become as little children if they were to enter the kingdom of heaven. In the natural order how do little children show their love? Through little things. A little child, just because it is little, is utterly unable to show its love in any other way. At some time or other we have all had evidence of that, if only we have had eyes to see it. The most superficial observation of human life shows us how very little children will continually offer little things to their mother – a toy, a picture, a flower – as evidence of their love. To show their love they relate everything to their mother, and the means they make use of are the insignificant details of their little world, the things that lie immediately to hand. We notice too that the mother, although she has no need of the toy, the picture, or the flower, loves the child to make these offerings, because she wants the love that lies behind them. In themselves they are nothing, but in so far as they express the love of her little child, those nothings become most precious.
The lesson is obvious. We who desire in the spirit of little children to offer our lives to God as one continual act of humble and confident love, can do so only through the little ordinary details which lie around us in our daily life. Unless we love Our Lord through “the toys, the pictures, the flowers” of everyday life, we shall never really love him at all. Again, as with the mother, so with our heavenly Father: he has no need of anything we offer him, but he wants us to go on offering things because he wants the love that lies behind them. For this reason the little things we do for him, in themselves apparently so insignificant, are to him infinitely precious. “You know well, Celine,” says Saint Teresa in one of her letters, “that Our Lord does not look so much at the greatness of our actions, or even at their difficulty, as at the love with which we do them.”
It was her profound realisation of the supernatural value of every detail of her ordinary life which made Saint Teresa the great Saint that she was, and it is that which today makes her beloved by ordinary people. During her last illness she said: “I want to point out to souls the means that I have always found so successful, to tell them that there is only one thing to do here below – to offer Our Lord the flowers of little sacrifices and win Him by our caresses. That is how I have won Him and that is why I shall be made so welcome.” In those words she teaches us that the wearying details in the humdrum routine of life are planned by our heavenly Father, to give us the means of offering ourselves to his Merciful Love, and thus becoming Saints. So far from looking upon these apparently insignificant details as burdens, and sighing for the far-off day when, released from them, we shall enjoy the peace and happiness of heaven, we are to see in them the very means by which heaven with its peace and happiness can be brought to us here and now. Thus the very secret of Saint Teresa’s sanctity, so far from separating her from us, brings her into our midst, for the material of that sanctity was just the ordinary material which goes to make up the life of each one of us. Everything, even the smallest detail, can have an eternal significance, if done for love.
Saint Teresa insistently recommends this practice to others. “If you wish to be a Saint – and it will not be hard – keep only one end in view, always to do every thing in order to please Jesus.” The simplicity of that programme and the very phraseology – always to do everything in order to please Jesus – makes us hesitate: we sense the sentimental, and we would have expected something more virile, more heroic. But Our Lord himself said something very much the same. His Gospel was not sentimental; it lacked neither virility nor heroism: “He hath not left me alone. For I do always the things that please him.” (John 8:29)
The theologian tells us to relate all things to our last end, but not everybody listens. Saint Teresa says, Do all things to please Jesus, and shows us how it is done, and in the doing of it she talks our language and lives our life, and the whole world goes after her.
Men and women learn most easily by pictures or by examples, and that surely was the divine method of teaching. The Incarnation was a living reality before it found its way into a theological treatise, and it is in parables and stories taken directly from human life that the Gospel is enshrined. True to Our Lord’s method, Saint Teresa wrote no treatise; but she wrote the story of her life, and in that story we find all the fundamentals of the spiritual life portrayed in such a way that all can see and understand.
Let us then observe Saint Teresa, and see how she herself followed the Little Way, the way of little things. She tells us, as we have seen, that there is only one thing to do here below, namely to offer to Our Lord the flowers of small sacrifices. At first sight this seems more poetical than practical, but if we examine it we shall find that Saint Teresa is quite relentless in her realism. The seed-ground of these “flowers” is our everyday life. Consider for instance the passage in which she tells us quite explicitly what those flowers are. “To strew flowers is the only means I have of showing my love. That is to say I will let no little sacrifice escape me, not a look, not a word. I will make use of the smallest actions and I will do them all for love.” Here indeed is a comprehensive programme, yet one which is well within the scope of each one of us. Let us examine it in detail.
