St. Therese of Lisieux was born in 1873 in Alençon, France. By the age of 15 she had experienced an encounter with the Divine, which she called her “complete conversion.” Shortly thereafter, she chose to live as a discalced (barefoot) Carmelite in Lisieux. As a part of this order, she often spent time doing menial tasks, which fell quite short of her aspirations to live up to the greatness of Teresa of Ávila or Joan of Arc. Yet, just a couple of decades after her death, Pope Pious X called her “the greatest saint of modern times,” and St. Teresa of Calcutta named herself after Therese of Lisieux, not Teresa of Ávila (as I had assumed).
From her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, we learn that Therese found a life of small service infuriating at first, but she didn’t let her desires for greatness turn into bitterness. Neither did she leave the order, seeking self-aggrandizement through more secular means. She eventually developed a practice she called the “Little Way” because she came to recognize “what matters in life is not great deeds, but great love.”
“Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden me. 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.”
The Little Way, in brief, is to do that which we are already doing, but with love. The Little Way rejects the call to lead great lives doing great works and accepts that we are all little in the grand scheme of things. To live the Little Way is not to sacrifice everything to some great project, but to sacrifice, in small ways, in every moment.
As we go about our day, practicing the Little Way, we try to actually see the people around us: the cashier at the grocery store, the daycare worker with our kids, the barista at the coffee shop, or, the person with their handful of bags trying to open a door, and we find a way to help them feel more loved.
Not in giant acts, just by seeing people as people — and acting in love. It may be as simple as genuinely asking how their day is going or holding a door open. I have found, personally, that the more attention I pay to the people around me, the more I see little ways to love people. I think, in our contemporary moment, many people feel isolated and less loved. The Little Way is a very achievable practice to help those around us.
I want to point out, however, that the Little Way isn’t a call for us to remove our boundaries in super-sacrificial, and unhealthy, ways. We are to love those around us, but we are also to love ourselves. We, too, are a “little flower of Jesus” deserving of love and rest.
The Little Way isn’t a practice that will help us feel like we’ve changed the world in a day, nor is it about preaching. But it is about spreading the good news that people are loved, and as we spread small loving acts to those around us, we may well find that we feel more loved ourselves. We may also find that we are changing the world in many little ways that lead to much larger changes over time.
Bart Hennigan has a Master of Public and International Affairs degree from the University of Pittsburgh. He completed Sewanne's Education for Ministry and is pursuing certification as a spiritual director through the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. When not reading or discussing philosophy and theology, Bart is a stay-at-home father of three, which has taught him much about patience and the importance of silence.