I am a terrible gardener. My two requirements of office plants is that they 1) be able to withstand neglect for long stretches of time, and 2) when I finally remember that I have plants and realize they are dying, they can be resurrected with water, some prayers, and a few crossed fingers.
This essentially means I am a pro at neglecting and resurrecting peace lilies. In fact, I would not be surprised if the little plants whisper to one another in the corner of Home Depot, “Beware of that lady. She’s a sadist. She’ll kill you and then bring you back to life just to kill you all over again.”
I try to grow tomatoes every summer as if I forget how bad I am at growing tomatoes. One year, fungus gnats got to them. The next year, they started yielding but the birds got to them first. The following year, I invested in some netting which trapped a very angry squirrel that I then had to free from said netting. And this year, I finally gave up.
Don’t even get me started on my cursed fig tree.
I try. I try very hard.
I could probably handle simple things like pansies and succulents, but no. I have to go for the big guns. I’m not satisfied with novice plants, so I force myself into defeat time and time again and invest way too much money in fertilizer and peat in an attempt to grow something amazing.
But this summer, I relented and just put a peace lily on the porch. I waved the white flag. The plants won.
A Dandelion Among Roses
All of this in mind, the humor is not lost on me that one of my favorite saints is known as “The Little Flower.” Saint Thérèse of Lisieux is one of those interesting cases like Vincent Van Gogh in that she was a fairly ordinary person in life, but thanks to the postmortem circulation of her writings, she skyrocketed to sainthood in death. She entered a Carmelite monastery at fifteen and was unfortunately cut down at the young age of twenty-four by tuberculosis.
She gave the world a tremendous gift in her writings, though, as articulated in her deathbed autobiography The Story of a Soul.
She’s not a technical theologian like the Church Fathers, or as mighty as Teresa of Avila (who she lovingly calls “the big Teresa”). She’s not Augustine or Aquinas. Her words have never made it into a book of robust theological thought.
She’s kind of sappy and saccharine, much like you would expect a well-off, coiffed French woman to be.
A particular reason I love Thérèse is on account of her call to smallness. She likens the kingdom of God to a garden; you have your big, showy flowers- your Augustinian lilies and Franciscan roses, and then you have your smaller flowers, of which she counts herself. She remarks that if everyone wished to be a rose and there were no daisies or morning glories on the ground at God’s feet, it would be a rather boring garden, and futhermore, every flower brings joy to God.
She firmly believed that the way to a holy life was not to become bigger, but to become smaller. Her theory was that if she became too large, then she would no longer be able to sit in the lap of God. A good theory, if not a countercultural one.
“Love is everything.”
Adjacent to her desire to remain small seemed to be a conversely grand desire to love as largely as humanly possible, to love as God loves. She declares toward the end of her life that she had at last realized that love is the root of all vocations, that it is the source of all joy and of all peace. The act of practicing love is one seen over and over again in Thérèse’s life. Love, in the 21st century romantic-sense of the word, often feels like a passive, natural thing. It’s a spark, a jolt, a feeling; however, Thérèse constantly places it in the active mode: she practices loving people.
She practices loving the sisters who intentionally splash her with dirty laundry water. She practices loving Christ with more fullness every day. She even practices loving God in the midst of her death, echoing a Protestant preacher over a century and a sea away: practice your faith until you have it. (Methodist’s favorite man, John Wesley, loosely quoted)
So as she becomes smaller, her capacity for love increases, or perhaps better put, when she lives into the person who God created her to be- not Teresa, or Francis, or Benedict, or Paul, but Thérèse, her capacity to love as God loves multiplies.
As we all begin this new academic year (especially for those of us in school or ministry, or others who are often bound by said calendar), I hope and pray that we are able to grow into the fullness of who God has called us to be: roses or daisies, gardeners or plant murderers, and that we would know that our efforts are loved, and valued, and never go unnoticed. At the end of the day, what a beautiful notion that God delights simply in who we are and in who he created us to be.