The 500th anniversary of the Reformation has concluded. The year provided many occasions for dialog, discussion and defense of each side of the Catholic-Protestant divide. I’ve been an invested observer, having been received into the Catholic Church over a decade ago after a lifetime as an active Evangelical, but I’m unqualified to spar with theologians holding advanced degrees, and I have no desire to nail anything on anybody’s door.
The year has brought gratitude for my Evangelical roots and gratitude, too, for the gifts God provides me within the Catholic Church. Beautiful and gradual are the gifts of a Catholic conversion.
One of those gradual gifts has been discovering the Little Way of a little saint who lived some 250 years after Luther, Thérèse of Lisieux.
Her autobiography, published after her death from tuberculosis at age 24 as The Story of a Soul, reveals a serious Christian’s struggle with her fallen nature. It contains profound spiritual insights God gradually revealed to a heart persevering in faith. The Story of a Soul has influenced the stories thousands of other souls including Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, Dorothy Day, Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa of Calcutta. St. Thérèse’s photo even graces the liner notes of Rich Mullins’ album, Songs.
Thérèse’s story has fascinated me ever since I learned of it. In her own way the young nun was confronted with presentations of an inauthentic rigorous moralism. Yet the way she resolved her struggles with her fallen nature made all the difference in the world. Literally.
Martin Luther’s famous tortured conscience and severe monastic penances are sometimes unfairly projected onto the entire Catholic understanding of sin and salvation, which is one of the reasons St. Thérèse fascinates me.
If Luther’s scrupulous soul represented a correct picture of Catholic spirituality, Thérèse could not be proclaimed a Doctor of the Church. But she is.
The tension between our fallen nature and our desires for the beauty of holiness is a reality of the Christian life for both Catholics and Protestants and each has its rigorist strands that do not represent the whole.
Thérèse entered the religious life in a Carmelite convent that had been influenced by the intense moralism of 19th century Jansenism. Yet she approached her interior life by developing a spirituality emphasizing the mercy and grace of Christ while doing each small thing for love of Him.
Thérèse was a spiritual heir of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross (some of the greatest saints of the Catholic response to 16th century corruption), and she worked out her interior issues while remaining a faithful Catholic. She did it by prayerfully developing the faith of a child.
Humility helped Thérèse find a spiritual practice that protected her from despondency when she fell. She would describe her fallen nature, humbly accepted and sincerely offered to her Savior, as her “littleness.” She called her practice “the little way of spiritual childhood.” Her response to her sin was trust rather than self-loathing.
The Little Way is a sweet and simple spirituality by which we remain with the open arms of a child before Christ, trusting his merits to lift us up and help us persevere when we stumble, fallen creatures that we are.
The Little Way takes us to the tenderness of Jesus instructing us to call the Father “Abba” (Daddy), allowing trust in His love to replace the prideful, scrupulous disappointment that we “should have done better” or we’ll “never get it right” or even (God forbid) “this means I’m going to hell for sure” in the times when we fall.
The Little Way opens the heart to the truth of our position: God doesn’t love us because we’re good. He loves us because we’re His. In this understanding, Catholics and Protestants can unite.
“Catholics agree with Protestants that salvation comes only through faith,” writes Jared Staud (Office of Evangelization and Family Life Ministries of the Diocese of Denver), in a review of newly released books on Martin Luther. “The key issue of dispute, … is Luther’s subjective emphasis of absolute, personal certainty, which cannot be undermined even by serious sin.”
Thérèse’s Little Way helps us remain open to the Father’s love rather than cringing in pride or hiding from fear. It protects us from presumption that minimizes sin and increases complacency.
Thérèse wouldn’t dream of a venture so serious it would sever her from her Savior. But she understood she would struggle with sin all her life and she used her unintended falls to grow in humble knowledge of her weakness, which in turn helped her glorify the mercy of God all the more.
The grace of the Little Way, for me at least, is its humble understanding that all real conversion is gradual.
It understands that Christ’s mercy is always available no matter how far we run from him. And when openness to the Father brings us ever-closer to a Love beyond comprehension, we simply persevere. God’s grace provides the growth.
I’m greatly oversimplifying the differences between Catholic and Protestant understandings of salvation here. I’m leaving out words like ecclesiology, soteriology, nominalism, Pelagianism and antinomianism because I’m not qualified to debate with theologians and I really don’t wish to add to the war of the words.
The Little Way has been a beautiful discovery that gives me joy and helps me correct the disappointed “should haves” I’ve experienced all my Christian life. I now know these are rooted in my pride. I know that any good coming from me is a work of grace. I go to confession in gratitude and in Christ I find my peace.
I acknowledge that corruption still lurks in corners of the Church, and I don’t like it any more than Luther or the reformers of the Catholic counter-Reformation did. Faithful Catholics do not turn a blind eye to institutional corruption, but do whatever we can to reform it while we stay.
And walk the Little Way.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also be interested in Rich Mullins’ Musical Legacy May Include Drawing Catholics and Protestants a Little Closer.
Three books and a podcast on the Little Way:
Shirt of Flame: A Year with Saint Thérèse of Lisieux by Heather King. An astounding literary memoir by a former NPR contributor and Catholic convert.
Trusting God with Saint Thérèse by Connie Rossini. A profound personal story leading to a deeper understanding of the saint and of ourselves. Struggles with pride and spiritual envy are handled with powerful insight.
The Way of Trust and Love: A Retreat Guided by St. Thérèse of Lisieux by Father Jacques Philippe. An introduction to Therese’s Little Way with guidance on how to begin applying it in daily life. A helpful podcast of reflections on this book is available DiscerningHearts.com.
This week’s delightful discovery: “What does it mean to transform the culture with beauty?” The pilot episode of the Love Good podcast with Jimmy Mitchell is a gem! If you like hearing new music from artists who care about beauty, you’re going to want in on this venture in optimism and truth.
Featured photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash.
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