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St. Therese of Lisieux, Patroness of Missions

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

I dare say among all the saints that we have so far studied in the past two semesters most of you know a great deal about this saint. It's all the more strange, by the way, in view of the fact that she lived a very short life, did nothing spectacular, performed no extraordinary deeds and died apparently in obscurity in a Carmelite convent.

The four principal sources that I used to draw up this outline are Pope Benedict XV's Decree of Heroicity. As you know there are three stages to the canonization of a person who is raised to the honors of the altar. Stage one is to be declared venerable after the Church decrees that the person's virtues are heroic. And frankly as far as the study of the person's life goes the process of beatification or canonization adds nothing to that first stage. Stage two is invoking God to work miracles through the intercession of the Servant of God. One who is said to have practiced heroic virtue is called two terms: Venerable or Servant of God, they are synonyms. That is a long detailed process which proves that the individual had practiced during their lifetime extraordinary virtue.

Second document: The Approval of Miracles by Pius XI for the Beatification of the Little Flower. She was declared a Servant of God in 1921. It took her exactly two years to pile up enough miracles to be beatified ten times. She has something of a record for miracles. It's too bad other venerables cannot borrow some of hers! And once again in approving the miracles Pius XI went on to declare what kind of a person Therese was and why she is imitable in our day.

Third document: The Decree of Beatification. Beatification simply means that God has worked at least two miracles normally after the person's heroicity has been declared. They might have canonized her and beatified her on the same day, but for the sake of formality the Church waited two more years to canonize her. More miracles. And once again in the Decree of Beatification and Canonization Pius XI discoursed on the spirituality of St. Therese. I draw from those four sources.

The spirituality of the Little Flower is the spirituality of spiritual childhood. The two words evidently go together because not all childhood is spiritual and not all spirituality is exactly childlike. The Popes in discoursing on the Little Flower quote those passages that I give you on your page as the foundation in the revealed word for the need to become as children even to be saved, not to say sanctified. And I'm not sure there is a more difficult conversion; in other words changing so drastically as to become a child before God.

Notice the hypothesis. The strongest universal statement you can make is a negative one. Anything you prefix with an unless is an absolute statement. Christ did not merely say "Be as little children and then you will be saved”; but "Unless you become as little children you will not be saved." The strongest universal is a universal negative. No one will be saved except one who is and is living as a simple child before God. And we all know enough about ourselves individually and about our society corporately to admit that the last thing that the natural man wants to be is a child. We are sophisticated, we are educated, we have all the trappings of adulthood; but before God either we are children or

Christ tells us we won't even make it.

Now there is a lot of theology locked up in that. Notice the first statement is the absolute necessity of spiritual childhood for salvation. And the second is the revealed teaching of Christ, that we shall be as holy, which means we shall enjoy as high a place in heaven as we are childlike on earth. So the first is the condition for salvation, the second is the measure of sanctification.

Third, Mark 10, 14 and 15. Christ is quoted from a slightly different perspective by Mark and Matthew. Both evangelists give us the same doctrine, stressing the importance of respectingly little children, loving them and studying them, in order that by imitating in the supernatural order what children possess naturally we are guaranteed salvation and even sanctification.

The Popes line up six distinctive qualities of spiritual childhood. The quotations are directly their own.

Knows nothing of spiritual pride. The root of all evils is pride. The worst of all forms of pride is spiritual pride. We define pride as inordinate self-esteem. Are we to esteem ourselves, are we to respect ourselves? Yes. And we might add, if we don't who will? That's not pride. Pride is esteem which goes beyond what I have a right to esteem myself for. In the nature of things we all have tendencies towards pride, depending on the possessions we've got. When God gives people His graces, when He blesses them with virtue, with moral strength, even humility, we can be tempted to pride. And this is the hard one. But a child knows nothing of spiritual pride. Insofar that we recognize that whatever we have has been given to us by God, how can we be proud? Because the essence of pride is inordinate self -esteem. The trouble with pride is not esteem, the trouble with it is not giving credit where credit is due; and this makes God angry. He wants to be acknowledged and thanked for the gifts that He gives. That's the first quality. You might call it spiritual humility. In fact if you ever meet a child that is stuck-up or proud, well somehow it has been overexposed to an adult world. Don't you think so?

