There’s a quote from Mother Teresa that I’ve seen many times and in many places. “I cannot do great things,” Mother Teresa said. “I can only do small things with great love.” While I find this quote super inspiring, I also struggle a little bit with it. If you know anything about Mother Teresa, you know that she did do great things. She completely changed the world. But Mother Teresa’s words are still true, and they are a great illustration of the topic I am going to be speaking about, which is the little way of holiness that St. Therese of Lisieux lived and taught.
We’ve already heard about who St. Therese was and how she lived, first in a tight knit family of sisters, then in a convent of sisters for the last 9 years of her life. Aside from her trip to Rome, Therese in many ways lived a very small life- literally, she only lived until 24 and she never left the convent grounds once she entered them at 15. It was on her trip to Rome that she saw something that would inspire her teachings of the “little way”. Here’s what she wrote in her autobiography, Story of a Soul.
Instead of being discouraged, I concluded that God would not inspire desires which could not be realised, and that I may aspire to sanctity in spite of my littleness. For me to become great is impossible. I must bear with myself and my many imperfections; but I will seek out a means of getting to Heaven by a little way—very short and very straight, a little way that is wholly new. We live in an age of inventions; nowadays the rich need not trouble to climb the stairs, they have lifts instead. Well, I mean to try and find a lift by which I may be raised unto God, for I am too tiny to climb the steep stairway of perfection. I have sought to find in Holy Scripture some suggestion as to what this lift might be which I so much desired, and I read these words uttered by the Eternal Wisdom Itself: “Whosoever is a little one, let him come to Me.” Then I drew near to God, feeling sure that I had discovered what I sought.
Already I find it encouraging that Therese’s spirituality is inspired by such an ordinary thing: an elevator! She and her sister saw these for the first time on their trip to Rome and thought they were the coolest thing. It seems so relatable to me to think of the elevator as a way of skipping the hard ways to perfection: heroic martyrdom or great deeds. Therese wasn’t afraid to ask God for a different way to reach her goal.
The first step to Therese’s little way is this: think small. Instead of worrying about all the big things you can’t do, instead find the small things that you can do. Therese tells a story of her first years in the convent. She was very young and had been very spoiled in her life before becoming a sister. One of her first jobs was to sweep, and she received a lot of criticism from the other sisters for her lack of ability in what were pretty normal chores. Instead of worrying about it, Therese made sweeping a way that she could show her love to the people criticizing her.
The next step to the little way is the one that gives me the most hope: know that you can’t be perfect. In middle school, you have a lot of pressure on you. Our school is an academically challenging school. Some of you are facing big pressure from family and friends to get certain grades, do well in certain sports or have certain friends and attitudes. The good news from St. Therese is: you can’t be perfect. Even the people you look at and think, “Oh, they’re perfect, they have it so easy,” aren’t perfect. In some ways, letting go of trying to be perfect can feel like giving up, but it’s not. Letting go of being perfect is being free to let God do big things in your life.
Another way Therese lived her little way of holiness was to never let people know that she found them irritating. Living in close quarters with a small community of women for nine years wasn’t easy for her, and there was one sister who Therese really struggled to get along with. She found everything about this nun annoying, so she made a special effort to be extra nice to her. After Therese died, the nuns were talking about her, and the super annoying nun said that of course it was hard for everyone, but Therese had been especially close to her, so of course it was harder. Therese had hidden her irritation and been so kind that the sister had no idea that Therese struggled so much.
Part of the little way of holiness is to not draw attention to the small ways you are trying to spread love. This is hard for me. It was hard for Therese. It’s natural to want to be acknowledged for doing the right thing and for being extra kind, but that’s not why we need to do the right thing. We need to do the right thing because it’s the right thing, and I promise people will notice. Therese became a saint in record time because people read her book and did notice.
Holiness is hard. When you are trying your best to be holy, people often misunderstand you or judge you. I was 12 years old when I had an experience that completely changed my life. My class was praying in front of the blessed sacrament when all of the sudden, I knew- really knew- that Jesus was there. Jesus loved me! It was something I had always been told and always known, but in that moment I had a powerful experience of God’s love. I started to sob, which as you can probably guess is super embarrassing in a quiet church filled with all your friends. When I tried to describe what was happening to my teachers, they thought I was crazy, all except for one. My friends thought that I was making the whole thing up to get attention. But that day in front of the Eucharist was real, and it’s part of the reason why I want you all to have a chance to meet Jesus in the Eucharist.
Therese’s small community couldn’t always understand what God was doing in her life, but the ones who could saw that it was something big. In your walk towards holiness, expect that others won’t always understand what God is doing in your life.
This last part of the little way is the part that isn’t super fun to think about. Holiness is often accompanied by suffering. Therese suffered in many different ways. She was lonely being the youngest nun in the order. Her father suffered from a really intense physical and mental illness before he died, and this was incredibly painful for Therese and her sisters. Therese also died a drawn out and painful death from tuberculosis. When you are trying to be holy, God knows what you can handle and you often have to handle some pretty difficult things.
But to end on a more positive note, even when holiness seems too hard or out of reach, you can always start small. I know it can be a little scary, but I really want you to try to close your eyes and listen to this song. Use this as a time of prayer and reflection on the Little Way of Holiness.
Play “Dream Small” by Josh Wilson. *
So, to wrap up, remember the parts of the Little Way of Holiness:
Remember that you can’t be perfect.
Do kind acts in a way where you won’t receive attention.
Holiness is hard and often accompanied by suffering.
If you are already on the road to holiness, that’s awesome- recommit to that path today. If holiness is a new endeavor for you, remember that you can do small things with great love every single day.
*The song link is an affiliate link. This means that if you purchase this song, I receive a small commission at no cost to you.