“My little way is the way of spiritual childhood, the way of trust and absolute self-surrender.” Speaking thus during her last illness to Mother Agnes, her sister, Saint Teresa made it clear that in her eyes, her Little Way was, above all, the way of supernatural confidence. Pilgrims to Lisieux will remember having seen in the very centre of the nave, written boldly in mosaic on the floor of the new basilica, the words: “Ayez confiance”. They are there because they epitomise the teaching of the Saint.
Saint Teresa’s mission seems to have been to recall the world to childlike confidence in God. Ever since the Fall, man has been estranged from his heavenly Father by fear. “I heard thy voice in paradise; and I was afraid... and I hid myself.” (Genesis 3:10) We are all subject to that fear; it is nothing new. Man has always been conscious of miseries within and without, giving him good cause to fear, and this fear increases the more the effects of sin are realised. May we not say that today men’s hearts are “withering away for fear and expectation of what shall come upon the whole world” (Luke 21:26) – a fear experienced at times even in the hearts of the faithful? Many are losing their faith in face of a growing materialism, and the apparent success of its persecution of the Church. Confidence weakens and, with it, the whole spiritual life. By stressing the need for confidence in God and giving us a sure ground for this confidence, Saint Teresa enables us to face the troubles of our times in the spirit of Christ. Our confidence must reflect, as did Saint Teresa’s, the confidence of Our Lord.
We have already seen that the Way of Spiritual Childhood is based upon the revelation of the Fatherhood of God. We must by faith gaze upon the Father with the eyes of the Son. In the natural order, a child’s dependence upon its father is accompanied normally by complete trust and confidence, and the smaller the child the more unquestioning the confidence; its father could never fail it. It is the same in the supernatural order. Our dependence upon our heavenly Father should normally lead us to an unbounded confidence that since he alone can help us, he surely will; we have only to consider how much he desires to help us to see how far our confidence may go. The more we recognise our need of his help the more sure we may be that he will come to our aid. Again, in the natural order, it is the helplessness of her child without her that moves a mother’s heart. The little child has no need even to look towards its mother, still less to cry out; if there is danger at hand the mother has already seen it, and her arms are around her child before it is aware of its peril. It is the same in the supernatural order. What calls to our heavenly Father with greater insistence than anything else is our helpless dependence upon him.
On a certain occasion during her life in Carmel, Saint Teresa was asked: “Tell us what we must do to be as little children. What do you mean by keeping little?” She replied: “When we keep little we recognise our own nothingness, and expect everything from God just as a little child expects everything from its father. Nothing worries us.” In those words she reveals to us the foundation of her confidence. By looking at her heavenly Father’s love for her, she learns a secret which is hidden from the wise and prudent, and revealed only to little ones, namely, that whereas, in heaven, the love of God goes out to those who are most like himself – the Saints, Our Lady, the only-begotten Son, on earth, his love goes out to those who are farthest off – the weak, the outcast, the sinful. In other words, the love revealed to Saint Teresa in the Person of Our Lord was a merciful love, and it is as the “Merciful Love” that she always speaks of it. From her earliest days she had a special knowledge of the Divine Mercy, and one may say that this was the great light of her life and the grace proper to her mission. No one, it would seem, was ever more attracted than she was to this infinite mercy; no one penetrated further into its unfathomable secrets: no one better understood the immensity of the help that human weakness can draw from it. “The mercy of God was the illumining sun of her soul, that which, to her eyes, threw light upon all the mystery of God in His relations with man.” (Pere Martin) That this was so she tells us herself. “All souls cannot be alike. They must differ so that each divine perfection may receive special honour. To me He has manifested His infinite mercy, and in this resplendent mirror I contemplate His other attributes. There each appears radiant with love.”
Saint Augustine interprets the word “misericordia” as meaning miseris cor dare –to give oneself to, or to pour one’s heart out over the weak, the outcast, and the fallen. It is as “merciful” that God reveals himself to us in the Gospels. It is easy to acknowledge this reality in theory, but difficult to live in accordance with it. It was through constantly meditating on the Gospels and on the mysteries of the faith, with a full consciousness of her weakness and her need, that Saint Teresa was led so intimately into the secret of the Merciful Love of God, and therefore to such heights of supernatural confidence.
If we open our Gospels with the one thought of this Merciful Love uppermost in our minds, we shall find it on every page. From the outset of his public life we see Our Lord ministering to the lame, the deaf, the dumb, the paralysed, the leper, the sick and the dying. “And when the sun was down, all they that had any sick with divers diseases brought them to him. But he, laying his hands on every one of them, healed them.” (Luke 4:40) But what touched Saint Teresa even more than that, was the Merciful Love of God for the moral and spiritual outcast. Two of her favourite parables were those of the Lost Sheep and of the Prodigal Son. In each of these the lesson is the Merciful Love of God for that which is lost. In the first parable the image is that of the Good Shepherd leaving the ninety and nine in the fold, and seeking the one lost sheep until he finds it: “Rejoice with me, because I have found my sheep that was lost.” In the second parable it is the image of the father waiting and longing for his lost son: “And when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and was moved with compassion (misericordia motus) and running to him fell upon his neck and kissed him... It was fit that we should make merry and be glad, for this thy brother was dead and is come to life again; he was lost and is found.”