Second: Realizes that natural means cannot achieve sanctity. Sanctity is nothing if not the achievement of great renown. There is no achievement that man can succeed in reaching which compares to achieving holiness: the highest success that anyone can attain is to become holy. But for that very reason we need to keep ourselves humble, not only on the level of not claiming for ourselves what belongs to God, but not making the mistake of supposing that we can reach sanctity by our own natural unaided efforts. Whatever else sanctity means it means a lifetime of childlike dependence on God, that whatever else we can become without divine grace we cannot become saints.

Third: Has no illusions of self-reliance in danger and temptation. I've watched children and instinctively there is a noise or the train suddenly stops and the child instinctively grasps hold of the mother or the father - without a second thought - no, without a first thought. Isn't that a beautiful picture of our reliance on God? The moment we're in danger without even a first thought: God help me – reliance on Him. In danger and temptations no illusions of self-reliance. How many good people would have saved themselves, how many priestly and religious vocations would have been saved if only the men and women had no illusions of self-reliance in danger and temptation. A child takes no chances without making sure that mother or father are nearby.

Fourth: This spiritual childhood which Therese practiced and the Church tells us she is a model for in our lives presupposes a lively faith in God's existence. I suppose most of us by now and we consider it almost a sign of maturity that we take God's existence for granted. Children take nothing for granted. The first time they meet something it is a surprise. I've watched children examine a fence. There was a lock; the gate was closed; the child climbed up, looking, examining. That's a quality of childhood: they want to see how things are made.

Now with God the danger is that once we have convinced ourselves that He does exist we sort of assume His existence. Whereas, the Church tells us, anyone who practices this spiritual childhood never takes God for granted. What are we saying? We are saying that God Who is Infinite in His perfections never reveals Himself: it's impossible for God to totally reveal Himself to any creature. This is one of the impossibles in God's vocabulary. No one can ever exhaustively know all there is to know about God; and as we said earlier that is one reason why heaven has to be eternal and then some. But God is constantly revealing some new facet of His Infinity and it takes this sense of spiritual childhood to never cease to wonder, to see a miracle in a snowflake or dew on the leaf of a tree. No two snowflakes are the same, no two people are alike. Remember, when we looked at St. Francis, how he saw God's attributes revealed in creatures? This is Therese too, with the added notion of the sense of wonder.

In this sense none of us should ever grow up, to just assume. Because God is constantly pouring out, always trying to show something new. Unless we have this simplicity of a child – Oh, it's God again. Oh no! There is variety, there is diversity, there is, in a word, infinity and we are, to put it mildly, finite. God is always revealing something new about Himself that we've got to have the quality of a child to expect it. You must find some surprise about God everyday, something we've never knew before. Tell Him, "Lord, I never knew this." "Well," He'll tell us, "you're learning. There are more surprises still in store."

Fifth. The Church tells us, reflecting on the spiritual childhood of the Little Flower, that this childhood implies having a practical confidence in God's power and mercy. The two words power and mercy should be separated because they are not the same. What does it mean to have confidence in God's power? Well, it means to trust that because God is Almighty He can do everything, or better, He can do anything. But the word practical is inserted there because it is one thing to have a speculative or theoretical confidence in God's power and be able to prove in a theological thesis the almighty power of God, but, and this is where the spiritual childhood comes in, there must be a profound and constant awareness of one's own weakness. Otherwise in having a practical confidence in God's power a person may grow up with the illusion of having a great deal of self-power. The awareness of my own ineptitude, of my own inability and the more profoundly conscious I am of what I cannot do and then I'm told God wants this, He would like that, He gives me inspirations, I say to myself: “But it's impossible." But then God wants me to do it and with God nothing is impossible. It is doing the impossible and looking back and seeing it done and being sure it wasn't I. It is then a supernatural ambition.

There is a passage that is referred to the Little Flower and applies to all of us, taken from the Book of Daniel, in which Daniel is praised by Yahweh for being a vir desideriorum - a man of desires. What is it that a child doesn't want? there is no limit to its desires. What little I know about the theology of children - that's a strange word - I understand that their desires know no limit and they don't ask: How do you get it, what does it cost? It is this on the spiritual level, the Church is telling us that we should learn from this by human standards mere child who learned the secret of sanctity by aspiring to the stars and being sure that because it is God Who wants her to reach them she'll make it.

