Today, as the Church honors St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, Virgin and Doctor of the Church, it seems appropriate to think about child-hood, the state of being a child. Thérèse’s autobiography, Story of a Soul, provides a glimpse into a heart filled with extraordinary holiness and exemplary virtue; however, her precociousness and effusive (often flowery) language sometimes cause people to dismiss this great saint as overly sentimental, even superficial or frivolous. Yet she was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope St. John Paul II in 1997; thus, it is well worth our time to contemplate the wisdom offered us, as it were, “out of the mouths of babes and infants” (Ps 8:2) by this young woman who endeavored to live as a child of God throughout the entirety of her short life.
Throughout her autobiography, Thérèse writes again and again of contentment with her own littleness, using various images and passages from Scripture.
“For a long time I had wondered why God had preferences, why He did not give the same degree of grace to everyone. … Jesus chose to enlighten me on this mystery. He opened the book of nature before me, and I saw that every flower He has created has a beauty of its own, that the splendor of the rose and the lily’s whiteness do not deprive the violet of its scent nor make less ravishing the daisy’s charm.
I saw that if every little flower wished to be a rose, Nature would lose her spring adornments, and the fields would be no longer enameled with their varied flowers.
So it is in the world of souls, the living garden of the Lord.
It pleases Him to create great Saints, who may be compared with the lilies or the rose; but He has also created little ones, who must be content to be daisies or violets, nestling at His feet to delight His eyes when He should choose to look at them. The happier they are to be as He wills, the more perfect they are.”
For Thérèse, such contentment is the gateway to happiness in God. Contentment with the gifts that one has received leads to gratitude, to self-forgetting, which in turn is the gateway to sanctity. It is this self-forgetting that allows one to orient one’s existence toward God and God alone; indeed, it is this self-forgetting that is the very essence of child-hood. Thérèse sees herself as one of the “little ones” created and beloved by God. She desires a closeness with her creator; she desires to be holy, yet she does not see herself as a rose or a lily. Rather, she sees herself as a “little flower” in the garden of the Lord. She embraces her status as a child.
“You know that I have always wanted to be a Saint; but compared with real Saints, I know perfectly well that I am no more like them than a grain of sand trodden beneath the feet of passers-by is like a mountain with its summit lost in the clouds.
Instead of allowing this to discourage me, I say to myself: ‘God would never inspire me with desires which cannot be realized; so, in spite of my littleness, I can hope to be a Saint. I could never grow up. I must put up with myself as I am, full of imperfections, but I will find a little way to Heaven, very short and direct, an entirely new way.’”
Thérèse speaks of finding an elevator, a shortcut to Jesus, as it were, for she feels she is “too little to climb the steep stairway to perfection.” In searching the Scriptures for this shortcut, this elevator, she cites as her answer the passage from Isaiah that is now prescribed in the Lectionary as the first reading for her feast: “You shall nurse, carried in her arms, cradled upon her knees; as a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; in Jerusalem you shall find your comfort” (Is 66:12-13). Thérèse exults: “Your arms, My Jesus, are the elevator which will take me up to Heaven. There is no need for me to grow up; on the contrary, I must stay little, and become more and more so.” There is no need to grow up. One must “stay little, and become more and more so.” In order to grow in holiness, one must become more and more like a little child; indeed, as Jesus says in the Gospel prescribed for Thérèse’s feast: “Unless you turn and become like children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:3).
But what does it mean to become like a little child? In attempting to answer this question, it is important to remember that childlike is not the same thing as childish. One who is childish is often selfish, demanding, unimpressed, immature. However, one who is childlike retains a sense of humble wonder before God and the created world; one who is childlike is open to the grace of surprise at God’s activity in his life (imagine the childlike prayer of the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation). And we ourselves learn how to be childlike as Thérèse did—from the example of Jesus. It is the Incarnation of Jesus that teaches us what it means to be a child. From a purely human perspective, being a child means utter dependence. A child cannot feed or clothe itself. It cannot move independently from place to place. It cannot protect itself from the elements. An abandoned child has no hope of survival, for a child can do nothing for itself. Moreover, being a child means utter receptivity. A child receives its very flesh from the genetic makeup of its parents. A child receives an identity—a history, a language, a culture—from those who gave it life and care for it in the world.
In the Incarnation, we see Jesus living out this radical state of dependence and receptivity as a human child. Yet, as Joseph Ratzinger points out, there is something more profound at work here: “Jesus does not regard ‘being a child’ as a transient phase of human life that is a consequence of man’s biological fate and then is completely laid aside. Rather, it is in ‘being a child’ that the very essence of what it is to be a man is realized, so much so that one who has lost the essence of childhood is himself lost” In contemplating this mystery, Ratzinger concludes that Jesus’ “highest dignity, which points to his divinity, is ultimately no power that he possesses on his own: it is rooted in the fact that his existence is oriented to the Other, namely, to God the Father.” Jesus, the Word Incarnate, receives His identity as the only-begotten Son from the Father, and He offers this identity back to the Father in an act of obedience and love. Thus, to live as a child in the spiritual sense is to imitate His example: to acknowledge our utter dependence on God and to receive our identity as a gift from the hand of our Creator—not in order to grasp it in a willful demand for selfish autonomy—but to offer it back freely in an act of grateful love.
It is the acknowledgment of all as gift and the continuous offering of self in love that characterizes “The Little Way” of Thérèse of Lisieux. As she wrote late in life: “‘Jesus, my Love, I have at last found my vocation; it is love! I have found my place in the Church’s heart, the place You Yourself have given me, my God. Yes, there in the heart of Mother Church I will be love.’” Thérèse received her identity as a “little child,” a beloved daughter of God—not begrudgingly wishing to be a rose when she knew herself to be a violet, but gratefully praising her Creator and accepting even her imperfections and trials as gifts from God’s hand. She accepted sorrows and sufferings in the passing of loved ones and the pain of physical illness, and offered them back to God in love, completely aware of her dependence on him. She rejoiced at the opportunity to “[give] love for love,” offering small sacrifices out of love for the God who first loved her, and in so doing, she followed the example of Jesus, living her life as a child always gazing toward her Father in heaven. Through the intercession of this great, little saint, may we heed the words of Jesus: may we turn and become like children, so that we, too, may enter the kingdom of heaven.
 Thérèse of Lisieux. Story of a Soul, trans. Michael Day, Cong. Orat. (Rockford, IL: Tan Books, 1997), 2.
 Ibid., 140
 Ibid., 141.
 Ratzinger, Joseph. The God of Jesus Christ, trans. Brian McNeil (San Francisco: Ignatius Press), 71.
 Ibid., 72.
 Story of a Soul, 199-200.
 Ibid., 200.