Spiritual Childhood, as we have seen, finds its practical expression in our offering to God, for love of him and our fellow-men, the ordinary details of our daily life, all of which are carefully chosen for us by our heavenly Father as the material of our sanctification. But what about suffering, pain and death? Can those grim accompaniments of human life, which seem to quench our hope and dull our consciousness of the heavenly Father’s love, can those be offered as expressions of our love for him and for those around us? Can they too tend to our sanctification, draw us into a closer union with God? If the Little Way can guide us here, it will indeed solve the deepest problem of human life, for we all have to suffer, and we all have to die.
To understand the light which the Little Way throws on the endurance of suffering, we must again begin by considering the natural order. What is it that takes a small child to its mother more quickly than anything else? Pain! The moment a child is hurt, far from trying to bear its pain alone or imagining that its mother has abandoned it, it runs straight to her arms, and there its pain, although not taken away, becomes easier to bear. In her arms, and through the consciousness of her love, the child receives from her something which she alone can give. Not only does the suffering lose its sting; it is the means of enfolding the child in a specially tender love that otherwise it could never know.
If we put this into the supernatural order and translate it into terms of Saint Teresa’s teaching, the parallel is clear. As soon as anyone sets out to follow the Little Way, in a spirit of complete dependence on the love of God, and with the wish to offer every detail of his life as an expression of his own love, he will soon come across pain. So far from trying to meet it in his own strength, or imagining that God has abandoned him, he immediately says: “My heavenly Father’s love is somewhere in and behind this pain.” In other words, the soul which is really childlike relates its suffering to its Father’s love, and at once throws itself into his arms, where it finds not only strength to endure but a depth and tenderness of love which can come to it only through suffering, and which brings it very close to its crucified Lord.
The degree of that closeness will depend on how completely we surrender ourselves to the Father’s embrace, and this in turn depends on how far we, through grace, are converted from our self-reliance and independence, and, in face of the problem of suffering and pain, become as little children. In other words, when we meet with suffering – physical, mental or spiritual – by practising the virtues of love, humility and confidence, in the spirit of a very little child, we find ourselves drawn by that suffering into the companionship of our crucified Lord, and there learn by experience the inner meaning and purpose of the mystery of pain. It was precisely the fidelity with which Saint Teresa practised those virtues, that united her so closely to her crucified Saviour, and taught her the secrets of the love of God which are hidden from the wise and prudent, and revealed only to little ones.
The first secret that she learned was the immense value of suffering. To her it was a treasure because Our Lord chose it for himself when he was upon earth. “Suffering” she writes, “puts great treasures within our reach. Indeed it is our very livelihood, and so precious that Jesus came down upon earth on purpose to possess it.”
It is only those who suffer who can really understand the amazing mystery that when God came into this world, he chose pain and suffering not only for himself but for his Mother, and however unfathomable, this mystery is the key to our own suffering. “Jesus,” says Saint Teresa writing to Celine about their father’s mental illness, “in His immense love has chosen for us of all crosses the most precious... How can we complain when He Himself has been considered as one struck by God and afflicted?” “In this land of exile we meet with many a thorn and many a bitter plant, but is not this the portion which earth gave to our Divine Spouse? It is fitting, then, to consider good and most beautiful this same portion which has become our own.” In her poem to Our Lady she writes:
“Since on the Blessed Maid who gave Him birth,
Darkness and pain the King of Heaven bestowed,
How great a good must suffering be on earth!”
Between all friends there is a bond which binds them together and makes their friendship live. In our friendship with Our Blessed Lord that bond is suffering, for by it we learn that the mystery of suffering is a mystery of love. As lover looks into lover’s eyes and is silent and understands, so the suffering soul, looking upon a suffering God, needs no explanation and is at rest. But there are two sides to every friendship, and so in Saint Teresa’s eyes the wonder was not merely that through her suffering she found a Friend in the Son of God, but that the Son of God found a friend in her. Suffering was offered to her that, through it, she might show a special delicacy of love to him, and so enter into the inner circle of those who share his sorrows. “He holds out His hand to receive an alms of love proved by suffering... He wants to be able to say to us as to His apostles: You are they who have continued with Me in My temptations. The temptations of Jesus – what a mystery! He too, then, has been tried. Yes, He has had his trials, and often He has trodden the winepress alone. I looked for one that would grieve together with Me, but there was none: and for one that would comfort Me and I found none.” “We now share the chalice of His sufferings; but how sweet it will be to us one day to hear the gentle words: You are they who have continued with Me in My temptations.”