Secondly, the practical confidence in God's mercy. This is a bit odd because from all accounts as far as we can tell and we have the record of her own life which she wrote, she was not even a Teresa of Avila and she was surely no Mary Magdalen or Margaret of Cortona. She was, from all the evidence we have, one who had never lost her baptismal innocence. And consequently we wonder how she could have a practical confidence in God's mercy. Since she seemed to have been such an innocent person all her life how could she trust in God's mercy having forgiven her the sins she didn't commit?

Well there is mercy and mercy. There is the mercy of forgiveness; there is the mercy of protection. She never doubted that except for God's mercy there was no sin she might not have committed or that she was not capable of committing. And it's here she had a deep sense of the sinful urges in human nature especially the sinful tendency to doubt. Remember in her autobiography how she was assailed with troubles against the faith? This practical confidence in God's mercy is developed by the reflection on one's own sinfulness and the corresponding gratitude to God and the total assurance that I have been forgiven because God has been so merciful to me. But it was also the practical confidence of not only reflecting on my past sins forgiven but also on the sins I might commit. I know what tendencies I've got; I know the weakness of my human weakness; I know the shrewdness of the devil; I know the seductiveness of the world; and I know that nothing but God's mercy can protect me.

So if as she came to the end of her days she could glorify God for having never lost His friendship, she never for a moment thought it was because of her strength, but only because of the merciful protection of God. And that because she was so weak that's why He "wrapped her up.” She used figures of speech, remember? She was so helpless, that's why she needed so much assistance. The practical constant awareness. The moment I have an urge that I know is sinful, the moment I have a temptation that I know I can't cope with, immediately, immediately to throw myself into the arms of God.

Finally the Church tells us this spiritual childhood has confident recourse to divine providence. The English by the way sounds a bit strange and I had to check it for its accuracy; that's what it says. You might say to yourself: now providence is something you believe. How do you have recourse to divine providence? Well, God's providence of course is His loving care, the loving care He has of the universe at large and with each one of us individually.

Providence should be balanced on the part of God with prudence on the part of man. St. Therese was by all standards a very prudent person. But this recourse to divine providence is, if we can coin the word, the antithesis to trusting in providence. Because we can be so prudent as to plan and calculate and measure especially in the degree to which we give ourselves to God. This is the final feature of this spiritual childhood in analyzing its distinctive qualities. There is a spontaneous generosity about children: rushing headlong. That's what this confident recourse to divine providence means: rushing headlong in the service of God and frankly not giving a second thought to what's going to happen to me. Will I make mistakes? Maybe I will. But, as she said more than once, God actually accepts even the mistakes we make, He is so pleased with the generosity in the making of the mistakes. Nothing, nothing escapes the loving providence of God. The secret is that what we do, even the mistakes we perpetrate, that we have done out of love.

Now the paradox which this implies. On the one hand we assume that as a person grows physically and intellectually they become more mature in their life of sanctity in union with God. Are we talking about some kind of reversion to childhood? What are we talking about? Well, spiritual maturity means returning to the virtues of spiritual childhood. We are talking here in analogous language. Just as all the mysteries of the faith are made more intelligible by comparing them with things in the natural order, so childhood, which is a natural state through which all of us pass, remains, however, an analogue or a model of the way we should develop: even as we mature in our own minds that we never grow too smart for God. And unless we struggle, even as we grow in all the maturity that in the nature of things we are to develop, we are to constantly work at, cultivate the littleness that is associated with childhood.

The source of its wisdom, the Church tells us, is God's grace especially His revelation. Little ones are clearly not chronologically children; we are little insofar as before God we recognize our own smallness, in fact our own nothingness.

Each of these is a quotation from her letters, her writings, her autobiography. "We recognize our own nothingness." The operative word in that sentence is the verb recognize. Objectively and actually we are nothing of ourselves, and except for God that's just what we would be. We know that, because nine months before we were born we weren't. And what was nothing remains of itself nothing. Ah, but the secret is to recognize that fact. That by the way is the main reason that God provides so many opportunities for our humiliation. You know of course that the word humility comes from the Latin humilitas. Humilitas itself comes from humus. What's humus? Good rich black dirt. Well, among the Romans it wasn't good or rich, it was just plain dirt, and indeed it was the dirt on which we walk.

