There are days when I feel very impatient with my two-year-old daughter. There are days when I get nasty in my judgments of others. There are days when I could not care less about other people. We all have these days. We get in a mood and we say things or do things we do not really mean. We are prone to fail, to fall, to break our relationships, and to hurt one another. St. Therese of Lisieux would tell us, at our very lowest, not to get discouraged but to renew our trust in God. She would say all we need to do is surrender to the Source of Grace and Mercy.
Therese, the next mystic guiding us through Lent, affirms the message in today’s Gospel. The barren fig tree in Jesus’ parable represents our lives. According to Thomas Keating, the fertilizer “is the symbol of our experience of daily life and of our constantly recurring faults.” Cultivating the ground around the barren fig tree and fertilizing it again and again, for Keating, represents our efforts to keep trusting God even though the same old fault come back again and again. This practice of persevering in faith despite our failures lies at the heart of the message of Therese of Lisieux.
Therese lived a rather uneventful life, at least by our standards. Born in 1873, she hardly ever left her hamlet in France, Lisieux. She moved from her childhood home to the local Carmelite convent, where she died when she was twenty-four, in the year 1897. Yet, she lived an extraordinary inner life, because she really got – and I mean got! – the essence of the Gospel. She was like one of Jesus’ parables come to life. She wrote an autobiography called “The Story of a Soul,” which was published a year after her death. It became the late Nineteenth Century equivalent of a “best-seller.” People all over the world reported how their lives were changed by reading “A Story of a Soul.” Additionally, Therese left behind numerous letters to priests, her sisters, and fellow Carmelites. In all these writings, she described her “Little Way” of trust, love, and surrender to God.
Therese teaches us God alone is our holiness. We don’t have to expect perfection from ourselves! In fact, such an expectation is counter-productive and even harmful to the spiritual life. If we want to live like mystics, Therese would advise us to surrender when we feel weak and helpless. She would add, accepting our weakness and failure allows us to take the focus off ourselves and let God’s mercy into our hearts.
Therese came to a profound insight: we cannot change ourselves but God can and will. All we need to do is surrender in loving trust to God. Welcome every experience of weakness, failure, and stupidity! Welcome them because they are more opportunities to open to God in simple trust. We cannot be big in God’s presence. We must be little. We must recognize our own nothingness, not because we are inherently bad, but because this opens us to give ourselves to God. Being little, recognizing we are poor and in need, forces us to go to God and trust in the Infinite Divine Mercy.
Whenever we get preoccupied with doing something right, or being perfect we have veered off course. Perfectionism is about self, not about God. So, Therese says, “Yes, it suffices to humble oneself, to bear with one’s imperfections. That is real sanctity.” Each of us needs a strong dose of patient self-love. Getting upset over our faults only makes the situation worse. If, instead, we can follow Therese at this moment, we will know peace. Suppose we make a mistake and we get upset about it. Feelings of stupidity, anger, defeatism, and inadequacy can overwhelm us. Josef Schmidt reflects, “Thérèse quickly turned these feelings into prayer and thus into stepping-stones for her own growth.” Precisely in these feelings, we surrender to God. Therese tells us, “One has only to love Him, without looking at one’s self, without examining one’s faults too much.” We just look at Jesus without wallowing in the self-pity that normally follows on some disappointment or failure.
Here is our practice: self-acceptance and surrender to God. When we mess up, we accept our mess and hand ourselves over to God without any fretting over the mess. “All too often we get agitated instead of relying trustingly on God…our hearts are riddled with fears and doubts,” says Jacques Philippe. Through the practice of self-acceptance and surrender, we stay focused on loving God and others. When we experience our weakness, we simply turn to God and patiently put up with ourselves as we are. God does not expect perfection from us, so neither should we! “What really pleases Jesus is that He sees me loving my littleness and my poverty, the blind hope that I have in His mercy…This is my only treasure…why would this treasure not be yours?” “The Little Way” of St. Therese of Lisieux consists of simply and totally trusting in the divine mercy while accepting ourselves as we are. Bearing our weaknesses, we keep our hearts and minds anchored in God. Letting God be our treasure is all that matters. “I see it is sufficient to recognize one’s nothingness and to abandon oneself as a child into God’s arms.”