Suffering then is the seal of the divine friendship. We are no longer alone: God is suffering for us and with us. To share in that friendship forged by suffering is the greatest treasure we can possess. “What a favour from Jesus! How He must love us to send us so great a sorrow! Eternity will not be long enough to thank Him for it. He heaps His favours upon us as upon the greatest Saints. What can be His loving designs for our souls?” “I count all things but to be loss... that I may know him... and the fellowship of his sufferings.” (Philippians 3:8-10) The fellowship of his sufferings! The intimate friendship of Jesus! To gain this, Saint Teresa, like Saint Paul, would count all else well lost. We have seen that in one of her letters to her sister Celine she asks the question: “What can be His loving designs for our souls?” In another letter to the same sister she gives the answer: “Why does Jesus allow us to suffer?... Because He knows that it is the only means of preparing us to know Him as He knows Himself, and to become ourselves divine.” Fellowship becomes union; companionship merges into identity of life. If we are childlike enough to allow Our Lord to lead us by the hand unresistingly along the path of suffering, we shall find, as we unite our suffering with his, that it is no longer a matter of mere companionship, but that he is identified with us and we with him, and that he is living in us and suffering in us. “With Christ I am nailed to the cross. And I live, now not I: but Christ liveth in me.” (Galatians 2:19-20)
Union with himself through the Cross of his beloved Son – such is our heavenly Father’s design for our souls, and the means by which he will perfect his design are suffering and pain. “Let us be one with God even in this life; in order to be so, we should be more than resigned, we should embrace the Cross with joy.” To be more than resigned, to embrace the Cross with joy, that is exactly what we find so hard, though we know that the reward is union with God even in this life. What then was the secret that made it possible for Saint Teresa?
Little children have a way of penetrating through the accidental and the superficial and of getting to the heart of a question in a most disconcerting manner, in a way we grown-ups cannot do. It was so with Saint Teresa and the Cross. As she meditated upon the Crucifixion, she did not see it merely as an event in time, looking through time, she saw it as the design of God ordained before the foundation of the world, revealed indeed in time, but existing from all eternity within the will of God. Over the crypt of the basilica at Lisieux are written these words: “I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore have I drawn thee, taking pity on thee.” (Jeremiah 31:3) Those words are there because they were specially dear to Saint Teresa. They show us the proper setting of the Cross upon which Our Lord was lifted to draw all men to him – the eternal love and will of God. Meditating on those words, Saint Teresa, even in her worst sufferings, saw all the happenings of time as part of the eternal will of God, and knew herself to be her heavenly Father’s child, cradled in his everlasting arms.
Set in a world of time and space, tending always to make this world our home, when we come across suffering, pain and death, we do indeed try to relate them to the Cross. But when we find that in this world of time the Cross does not apparently and immediately solve our problems as our earth-bound judgment would expect, we become baffled and perplexed; and one of the reasons for this is that we tend to think of the Cross merely as an event in time. If we lose our perspective of eternity the problems of time take on a far greater proportion than they should; we lose our heads and our crosses are all the harder to bear.
Though we would strenuously deny it if charged with it, we do in fact behave as if God himself had been taken off his guard by the Fall, as if he had not quite got the situation in hand. To be more than resigned, to embrace the Cross with joy, we must see it not as an emergency measure, but as part of the eternal rhythm of the invincible will of the Father, who ordains all things, even the most minute and insignificant, with fatherly love.
