In the thinking of St. Therese, what does it take to be a saint?
Therese grew up in a culture influenced by Jansenism. Jansenism was a heresy from the seventeenth century that over-emphasized the role of grace in man’s salvation. It had a long-lasting effect on the Church in France. In the late nineteenth century, during Therese’s life, the French clergy often preached “fire and brimstone” sermons. They focused on man’s sinfulness and the horrors of Hell.
During the school retreat before the first anniversary of her reception of first Communion, Therese was greatly frightened by the priest’s warnings against mortal sin. She was suddenly overcome by scruples. How could she be sure she was on the road to salvation? How could she be sure she was in God’s graces? Maybe she was guilty of mortal sin without acknowledging it. How could she ever be good enough to please God?
From counting good works to scruples
Therese’s childhood practices furthered such doubts. Her parents were saintly, but they were not immune to the negative influences in French Catholic culture. One day when Therese was only four her sister Marie brought a string of sacrifice beads home from school. She was supposed to count all her good works of the day on the beads. Their mother Zelie liked this idea and made a string for daughter Celine. Then Therese wanted one too, and her wish was granted.
Now, trying to offer little sacrifices to God throughout the day is a good practice. But for Therese, as for many of the people she knew, performing good works became the focus of her spirituality. That was fine when she was four and confident of her ability to do good works. But as she grew older, she saw more of her weaknesses. She began to fear that she could never be good enough to please God. She also worried that her sins were so many and so grievous that no amount of good works could make up for them. This led her to the brink of despair.
Therese’s first battle with scruples lasted eighteen months. But her scruples returned a few times over the years. In her autobiography she calls this struggle “a martyrdom.”
All her life, Therese had a strong desire to be a saint. But she knew that she could not expect herself to perform great deeds. How then could she be holy? She writes:
I wanted to find an elevator which would raise me to Jesus, for I am too small to climb the rough stairway of perfection. I searched, then, in the Scriptures for some sign of this elevator, the object of my desires, and I read these words coming from the mouth of Eternal Wisdom: ‘Whoever is a LITTLE ONE, let him come to me. [Prv 9:4]’ And so I succeeded. I felt I had found what I was looking for.… The elevator which must raise me to heaven is Your arms, O Jesus!” (Story of a Soul, 207-8)
In place of doing the great works of someone who was strong, she put total trust in God. She counted on Him to lift her to the heights.
Contentment with what God set before her
This doesn’t mean she no longer did good works or made sacrifices. But she contented herself with doing small things:
- repaying criticism with a smile
- following the Carmelite Rule as carefully as she could
- making love for God her motivation in all things
- volunteering for tasks that other nuns sought to avoid
- telling jokes to keep her sisters from being sad as they watched her succumb to tuberculosis
All these things required her to mortify her will. Because Therese was weak like us, they sometimes required heroic effort. But they were not extraordinary things. She did not have to seek them out. Every day, every hour of her life presented opportunities to abandon herself completely to Christ.
God did not allow her to become a foreign missionary as she desired. But she could still write letters to encourage missionary priests.
He did not grant her ecstasies in prayer. Instead, she fell asleep at mental prayer and offered Him that sleep in perfect contentment.
She could not become a choir nun since two of her sisters were already choir nuns. Instead of being envious, she asked to remain in the novitiate her whole life, taking her place with the beginners.
Whatever God set before her to do, she did with all her heart. And lest she be tempted to think about how many merits she was gaining, she gave them all away for others, rejoicing that she would stand before God with “empty hands.”
As we try to walk along the Little Way, we should take care not to make works–even little works–the center of our spirituality. For Therese, these works grew out of her recognition of her littleness. They were expressions of her love. They were signs that she was content to be weak. She gained nothing from them. She placed no confidence in them.
All her confidence was in God. And so should ours be.
Congratulation to Chissy and Joan Dilger, who won the two copies of Jean Heimann’s new book. Seven Saints for Seven Virtues!
7 thoughts on “How many good works must we do?”
I’m confused: if the Jansenists’ emphasis was on grace then why would they have been scrupulous about sin and concerned about doing good works?
I agree that it’s confusing. Jansenism was tainted by Calvinism. Calvin taught that, since the fall, man is “totally depraved.” According to him, we can’t do anything good on our own. He also taught that God saves whom He wills, based on nothing the sinner has done or can do, and that grace is irresistible. In other words, man plays no real role in salvation. It’s all God’s work. Jansenists took a similar view. To them, everything in the world was tainted by sin, so that’s why grace alone could save us. And since everything was tainted, we should try to escape from the world as much as possible. So in 19th century France you have everyone who is serious about following God seeking to enter the priesthood or religious life. Zelie and Louis Martin were both turned away by religious orders. Their daughter Leonie had several failed attempts at entering religious orders before finally succeeding. Gorres writes in The Hidden Face, “Only expressly religious activities were held to be of value and worthy of a Christian” (p. 35). Also, since man was so depraved, we should take Communion only rarely. We have to watch ourselves at every step. Our hearts can deceive us about the true state of our soul. We really deserve Hell and we might just be going there! So let’s combat our sin with a flurry of good works. See the progression? Yet the individual could easily fear that the number of his good works was not enough, because his depravity was so great. So he was always trying to do more. In the end, Jansenism had the opposite affect we would have expected, creating a kind of Catholic Puritanism. (As I write this, I’m a little convicted, seeing some of these tendencies in myself.) I hope that helps.
Interesting. I agree that as long as we’re alive we should try to be saints, which after all is a word that means “holy.” In his letters, St. Paul referred to fellow Christians as saints — those who were striving to be holy.
This blog post could not have better timing for us. My 10yo has been struggling and while we were in the car chatting last night he was saying “mommy, I’ll never be a Saint” with a great deal of disappointment in his voice. Our homeschool co-op patron Saint is Saint Therese and it will be a comfort for him to know that she struggled with these very same things – I can’t wait to share this part of the story to him. Thanks for the reminder.
You’re welcome, Danielle. This is such a common experience! I want to write another time about a conversation a former roommate and I had on this very subject. We were new college graduates. Was it too late for us to be saints? Had we missed the boat? At the time, she answered, ‘Yes,” and as she had a theology degree from Franciscan U, I didn’t know how to argue with that. Now I say, “It’s NEVER too late until death.” We can all be saints starting right now. But we often mistake what being a saint really means.
I honestly don’t know where I’d be without her little way. I remember my dad had a stone in his shoe and decided to leave it there as an offering. My brother insisted that there was enough that came naturally in a single day for him to offer up. He was right!
It takes a long time to be able to accept what happens each day with trust. I’m still working on it.