Posted by: Thomas Richard | December 9, 2017

St. Therese of Lisieux and “Spiritual Childhood”

Many spiritual men and women in the Church have reflected long and beautifully, on the remarkable example of St. Therese of Lisieux.  This holy woman, who died so young at age 24, left a legacy and a light of holiness that have helped and guided many to a deeper spiritual life.  Here is a brief part of a biography of the saint (1):

At the age of 14, on Christmas Eve in 1886, Therese had a conversion that transformed her life. From then on, her powerful energy and sensitive spirit were turned toward love, instead of keeping herself happy. At 15, she entered the Carmelite convent in Lisieux to give her whole life to God. She took the religious name Sister Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face. Living a hidden, simple life of prayer, she was gifted with great intimacy with God. Through sickness and dark nights of doubt and fear, she remained faithful to God, rooted in His merciful love. After a long struggle with tuberculosis, she died on September 30, 1897, at the age of 24. Her last words were the story of her life: “My God, I love You!”

The world came to know Therese through her autobiography, “Story of a Soul”. She described her life as a “little way of spiritual childhood.” … Therese’s spirituality is of doing the ordinary, with extraordinary love.

There is a radical difference between the holy “spiritual childhood” that Therese lived – which is a spirituality many have sought to learn from and grow into – and the contrary spiritual imperfection for a Christian of “childishness,” that is, spiritual immaturity and an obstinate resistance to grow in the life we are called to, in Christ.

What are the differences?  I will quote Fr. John Harden, S.J., listing his six descriptors of spiritual childhood, and after each one I will comment, I hope in ways that can help answer the question.  Here are the six descriptors by Fr. John Harden (Fr. JH) (2), followed by my comments (TR):

1. Fr. JH: Spiritual childhood knows nothing of spiritual pride. It never glories in whatever graces it receives from God, but acknowledges them as sheer gift of His love.

[TR Comments:  The lack of spiritual pride indicated is not present in a childish adult, certainly, but instead the reverse is found: prideful attribution of all of one’s spiritual “accomplishments” to one’s own efforts – whether the “accomplishments” are real or only imagined.  Divine graces received – whether real or falsely presumed – are considered only due and deserved in justice.]

2. Fr. JH: Spiritual childhood realizes that natural means cannot achieve sanctity. Without prayer, the sacraments, and cooperation with graces received, holiness is a mirage.

[TR Comments:  The childish Christian has little if any grasp of the concept “sanctity”, nor of the call to holiness.  These realities, being of the supernatural, are hardly within the horizon of the childish one.  His universe is of the natural, the senses, the material, the tangible, the concrete.  His prayer life and his sacramental life are shallow at best, and seem to him entirely adequate and satisfactory as they are.]

3. Fr. JH: Spiritual childhood has no illusions of self-reliance in danger and temptation. Immediate petition for divine help is the only guarantee of being able to overcome the surges of passion or the instigations of the evil one.

[TR Comments:  For the childish Christian, spiritual dangers that ought to concern him do not, and temptations that are very dangerous for him are not recognized.  Sin itself is hardly his concern – as lacking for him as is his concern for holiness.]

4. Fr. JH: Spiritual childhood presupposes a lively faith in God’s existence. In fact, as a person grows in spiritual childhood, there is a keen awareness of God’s presence in everything that touches one’s life.

[TR Comments:  For the childish Christian, “faith” is more a vague word for a very vague concept, than a vital living reality.  If he were asked “Does God exist?” he would most probably answer “Sure!”  The question would be of the same category as, “Does the sun exist?” – this is the category of presumptions largely irrelevant to the childish one’s life, which is about personal gratifications here and now.]

5. Fr. JH: Spiritual childhood has a practical confidence in God’s power and mercy. Thus the virtue of hope becomes so strong that no matter how humanly impossible the future may seem, there is peaceful trust that God will provide loving care.

[TR Comments:  All of these realities – confidence, divine power and mercy, hope, trust in God – are supernatural realities immediate and present in the spiritual childhood of one authentically in the beginnings of the life of grace.  But they are present in the childish Christian – if at all – in an attenuated and minimal degree, largely overwhelmed in the natural world of the senses, the material, the tangible.  The childish Christian wants what he wants when he wants it, and he wants it now.]

6. Fr. JH: Spiritual childhood has confident recourse to Divine providence. It sees the hand of God behind every so-called happening, and believes there is no such thing as chance.

[TR Comments:  For the childish Christian, “luck” is a far more realistic factor in life than “Divine providence.”  There is good luck and there is bad luck, and gambling is more reasonable than praying, unless one is praying for good luck.]

Fr. John Harden continues (3),

If we look still closer at St. Therese’s importance for our times, it becomes even more clear as we see the virus of pride infecting so many people in our day. As the popes are at pains to explain, whatever else the modern world needs, it is a rediscovery of the meaning of Christ’s teaching about becoming like little children. He could not have been more solemn than when He warned us, “Amen I say to you, unless you turn and become like little children, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). This injunction was always necessary but it is crucial today when human achievements in the material world have intoxicated millions with self-conceit and widespread oblivion of God.

In Baptism, the beginning of the life of grace, a new vital force has been received into the soul of the recipient.  This vital force is the life of God, in which we can have a personal human participation.  This promised gift is the new heart, and right spirit, prophesied of old and begun in human history through the outpouring of the love of Christ through His Holy Cross.  This life is intended by God that it grow, that it mature, and reach fruitfulness.

Because the life of grace in the soul is intended to grow and mature, it is a travesty and an affront to God, that His precious gift – of His precious life – be stifled and choked and abused and wasted, in a childish life-long tantrum of self-centeredness!  But in the child-like innocence of beginning, in the openness of authentic fertile childhood, His life is glorified and the child in Christ grows, as it is intended to do.  St. Therese shows us the fruit of faithfulness to His grace, and the world and the Church are blessed by her life, brief though it was.

St. Therese, pray for us.


references:

(1) https://www.littleflower.org/therese/

(2) Fr. John Hardon, S.J. – http://www.hardonsj.org/st-therese-lisieux-practiced-virtues-spiritual-childhood/

(3) ibid.


Responses

  1. Dear Thomas,

    Thanks so much for this blog article in which you clarify with Fr. John Hardon,SJ the beauty of “Spiritual Childhood” practiced and taught by St. Therese of Lisieux.

    It is important to contrast Fr. Hardon’s descriptions of how different “Spiritual Childhood” is from the childishness that adults can practice instead. It is really helpful to read the dangers for us if we do not recognize being “childish” and as a consequence do not grow spiritually as God intends us to grow.

    St. Therese, pray for us, that we may grow in holiness, for God’s glory as you did.

  2. Thanks Thomas, for this article on St. Therese. I read her autobiography, “Story of a Soul” and loved it very much. She truly loved God, and lived her life accordingly. I pray for God to create in me a clean heart so that I can be holy and bring glory to God. This world is full of temptations that lead to nowhere. Thank you Thomas, for sharing


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