Let us consider afresh, then, the invincible will and love of God, which in theory we know so well, but which in practice it is so hard to realise. “God created man incorruptible, and to the image of his own likeness he made him.” (Wisdom 2:23) When God created the human race he, their Father, created them to share his own life – as all children share their father’s life – the life of supernatural love. They shared that life as long as they obeyed him, as again is the case with families on earth. Man was made in the image of his Father, and since God is a free spirit, therefore, man was created a free spirit, with an intellect and will of his own. So long as man obeyed his Father, his intellect and will, responsive to the Father’s love, were able to control his lower faculties. Man was a harmony within himself, and all his social contacts with those around him were to be a harmony as well. There was no suffering, no pain, no sorrow, no death in the original plan, but all depended upon a free acceptance of the authority of the Father’s love.
Then came the Fall. “By the envy of the devil, death came into the world.” (Wisdom 2:24) The devil, inspired by envy, tempted our first parents and they fell. The temptation to which they succumbed was a temptation to pride: “You shall be as Gods, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:5) In his desire to be self-sufficient and independent, Adam, by an act of disobedience, withdrew his intellect and will from his Father’s loving control. By that act the human race, through Adam, its head, rejected God’s fatherly commands and God’s fatherly embrace, and threw over the loving obedience of the creature to its Creator, of the child to its father. The moment the human race, through Adam, had thus rejected the Father’s rule, the intellect and will, uncontrolled by the supernatural love of God, were unable to govern the lower faculties. Instead of a harmony within himself, man found conflict, and from his divided self sprang all the sorrow, suffering, pain, and death in human life. Wherever he went, in all his social contacts, he carried his tragedy with him. Where there should have been peace and harmony there came suffering, pain, and death, and all owing to disobedience, a disobedience springing from pride in search of an imaginary independence of the Father’s love.
Was God caught unawares, taken off his guard? That we know to be impossible. From all eternity God had foreseen the Fall, and was to draw from it a good greater than that which Adam lost. He was to restore his children to a yet more intimate embrace. “When the fullness of the time was come, God sent his Son, made of a woman... that we might receive the adoption of sons.” (Galatians 4:4-5) It might have been thought that there could be no closer union between man and God than the life of super natural grace in which Adam had been created. But no, through union with the Sacred Humanity of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, Our Lord Jesus Christ, God-made-Man, Almighty God was to restore man to a sonship more intimate still.
“When the entire human race had fallen in its first parents, God in His mercy willed in such a manner to bring succour through His only-begotten Son Jesus Christ to the creature made in His own image, that... its second state should excel beyond the dignity of its original state. Happy if it had not fallen from what God made it, but happier if it remain in what He has re-made.” (Saint Leo the Great) In the words of Saint Paul, “But not as the offence, so also the gift. For if by the offence of one, many died: much more the grace of God... hath abounded unto many... And where sin abounded, grace did more abound.” (Romans 5:15,20) It is the teaching of Saint Thomas that if man had not fallen, the eternal Word would not have become Incarnate. That is Catholic tradition. “For if flesh had not needed to be saved, in no wise would the Word of God have become Flesh.” (Saint Irenaeus) “The Word would by no means have been made Man, unless the need of man had been the cause thereof.” (Saint Athanasius) “If man had not perished, the Son of Man would not have come.” (Saint Augustine) All this is beautifully expressed in the cry of the Church: “O Felix Culpa! O happy fault, that has won for us so loving and so mighty a Redeemer.” Bethlehem, then, is the first unfolding in time of the eternal plan of God’s merciful love, for the restoration of his children.
“The character of the Incarnation is intrinsically one of mercy. Had man not fallen, God would indeed have loved him as he loves the angels, but he would not strictly have shown him mercy. The Incarnation has the character of a mother’s pity for her child who has tumbled and hurt himself. She loved him before, but never so much as she does now. The caresses which she now lavishes upon him would have been mere extravagance before; now they are the spontaneous over-flowing of a heart whose flood-gates have been opened.” (Dom Bruno Webb) It was precisely that revelation of the Merciful Love of God stooping down to Bethlehem and becoming a little child in order to restore his erring children to his embrace, that was the dominating devotion of Saint Teresa of the Child Jesus. “To me He has especially manifested His infinite mercy, and in this mirror I contemplate all His other attributes. There each appears radiant with love.”
