St Therese and Spiritual Childhood

With the Feast of St Therese of Lisieux on October 1st, it is well-timed to reflect on the spiritual childhood of St Therese. Being childlike involves certain characteristics. Among these are confident trust and knowing unconditional love. Knowing unconditional love is very important and leads to that confident trust we want to have in God. However, St Therese’s cultural milieu had a strong emphasis on God’s justice and a rigorous adherence to the rules. This culture contributed to her struggle for holiness and perfection. In some way, we all struggle to some degree with these things. This is why St Therese is still relevant and continues to speak to us today.

In the gospels, Jesus reaches out to connect with lepers, cripples and those people considered unimportant and insignificant in the eyes of the religious authorities and leaders. Jesus often makes reference to the Kingdom of God and how it belongs to children and all the lowly and the despised people in society. Let the little children come to me, He said, for such does the kingdom of God belong. On the contrary, He had harsh words for the scribes and Pharisees. These people were focused on religious perfection, gaining merit in God’s sight, and ultimately, being justified before God. Today, we still have many of those underlining attitudes ingrained in our psyches. Like us, St Therese aspired for holiness and perfection. She wanted to be a saint. She continued to try, yet came up against the wall of her own “littleness”–her weaknesses, limitations, and failures. Her frail humanity weighed her down. But instead of being discouraged, she continually turned to God in prayer. And thus she writes in her autobiography, Story of a Soul:

“I said to myself: God cannot inspire unrealizable desires. I can, in spite of my littleness, aspire to holiness. It is impossible for me to grow up, and so I must bear with myself such as I am with all my imperfections. But I want to seek out a means of going to heaven by a little way, a way that is very straight, very short, and totally new. We are now living in an age of inventions, and we no longer have to take the trouble of climbing stairs, for, in the homes of the rich, an elevator has replaced these very successfully. I wanted to find an elevator that would raise me to Jesus, for I am too small to climb the rough stairway of perfection.”

From this passage, St. Therese began to develop her “little way” of being a child of God. With childlike trust and confidence, she threw herself in the arms of Jesus. The photograph below is what this childlike confidence and trust might look like. The girl on the big rock is ready to jump off knowing that her father will catch her in his arms. She loves this experience and it is like the bliss and joy of heaven for her to be able to leap off the rock knowing that her father will be there to catch her. This pure confidence and trust of a child is the essence of what the spiritual childhood of St Therese is all about. Maybe we can reflect and pray with the image? How many times have we been on a rock, figuratively speaking? Do we stay stuck on the rock in fear and worry, or do we find the joy and bliss of leaping into the arms of God our Father.

This is the kind of trusting abandonment that Jesus asks of us. Unless we have that childlike trust to jump off that rock, we will not enter into the heavenly bliss that Jesus desires us to experience even in this life. This trusting abandonment means turning away from the mentality that our justification rests upon our own shoulders. It is a turning away from the denial of our own frailties and limitations. We need to become like little children who trust in the unconditional love of God. St Therese discovered that her littleness was the very source and foundation of her relationship with God, not a hindrance to it. God’s mercy is always there for us, and is found in the midst of our struggles. We need only to turn to God with all our weaknesses to receive His unconditional love and mercy. This is what St Therese came to know and experience in her struggle for holiness. Let us pray that we can follow in her footsteps.

St Therese