(a) I will let no little sacrifice escape me
We all try to escape little sacrifices, and we find we cannot do so: hence that inner conflict which makes us depressed and nervy, and sick at heart. We are conscious of continual calls to a higher standard of spiritual life, of invitations to be less indulgent of ourselves and of our personal comfort, to be more disciplined in the use of our time, to be less subservient to human respect, and therefore to be less worldly. These are calls to make little sacrifices, and so they are painful to our human nature, and the immediate suffering obscures the ultimate spiritual gain. We are afraid, and we fail to respond.
At other times the occasions are provided by calls on our time through the interruptions of others, interruptions sometimes unavoidable but sometimes quite unnecessary; the call to sacrifice our own point of view where no principle is involved, for the sake of peace; the failure of the hopes we had placed in others; their lack of gratitude and lack of response; the spoiling by other people’s mistakes or lack of vision of what we imagine God’s plan to be. From such occasions as these there is no escape; we have to accept them in one way or another, and more often than not we do so in the wrong way. Knowing that they are going to hurt our self-love, we instinctively try to protect ourselves by making them minister to it. We let them rankle in our minds, wrap ourselves up in a garment of self-pity, and become irritable and discontented.
From all this Saint Teresa liberates us. She shows us that these occasions of sacrifice, so far from being something to be avoided, are providentially arranged by Our Lord, and carefully proportioned by him to our powers; they are opportunities which we can grasp to prove our love and so give him joy. In her Autobiography she lets us see the simplicity of the incidents through which she herself grew in sanctity.
“For a long time my place at meditation was near a Sister who fidgeted incessantly, either with her rosary or with something else. Possibly I alone heard her because of my very sensitive ear, but I cannot tell you to what extent I was tried by the irritating noise. There was a strong temptation to turn round and with one glance to silence the offender; yet in my heart I knew I ought to bear with her patiently, for the love of God first of all, and also to avoid causing her pain. I therefore remained quiet, but the effort cost me so much that sometimes I was bathed in perspiration, and my meditation consisted merely in the prayer of suffering. Finally I sought a way of gaining peace, in my inmost heart at least, and so I tried to find pleasure in the disagreeable noise. Instead of vainly trying not to hear it, I set myself to listen attentively as though it were delightful music, and my meditation – which was not the prayer of “quiet” – was passed in offering this music to Our Lord.”
“On another occasion when I was engaged in the laundry, the Sister opposite to me, who was washing handkerchiefs, kept splashing me continually with dirty water. My first impulse was to draw back and wipe my face in order to show her that I wanted her to be more careful. The next moment, however, I saw the folly of refusing treasures thus generously offered, and I carefully refrained from betraying any annoyance. On the contrary I made such efforts to welcome the shower of dirty water that at the end of half an hour I had taken quite a fancy to the novel kind of aspersion, and resolved to return as often as possible to the place where such precious treasures were freely bestowed.”
“You see, Mother, that I am but a very little soul, who can offer to God only very little things. It still happens that I frequently miss the opportunity of welcoming these small sacrifices which bring so much peace; but I am not discouraged – I bear the loss of a little peace and I try to be more watchful in the future.”
