It was almost 20 years ago when I entered the small-town high school gym and found a seat with a good view. The seniors waited in cap and gown for a slightly off-key band to begin “Pomp and Circumstance.” And the banner above the platform proudly proclaimed, “The question isn’t are we ready for the world, it’s is the world ready for us!”
Enjoy your moment, I mused. The world is ready. Sure hope you are too.
I recalled that senior class theme when I read the opening lines in New York Times columnist David Brooks’ best-seller The Road to Character (more here). “Recently I’ve been thinking about the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues,” Brooks begins.
The résumé virtues are the ones you list on your résumé, the skills you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being–whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.
The students at that graduation had earned a moment in the limelight, and their teachers had helped them prepare résumé virtues hoping they would secure jobs and scholarships. They’d done their best to help them develop character as well. But the class theme reflected the shift Brooks calls a move from a culture of humility to a culture of The Big Me. Describing his search for data, Brooks notes:
You are special. Trust yourself. Be true to yourself. Movies from Pixar and Disney are constantly telling children how wonderful they are. Commencement speeches are larded with the same cliches: Follow your passion. Don’t accept limits. Chart your own course. You have a responsibility to do great things because you are great. This is the gospel of self-trust.
The culture expects us to sport our résumé virtues and encourages developing self-esteem more than humility. It can take a very long time time to realize that eulogy virtues trump résumé virtues and that humility rather than self-aggrandizement is the true path to happiness.
Or so it’s been for me, a loud, proud people pleaser who, if she were a dive into water would resemble not a swan but a cannonball.
I’m a slow learner.
For the past few years, I’ve chosen a book about St. Thérèse of Lisieux as part of my Lenten reading. Something far more attractive than even eulogy virtues emerges with each exposure to her spirituality.
The young nun who begged to begin a life of cloistered prayer at age 15 had no résumé virtues to speak of when she died only 9 years later at 24. Thérèse was a good worker, a faithful participant in her community and instructed novices in the spiritual life. One of the sisters who knew Thérèse remarked that she was “nothing special.” That could be taken to mean even eulogy virtues didn’t leap to mind when comparing Thérèse to those around her.
But a beautiful relationship with Christ had been quietly growing into full flower.
Thérèse developed an intense life of hidden virtue by being fully present to Christ and doing each small thing with great love for Him. This meant constant confrontation with her own resistance to holiness, her inability to serve Him as perfectly as she wanted to. The closer she drew to Christ in prayer, the more she became aware, not of her virtue, but her lack of it.
Thérèse didn’t despair. And here is the genius of her humble spirituality.
Though Thérèse saw her human weakness with unsusual clarity, she refused to fall into the prideful trap of self pity. Instead, she recognized a truth serious Christians often overlook: each fall has enormous transformative possibility if it is instantly offered to the loving God who is never shocked by anything we do. Those who grasp this truth are more ready for life in this world than those with high hopes of résumé greatness. And more prepared for the world that comes next, in which “an eternal weight of glory” awaits those who persevere in faith.
Neither a great résumé nor the hope of eulogy approval can protect us from the truth about ourselves. We are flawed. We will struggle.
Thérèse offered her faults to God in the happy awareness of a child who knows her Father loves her not because of what she’s accomplished (résumé virtues) or even the goodness that shone in her character (eulogy virtues) but simply because she belonged to Him. She knew that’s all she needed. Littleness, trustingly offered, makes us irresistible to His heart.
“We live in a time of great insecurity when many turn to self-help programs and techniques, but are afraid to turn to God with their emptiness,” write Anthony Lilles and Dan Burke in Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux.
[The] Little Way requires the courage of accepting our littleness and inadequacy, our inability to deal with our misery on our own…Such humility not only takes responsibility for failure, but also constantly renews its devotion to God at every opportunity and in every moment.
Résumé virtues and eulogy virtues, essential they are on some levels, tempt us to pride until our inadequacies force us to search for something deeper. We won’t find it in programs that build our résumé or our even our character. We only find it as we discover our one unshakable security: our identity as children of God. And of course, that makes us special beyond measure.
A saint has eulogy virtues in spades, but they’re often hidden until after death.
As Thérèse’s Little Way spread, she influenced countless souls through the autobiography she’d been asked to write, Story of a Soul. All the fruit of her beautiful life had been gained while she lifted little hands to the Father.
He longs to pull us closer.
If you enjoyed this post you might also like Luther and the Little Way: A Gradual Gift of a Catholic Conversion.
More to explore at Ten Powerful Resources on St. Thérèse of Lisieux at Word on Fire.
Madison Cunningham’s rendition of this Audrey Assad song…sheer beauty.
For more on this series, see Confessions of a Cannonball: A Lenten Invitation to Hunger for Humility.
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