Having seen the place which confidence holds in the scheme of the Little Way, we will now examine it more closely. The Little Way is the way of Spiritual Childhood. The world smiles at it, thinks it weak and sentimental; yet, at the same time, men and women of the world are often unexpectedly converted by it when nothing else has been able to touch them.
The spirit of childhood, as taught by Saint Teresa, attracts us and yet we hold aloof from it, imagining that our aloofness is a prudent reaction to sentimentality, when often enough it is due to the spirit of the world still strong within us; for the spirit of childhood is attained only through a conversion from which we shrink. Our Lord has told us so himself: “Unless you be converted and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
To understand the confidence of Saint Teresa we must pray for the spirit of childhood; only then shall we understand what is hid from the wise and prudent and revealed to little ones. “Holiness,” she says, “does not consist in one exercise or another, but in a disposition of the heart which renders us humble and little in the hands of God, conscious of our weakness, and confident, even daringly confident, in His fatherly goodness.”
“My way is all love and confidence in God; I do not understand souls who are afraid of so tender a friend.” “We can never have too much confidence in the good God, so mighty, so merciful.” The Autobiography abounds in sayings such as these. At once we recognise the atmosphere of the Gospels, where on nearly every page we find it is faith and confidence in himself that Our Lord seems to value more than anything else. The Gospels show him ever seeking it, endeavouring to arouse it, deeply disappointed when he does not find it, and rewarding it generously whenever it is present. To the centurion Our Lord says: “I have not found so great faith in Israel.” (Matthew 8:10) To the woman of Canaan: “O, woman, great is thy faith, be it done to thee as thou wilt.” (Matthew 15:28) As they let down the man sick of the palsy through the roof, we are told: “Jesus, seeing their faith, said to the man sick of the palsy: Be of good heart.” (Matthew 9:2) When, as in the storm on the lake, he fails to find that faith and confidence in him, he is disappointed: “Why are you fearful? Have you not faith yet?” (Mark 4:40) On the other hand, when he finds it he rejoices, and rewards it generously. To the two blind men his message is: “According to your faith, be it done unto you.” (Matthew 9:29) The woman with the issue of blood is reassured with the words: “Be of good heart, daughter. Thy faith hath made thee whole.” (Matthew 9:22) “Thy faith hath made thee safe” (Luke 7:50), he says to Mary Magdalene, and so saying, lifts her to sanctity. To blind Bartimaeus his message is the same: “Go thy way, thy faith hath made thee whole.” (Mark 10:52) Most impressive of all, on the night before his death, having foretold to his chosen apostles that they would be hated by the world, that they would be persecuted and suffer sorrow, that they would be stricken and scattered, he ends his last discourse with the words: “But have confidence. I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) Such is the revelation the Gospels give us of Our Lord, yearning over humanity and longing to find in men and women that faith and confidence in him which would enable him to lift them out of their miseries, and work wonders for them beyond all human understanding.
Confidence in Our Lord is one of the virtues which we all recognise as essential, yet we do not practise it as we should; we remain on the contrary incurably worried and anxious about many things. Saint Teresa, meditating on these texts, saw the primacy of confidence and wrote: “What hurts Jesus, what wounds Him to the heart, is lack of confidence.” Saint Teresa’s confidence, based upon her complete faith in Our Lord’s love for her, was whole-hearted; there was nothing she could not hope for. “Jesus can do all, confidence works miracles.” It is just because our faith in his Merciful Love is so weak that we fail in confidence.
Confidence in Christ’s individual love and providence had always been very real in the life of Saint Teresa. It was this which supported her through the opposition she had to face before entering Carmel. But she tells us that it was not until the retreat, a year after her profession, that she was encouraged to set forth definitely on that path of supernatural confidence which was to lead her to such heights of sanctity. “The retreat father understood me completely, and launched me full sail upon the ocean of confidence and love which had so long attracted me, but over which I had scarcely dared venture. He also told me that my faults did not grieve Almighty God, adding: ‘ At this moment I hold His place, and I assure you on His behalf that He is well pleased with your soul.’ Those words were comforting and filled me with joy, for I had never heard it was possible that faults could not give pain to God. It was, however, the echo of my inmost thoughts. I had long felt that Our Lord is more tender than a mother, and I have sounded the depths of more than one mother’s heart. I know by sweet experience how ready a mother is to forgive the involuntary failings of her child.”
