We have hitherto considered the simplicity and directness of the supernatural charity of the Little Way: we must now study, in the person of Saint Teresa, its intimacy.
In Saint Teresa the sense of the tenderness of the heavenly Father’s love was so strong, and has been by her so realistically expressed, that it has often been considered exaggerated. Such words as “I have won Him with little caresses, that is why I shall be so well received”, which were spoken by Saint Teresa on her sick-bed and which are typical of her spirituality, might easily give a wrong impression. In fact, however, this familiarity, one of the most profound graces of the Little Way, springs from a close communion with God; it is born amidst suffering and sacrifice, and is yet in a manner within the reach of all of us.
In the old convent-garden at Lisieux there stands a tree, planted not so very long ago. Why was it planted in that particular corner?
Some fifty years since, well within the lifetime of many of us, Saint Teresa was walking in that garden. It was towards the end of her life. Weakened by consumption, she was leaning upon the arm of her sister, Mother Agnes, and in their walk they came to this corner. There a little white hen was sheltering its chickens under its wings. Saint Teresa stood spellbound, and her eyes filled with tears. Turning to her sister, she said: “I can’t stay here any longer, let us go in.” Even when she reached her cell she could restrain her tears only with difficulty, and it was some time before she could speak. Then she said to her sister: “I was thinking of Our Lord and the touching comparison He chose to bring home to us how tender He is. All my life long He has done that for me, He has completely hidden me under His wings. I wish I could tell you all that is in my heart.”
We should not miss the significance of this scene. To Saint Teresa it was no empty image, for it represented to her the essence of the spiritual life.
This incident did not take place in the first glow of fervour, when she was a novice. It happened when she was weakened by relentless fever, worn out by suffering, and had only a few weeks to live. At the same time she was enveloped in great spiritual darkness and beset by perpetual temptations against the faith. Yet, not in spite of all this but precisely because of all this, she says: ”All my life long He has done this for me, He has completely hidden me under His wings.” Saint Teresa’s tears are not the mark of sentimentality, but of love fashioned in the school of suffering.
In the natural order there is nothing sentimental in the love of a mother for her child. With all its tenderness, there is nothing so sacrificial, so self-forgetful, as this love, and it is for this reason that there is no one so secure as the little child in its mother’s arms. Looked at from this point of view, the scene we have described can no longer be regarded as superficial or sentimental; it contains a truth too deep.
But more, this image of a mother’s love is used in the Scriptures; and through it God himself has chosen to reveal his love for us. “You shall be carried at the breasts... As one whom the mother caresseth, so will I comfort you.” (Isaiah 66:12-13) It would be difficult to find words more vividly descriptive of the truth that God’s love for us is as tender as the love of a mother caressing her child.
Perhaps more appealing still is the passage in Isaiah where Almighty God goes further and tells us explicitly that his love for us surpasses the tenderest love of a mother for her child. “Can a woman forget her infant, so as not to have pity on the son of her womb? And if she should forget, yet will not I forget thee.” (Isaiah 49:15) In the natural order a mother may conceivably forget her child, but never will the heavenly Father forget his children. That is the argument. Meditating on these passages of Scripture Saint Teresa wrote the following words: “I have long believed that the Lord is more tender than a mother. I have sounded the depths of more than one mother’s heart and I know that a mother is ever willing to forgive the little involuntary failings of her child.”
The twofold character of the love of Almighty God, its strength and its tenderness, is again revealed by God under the image of the protective love of the mother-bird for her young – the very image we are considering. We find it often in the Psalms, and again in one of the most moving scenes recorded in the Gospels.
“The children of men shall put their trust under the covert of thy wings.” (Ps. 35:8) “I shall be protected under the covert of thy wings.” (Ps. 60:5) “Under his wings thou shalt trust.” (Ps. 90:4) At other times it is the source of his supernatural joy: “I will rejoice under the covert of thy wings.” (Ps. 62:8) And each night at Compline the Church calls this image to our minds by bidding her children appeal to God’s all-enveloping love for every one of them: “Keep me as the apple of thine eye. Protect me under the shadow of thy wings.” (Ps. 16:8)
There are two occasions recorded in the Gospels, when Our Lord shed tears – once when standing by the grave of Lazarus, again when looking out over Jerusalem. “When he drew near, seeing the city, he wept over it.” (Luke 19:41) When Our Lord wished to express the greatness of the love which was thus breaking his heart, he used this very image: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem,... how often would I have gathered together thy children, as the hen doth gather her chickens under her wings, and thou wouldst not?” (Matthew 23:37)
We see now that Saint Teresa in the convent-garden at Lisieux, seeing the image that he had used to make known the love which made him weep, could not but shed tears too – tears of gratitude and joy: born not of ecstasies or visions, but of suffering physical and spiritual, through which her heavenly Father had drawn her to himself. In this embrace of her heavenly Father she had found certain things to be realities which we, with our spiritual sense dulled by an unwillingness to suffer, know only in theory.
She knew that through it all she had been “carried at the breasts”: comforted all the way “as one whom the mother caresseth”: that never, even in the darkest moment, had she been abandoned by a love more tender than a mother’s. Under his wings she found security and confidence. She had proved that in the darkest trial of her life there had been, from moment to moment, an adjustment between pain and darkness on the one hand, and the capacity of her soul to bear it on the other. Speaking of this trial she tells us: “And yet I have never experienced more fully the sweetness and mercy of Our Lord. He did not send this heavy cross when it would, I believe, have discouraged me, but chose a time when I was able to bear it.”
At this point we may feel that what was possible for Saint Teresa is quite beyond us; that to be drawn into this embrace of the heavenly Father requires a degree of suffering beyond that which is possible to the ordinary person. Let us then see clearly what it was that enabled Saint Teresa to surrender herself so completely to her Father’s love. It was that she became so perfectly his little child.
In this there was nothing ecstatic or extraordinary. “There is no ecstasy,” she says, “to which I do not prefer hidden suffering.” Confident that she was her Father’s little child, and that therefore between him and herself was a relationship of love alone, she made a simple, steady surrender of her will to his in the circumstances of her everyday life. Little mortifications of the will, little disappointments, little interruptions of her plans, little sorrows, little annoyances, little sufferings – these were the material of her sanctity; and it is here that she joins hands with us all, for these are the daily lot of everyone.
She has shared with us too the natural tendency to discouragement, to pride, egotism, irritability, and the manifold miseries which we know so well. They are the very things which we all have to overcome in our own lives. Too often, by continual failure to overcome them, we allow them to take the bloom from our spirituality. We lose the delicacy of our spiritual perceptions and, worse than that, we lose our intimacy with God. But it was not so for Saint Teresa. She accepted these things as being sent straight from God to teach her what she was, and her utter dependence upon him. “What does it matter if I fall every moment? By that I learn my weakness, and therein I find great profit. My God, You see what I am, if You don’t hold me in Your arms.”
Thus, by her Little Way of simple humility and by the daily surrender of her will to his guidance she became so completely dependent that the Father was able to draw her onward through trials which she could not have endured alone, right into his arms, and teach her there the tenderness of his love. And that tenderness was revealed to her by the way in which he proportioned every trial to the immediate state of her soul.
By a continual surrender to grace in little trials, she learned that just as out of the ruthless cruelty of Calvary there flowed the Precious Blood, so it is through our crosses that we do, in fact, experience the tenderness of the Sacred Heart.
For Saint Teresa, every small sacrifice made in union with Our Blessed Lord increased the love which alone he desires from us. “I have won Him,” she says, “with little caresses; that is why I shall be so well received.”