“The bigger the better” is the prevailing attitude in almost every aspect of our world today. Who actually aims low when they can aim high? The saying “Go big or go home” sounds so much more impressive than “Go little. Trust God.” We are not told to “grow down” but to “grow up.” The most impressive accolades in our world go to those who outperform others. Those who are small go unnoticed and merit no rewards.
Or do they?
In St. Thérèse of Lisieux, a Carmelite nun who lived in the late 1800s, we have a saintly companion whose “Little Way” is an extraordinary path to sanctity and a realistic way to live our Catholic faith. Thérèse, also called the Little Flower, is a saint of modern times. Her message is timeless, universal, and, yes, little.
St. Thérèse had no theological training, but in her short life of twenty-four years she developed a theology of littleness, or spiritual childhood, that is now known as the “Little Way.” Pope Saint John Paul II named her a Doctor of the Church because the simple yet profound doctrine she professed reveals important truths and serves as a compass for us as we journey to heaven.
Unpacking The Little Way
The Little Way makes holiness accessible to us despite our weaknesses and our ordinariness. It is a way of trust and love. This fresh application of the Gospel message is the legacy of the Little Flower. She lived the Little Way as it sprang from her heart, then left it to the Church she loved.
Though we all have different roles and responsibilities in the world, each one of us can love, right where we are. We can entrust ourselves to the mercy and love of God as little children rely upon a parent for every need. These are important aspects of the Little Way.
As we deal with family, friends, neighbors, employers, co-workers, teachers, and especially those who are difficult, we can each do the little. Even in encounters with strangers, we can do the little, in love, for Jesus. The Little Way is manageable, not overwhelming. It is a means by which any one of us can become a saint.
That is not to say that St. Thérèse’s Little Way is easy. There are times when loving is a heroic act of the will. To love in each moment may not mean we achieve a desired outcome or response. It may simply mean that we make every effort to give our best in that moment. Then we offer those moments to God in a childlike spirit of trust and abandonment. We make this offering with confidence, knowing that He sees our hearts and our intentions. We entrust all of our small efforts to the Lord, believing that He receives them as a Tender Heavenly Father.
The Little Way grew in the heart of St. Thérèse because of the way she came to know God as her Loving Father; the way she saw herself as His child; and how she understood her role in doing His will. She lived in spiritually turbulent times, and her “simple theology” was a new way to grasp and live the love of God. It is as relevant in our times as it was when St. Thérèse lived it in the late 19th century.
So how can we live out the Little Way in our own lives?
“Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).
Living the Little Way of Trust and Love
1. Know and love God by abandoning yourself to Him as His child
“I expect each day to discover new imperfections in myself…I am simply resigned to see myself always imperfect – and in this I find my joy…My own folly is this: to trust that your love will accept me. I am only a child, powerless and weak, and yet it is my weakness that gives me the boldness of offering myself as a victim of your love, O Jesus!” —St. Thérèse
Abandoning oneself to God can be hard to do. The burdens of the past, our failings and sinfulness, and the feeling that we never seem to love God “enough” are crippling weights to the soul. Renounce these things. It isn’t easy. God can heal these wounds through the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist, and through prayer. He can also work through others as we seek forgiveness or counselling to make peace with our past.
Knowing God’s greatest attribute and trusting Him with abandon are central to living out the Little Way. Accept His merciful love and rely on this truth in your life! God wants to be known for His mercy. He manifests this in His merciful love for His children. Yes, He is Divine Justice, but proper justice springs from His merciful love. Mercy brings compassion and tenderness to divine justice; there can be no justice without love.
The language of God is mercy. He spoke it from the crib, from the Cross, and throughout His entire life on earth. In God’s merciful love, no harm can come to us since we trust that whatever He allows is for our good and from His merciful heart.
2. Live for God and others
“I prefer the monotony of obscure sacrifices to all ecstasies. To pick up a pin for love can convert a soul.” —St. Thérèse
Make every task a way to manifest your love for God and others. Take each task of your day, no matter how ordinary, and offer it up to God as a gift of love for Him or for souls, especially those whom you know need prayer. Spending your day running errands and doing chores? You will encounter many souls as you go. Spending it behind a desk at work? Give God all of your efforts there with love. Spending it in school? What an opportunity to love others through God. No matter where we are, we can love, in many little ways.
Strive to always show charity, and give Jesus all He asks of you. Everything we have comes from His generosity and love. St. Thérèse said we should not be worried about only giving small actions throughout the day. God is not looking for magnificent achievements—just our surrender, love, and gratitude. What is most important is the love and generosity with which we sacrifice for God and others.
3. Choose Love
“The good God says to me, give always without concerning yourself with results.” —St. Thérèse
In living the Little Way, we use the gifts we have received from God and pass on to others the love He has given to us. God gives us these gifts from His fatherly heart to bring about His will in the world. Whether we want to admit it or not, some people are infinitely more loveable than others! When love is heroic, our gift of love is an even more precious treasure in the eyes of God. When you choose to love in the most challenging of circumstances, your choice pleases God. You attain greater grace and virtue by exercising your strength of will. This is especially true when your painful efforts do not achieve the outcome you desire. God knows your heart, and He knows your great effort to be loving in specific situations.
When we fail at loving as we should, we can trust in God’s merciful love. Like a little child who falls down constantly while learning to walk, we get up and begin again. St. Thérèse said we must not be discouraged by our faults. She knew she would never be perfect, so she went to God as a little child approaches a parent: with complete trust. She believed wholeheartedly in His merciful love for her. That love was the basis of her Little Way. In order to live this love, we must share it with others.
4. Have an eternal perspective.
“The world is thy ship and not thy home.” —St. Thérèse
We are not meant to get too comfortable here. This is not our home. St. Thérèse saw heaven as her true home and this life as the way to get there. At the age of only twenty-four she left this world for eternity. She is a reminder to us that this life is fleeting; that our only true purpose is to love God and be in union with Him.
Nothing on earth can ever truly satisfy us. God did not make man to be content with the lesser joys of this passing world. Distractions abound, but we must keep our eyes fixed on heaven and avoid the attachments of this world.
Prayer is a very important way in which we can detach ourselves from the world and unite our hearts to the heart of God. Through prayer we can grow in faith, hope, and charity. God can heal our wounds, strengthen our wills, and give us a greater desire to serve and love Him. When we pray, we come to understand what God asks of us and receive the grace and ability to embrace that in our lives. In this way we keep the air in our sails and steer our ships toward our eternal home.
Through her Little Way, St. Thérèse invites us to expect good things from the heart of God the Father, and have childlike trust and confidence in His merciful love. The Church gives us the Holy Mass, the Sacraments, Sacred Scripture, the Saints, and many other aids like the Little Way so that we can stay the course. God puts specific people in our paths to accompany us on this way of love. Others help direct us and support us when we are weary. Still others come into our lives so that we may accompany them on their way to heaven. God’s merciful love and His desire to own our hearts completely are the guideposts along the journey. The path we travel is the way of love and trust.
Thérèse lived and perfected the Little Way in the silence and obscurity of a Carmelite monastery. There are approximately 1.2 billion Catholics in the world today, and she is no longer hidden. She is one of the most revered and beloved saints of the Church. Her Little Way is one of the most popular practices and devotions in our Faith. As we practice it in our everyday lives, we, too, can become saints. Bigger is not always better! This way may be called “Little” but its fruits and effects are extraordinary. The “little things” are the petals on the flower of an ordinary life.
Do you have a special love for this "little" but mighty saint?
How do you live The Little Way? Share with us in the comments below!