So she set sail upon the ocean of confidence which had attracted her, but upon which the consciousness of her daily faults had made her hesitate to venture. Here indeed she joins hands with us. It is not our mortal sins so much as our involuntary failings into which, in spite of our genuine desire for holiness, we fall every day; it is these which make us lose confidence, despair of the heights of sanctity, and settle down to a mediocre spirituality.
Conscious that she was her Father’s child, and that in spite of her failings she did desire to love him; believing in his infinite mercy and love, she did not allow any morbid consideration of her faults to keep her from him. She did not consider her faults in their negative aspect and so remain discouraged. She passed swiftly to the positive aspect. She regarded those faults as reminders of her weakness and of her essential need for Our Lord’s constant support; they caused her to turn more completely to him that he might alone be her sanctification. She was liberated from all diffidence, and her confidence, now unhindered, carried her swiftly towards perfection.
In one of her letters she says: “Since it has been given to me to understand the love of the Heart of Jesus, I confess that all fear has been driven from mine. The remembrance of my faults humbles me and helps me never to rely upon my own strength which is mere weakness. Still more does that remembrance speak to me of mercy and love. When with childlike confidence we cast our faults into Love’s all-devouring furnace, how can they fail to be utterly consumed?”
Now perhaps we understand more easily one of the expressions of her intimate audacity with Our Blessed Lord. “I confide in Jesus,” she says, “I relate to Him in detail my infidelities, thinking in my daring abandonment to acquire in this way more power over His Heart and to win more fully the love of Him who is not come to call the just but sinners to repentance.”
The devil would sap her confidence by making her conscious of her faults and failings, and so hinder her progress to perfection. She completely turns the tables on him. Deliberately she directs her attention to her failings, gathers them together, and leaves them at Jesus’ feet as a demonstration of her helplessness, and pursues her way to sanctity, her confidence only increased by this fresh realisation of her weakness, which she herself calls “a great grace”.
It is at prayer more than at any other time that the consciousness of our weakness and our apparent failure saps our confidence. If the devil can play on this and destroy our personal prayer, he has gone far to stopping our spiritual progress. Sometimes we are discouraged by the weakness of our flesh. We set apart a time for prayer, and we at once become drowsy and fall asleep, or else our mind is filled with distractions over which we seem to have no control. At other times spiritual dryness impairs our confidence; we are tempted to ascribe it to our want of fervour and fidelity, and so we grow disheartened. Saint Teresa shared this experience. Weariness at prayer was a very real difficulty to her, but she knew how to meet it. “I suppose I ought to be distressed that I fall asleep at meditation and during my thanksgiving after Holy Communion, but I reflect that little children, asleep or awake, are equally dear to their parents.”
For Saint Teresa the solution to the difficulty lay in the two words, “Our Father”. Our Lord had laid those words upon her lips as the model of all prayer, and she took them literally. How then could her confidence have any bounds? Provided she was faithful to her Little Way of Spiritual Childhood, provided, that is to say, she prayed with the simplicity of a child, what could it matter to her heavenly Father if she fell asleep in efforts to prove her love? As for distractions she says: “I accept them all, even the wildest fancies that cross my mind, for the love of God.”
It was the same with her dryness in prayer. From the moment of her entry into Carmel, the way chosen for Saint Teresa by her heavenly Father, so far from being a way of sweetness, was instead a way of continual aridity. “From the very outset,” she tells us, “my soul had for its daily nourishment nothing but bitter dryness.” One of the occasions on which she mentions it in the Autobiography is the very last occasion on which we should have expected it. It is the retreat before her clothing. Of this she says: “Dryness and drowsiness – such is the state of my soul in its intercourse with Jesus.”
