The new addition to the Word on Fire Classics is the spiritual autobiography Story of a Soul from one of the ministry’s beloved patron saints, the Little Flower, St. Thérèse of Lisieux. You can order here in our store.
Several years ago, I was visiting Flannery O’Connor’s family home in Milledgeville, Georgia. I walked around the house on this literary pilgrimage to see what was left of the Catholic novelist’s beloved flock of peacocks and then I climbed the steps up the front porch and pushed open the door.
The house is now a museum with the curtains Flannery sewed herself still hanging in the windows, her prayer book and crutches resting beside her bed. As I walked around one corner, I was surprised by a familiar face: an icon of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower, staring back at me from the wall. You, too, Flannery? I thought to myself with a sigh.
For the longest time, you see, I didn’t understand the fanfare about the ninteenth-century Carmelite saint. St. Thérèse’s spirituality—her “Little Way,” which emphasized grace and embracing our smallness—felt like a cop out. It seemed to me to be a spirituality for the weak or lazy who wanted to avoid the hard work of spiritual growth. The young French nun wrote in her spiritual autobiography, Story of a Soul:
“But I will look for some means of going to heaven by a little way which is very short and very straight, a little way that is quite new. . . . It is your arms, Jesus, which are the lift to carry me to heaven, and so there is no need for me to grow up. In fact, just the opposite: I must stay little and become less and less.”
An elevator to heaven? I didn’t buy it. Surely, it’s more complicated than that, I thought.
I converted to Catholicism guns blazing when I was twenty-five, bringing all my baggage of Protestant spiritual work ethic and academic overachieving with me. I loved my new Catholic faith. I wanted to be holy. I was eager to push myself. St. Thérèse’s message seemed to be a watering down of the demands of the Christian life. Of course, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Embracing smallness, as St. Thérèse demonstrated, depending completely on God’s grace—could it really be that simple? My own pride revolted. When I heard the spiritual advice to surrender, rest in God, stop trying so hard to will myself into holiness, I either couldn’t believe it or I couldn’t understand how. And yet again and again, I felt myself stuck, trapped, and unable to move forward by my own efforts. I was constantly frustrated with myself. I knew I did not love God as much as he deserved to be loved, and this knowledge of my own weakness sent me spiraling in shame, preventing me from gaining intimacy with God. But the grace of the sacraments carried me nonetheless, and a shift began to take place. St. Thérèse seemed patiently waiting for me to understand.
One summer day, distraught, I came to Jesus in Adoration with nothing but the failures in an area of my life to offer him. I then watched in amazement as he beautifully sorted out what I could not through all my efforts. Every bit of it was grace. It felt like every homily I heard was hitting home. St. Thérèse’s assured us that “all is grace.” The grace of God is present in every moment of our lives, often in ways we cannot comprehend at the time. When we acknowledge the greatness of God’s love as St. Thérèse does, we gain the childlike trust in his goodness that she demonstrates. When I encountered Story of a Soul again, my heart was ready for her Little Way of embracing my own smallness in order to accept the overwhelming mercy of God.
Many years after encountering St. Thérèse’s perceptive smile in the icon in Andalusia, I went on a pilgrimage to Lisieux. I saw St. Thérèse’s childhood home, the site of many of the stories she tells of her early years in Story of the Soul. I saw the church where her family went to Mass together and the convent where she lived out her vocation as a Carmelite sister and died at the young age of twenty-four. As I prayed in the Basilica of St. Thérèse, reflecting on all this holy woman taught me about the spiritual life, I was compelled to no longer carry shame that my love for God was too small, but instead pray for God to increase my love for him through the intercession of St. Thérèse. A few minutes later, when I went to Mass in the beautiful crypt where Sts. Louis and Zelie Martin are entombed, the priest saying Mass gave a homily with that exact message, urging us to ask St. Thérèse to intercede for us that God would increase our love so we could love him with the trusting love of the Little Flower.
Unlike the moment I found St. Thérèse in Flannery O’Connor’s farmhouse, this time when I encountered St. Thérèse, she had become a friend. The graces I have received through her intercession have been precious indeed. St. Thérèse’s Little Way, although simple, is hardly easy. It is the lesson we struggle to comprehend that we must learn again and again. It is not resigning ourselves to sin, but opening ourselves up to God’s grace.
I hope that the Little Flower becomes your friend, too, and that her wisdom guides you to deeper intimacy with Jesus. A great way to begin this friendship is to pick up Story of a Soul and learn spiritual truths directly from St. Thérèse. This little nun who was a spiritual giant and Doctor of the Church, will encourage you to surrender to the arms of Jesus, becoming small that he might carry you and fill you with his grace.