The “Little Way”
In 1954, Kitty Kalen hit #1 on the Billboard charts with her song “Little Things Mean a Lot.” The song, rated the most popular hit of that entire year, is a message from a woman to her beau telling her she didn’t need “diamonds and pearls, champagne, sables and such.” Rather, a blown kiss from across the room, a compliment given when she was having a rough day, or offering a shoulder for her to cry on were what she was looking for in her relationship.
“Little things mean a lot.”
Now, I do no know what a sable is, but I get the idea. In our love relationships, we can be tempted to think that we need to make grand gestures, but as Ms. Kalen reminds us, it is in the day-to-day giving of ourselves where love is best shown.
This week we celebrate the feast of St. Therese of Lisieux, a 19th-century mystic who, despite dying at the tender age of 24, would nonetheless be named a Doctor of the Church: an honorific accorded those rare individuals whose theological insights profoundly shape the Church’s understanding of Who God is and how we can/should relate to Him.
St. Therese was a cloistered Carmelite sister who longed to be a missionary. Plagued by illness for most of her brief life, she could not pursue her dream of sharing the Gospel outside of her native France, which left her devastated. “Love proves itself by deeds,” she reflected, “so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden me.” Her answer: “The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers, and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love.”
Thus formed the germ of a practice she called her “Little Way,” in which every act she would do in a day would be offered to the Lord in love. As she would advise her readers in the Story of a Soul, “[m]iss no opportunity of making some small sacrifice here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest thing right and doing it all for love.” Thus, every bearing of a harsh word without retaliating, happily performing every unpleasant chore she was called to do, enduring every bit of suffering from illness without complaint, offering every moment of prayer, etc., would be a “little flower” she could present to the Lord. At the end of each day, she hoped to offer Him a “bouquet” of her loving acts.
In her life, she came to recognize God’s great love for us—and in recognizing that love, she came to love Him profoundly in return. A woman of deep prayer, she would enter into intense mystical encounters with the Lord—” ecstasies” as they are called—but said famously: “To spiritual ecstasy, I prefer everyday sacrifice.” Perhaps drawing from the realization that she would not be the missionary she wished, she also noted that “not all are called to do great things in this life, but we can all do little things with great love.”
In addition to bearing the physical burden of tuberculosis, which would eventually take her life, Therese endured the more painful spiritual affliction of what St John of the Cross called a “dark night of the soul” in which she no longer felt God’s presence in her life. Despite her spiritual dryness, she continued to love, collecting her “flowers” and offering them to God, who seemed far away. And in doing so, she showed that love is an act of the will.
Attracting devotees as diverse as Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, and American novelist Jack Kerouac, the “Little Way” is noted both for its simplicity and practicality in the spiritual life. By consciously offering all we do as acts of love for God, we are enabled to both focus what we do “For the greater glory of God” and to heed St. Paul’s exhortation to “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17).
I have tried to live the Little Way--though admittedly imperfectly (at times profoundly so!)--and I can testify to its power. It makes every difficulty of the day--dealing with a challenging co-worker, doing another mind-numbing chore, checking yet another page of Simple Solutions--not a burden, but a vehicle of God’s grace and an opportunity to love.
So, as we remember the young saint who did good with great love, let us each begin gathering the “flowers” we can present to the Lord.
Because little things mean a lot.
A.M.D.G. / B.V.M.H.
Look for an apostolic exhortation on St Therese’s message from Pope Francis on Oct 15.