Few spiritualities have ever caught our attention and imagination as has “the little way” of Therese of Lisieux. By the same token, few spiritualities have been as badly misunderstood.
For a great many people, Therese’s little way, is something to be praised and revered (who can say anything bad about a child or a pious icon?), but it is scarcely seen as something offering a deep secret to complex, full-blooded and restless adults.
Recently I received a letter from a reader who shared with me, both in prose and poetry, a spirituality that she has forged for herself. It’s a version of “the little way” and with her permission (with a few deliberate redactions to disguise her identity—being ”little,” she is also shy!) I share its broad outlines with you:
“I am 28 years old and have spent most of my adult life unemployed, like a lot of other people in this area. I live in an apartment block in one of the most economically depressed areas of England. The complex I live in is a large deck-access council block—of about 1,000 buildings.
“My own flat is about 50 feet up, right over one of the noisiest sections (which can have its moments, especially at night). People do their best, but the place is still full of graffiti, litter and dog dirt—not much to look at, unless you like a lot of bare concrete.
“I can’t pretend to be entirely happy in a place like this—there’s a lot of noise, a lot of violence, the lifts stink of urine and nobody seems to have any hope left. Unemployment on these flats normally varies from 60 per cent to 75 per cent.
“My concern for justice—not only for places like this, but for women, for the unborn, for disabled people, for anyone who needs it—led me into politics. However, the more I go on, the more of a strain I find it.
“Admittedly, my health hasn’t helped, but the real strain has been the conflict between the political mentality and my particular spirituality. In politics, whatever party you belong to, the aim is to get power; ideally so that you can use it to empower others.
“I’ve tried to do that, though I’ve never had much actual power and am growing in the suspicion that even those who do have power are prevented by the system from ever using it to really help others.
“But I’ve developed a spirituality for this. It’s about being vulnerable, hurting alongside people, showing God’s strength in my own weakness. In a place like this, I don’t see what else I could have.
“I don’t believe at all that there is anything wrong with political power; a close friend of ours had a fairly important political position here and God worked through him in a number of ways. I just find it’s very difficult to put it together with being little.
“How does one fight for peace and yet remain gentle? I ask these questions . . . and I still stay in politics because I feel if there weren’t any little people, some of the big people might start to forget about them. I think some of them do already. So, here’s a poem that says what I feel and think . . . .
There is a strength in little things:
the snowdrop breaking through the sod,
the echo of the voice of God
in every morning bird that sings.
The balm for spirits crushed and broken
is not made by decree of kings,
but from a thousand little things
like gentle words, like prayers unspoken.
The world is huge; around it rings
the clangour of unending war.
Whatever we are fighting for,
there seems no room for little things.
Yet snowdrops do not cease to grow,
small envoys of successive springs;
the still small voice of little things
brings joy amidst our human woe.
When every day the paper brings
more news of human misery,
Lord, give me strength and grace to be
a voice among your little things.
The kingdom of God does, as Christ assures us, lie in mustard seeds, little things. Thank you, Ruth, for reminding us of that.