(b) Not a look
Having shown us that she became a Saint by offering every little daily sacrifice to Our Lord to give him joy and as an expression of her love for him, Saint Teresa then shows us how this works out in two most important aspects of our daily life – our looks and our words. “I will let no little sacrifice escape me, not a look.” Few of us realise the importance of the expression on our faces. It gives us away long before we speak, and often completely contradicts what we are saying. We can make a whole room cheerful by our faces, and by our expression we can cast gloom over the whole house. But to be always cheerful and smiling when we feel ill in body and sick at heart, and depressed with ourselves and disappointed with others, is most difficult, and for that reason it is one of the most important things in the spiritual life. Saint Teresa realised that, and so she tried to meet everybody and everything with a smile. In her portraits and statues she is usually depicted as smiling. Some critics regard this as forced and superficial; but it is in fact they who are superficial, for they have not learned that an essential point in sanctity is its gaiety. If people cannot picture us as always smiling, it is not because we are profound, but precisely because we are not profound enough. There is no such thing as a depressing Saint. Un saint triste est un triste saint, says Saint Francis de Sales. The secret of Saint Teresa’s smile is to be found in a passage of her Autobiography where she deals with a novice whom she found depressed and in tears. “You ought not,” Saint Teresa told her, “to allow your worries to be noticed by others, for nothing makes community life more trying than unevenness of temper.” The novice replied: “You are right; henceforth I will keep my worries and tears for God alone.” “Tears for God!’’ promptly replied Saint Teresa, “that would never do. Far less to Him than to His creatures ought you to show a mournful face. He comes to our cloisters in search of rest – to forget the unceasing complaints of His friends in the world, who, instead of appreciating the value of the Cross, receive it more often than not with moans and tears. Frankly, this is not disinterested love... It is for us to console Our Lord, and not for Him to be always consoling us... Our Lord loves the glad of heart, the children that greet Him with a smile. When will you learn to hide your troubles from Him, or to tell Him gaily that you are happy to suffer for Him? The face is the mirror of the soul, and yours, like that of a contented little child, should always be calm and serene. Even when alone be cheerful, remembering always that you are in the sight of the Angels.”
In that passage the secret stands revealed. It is only those souls who, through an intimate personal communion with Our Lord, have come to appreciate fully the value of the Cross, and are able to tell him gaily that they are happy to suffer with him – it is only those who will be able to meet everything and everybody around them with a smile.
It was this that gave to Saint Teresa’s smile its in vincible power in just those situations which seem so ordinary and which are yet so important. “Formerly,” she tells us, “a holy nun of our community was a constant source of annoyance to me. Unwilling to yield to my natural antipathy, I prayed for her whenever I met her. I tried also to render her as many services as I could, and when tempted to make a disagreeable answer, I made haste to smile and change the subject of conversation. The outcome was that one day, with a beaming countenance, she said: ‘Tell me, Sister Teresa, what is it that attracts you to me so strongly? I never meet you without being welcomed with your most gracious smile’.” Again, in ministering to old Sister Saint Peter in a very difficult and trying routine, evening after evening, it was Saint Teresa’s smile which ultimately won the confidence of the poor old invalid whom nobody else had been able to please. No wonder the Sisters said: “We shall have no fun today because Sister Teresa is not coming to recreation.” In all this she had but one motive – to please Our Lord – and it was that which gave her her unique charm. “I look,” she says, “for little opportunities, for the smallest trifles, to give pleasure to Jesus: a smile or a kind word, for instance, when I wish to be silent or to show that I am bored.”
Nothing less than the purely supernatural desire of pleasing Jesus will enable us to smile in the midst of trouble. Without this motive, it is too difficult: nothing else cuts at our self-love so deeply, for we not only have to make the sacrifice of hiding our troubles, but we also receive neither sympathy nor consolation from those around us. We get no credit for our efforts: people merely think we have no troubles at all! This brings us to the root of all depression and sadness, namely pride and self-love. In our pride we try to bear our crosses more or less independently of Our Lord, and when we fail, we show our sadness in order that the consolation of others may feed our self-love. Clearly therefore it is those who try to live lives of humble confident love – that is to say, those who possess the spirit of childhood – who will see in this particular sacrifice, flowers most worth plucking in order to give pleasure to Our Lord. “Our Lord loves the children who greet Him with a smile. Our face, like that of a con tented little child, should always be calm and serene.” It was the smile of Our Lady that charmed the soul of Bernadette. It was Our Lady’s smile that cured little Teresa. The true children of our heavenly Father, and of Mary, should always be recognisable by their smile. “God loveth a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7)
(c) Not a word
The second fact in our ordinary life, which Saint Teresa notes as specially giving us opportunities for little sacrifices, and as being therefore a precious means of sanctification, is our tongue. “I will let no little sacrifice escape me, not a look, not a word.” The tongue and its activities! Here is a subject so vast that we can only indicate the lines pointed out to us by Saint Teresa.
