The Little Way and Purgatory

When the Church canonizes a Saint it is not only their witness of life that is being acknowledged, but the Church is also canonizing their teachings as well.  In other words, the Saints are recognized as credible witnesses in both deed and word.  This makes perfect sense when we admit that sanity breeds sanctity and sanctity breeds sanity.  The Saints show us how the unchanging Gospel is to be understood and lived in ever-changing times.  In this regard, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, whose feast day we celebrate tomorrow (Oct.1 ) is no different.  When he canonized her in 1925, Pope Pius XI said that “the Spirit of truth opened and made known to her what he usually hides from the wise and prudent and reveals to little ones; thus she enjoyed such knowledge of the things above… that she shows everyone else the sure way of salvation.”

When he declared her a Universal Doctor of the Church, Pope St. John Paul II said that her emphasis on the Gospel message of the Little Way gives her an “exceptional universality.”  Her Little Way is based on an equally radical trust in God’s goodness and her own nothingness.  She saw within herself a great desire for holiness that she insists God would not have placed there unless He planned to give it to her.  Her response was not so much to try harder, but to trust more that He would achieve His purposes in her.

The Little Way is really just the Gospel in a thinly veiled disguise.  The message is the same—trust.  It is a lack of trust in God that leads to the Fall.  “Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command. This is what man’s first sin consisted of.  All subsequent sin would be disobedience toward God and lack of trust in his goodness” (CCC 397).

Every sin reveals a lack of trust in God.  God, Who made us as creatures to be loved, knows best what makes us lovely.  We don’t entirely trust that what He tells us is actually what is best for us and so we try to do it our own way.  If we trusted Him, then we would do what He says.  Once that trust is restored however we are willing to do everything He says precisely because we know He has our best interest at heart.  No matter how vexing or how hard it appears, we will do it because our Father has told us it is what is best.

This perspective of sin’s relationship to the Divine Fatherhood was a favorite of John Paul II’s.   “Original sin attempts to abolish fatherhood, destroying its rays which permeate the created world, placing in doubt the truth about God who is Love and leaving man only with a sense of the master-slave relationship” (Crossing the Threshold of Hope, p. 228).  The Father’s solution is not simply to say “trust Me,” but shows us how trustworthy He is.  It is Our Lord’s radical trust in His Father that establishes the truth of God’s Fatherhood once and for all.

Little Flower

Based on her own radical trust, Thérèse offered herself as an oblation to God’s merciful love, composing a beautiful Act of Oblation as a Victim of Divine Love

In order that my life may be one Act of perfect Love, I offer myself as a Victim of Holocaust to Thy Merciful Love, imploring Thee to consume me unceasingly, and to allow the floods of infinite tenderness gathered up in Thee to overflow into my soul, that so I may become a very martyr of Thy Love, O my God! May this martyrdom, after having prepared me to appear in Thy Presence, free me from this life at the last, and may my soul take its flight–without delay–into the eternal embrace of Thy Merciful Love!

This prayer is often a stumbling block to those who would put the Little Way into practice.  How can she offer herself as a victim of holocaust to Divine Love?  Why must this offering involve becoming a victim (i.e.suffering)?  As Theresa of Avila once said, “Lord if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them.”

To answer this we have to, like Thérèse, recognize our nothingness or littleness.  This is not so much about humility but an acknowledgment that we are fundamentally broken.  We entrust ourselves to the Divine Physician to heal us.  Like any good doctor we trust, we know that God will often first have to wound us in order to heal us (Job 5:18).  He will choose the least invasive procedure, but He will never be so cruel as to stop the surgery in the middle.

Could God heal us without first wounding us?  While I think we will all be surprised when we find out all the hidden ways God has healed us, the answer no, not completely.  This is because He wants to re-establish that relationship of trust.  To give us everything without us knowing the cost builds, not trust, but mistrust and jealousy.  This is especially true considering how He distributes His gifts unevenly among His children.  The only way to show Himself as Father is to truly father us—raising us as sons and daughters in Christ, disciplining us, and never allowing us to become spoiled.

There is nothing passive in the Little Way.  St. Thérèse offers herself as a living sacrifice, but she knows that like most living sacrifices they tend to crawl off the altar.  Trust takes effort because we are pre-disposed to the lack of trust that comes with our condition as fallen creatures.  Trust is difficult because there is always a voice telling us why we shouldn’t trust.  But small acts of trust bring about larger ones until we are capable of absolute trust.

In Thérèse’s mind there are practical implications of the Little Way; one of which seems shocking at first.  She thought those who practiced it could avoid Purgatory altogether.

Thérèse was deeply distressed by the resignation that most people had (and still have) that they will need Purgatory after death.  In a letter to Sr. Maria Philomena she said

You do not have enough trust. You have too much fear before the good God. I can assure you that He is grieved over this. You should not fear Purgatory because of the suffering there, but should instead ask that you not deserve to go there in order to please God, Who so reluctantly imposes this punishment. As soon as you try to please Him in everything and have an unshakable trust He purifies you every moment in His love and He lets no sin remain. And then you can be sure that you will not have to go to Purgatory.

Notice that she is not saying that Purgatory is unnecessary, but that it can be avoided.  She even says that God is grieved over souls going to Purgatory because they are kept from Him.  The Little Way preaches that God will give us all the means we need to be purified in this life.  To the extent that we trust He is at work, then it will be effective in us.  To the extent that we resist, we will need other means (up to an including Purgatory).  The soul that completely trusts in God knows He is at work and so they abandon themselves to His Providential care.  In other words, she says the infallible way to avoid Purgatory is to graciously receive it here on earth.

St. Thérèse was well aware of the profundity of her understanding of God’s love and her role in preaching the Little Way as a means of sanctification.  She begged God to give her a legion of “little souls” that were follow her.  “I beg You to cast Your Divine Glance upon a great number of little souls. I beg You to choose a legion of little Victims worthy of Your LOVE!”  Through her powerful intercession, may we make of ourselves an oblation to Divine Love.

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