The relics of St. Thérèse of Lisieux are now making their way through Canada, providing us, your “neighbors to the north,” with a natural occasion for reflecting on the spirituality of this popular and paradoxical saint.
Indeed, Thérèse's popularity itself is a paradox. She lived in monastic seclusion from the age of 15 until her death at 24. She did nothing spectacular. In fact, she embraced obscurity so firmly that she made it inseparable from her spirituality.
Thérèse's spirituality has come to be known as the “Little Way.” The temptation is very strong in the modern world to understand the word little as an expression of mediocrity. “Littleness,” as St. Thérèse understood it, and mediocrity as most of us live it, are perfectly antithetical. It is not easy to live an obscure life and fill it with small and often unnoticed acts of charity. It is extremely difficult to temper one's pride and self-interest, and to abide with grace the thousand petty annoyances that characterize person-to-person relationships. Love is made perfect when pride is made non-existent.
At this time, at the request of their president, George Bush, untold American children are mailing dollar bills to the White House. These dollars are aimed at providing relief for children in Afghanistan. It is a noble request on the part of the president to encourage American children who are privileged to share a small part of themselves with their Afghanistani counterparts who are destitute. It is a noble and generous act for one child to sacrifice a tiny bit of his own comfort so that he can make another a tiny bit less uncomfortable.
I do not mean to criticize President Bush's project. He is putting forth a social-justice project that is both admirable and unassailable. But the point I want to make here is how easy it is for a privileged child to send $1 to one who is for less privileged. Not only is it easy, but it makes him feel good. It is easy for one to imagine children mailing off their dollar bills, feeling good about themselves, and yet still bickering and fighting and being generally nasty to their own siblings. As the immortal spokesman for all children, Charlie Brown, once said, “I love humanity; it's people I can't stand.”
G. K. Chesterton once remarked that his unblemished love for Eskimos was no doubt explained by the simple fact that he had never met any. Social justice, which is a Big Way more than it is a Little Way, is far easier than interpersonal justices, which rarely get headlines and do not necessarily make their practitioners feel good. We do not need to swallow our pride in order to write a check. St. Thérèse's Little Way, is, indeed, very difficult, but it has an indispensable place in the economy of human relationships. Moreover, it should serve as a basis for social-justice impulses without allowing social justice to replace it. Charity begins at home, it is wisely said.
St. Thérèse, who was proclaimed “Doctor of the Church” by Pope John Paul II on October 19, 1997, has much to teach us about her Little Way, the way of interpersonal charity and humility that is wondrously effective. “Zero, by itself, has no value,” she reminds us, “but put it alongside one it becomes potent, always provided it is put on the proper side, after, and not before.” Of and by ourselves, we cannot do very much. “Without me, you can do nothing,” Christ tells us. He also informs us: “If I were to seek my own glory that would be no glory at all; my glory is conferred by the Father” (John 8:59).
Paradoxically, our own nothings become immensely effective when they are properly aligned with God, just as each 0 to the right of the 1 enlarges the total number. In this manner, the Little Way, through humility and love, is a formula for great effectiveness. On the other hand, if, through pride, we call attention to ourselves in our isolated singularity, we remain nothing and can do nothing, despite all our clamor and protestations.
St. Thérèse's Little Way is neither mediocrity nor conformity. It is “love in the trenches,” so to speak. It is loving the persnickety person who is situated next to us — the cranky friend, the envious colleague, the petulant neighbor, the over-bearing boss, the competitive sibling, the finicky aunt, the doting parent. This is immensely difficult and heroic in its own way. It is the Little Way that leads to large results.
Donald DeMarco teaches philosophy at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo, Ontario.