In a letter to Mother Agnes she says: “Your letter has done me such good. The sentence, ‘Let us refrain from saying a word which could raise us in the esteem of others’, has indeed enlightened my soul. Yes, we must keep all for Jesus with jealous care. It is so good to work for Him alone.” Here at once is something which strikes home to each one of us. We all know the temptation to talk about everything we do in such a way that it is not the glory of God which is being served, but our own self-love. It is easy to talk incessantly about what we have done and how we did it; but it does no good to others, for it does not edify; and it does no good to us, for it is centred in self. This use of the tongue for self-glorification is so subtle, and finds expression in so many ways, that the only safe course is to offer to Our Lord the sacrifice of never speaking of ourselves at all. “We must keep all for Jesus with jealous care.” Our life and our works belong to him, and our life must be hid with Christ in God.
Closely allied to self-glorification in success is self-justification in failure. One of our deepest instincts is to excuse ourselves when things go wrong, even when it is our fault: still more ready are we to do so when the fault is not our own. As usual Saint Teresa goes straight to the point. “What benefit do we derive from defending ourselves? Leave things as they are and say nothing. It is so sweet to allow ourselves to be judged anyhow, rightly or wrongly. It is not written in the Gospel that Saint Mary Magdalene put forth excuses when charged by her sister with sitting idle at Our Lord’s feet. She did not say: ‘Martha, if you knew the happiness that is mine and if you heard the words that I hear, you too would leave everything to share my joy and repose.’ No, she preferred to keep silent. Blessed silence which gives such peace to the soul.”
We know in our hearts that this is true, but in practice we argue that we are only standing up for our rights; we make great play with the fact that it is only justice after all, and that justice is a virtue. And yet, except in the very rare cases where some principle is involved, we always lose by it, nobody is edified, and we do not even find the peace we sought. The infallible test is that there is no peace in our souls; and this is so precisely because we cannot make the slight sacrifice of self-love required. We cannot see that here is a flower, a little sacrifice, to be offered to Our Lord.
A very vivid passage in the Autobiography shows us Saint Teresa putting this into practice in one of those trivial instances which make up daily life. “For several days you had been ill with bronchitis, and we were all very anxious. One morning in discharge of my office of sacristan I entered your infirmary, very gently, to put back the keys of the Communion grille. Though I took good care not to show it, I was inwardly rejoicing at the opportunity of seeing you. One of the Sisters, however, feared that I should wake you, and discreetly wished to take the keys from me. I told her, with all possible politeness, that I was as anxious as she that there should be no noise, adding that it was my duty to return them. I see now that it would have been more perfect to yield, but I did not think so then, and consequently tried to enter the room. What she feared came to pass – the noise we made woke you, and the blame was cast upon me. The Sister made a lengthy discourse, the point of which was that I was the guilty person. I was burning to defend myself when happily it occurred to me that if I began to do so, I should certainly lose my peace of mind, and that as I had not sufficient virtue to keep silence when accused, my only chance of safety lay in flight. No sooner thought than done, and I fled... But my heart beat so violently that I could not go far and had to sit down on the stairs to taste in peace and quiet the fruits of my victory.”
If in our conversation we seek to avoid all self-centredness we shall have more time to think of others, and so to see their point of view. Thus we shall be the last to criticise, or impute motives. If we leap to criticise others, it merely indicates that we do not know our own failings, for a sure sign of a realisation of our own faults is tenderness towards those of others. “It is not playing the game to argue with a Sister that she is in the wrong, even when it is true, because we are not answerable for her conduct. We must not be Justices of the Peace, but Angels of peace only.”
Self-forgetfulness in conversation is a blessed thing in many other ways. It will, for example, enable us to get out of ourselves and enter into the interests of others. “When I am talking to a novice I am ever on the watch to mortify myself, avoiding all questions which would tend to gratify my curiosity. Should she begin to speak on an interesting subject, and, leaving it unfinished, pass on to another that wearies me, I am careful not to remind her of the digression, for no good can come of self-seeking.” To be interested in the concerns of others enriches us beyond all conception; but it involves sacrifice, and for that reason we often fail to experience its blessedness. Above all, self-forgetfulness in conversation develops in us the gift of noticing at once when someone else is in need of consolation or encouragement. We are continually in contact with other people, and often just at the moment when a little interest, a word of understanding, of consolation or of encouragement would mean everything to them. The capacity to say that word is one of the greatest gifts in ordinary daily life. We possess that gift exactly in proportion as we forget ourselves, and make the sacrifice which self-forgetfulness in our daily conversation demands. To do this continually, requires a high degree of love of Our Lord. Nothing less than that will carry us through, for only too often our efforts will go unrewarded.