God provides so many opportunities, if only we are willing to accept them, for keeping us down where we belong.

"We expect everything from the goodness of God exactly as a little child." Children have dreams that, I'm told, nobody else has. God is good; I love Him; I want something; He'll give it. Isn't that the logic of a child? And of course more than once the child will have to be disappointed.

Did I tell you about the father who bought his young six year old child a toy plane with a motor in it? The father was telling me this, as he was driving me to wherever I was going, with sadness. "Father, it cost me $37.95. The boy wanted it. I shouldn't have done it, I shouldn't have done it." The boy asked for it; he brought it home. I don't know what the wife said. So they launched the plane on its maiden flight. The motor had to be somehow arranged and calculated, fly into the air and remain for a certain time and then according to the instructions it would land. The plane went up; it didn't land; it crashed. One flight, no plane.

God wants to teach us something from the infinite expectancy of a child.

"Practice the little virtues." It all depends, I guess, on what books you read. Read the life of a Joan of Arc and you want to liberate; and United States sure needs a Joan of Arc. The little virtues, all those little things that unless a person keeps a very shrewd eye you won't even know it's an opportunity for a virtue. The cross word, somebody showing up late, or worse, somebody shows up before you do. In a given day, with the right perspective, I dare say there can be a hundred such opportunities, little things that are opportunities for the practice of virtue, or the momentary prayer that I offer.

"All saints owe so much to each other." What she really meant was they owe just about everything to one another. That's why we should as often as we can be live in the company of saints. I would like to think that the people we live with qualify; but sometimes our charity has to be strained to call the people we live with saints. Hence the importance of reading about the saints. They teach us so much not only about how to serve God but what joy there is in serving God. For me at least, one of the most satisfying features of reading and studying and trying to imitate the lives of the saints is that it can be done. Once you are convinced of this, you've got it made. Sanctity is not impossible.

"The lowest place is the only spot on earth not open to envy." That by the way would make a good proverb for any collection. Now this is not calculated worldly wisdom, that I protect myself from being envied by looking at the ground and walking like I'm the worm of this earth. It's not a Uriah Heap type of emotional humility. There is profound saintly wisdom behind this however; because if you want to cultivate the practice of charity, especially to have other people love you, be sure, be very sure you give them no cause to envy you. If you have gifts, if you have qualities, in God's name hide them; because you can lose your dearest friend if that person begins to envy.

"I will not try to seek myself in anything." What a statement to make! And we can assume it was an honest one. And as we know even in the practice of charity we can be seeking ourselves. A lot of people practice such virtue as they do but at least with half an eye to human approval and praise for what they are doing. When Christ compared the publican and the Pharisee, He was speaking to all of us. This too is part of childhood. Children are not victims of human respect. Sometimes you wish they had more of it!

"Consider yourself as a little slave whom everyone has a right to command." Ah, speaking to mainly religious! What a paradise on earth religious communities would be if they honestly believed this: that I'm a little slave whom everyone has a right to command. Everyone? That's right. Or as Ignatius tells us: to consider everybody your superior. My Provincial here in Chicago – my former student. I know him as a student. Yet the relationship that we are told to cultivate in our dealings with others is that provided somehow God uses these people they are spokesmen for His will. As far as I'm concerned no matter how superior I may be in everything else, in this one thing I am inferior. That person – I repeat, my inferior in everything – has a right to tell me what to do.

"It is so sweet to serve God in the dark night. We have but this life to live by faith." Or as we might say, "Thank God for faith." Where we don't understand., we don't see, we trust; we are led by the hand; This is my definition of this life: we are led by the hand through the darkness of this life, trusting that the One Who is leading us knows where He is going and would never mislead one who trusts Him. But that too is the picture of a child.

Conference transcription from a talk that Father Hardon gave to the
Institute on Religious Life

Institute on Religious Life, Inc.
P.O. Box 410007
Chicago, Illinois 60641

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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