The plan of the Merciful Love which unfolds at Bethlehem, moves irresistibly to the Cross for its fulfilment. Bethlehem and Calvary are inseparable. “Wherefore, when he cometh into the world he saith: Sacrifice and oblation thou wouldst not: but a body thou hast fitted to me. Holocausts for sin did not please thee... Then said I: Behold, Income to do thy will, O God.” (Hebrews 10:5-6,9) Just as the central factor of man’s Fall was an act of disobedience, so the central factor of man’s Redemption was an act of obedience, offered in our human nature by the Son of God himself. “As by the disobedience of one man, many were made sinners: so also by the obedience of one, many shall be made just.” (Romans 5:19)
Moreover, as the act of disobedience by which the children were separated from their heavenly Father brought in its train sorrow, suffering, pain and death, the act of obedience, which makes them just again, had to be accomplished in the midst of that sorrow, suffering, pain and death. These stages of man’s journey away from his Father’s love, become the stepping-stones of his return. By sharing our suffering, by living our life side by side with us, Our Lord enables us to sanctify it all.
Suffering is the result of sin, and suffering is the price of sin; Calvary is the scene of reconciliation of the Father with his children. “It hath well pleased the Father... through him to reconcile all things unto himself, making peace through the blood of his cross.” (Colossians 1:19-20) And it is the scene of reconciliation, because Our Lord, who did not have to die, did in fact will to die, to die for us – propter nos homines. “Because the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself in like manner hath been partaker of the same: that, through death, he might destroy him who had the empire of death, that is to say, the devil: and might deliver them who through the fear of death were all their lifetime subject to servitude.” (Hebrews 2:14-15)
He became Man for us. He lived for us, and he knew from eternity what he would do propter nos homines. To each of us Saint Paul says: You were redeemed “with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb unspotted and undefiled, foreknown indeed before the foundation of the world.” (1 Peter 1:19-20)
To be united with that divine plan fore-ordained from all eternity, to be nailed to the Cross with Christ so that she lived, yet not she but Christ lived in her, to be thus identified with him on his Cross and in his Resurrection – that, for Saint Teresa, summed up her whole vocation.
She was not jolted or jarred along the way of the Cross, perplexed and stumbling in the dark; she met every cross with joy because she saw it in its true setting; she looked beyond it to the love of her Father from whom it came and to whom it led; she saw it in the setting of eternity. “Time is but a shadow, a dream. Already God sees us in glory, He rejoices in our eternal happiness. How this thought sustains my soul! I understand then why He lets us suffer.”
Her vision was not bounded by time. Looking forward, she knew that “the sufferings of this time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come that shall be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18) Looking backward she knew with equal certainty that, just as the Cross was ordained before the foundation of the world, so she was chosen in him before the foundation of the world; she knew that in him she was predestined by her heavenly Father to the adoption of children – to spiritual childhood.
In order to co-operate with this divine plan, she offered herself to all the suffering that came in her path, that through it the Merciful Love of God might do its work in her, that, delivered from all self-love and pride, she might be perfectly united to her Saviour. “Suffering united to love is the only thing which appears to me desirable in this valley of tears.”
Finally, because she was such a little child and, as she said, “capable of only very little things”, Saint Teresa saw that the application of the divine plan lay, not in preparing herself for some glorious martyrdom in the far distant future, but in the loving acceptance of the little daily sufferings that lie immediately to hand. “Why are you so gay today? “ she was asked during her last illness. She replied: “Because this morning I have had two little trials. Nothing gives me little joys like little trials.” Here once again she joins hands with us. We all have little trials; sometimes in fact our life appears to be almost entirely made up of them. To lift these small humiliating drudgeries of human life out of their prosaic dullness, by seeing them as God’s chosen means for the fullest union with him here and now in this life, and, seeing them thus, to accept them with joy, this is to rob all suffering of its sting, and to establish the soul in peace and joy. The Little Way is made perfect through little sufferings lovingly accepted for the love of God.