Since I was around thirteen, I have felt a pressure to succeed. Maybe each person feels this pressure in a different way. If I can describe the ideal young woman in the eyes of the world: she would be smart, outgoing, beautiful, fun, fashionable, popular, and successful in grades, finances, and career. She would never be single, at least not for long. She would wear a size ‘extra small’. As I consider this fictional woman, I see I don’t share her various qualities. I don’t fit her mold. For many years as a teen and young adult in university, I battled with my sense of confidence while I compared myself to some others, who seemed much more like her. Of course, I never expected myself to be completely ‘perfect’ – but my imperfections seemed too many. I also didn’t consider that there’s more to the meaning of life than these worldly things, and that God calls each soul to something unique.
Although there’s nothing wrong with using our talents or with having determination to fulfill our goals, – it’s a problem when we become discouraged or anxiously compare our success to others. We also lose sight of true success in life which goes beyond wealth or the number of degrees we’ve earned, – or our hairstyle. (Maybe this ‘perfect’ girl isn’t so happy after all?). It took me a while to re-examine my priorities and see that while the world isn’t very kind to failure, certainly God is, – and He who overcame the world lives within us.
It was with some of these misconceptions in my mind that I entered Catholicism. I didn’t realize that this perfectionist attitude would affect my relationship with God. I would often approach prayer with a great fear of facing my weaknesses, sins, and failures, and I would get discouraged when I fell – again, and again, and again. Somewhere in my mind, I half-expected to be like a saint, and any failure would continually shatter the imagined picture of my soul. Rather than wanting to please God out of love, I was afraid to admit my weakness. During my conversion, I began reading about St. Therese of Lisieux. I was drawn to her so much that whenever I was asked about my favourite Saint, she would be at the top of the list. I didn’t realize that her spirituality was exactly what I needed.
St. Therese was born in France in 1873 as the youngest in a family of nine children. Her parents, Blessed Louis Martin and Blessed Zelie Martin, are now on their path to canonization. Since an early age, St Therese had great desires. She wanted to be a Saint, a missionary, an apostle, a martyr. However, in her own words, she felt very helpless and saw a great distance between herself and the Saints. God lead her to be a cloistered nun, and she entered a Carmelite convent at the young age of fifteen. There, she continued to seek her ‘place’ in the Church. She saw herself as a ‘little soul’ who could only do little things for Jesus. Though she felt ready to be a martyr or a missionary, she resigned herself to seemingly small duties like decorating statues with flowers, helping the other Sisters and making little (though difficult) renunciations of self-will. At one point, St. Therese saw her vocation as being the “heart” of the Church, and doing little things with great love for God. Each of her actions became like a rose, a gift that she offered to Jesus. In one of her analogies, she described how she felt unable to climb the “rough stairway” to perfection, and would prefer for Jesus to carry her in His arms to holiness, in the way that an elevator can lift a person to another floor.
By her “little way”, St. Therese grew in her great love for God, became a Saint, a Doctor of the Church, and was named the Patron Saint of Missionaries. Through her prayers and little sacrifices, she intercedes for souls and helps to bring others to Jesus. Despite going through a terrible ordeal, the “dark night” in her faith, and being ill with tuberculosis, St. Therese bravely continued to trust God and to love Him amidst great trials and temptations. She went to Heaven at the age of 24 and her autobiography ‘Story of a Soul’ quickly became a spiritual classic. Before she died, she said that she will send down a “shower of roses” from Heaven and teach other souls her “little way” of love and confidence. Sometimes people remark that after praying for her intercession, they received actual roses as a sign of her prayers. (At this point I need to thank St. Therese by saying that I believe this happened to me as well, – maybe God saw I needed an encouragement in my faith, which was shaky).
Although at first, St. Therese’s example may seem daunting because of her level of sanctity, she herself encourages us to not be discouraged. St. Therese describes her littleness with a joy and a poetic beauty: “How can a soul so imperfect as mine aspire to the plenitude of Love? What is the key of this mystery? O my only Friend, why dost Thou not reserve these infinite longings to lofty souls, to the eagles that soar in the heights? Alas! I am but a poor little unfledged bird. I am not an eagle, I have but the eagle’s eyes and heart! Yet, notwithstanding my exceeding littleness, I dare to gaze upon the Divine Sun of Love, and I burn to dart upwards unto Him! I would fly, I would imitate the eagles; but all that I can do is to lift up my little wings—it is beyond my feeble power to soar. What is to become of me? Must I die of sorrow because of my helplessness? Oh, no! I will not even grieve. With daring self-abandonment there will I remain until death, my gaze fixed upon that Divine Sun. Nothing shall affright me, nor wind nor rain.” (Story of a Soul) St. Therese goes on to say that if God could find a soul smaller than hers, He would fill it with even greater graces. What encouraging words for us!
One of the most beautiful things about St Therese’s spirituality is her trust in God. Though we know we should trust God, often I found it difficult to open my heart enough to do this. St Therese’s “little way” can help to love our littleness by allowing us to let go of fears and hidden pride. The smaller (and more trusting) we become, the more freedom we give to Jesus to do His work in us, without hindering Him.
This post is also posted at the Made4More blog