“It frequently needs only a word or a smile to impart fresh life to a despondent soul. Yet it is not merely in the hope of bringing consolation that I wish to be kind; if it were so, I should soon be discouraged, for often well-intentioned words are totally misunderstood. Consequently, in order that I may lose neither time nor labour, I try to act solely to please Our Lord.”
(d) I will make use of the smallest actions, and I will do them all for love
Finally, Saint Teresa gathers in every single action and incident in human life, and claims it for Our Lord. “Jesus tells us that the smallest actions done for His love are those which charm His Heart. If it were necessary to do great things, we should be deserving of pity, but we are fortunate indeed, since Jesus lets Himself be led captive by the smallest action.”
Saint Teresa does not say the small actions, but the smallest. It is not difficult to see, in theory, the place which small sacrifices hold in the spiritual life, even though it is not easy to put this into practice; but that the smallest actions of every day, those which are apparently the most indifferent, can be directly related to Our Lord, and become a means by which we show our love to him; that they can be made channels of grace to our souls, and that by them earth can be directly linked with heaven – that, for most of us, is very difficult to grasp.
What did she mean by “smallest action”? She gives us an example. “I endeavoured,” she says, “above all, to practise little hidden acts of virtue, such as folding the mantles which the Sisters had forgotten, and being on the alert to render them help.” Folding the mantles which the Sisters had forgotten – that is what the smallest actions meant in the convent life of Saint Teresa. In our spiritual snobbery we smile at it as petty and trifling; it would have been more practical to make the Sisters do it themselves: but while the smile is still on our lips we begin to see that it was the coalescing of just such little actions as these, which produced the colossal phenomenon of Saint Teresa of the Child Jesus.
Many of us shrink from pushing this truth to its logical conclusion for fear that minute attention to detail will make us scrupulous. Surely – we argue – it is safer to make, at the Morning Offering, a virtual intention covering all the day, and then carry on with practical common-sense.
This sounds excellent in theory, but too often it breaks down in practice, and merely ends in the making of the Morning Offering, while we slip through the day on a purely natural plane till we arrive at our prayers in the evening; and it is precisely our habit of thus meeting the smallest actions of our daily life on the natural plane which makes them more than we can cope with. Divorced from their true purpose, that of leading us out of ourselves to God and to our fellow-men, they imprison us within ourselves and make us give way to self-pity and discontent.
On the other hand, if we do everything to please Our Lord we shall find ourselves becoming more and more alert to help others and far more conscious of the endless little opportunities around us, the value of which we had never realised before. To find time for a visit to Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament will become perfectly easy, whereas before it required a superhuman effort. We shall be able to carry on happily through the midst of the smallest details of the day, because through them we have found the way out of ourselves into the heart of God, and into the hearts of our fellow-men.
Thus liberated from the prison of self-love into the glorious liberty of the children of God, we love him and his will alone, regardless of the forms in which it comes to us, and we love others for his sake, regardless of the circumstances that may be involved. “Thou shalt love the Lord Thy God with thy whole heart... and thy neighbour as thyself” (Luke 10:27): herein is perfect sanctity. That is what Saint Teresa means by becoming a victim of love, and she leads us to it through little things.
The supernatural value of the smallest details of human life is one of the most profound of the many lessons which Saint Teresa teaches us. That alone would justify the title “The Little Way “, for it is pre-eminently the way of little things. “There is only one thing to do here below, namely to offer Our Lord the flowers of little sacrifices, to win Him by our caresses.” Caresses – she is right. Just as in human love it is the little attentions which betray the depth of human feelings, so it is our little actions done for love which show the intensity of our devotion to Our Lord.
The little is the key to the great, for good or for ill. Scripture tells us: “He that contemneth small things shall fall by little and little.” (Ecclesiastes 19:1) It also tells us: “He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in that which is greater.” (Luke 16:10)