In the midst of her dryness and desolation she is happy and glad, when we should have been depressed and discouraged. What is the reason for this difference? It is this: Saint Teresa really believed in the Fatherhood of God, we believe in it only feebly. We have not become sufficiently childlike. Saint Teresa was convinced that the Father who had made her to love him, and upon whom she so utterly depended, could not fail to answer the prayers of a child who loved him, provided they were humble and sincere. No matter what dryness she experienced she relied on the words of Our Lord: “And which of you if he ask his father bread, will he give him a stone? Or a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he shall ask an egg, will he reach him a scorpion? If you then being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father from heaven give the good Spirit to them that ask Him?” (Luke 11:11-13)
Her confidence developed as she considered the doctrine of the Fatherhood of God. If a human father’s heart is loving and generous, how much more the heart of our Father in heaven? Saint Teresa’s confidence did not depend on whether or not she felt consolation, or on whether or not her prayers seemed to be answered; it was based upon the words of Our Blessed Lord.
Saint Teresa has been sent to reawaken in us this confidence which we all need so badly. We hesitate and fear in the matter of our prayers, because we are too much influenced by our feelings, and by our own ideas as to how and when and where our prayers should be answered: and when we have no consolation, or our ideas are not realised, we become distressed. To share the confidence of Saint Teresa we must place our trust where she placed hers, in the promises of Jesus Christ. Such confidence is an essential part of the Little Way of Spiritual Childhood and it is granted to “little ones”. For our encouragement let us remember that Saint Teresa did not arrive at this confidence through merely human efforts. She was constantly aided by the Holy Trinity dwelling in her soul, and we must never forget that the least degree of grace gives us this source of strength within us. Confidence is a gift of the Holy Ghost, refused to none, and granted in proportion to our faith. “For you have not received the spirit of bondage again in fear, but you have received the spirit of adoption of sons whereby we cry Abba (Father).” (Romans 8:15)
Saint Teresa’s aspirations, however lofty and exalted, were not the result of extraordinary graces but of a confidence exercised in the knowledge of her weakness and infirmities which, so far from causing her to despair, threw her more completely upon Our Lord and opened her soul to the active workings of his Merciful Love within her. She tells us that when she was a little girl at school she had the daring confidence that she would one day be a Saint. She had a great devotion to Joan of Arc, and longed to imitate her. “Then,” she tells us, “as I reflected that I was born for great things, and sought the means to attain them, it was made known to me interiorly that my personal glory would never reveal itself before the eyes of men, but would consist in becoming a Saint. This aspiration may very well appear rash, seeing how imperfect I was, and am even now after so many years of religious life; yet I still feel the same daring confidence that one day I shall become a great Saint. I am not trusting in my own merits, for I have none: but I trust in Him who is Virtue and Holiness itself. It is He alone who, pleased with my poor efforts, will raise me to Himself, and by clothing me with His merits make me a Saint.”
As the years passed by, this desire to be a great Saint deepened till at last it found expression in a resolve to offer herself as a victim to the Merciful Love of God. At this point we may draw back, but we should be wrong to do so. We shall see, on the contrary, how she takes us by the hand, and shows us that the weakness which makes us hesitate and shrink, is the very means which brought her to her goal.
