Do the saints seem like eagles soaring on the heights while you’re just a little bird that can’t fly? Do they seem like towering mountains while you’re a small grain of sand? These are the questions Fr. Michael Gaitley poses in his newest book, 33 Days to Merciful Love. If you are anything like me, your answer is, “Yes!” That’s because we know that saints are people who have achieved great things; done great works, endured great sufferings, made great sacrifices. But Fr. Gaitley, when praising the virtues of the Little Flower, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, tells us that, “…such a remarkable gift of sanctity [as her’s] is relatively easy to obtain, even for very imperfect souls.”
What does he mean by that? When I read the lives of the saints I’m more inclined to feel overwhelmed, especially when comparing their lives to my own. As a wife and mother I have, over the years, looked for examples of saints whom I could imitate. Saints who have lived ordinary lives. But saints are not ordinary people. Saints are people who have done extraordinary things. And, to me, there was no more extraordinary saint than Thérèse of Lisieux.
|It is our littleness that attracts God’s Merciful Love.|
I have always regarded St. Thérèse as a great saint. At times she is even frightening to me. She is someone who loved suffering, who looked for “crosses” who was always grateful to God for any trials she had to endure. Her Little Way did not seem so little to me. In comparing myself to her I could only see how much I fear suffering, how I constantly try to avoid any “crosses,” and how grateful I am when trials that I have to endure are finally over!
But Fr. Gaitley demonstrates that Thérèse really was not so different from all of us who wish to love God more and live faithfully our Catholic Faith. St. Thérèse recognized and was very much aware of all her own weaknesses. But instead of becoming discouraged, she accepted and embraced these weaknesses as her “littleness”. She herself explains, “I have always wanted to be a saint. …God cannot inspire unrealizable desires. I can then, in spite of my littleness, aspire to holiness. It is impossible for me to grow up, and so I must bear with myself such as I am with all my imperfections. But I want to seek out a means of going to heaven by a little way, a way that is very straight, very short, and totally new.”
|Les Buissonets, childhood home of St. Thérèse in Lisieux, France|
In Thérèse’s day, France was deeply affected by the Jansenist heresy which had spread its influence on Catholic spirituality. Fr. Gaitley explains this heresy as promoting “a joyless moral rigorism, emphasizing fear and justice, punishment and severity, judgment and condemnation.” Thérèse was herself affected in her younger years, and it seemed even to have poisoned her early religious life as well. The convent of Lisieux certainly felt its effects. Many Carmelite nuns offered themselves as victim souls of God’s justice. Fr. Gaitley explains this as a sort of “deal” with the Lord, “Lord, please give me all the punishment that’s due to sinners, and then give to sinners the blessings I would normally receive as a faithful religious.” This form of “offering” was encouraged in their rule. Saint Thérèse, though she thought this a very generous offering to make for souls, admitted, “I was far from feeling attracted to making it.”
So then, what is this “way that is very straight, very short, and totally new,” that St. Thérèse speaks of? It is her Little Way, her Offering to Merciful Love. Fr. Gaitley sums up this offering with three important points:
To this I breathed a long and grateful sigh of relief! Fr. Gaitley’s 33 day, do-it-yourself retreat, had opened my eyes. Though it is still true that, like St. Thérèse, I am far too “small,” far too weak, and far too fearful to ever aspire to becoming a victim soul of God’s Divine Justice, it did become clearer and clearer to me, as I made my way through the retreat, that I have everything I need in order to become a saint, right here in my very “ordinary” life. As a matter of fact, the “smaller” we are, the better. According to St. Thérèse, it is our littleness that attracts God’s Merciful Love. “Whosoever is a little one, let him come to me.” (Proverbs 9:4) St. Thérèse’s Little Way does not culminate in an offering of Divine Justice, but rather, in an offering to Divine Mercy.
And Fr. Gaitley explains: “It’s really all about remaining little and then arriving at the heights of holiness through the descending mercy of Jesus. ... It’s about accepting that we are to put up with ourselves — with all the darkness of our weakness, brokenness, and sin, — without getting discouraged. It’s recognizing, without giving up, that some struggles are chronic. It’s realizing, without despairing, that some struggles may remain with us till our dying day. But it’s also about realizing that this does not prevent us from becoming saints…even great saints.”
33 Days to Merciful Love: A Do-It-Yourself Retreat in Preparation for Consecration to Divine Mercy, by Fr. Michael E. Gaitley, MIC, is published by The Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception of the B.V.M.