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Saint Therese’s Little Way demands Love in Action

Loving one Difficult to Love

There’s one sister in the community who has the knack of rubbing me up the wrong way at every turn; her tricks of manner, her tricks of speech, her character, just strike me as unlovable. But, then, she’s a holy religious; God must love her dearly; so I wasn’t going to let this natural antipathy get the better of me. I reminded myself that charity isn’t a matter of fine sentiments; it means doing things. So I determined to treat this sister as if she were the person I loved best in the world. Every time I met her, I used to pray for her, offering to God all her virtues and her merits. I felt certain that Jesus would like me to do that, because all artists like to hear their work praised, and Jesus, who fashions men’s souls so skillfully, doesn’t want us to stand about admiring the façade–he wants us to make our way in, till we reach the inmost sanctuary which is his chosen dwelling, and admire the beauty of that. But I didn’t confine myself to saying a lot of prayers for her, this sister who made life such a tug-of-war for me; I tried to do her every good turn I possibly could. When I felt tempted to take her down with an unkind retort, I would put on my best smile instead, and try to change the subject. Once at recreation she actually said, beaming, beaming all over, something like this: “I wish you would tell me, Sister Therese of the Child Jesus, what it is about me that gets the right side of you? You’ve always got a smile for me whenever I see you.” Well, of course, what really attracted me about her was Jesus hidden in the depths of her soul; Jesus makes the bitterest mouthful taste sweet. I could only say that the sight of her always made me smile with pleasure–naturally I didn’t explain that the pleasure was entirely spiritual.

In a further ironic twist to this story, both of Therese’s sisters, Celine and Marie, thought that this nun was Therese’s best friend in the convent (Joseph F. Schmidt, Praying with Therese of Lisieux, Saint Mary’s Press).

The Little Way

As you know, dear Mother, I’ve always wished that I could be a saint. But whenever I compared myself to the Saints there was always this unfortunate difference–they were like great mountains, hiding their heads in the clouds, and I was only an insignificant grain of sand, trodden down by all who passed by. However, I wasn’t going to be discouraged; I said to myself: “God wouldn’t inspire us with ambitions that can’t be realized. Obviously there’s nothing great to be made of me, so it must be possible for me to aspire to sanctity in spite of my insignificance. I’ve got to take myself just as I am, with all my imperfections; but somehow I shall have to find out a little way, all of my own, which will be a direct shortcut to heaven. Can’t I find a life which will take me up to Jesus, since I’m not big enough to climb the steep stairway of perfection?” So I looked in the Bible for some hint about the lift I wanted, and I came across the passage where Eternal Wisdom says: “Is anyone simple as a little child? Then let him come to me.” To that Wisdom I went; it seemed as if I was on the right track; what did God undertake to do for the child like souls that responded to his invitation? I read on, and this is what I found: “I will console you like a mother caressing her son; you shall be like children carried at the breast, fondled on a mother’s lap.” Never were words so touching: never was such music to rejoice the heart–I could, after all, be lifted up to heaven, in the arms of Jesus! And if that was to happen, there was no need for me to grow bigger; on the contrary, I must be as small as ever, smaller than ever.

Love one Another (How?)

During this last year, dear Mother, God has been very gracious to me in making me understand what is meant by charity. Well, of course, I did understand it before, but only in a very imperfect way; I hadn’t got to the bottom of what Jesus meant when he said that the second commandment is like the first, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” I was making a special effort to love God better; and in doing that, it was borne in upon me that it was no use as long as my love simply expressed itself in words. At the Last Supper Jesus makes it clearer still. He says–oh, so tenderly!–“I have a new commandment to give you, that you are to love one another; that your love for one another is to be like that love I have borne you. The mark by which all men will know you for my disciples will be the love you bear one another.”

Well, how did Jesus love his disciples? And why did he love his disciples? You may be quite sure that their natural qualities did nothing to attract him. They were only poor sinners, so ignorant, their thoughts so earthbound; and yet Jesus calls them his friends, his brothers. He wants them to reign with him in his Father’s kingdom; he is determined to win them admission, even if it means dying on a cross.

