My three-year-old daughter, JoyAna, loves the garden. She walks around smelling flowers, searching for worms and almost indiscriminately exclaiming, “Whoa, daddy, this is amazing.” Last week she got a hold of a red and yellow zinnia and, with all the free-spiritedness of an exuberant toddler, ran up and down the sidewalk unpetalling and tossing the flower bit by bit. After navigating my own inward journey of concern for her safety by the road and guilt for taking a neighbor’s zinnia (sorry, neighbor), I smiled and thought of The Little Flower.
On October 1, the Church joyfully remembers one who teaches us the little way of Jesus, St. Therese of Lisieux, who gave witness to the expansive height, depth, width and breadth of God’s love through the bold proclamation that the stirring vitality of holiness resides in the depths of ordinary existence. This little way calls us to share the fragrance of Christ’s mercy in the smallest perpetually-present gestures of love and to bear our weaknesses meekly. By some mystery, as we tap into the fountainhead of grace in the small relinquishments and little acts of tenderness and welcome in our everyday lives, the way of spiritual childhood opens for us the pathway to participation in the kingdom of God.
“Sanctity does not consist in performing such and such acts; it means being ready at heart to become small and humble in the arms of God, acknowledging our own weaknesses and trusting in His fatherly goodness to the point of audacity.”
One of the well-known images associated with St. Therese that illustrates this audacious trust and readiness of heart is the strewing of flowers. Her petals are all the little opportunities throughout her day to share God’s love. Just as fragrant beauty spreads when one unpetals and scatters a flower, each of these small gestures — interior and exterior love-offerings for God — put forth the aroma of Christ. Jesus takes great pleasure in this, according to Therese, and it was her small way to “make Love loved” in the world.
What does Therese’s little way have to say to us today? This is a particularly important question for us in this collective moment in our country, as the generational aching caused by racial injustice breaks through the surface and we are brought face-to-face with the glaring connection between oppression and many of the systems upon which our common life is built – including education, judicial law and incarceration, and money-making. I pray that communities and congregations nationwide ask this question and reckon with the wisdom of Therese in honest, curious dialogue.
For me, a helpful entry point for these questions leads me to yet another sister in the faith: Dorothy Day.
Dorothy’s prophetic witness for justice confronted the filthy, rotten systems of her day with relentless force. She has inspired so many to live radically the way of Jesus that is alternative to the logic of the unjust and dehumanizing structures of a profit-driven society. Her way of prayer, voluntary poverty and works of mercy glows with the light of Therese’s little way. And Dorothy didn’t simply apply Therese’s wisdom to her spiritual life of prayer and interior attentiveness but also to her social and economic commitments. The Catholic Worker Movement, under Dorothy’s bold leadership, encouraged a personalist response to the unjust social order of her time, including the little way of credit unions and farming communes, along with small enterprises and cooperatives that valued human labor and shared ownership.
Dorothy describes her first introduction to St. Therese as an underwhelming experience. She almost took offense to the confessor’s recommendation to read “Story of a Soul,” finding Therese’s little way too small and preferring to read about heroic and inimitable saints. Over her years living in Catholic Worker hospitality houses, studying and writing about the Church’s response to the unjust social order, Dorothy discovered Therese’s little way to be the path accessible to all, including and especially the poor and the downtrodden. The teaching of the little way makes room for anyone in any circumstance to participate in the loving, active presence of God.
Here in Durham, we often reflect upon what our call to follow Jesus on the little way looks like here and now. By grace, there is in our community an integration along the barrier lines that often separate us from one another — namely race, age and disability. Our society has been arranged, largely through the logics of profit and fear, in such a way that most people who are different along these (and many other) lines do not share intimate daily life. Praise God for the exceptions to this all over the country that provide an alternative imagination, but the setup of our society makes it much easier to be more proximate to those who are like us.
Every day, the nine of us in our home are each involved in a small, personalist response to some monstrously big social ills, including racism and the exclusion and belittling of persons with disabilities. Some of us live with developmental disabilities. Some of us are Black and some are white. Our ages range from nine months to 69 years. Naming this suggests no heroism (in fact, the challenge and constant failings are apparent each day) but rather indicates that St. Therese’s little way makes sense of our common life together and provides a framework for adventurous, sacred meaning in our everyday lives.
And so, the raw material of our daily lives, including offenses and forgivenesses, dishes and dusting, laughter and horseplay, annoyances and confrontations — all of these invitations to humble and self-offering love — happen in the womb of a concrete expression of the new humanity Jesus ushers in through his very person. The boundaries of hostility are torn and, in Jesus, God’s love opens new horizons of togetherness.
And so, as I praise God in reflection of our community’s lived encounter with Therese, I see a sort of little way inside a little way. I see the little way of attempting to bear one’s imperfections in humility, exploring the million daily interior and exterior invitations to respond to God’s grace with small acts of love. And this little way swirls inside the little way of proximate and intimate shared life oriented around those most vulnerable, poor and excluded in our world with personalist systemic engagement (i.e., household habits of consuming and eating and welcoming that undercut the big injustices of our time). These little ways lead us always to surrender and trust. God alone is the wellspring of goodness, truth and beauty. In God, all justice and mercy find its source and fulfillment.
And God became small. In the incarnation, God chooses the littleness of a baby and the dailiness of ordinary existence to bring salvation to the world. Within the surrendering trust of Mary’s simple “let it be” resides humanity’s faithful response to the loving invitation of God. And Mary’s consenting “yes” resulted in a hosting of our Lord Jesus filled with a million little gestures of love. Physically, in her body, she was hospitable to the life and new life of Jesus. She raised Jesus day after day after day, mothering him from an infant to toddler to young boy, through teenage years and into the intimacy of their adult lives up to the cross. Her ‘let it be’ was a surrender that left her hands open to freely scatter tiny petals of love. It was a room-making for God’s life to be and to generate new life.
May we accept God’s invitation to be available to the wonder and mystery of love as we travel the little way with Jesus.
Greg Little is a husband to Janice and father to JoyAna and Elias “Eli,”and he has a home at Corner House in Durham, North Carolina. He has learned from various schools, including several Christian communities seeking justice and peace (a Catholic Worker home inspired by St. Francis, Durham’s Friendship House and Haiti’s Wings of Hope) and is committed to a life ordered by daily communal prayer and littleness. He works at Reality Ministries, a place proclaiming that we all belong to God in Jesus through fostering friendship among people with and without developmental disabilities. Greg and Sister Julia recently met in the wonder of interfaith dialogue about monasticism and the contemplative life at Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, South Carolina.