She tells us how, when thinking of those who offer themselves as victims to the justice of God to turn aside punishment from sinners and take it upon themselves, she was not attracted by the thought. Instead, however, she found herself overwhelmingly drawn to offer herself as a victim to the Merciful Love of God: that is to say, to surrender herself so completely to the workings of his Merciful Love in her soul that, all self being eliminated, the tenderness imprisoned in the Sacred Heart might flood her soul and, through her, flow out to the souls of others. So, on Trinity Sunday, 1895, she made the Act of Oblation set out in full earlier in this book. We repeat here the passages immediately to our purpose: “I wish to be holy, but knowing how helpless I am, I beseech Thee, my God, to be Thyself my holiness... During the days of His life on earth, Thy divine Son, my sweet Spouse, spoke these words: ‘If you ask the Father anything in My name, He will give it you’. Therefore I am certain Thou wilt grant my prayer. O my God, I know that the more Thou wishest to bestow, the more Thou dost make us desire. In my heart I feel boundless desires, and I confidently beseech Thee to take possession of my soul... In order that my life may be one act of perfect love, I offer myself as a holocaust to Thy Merciful Love, imploring Thee to consume me unceasingly and to allow the floods of infinite tenderness gathered up in Thee to overflow into my soul, so that I may become a martyr to Thy love, O my God.”
In those sentences we see Saint Teresa’s desire for holiness; side by side with it we see her sense of helplessness which, however, is not allowed to frustrate her desire, but which serves only to throw her back with unquestioning confidence on the promises of Our Lord.
The last pages of the Autobiography, which on first reading seem to be only a series of lofty aspirations entirely unrelated to us, now take on a different aspect. We see, inseparably inter woven with these aspirations, a sense of her failings, weakness, and helplessness, which she makes the starting-point of her confidence in and abandonment to the love of Our Lord. Here at least she joins hands with us.
“I am but a weak and helpless child, but my very weakness makes me dare to offer myself, O Jesus, as victim to Thy love... How can a soul so imperfect as mine aspire to the plenitude of Love? What is the key to this mystery? O my only Friend! Why dost Thou not reserve these infinite longings for lofty souls, for the eagles that soar in the heights? Alas! I am only a little unfledged bird. Yet the eagle’s spirit is mine and notwithstanding my littleness I dare to gaze upon the Divine Sun of Love, I burn to dart upwards into its fires. Fain would I fly as the eagle does, but I can only flutter my wings – it is beyond my feeble strength to soar. What then is to become of me? Must I die of sorrow because of my helplessness? No! I will not even grieve. With daring confidence, and reckless of self, I will remain there till death, my gaze fixed upon the Divine Sun. Nothing shall affright me, neither wind nor rain; and should impenetrable clouds conceal from my eyes the Orb of Love, should it seem to me that beyond this life there is darkness only, that would be the hour of perfect joy, the hour in which to push my confidence to its farthest bounds for, knowing that beyond the dark clouds my Sun is still shining, I should never dare to change my place.
“O my God, thus far do I understand Thy Love for me, but Thou knowest how often I lose sight of what is my only care, and straying from Thy side allow my wings to be bedraggled in the muddy pools of this world. ‘Then I cry like a young swallow’ and my cry tells Thee all, and Thou dost remember, O Infinite Mercy, that ‘Thou didst not come to call the just but sinners’.”
After she has thus made common ground with us through our infirmities and weakness, we find her carrying us along with her before we realise what is happening. “O Jesus! Would that I could tell all little souls of Thy ineffable condescension! If by any possibility Thou couldst find one weaker than mine, one which should abandon itself in perfect trust to Thy Infinite Mercy, I feel that Thou wouldst take delight in loading that soul with still greater favours. But whence these desires, O my Spouse, to make known the secrets of Thy Love? Is it not Thou alone who hast taught them to me and canst Thou not likewise reveal them to others? I know Thou canst and I beseech Thee to do so – I beseech Thee to cast Thy glance upon a vast number of little souls: I entreat Thee to choose in this world a legion of little victims worthy of Thy love.”
These words are not just the outpourings of a great Saint, with no meaning for us. They are, on the contrary, a direct invitation to every one of us, each in his own degree to follow her to the heights of sanctity. She shows us that we are to do this, through a childlike confidence which is not discouraged by weaknesses and failings, but which, trusting in Our Lord’s promises, sees those very weaknesses as a sure means of placing us more securely in his arms.