Saturday, May 31, 2014

A Little Ball of No Account

I had offered myself, for some time now, to the Child Jesus as his little plaything. I told him not to use me as a valuable toy children are content to look at but dare not touch, but to use me like a little ball of no value which he could throw on the ground, push with His foot, pierce, leave in a corner, or press to His heart if it pleased him; in a word, I wanted to amuse little Jesus, to give Him pleasure; I wanted to give myself up to His childish whims. He heard my prayer.

At Rome, Jesus pierced His little plaything; He wanted to see what there was inside it and having seen, content with His discovery, He let His little ball fall to the ground and He went off to sleep. What did He do during His gentle sleep and what became of the little abandoned ball? Jesus dreamed He was still playing with His toy, leaving it and taking it up in turns, and then having seen it roll quite far He pressed it to His heart, no longer allowing it to ever go far from His little hand.

St. Therese of Lisieux, Story of a Soul

Reflection – Just back from retreat, I don’t feel like jumping back in with more of Humanae Vitae, so we’ll skip that series for this weekend (cuz it’s my blo-og and I’ll write what I want to, write what I want to…).

One of my texts on retreat was Story of a Soul. Therese is my oldest and dearest friend among the saints—I first read her autobiography when I was about 20 and we have been buddies ever since. I suspect we might be related; my maternal great-grandmother was a Martin, that part of France is where much of the Canadian emigration came from, and there is a distinct family resemblance between Therese and many of the women in my family.

Be that as it may, we are spiritual kin, if not physical. And this passage is classic Theresian spirituality. The context is her disastrous (as it seemed to her) trip to Rome and her humiliating experience of petitioning the Pope to be received into Carmel at fifteen and being kindly turned away, and the seeming vanishing of her last earthly hope for an early entry to her vocation.

It is easy to look at this event from a position of worldly scorn and dismiss it as adolescent vapors at best, narcissistic entitlement at worst. It is easy to roll our eyes and talk about neurosis and immaturity and a hundred other reasons why it is proper to despise the spoiled little girl from Normandy. Many do; many have.

It is easy to point out that, if Therese had been at all versed in the ways of the world, she would have known that it was not the Pope, but the Vicar General of the Bayeux diocese who was watching her like a hawk throughout the pilgrimage, who really mattered here, and that his good opinion of her was more weighty in the long run (which is quite true, and in fact everything turned around dramatically upon their return to Lisieux).

But she was not versed in worldly ways (thank God), nor were her father or elder siblings seemingly, and fifteen year old girls are not known generally for their long view of things and sober mature perspective. And (this is the glory of Therese), none of that matters. The point is her heart was broken, rightly or wrongly, wisely or foolishly, and she saw in that breaking of her heart Jesus taking her at her word and piercing her like a little ball of no account that He could do with as He pleased. And this is how the silly little girl from Normandy became a very great saint, one of the greatest.

It occurs to me that the Lord, upon the birth of this little child, rubbed His hands together in heaven and said ‘Ah, now here’s a challenge! Here is a life made up of a succession of nothings, trivialities, ordinary events, joys, sorrows—not even terribly long by any human reckoning… and a heart aflame with love. Let’s show these foolish human creatures of mine just what it takes to make a great saint: nothing… and love.’

And this is the great glory and beauty of Therese. It is not that her life is extraordinary. It really isn’t. Heck, I’ve been to Rome, as have millions upon millions of people. It is not an extraordinary life; it is that she saw in every movement of her life a movement of Jesus. In joy, Jesus was embracing her to his heart; in sorrow and desolation, he was piercing her, throwing her into a corner; in dryness and aridity, he was asleep, having completely forgotten about his little ball.

And she loved Him enough, had a nobility and greatness of spirit enough, that this pleased her, even through her adolescent tears and (perhaps) overdone emotions. She was generous enough and humble enough to offer herself as a ball to child Jesus, and to see in the ordinary trials of life his acceptance of that offer. And that’s what it takes to make a saint in this world—not great deeds or epic sufferings, but great love and generosity that makes every deed, however small, an act of love, every sorrow, however small, an act of abandonment.

All about Jesus, all directed towards Jesus, nothing without Jesus, nothing except Jesus – this is the Theresian spirit, and it is at once great enough to be the basis of life for the truly great ones of the earth, and little and humble enough that a child or the most broken, weak, and degraded person in the world can live it and be made holy.