The spirituality of St. Thérèse, as told in The Story of a Soul, has reverberated throughout the Church and has been studied by lay persons and religious throughout the world. What is the essence of “the little way”? It is clear that Thérèse saw her mission as suffering for souls and in this she identified with Christ crucified. Ultimately, Thérèse’s spirituality was one of union with Christ and this union propelled her journey to Calvary where she would be love within the heart of the Church.
Throughout her various encounters with clergy, Thérèse was scandalized by what she saw within the priesthood, especially on her trip to Rome in 1887. Instead of becoming discouraged, Thérèse allowed the experience to fuel her mission. Thérèse’s mission, characterized by redemptive suffering, would ultimately be exercised within Carmel, and with regard to this mission, Thérèse states: “I came to Carmel to save souls and especially to pray for priests.” Suffering for souls, which Thérèse undoubtedly saw as her vocation, was to be patterned after Jesus.
As the phrase “the little way” implies, the spirituality of Thérèse was not to be lived out through her own strength. Her mission of suffering for souls was accomplished through acknowledging her inability and littleness, and thus, her mission would come to fruition through Christ. The total identification with Christ is first evident in her account of her first communion:
“That day it was no longer simply a look, it was a fusion; they were no longer two, Thérèse had vanished as a drop of water is lost in the immensity of the ocean.”
In this quote, Thérèse paints a mystical image of her union with Jesus which became the essence of her apostolate. Thérèse’s union with Christ further deepened on June 9th, 1895 when she offered herself as a victim to God’s merciful love. Thérèse describes this self-offering:
“ . . . I OFFER MYSELF AS A VICTIM OF HOLOCAUST TO YOUR MERCIFUL LOVE, asking You to consume me incessantly, allowing the waves of infinite tenderness to shut up within You to overflow into my soul, and that thus I may become a martyr of Your Love, O my God.”
This excerpt from The Story of a Soul vividly depicts the outpouring of the Holy Spirit within Thérèse, and consequently the manifestation of Christ, thus further proof of this divine union. The union between Thérèse and Christ fueled the contemplative prayer that was essential in her apostolate, and this became the vehicle for her spirituality. She reiterates the essence of her spirituality in a letter to Maurice, a seminarian whom she was praying for:
“When He asks the sacrifice of all that is most dear in this world it is impossible, apart from a very special grace, not to cry out as He did Himself in the Garden of His agony . . ”
Thérèse explains that one cannot walk to Calvary on their own, rather, it’s God’s grace that propels the soul. She illustrates to us the great freedom found when one understands that they are a child in the arms of God. This is what makes Thérèse so popular, we can all identify with the weakness that she spoke of, yet she flew to the heights of sanctity because of it, thus giving us all hope. Toward the height of her suffering, Thérèse further identified with the suffering of Jesus:
“Our Lord died on the Cross in agony and yet this is the most beautiful death of love . . . I tell you frankly, it seems to me that this is what I am experiencing.”
There is no denying the explicit nature of Thérèse’s mission. Furthermore, near death, Thérèse took on such a countenance that all who saw her contemplated Christ crucified. Here it is important to note that it would be an injustice to think of Thérèse as someone who knew nothing of suffering. For those to gaze upon her and see Christ crucified means that she was experiencing a true agony, but the agony she experienced was tantamount to the love she experienced. In this we have the “sweetness” of the cross, where ones joy increases with the will to suffer out of love…true ecstasy!
Ultimately, “the little way” is the recognition of one’s helplessness and consequent offering of self to God for the good of souls; it is simply the way of the cross, the way which leads to perfect union with Christ. This is a path of suffering, but suffering with love emanates the perfume of divine love; it is only suffering without love that one is in a true hell. Thérèse, in her final passion, was experiencing a foretaste of the heaven that was surely hers!
Little Flower, Pray for us!