Meditating on these words of Jesus, Mother, I began to see how imperfect my own love was; it was so obvious that I didn’t love my sisters as God loves them. I realise, now, that perfect love means putting up with other people’s shortcomings, feeling no surprise at their weaknesses, finding encouragement even in the slightest evidence of good qualities in them. But the point which came home to me most of all was that it was no good leaving charity locked up in the depths of your heart. “A lamp,” Jesus says, “is not lighted to be put away under a bushel measure; it is put on the lamp-stand, to give light to all the people of the house.” The lamp, I suppose, stands for charity; and the cheerful light it gives isn’t meant simply for the people we are fond of; it is meant for everybody in the house, without exception.

Action in Little Ways

But this love of mine, how to show it? Love needs to be proved by action. Well, even a little child can scatter flowers, to scent the throne-room with their fragrance; even a little child can sing, in its shrill treble, the great canticle of Love. That shall be my life, to scatter flowers-to miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word, always doing the tiniest things right, and doing it for love.


When I say “mortified,” I don’t mean to suggest that I went in for penitential practices of any kind. That’s a thing, I’m afraid, I’ve never done…. What I did try to do by way of mortification was to thwart my self-will, which always seemed determined to get its own way; to repress the rejoinder which sometimes came to my lips; to do little acts of kindness without attaching any importance to them.


Dear Lord, you never tell us to do what is impossible and yet you can see more clearly than I do how weak and imperfect I am; if, then, you tell me to love my sisters as you love them, that must mean that you yourself go on loving them in and through me–you know it wouldn’t be possible in any other way. There would have been no new commandment, if you hadn’t meant to give me the grace to keep it; how I welcome it, then, as proof that your will is to love, in and through me, all the people you tell me to love!

Always, when I act as charity bids, I have this feeling that it is Jesus who is acting in me; the closer my union with him, the greater my love for all the sisters without distinction. What do I do when I want this love to grow stronger in me? How do I react, when the devil tries to fix my mind’s eye on the defects of some sister who hasn’t much attraction for me? I remind myself, in a great hurry, of all that sister’s good qualities, all her good intentions. True enough, she’s made a slip this time; but who’s going to tell us how often she’s fought temptation and conquered it, only she was too humble to let us notice it?

It’s even possible that what I think of as a fault was in reality a praiseworthy act…it depends on the intention.

On Helping an Old Nuns

I can remember one act of charity God inspired me to do while I was still a notice; … I used to kneel juse behind Sister St. Peter at evening prayers, and I knew that at ten minutes to six trouble was coming to somebody, because she had got to be piloted into the refectory. It cost me something to make the offer, because I knew poor Sister St. Peter wasn’t easy to please; she was very ill, and didn’t like having a change of guides. But it seemed too good an opportunity to be missed; what did our Lord say about charity? He told us that if we did anything for the most insignificant of his brethren, we should be doing it for him…. Every evening, the moment I saw Sister St. Peter shaking her hour-glass at me, I knew that meant: Let’s go.”

You wouldn’t believe how much I minded being disturbed in this way, at first anyhow. But I lost no time in making a start, and we had to make a real ceremony of it. I had to move the bench and carry it away just so, without any sign of hurry–that was important–and then the procession began. The thing was to walk behind the poor invalid holding her up by her girdle; I did this as gently as I could manage, but if by some piece of bad luck she stumbled, she was down on me at once–I wasn’t holding her properly, and she might easily fall: “Heavens, girl, you’re going too fast; I shall do myself an injury.” Then, if I tried to walk still slower, it was: “Here, why aren’t you keeping up with me? Where’s your hand? I can’t feel it, you must have let go. I shall fall, I know I shall. How right I was when I told them you were too young to look after me!”

We would get to the refectory at last, without accidents. There were more obstacles to be got over; Sister St. Peter had to be steered into a sitting position, with the greatest possible care, so as not to hurt her. Then her sleeves had to be turned up, again in a particular way; then I could take myself off. But I noticed before long the difficulty she had, with her poor crippled hands, about arranging the bread in her bowl; so that was another little thing to do before I left her. She hadn’t asked me to do it, so she was greatly touched by having this attention paid to her; and it was this action (on which I’d bestowed no thought at all) that established me firmly in her favour. There was something even more important, though I only heard about it later; when I’d finished cutting her bread I gave her, before I left, my best smile.


Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XVI, No. 3, May-June 1996 (from The Autobiography of a Soul).