The Little Flower's Gift, Roots and All

The Power of Confidence, Genesis and Structure of the “Way of Spiritual Childhood” of St. Thérèse of Lisieux by Conrad de Meester OCD, translated by Susan Conroy (Alba House, 1998, 377 pages, $22.95)

When Louis Martin leaned over to pick a small white flower in the garden of Les Buissonnets, he drew it up roots and all and handed it to Thérèse. It became their symbol, and she kept it always. After her death, they found it pressed in her copy of The Imitation of Christ at the chapter “How one must love Jesus above all things.” The flower was simple, small, nameless, a flower growing beside a garden path that anyone might find.

Thérèse saw the flower as a symbol of herself “very, very little,” hidden, something for the eyes of Jesus alone. By extension, we may see it as a symbol of the “way of spiritual childhood,” which is her gift, roots and all, to the world.

In his study of the “little way,” originally a doctoral dissertation that has been revised, updated, and finely translated into English under the title of “The Power of Confidence,” we have the masterpiece of one who is a renowned authority on the youngest doctor of the Church. Discalced Carmelite Father de Meester traces the genesis and structure of Thérèse's way of spiritual childhood with the precision, delicacy, patience, wonder, and delight of a botanist, all transferred to the theological plane.

The skill with which he examines and analyses the teaching of the Little Flower, the painstaking care and good humor with which he separates and contemplates the gloriously tangled threads of her narrative one by one, reassembling them once more into a radiant, single whole before our gaze, is reminiscent of the botanist's art. Yet how incomparably deeper and more penetrating is this work of the theologian, analyzing the saint! Analysis and synthesis: the work is dynamic, imaging “the way” itself.

The core of Thérèse's doctrine is confidence. From this concept we move inward and outward, our vision anchored firmly and unflinchingly in the truth. The work is simple, but never easy. Looking inward, we see the truth of our weakness, littleness, and inadequacy to cope. We have to admit our radical inability to reach ultimate happiness, God.

Moving outward, we scan the infinite distance between our Goal and ourselves. But we also ponder our Goal, and with the eyes of faith we see that it is Love, bending down over us with that unique tonality of mercy that is reserved for us poor sinners. Everything is grace: the inward vision and the outward. To be helpless, to have an infinitely loving Helper, is the human condition. To know this truth is sheer grace. But how to bridge the gap? We cannot. And because he has made us free, God will not, without our cooperation.

Father de Meester suggests: “All this is seen in the warm light of God's infinite mercy. From this a tension develops between today and tomorrow, between reality and design, which has for its name hope, and which, together with love, is at the very heart [of our existence as believers]. … Thérèse's initiative places confidence at the center of the way to holiness — not as its goal but as its dynamic core. … This study is part of the great theological current that reflects on Christian hope.” He quotes Hans Urs von Balthasar: “In Thérèse, this springtime of hope has been canonized.” The dynamism of confidence in the merciful love of God is the key to the little way. Confidence itself is sheer gift.

In the introduction to this study, Bishop Patrick Ahern says: “The theology of Thérèse was a lived theology, and cannot be understood apart from her life.” Father de Meester divides Thérèse's life into three main periods, the first closing at her mother's death; the second including the years from 4 to 14, when she received the first “Christmas grace”; and the third extending to her death at 24. Through these stages, he traces the preparation for her discovery of “the way,” the actual moment of that discovery, and her subsequent growth into its meaning for herself and for all whom she is destined to draw after her.

When did Thérèse actually discover the little way, which she had sought from early childhood, and to which all the experiences of her early life led? Father de Meester sifts the evidence supplied by original sources, and by innumerable studies and commentaries of theologians produced over the past 50 years or more.

After painstakingly comparing and analyzing this extensive material with us, he finally puts his finger on the interval between two significant dates: Sept. 14, 1894, when Celine entered Carmel, and June 9, 1895, when Thérèse made her Act of Offering to Merciful Love. Celine had brought with her a notebook in which she had copied out by hand passages from Scripture, which seemed particularly beautiful to her. Shortly after her entrance, she gave the book to Thérèse. In it we find the two texts central to the little way: “If someone is very little, let him come to me” (Proverbs 9:4), and, “You will be carried at the breast, and they will caress you on their knees. As a mother caresses her child, so will I comfort you” (Isaiah 66:12-13). 1895, the year of the Act of Oblation, was Thérèse's “springtime year,” the happiest of her life.

Having found what she had sought so eagerly through darkness and suffering, she now began to move toward her Goal with swift, ever accelerated speed. Her “little way” was actually “a rediscovery of realities often forgotten.” “It is the Gospel itself,” Pope Pius XII declared in his radio message of July 11, 1954, “the heart of the Gospel that she rediscovered, but with how much charm and freshness.” It is the charm and freshness of this very little flower that Father de Meester has recreated in his study. It delights, it invites our emulation.

Dominican Sister Mary Thomas Noble writes from Buffalo, New York.