Still more clearly is this seen in Our Lord’s dealings with individual souls. There are several incidents particularly dear to Saint Teresa. It is with the woman of Samaria, belonging to a despised people, heretical in her religion, and none too good in her moral life, that Our Lord holds one of the most exquisite dialogues recorded in Scripture, and he finally wins from her an act of faith in his Messiahship. With the woman taken in adultery, though everybody else had branded her, nothing could have been more tender than his treatment, yet nothing more firm than his rebuke: “Hath no man condemned thee? Who said: No man, Lord. And Jesus said: Neither will I condemn thee. Go, and now sin no more.” (John 8:10-11) And with Mary Magdalene, as all around were looking on in disapproval and calling her a sinner, the Christ in his mercy was bending over her and giving her absolution: “Thy sins are forgiven thee... Go in peace.” (Luke 7:45, 50)
It was meditating on these revelations of the Merciful Love of God that led Saint Teresa to say: “It is not merely because I have been preserved from mortal sin that I lift up my heart to God in trust and love. I am certain that even if I had on my conscience every imaginable crime, 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.”
The Merciful Love of God is the burden of the Gospel story. Our Lord made himself the special friend of publicans and sinners because he had come into the world to seek and to save that which was lost, and to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance. “The Lord is gracious and merciful: patient and plenteous in mercy. The Lord is sweet to all; and his tender mercies are over all his works.” (Ps. 144:8-9) That was the supreme message that Holy Scripture held for little Teresa.
Are we emphasising God’s mercy at the expense of his justice? To think this would indicate a wrong understanding of the relationship between God’s mercy and his justice. He is merciful because he is just. It is precisely a wrong view of the Divine Justice that prevents many a soul from realising fully the Merciful Love of God. True justice takes into account good intentions, the circumstances which lessen the responsibility, no less than those which increase it. God makes allowances for weaknesses and failings, as we rarely do – we are neither just nor merciful enough, because we do not realise our own weaknesses, and so do not make allowance for the weaknesses of others; but God sees us as we really are, and before punishing us, in justice he begins by considering our profound misery; his justice excites his mercy. Now Saint Teresa, because she was so conscious of her weakness, saw this truth so clearly that the thought of God’s justice, far from terrifying her, only added to her confidence and joy. She tells us this in one of her letters, and as usual she quotes Scripture to support her words. “I know that He is infinitely just, but the very Justice which terrifies so many souls is the source of all my confidence and joy. Justice is not only stern severity towards the guilty; it takes account of the good intention, and gives to virtue its reward. 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, and plenteous in mercy. For He knoweth our frame, He rernembereth that we are dust. As a father hath compassion on his children, so hath the Lord compassion on them that fear Him’.”
Again, Saint Teresa says: “In the mirror of His infinite Mercy, all His other attributes appear radiant with love – His Justice perhaps more than all the rest. What joy to think that Our Lord is Just – that He takes into account our weakness and knows so well the frailty of our nature. What then need I fear?” Her childlike reliance on a heavenly Father who loves her because she is but dust, led her to experience for herself the mercy of the God of Justice to those who trust themselves to him.
It was, however, her constant meditation on the mysteries of the faith which revealed to Saint Teresa even more directly the depths of the Merciful Love. The Incarnation, the Atonement, the Resurrection and the Ascension were simply God in his Merciful Love stooping down to succour his weak and helpless children, taking upon himself at Bethlehem their human nature, so that, by bearing their self-inflicted miseries, he might lift them, through his Cross and Resurrection, to their home in heaven for which their Father had made them. The crucifix is the supreme revelation of the intensity of the Merciful Love: it is the embrace of the Father as he takes his erring children once again into his arms. If her heavenly Father would do that for sinners, how much more will he do it for those who try to follow along the path of spiritual childhood? Before this revelation, how could she set any limits to her confidence?
This is Saint Paul, through and through. “He that spared not even his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how hath he not also, with him, given us all things?” (Romans 8:32) Again: “God commendeth his charity towards us: because when as yet we were sinners according to the time, Christ died for us. Much more therefore being now justified by his blood, shall we be saved from wrath through him.” (Romans 5:8-9) Compelling as the argument is, it is possible to give a merely intellectual assent to it, and Saint Teresa was sent to teach us that we must really become as little children before we can appreciate this truth in reality.
In the Sacraments of the Church she saw an even more immediate foundation for her confidence. In Baptism, here on earth, at a definite place, at a given moment of time, she found in action the working of God’s Merciful Love, for here was planted in her soul, by her Mother the Church, that supernatural gift of grace by which was restored to her the life that had been lost at the Fall, by which she was made a partaker of the Divine Nature, an heir of the kingdom of heaven, in a word, her Father’s child. In the Sacrament of Penance she was washed in the Precious Blood of the merciful God who had stooped even to death in order to cleanse her soul. Above all, it was the Holy Eucharist which was the source of her confidence, for here was the continuation on earth of the supreme revelation of the Merciful Love, the sacrifice of Calvary. Here in her Communion she received into her soul the whole redemptive activity of Christ, and thus was caught up into the whole plan of the Merciful Love for lifting men from their weakness and miseries, and making them partakers of his divinity. Since the Merciful Love of God had contrived to set in the heart of the Church such a wonderful gift as that, she knew that “to them that love God all things work together unto good” (Romans 8:28), and was confident in a love she did not scruple to term foolish.
“O my Saviour! It is Thou whom I love, it is Thou who drawest me so irresistibly to Thee. Thou who, descending into this land of exile, wast willing to suffer and to die in order to lift up each single soul and plunge it into the very heart of the Blessed Trinity – Love’s eternal home! Thou who, ascending into light inaccessible, dost still remain hidden here in this valley of tears under the appearance of the frail white Host to nourish me with Thine own substance. Forgive me, O Jesus, if I tell Thee that Thy love reaches even unto folly, and how canst Thou not wish that before such folly my heart should leap up to Thee? How can my confidence have any bounds?”