I am determined to find an elevator to carry me to Jesus, as I was too small to climb the steep stairs of perfection.
Charles Johnston is a father and husband in Phoenix, Arizona. His conversion journey has taken years, as he felt God pulling him toward His Church but he resisted until he couldn’t take it anymore. He gave in and fell in love with His Church. He blogs for ‘Now that I’m catholic.wordpress.com’. In this episode, Pamela talks to Charles about St. Therese’s “Little Way.” He describes the “Little flower”s troubled childhood and singular focus on her vocation. He explains the philosophy of the “Little Way” and how we can do little things with great love in our lives.
For our listeners who’d prefer to read here’s the transcript :
Charles: Yes he had a very interesting childhood. I think it might have…it was either last year or maybe it was the year before her parents were actually canonized. She was raised by very holy parents, and she had four other sisters all of whom were Nuns. I think one, right now, is recently beatified too. So, quite the family. They have a hall of fame caliber family, as far as saints go. But, yeah she was born in France, she’s from France, she’s the youngest Doctor of the Church. She died at age….was she 24 or a couple of five years old when she died?
Pamela: Yeah, she was very young.
Charles: So, she was pretty young, yeah. But, yeah her father…her father tried to be a Priest, but he was denied because he didn’t know enough Latin to be a Priest. Like I said, her Mother was a very holy person too and they were both canonized together as a couple, a couple of years ago. And her Mother died when she was very young too. That was a very hard time in her life, and she suffered from all kinds of illnesses like, I guess you would call it depression nowadays. She said that she was a sad child. She would go on fits of crying. I don’t know where she had a lot of sadness in her life. A very hard life, I guess, in late 19th-century France.
Pamela: I believe at that time in France, it was more like, you know this fear of God had been indoctrinated in people. That God was just harsh and he was harsh and he was…So, that was the time that was going on when they were Catholic.
Charles: Yeah, France still was kinda suffering from the after effects of Jansenism, you know where it’s kind of like this…throughout Europe, but it was really focused in France and it was really this angry God. It was kind of like a Catholic form of Calvinism. You know, this real angry God that was just gonna…he was just out there to punish everyone and really…Yeah, I don’t know like if you were born into this world or some sort of cosmic trick, to be able to punish you later on or something like that. Yeah, there was the aftereffects of Jansenism. What had already been condemned as a heresy, probably 100 years earlier, but it still found like lingering effects of this.
Pamela: What about the.her..I mean, you’ve given us about her background, but what about the challenges that she faced? I mean, you know she had her sisters living off and going to the Convent, and she was going through all of these changes. So, what exactly was the hardship or challenge in her life?
Charles: Well, from reading a few different sources of her, I read that she was sick, often, throughout her entire life really because she died of tuberculosis. But she was sick as an infant up until…I don’t think she lived with her parents until she was, you know, like two years old. And then, all throughout her childhood, she suffered from different illnesses and stuff. And so, you know, on top of that she also suffered from severe scrupulosity. And that’s where even though you confess a sin, or you are forgiven of a sin, you kind of like obsess over it. You know, and that’s probably part of that after effect of Jansenism that we were talking about. She was very scrupulous and I’ve known people that had….I’ve had it myself sometimes like, “Oh gosh, did I really…did I do that right this time?” You know, so it’s something you gotta kind of fight against. But then the opposite is laxity, where it’s just like anything goes. So, you gotta, you know, the golden mean, you go shoot for. But she had a very tough childhood.
Pamela: And it is good that you’ve pointed it out because if you actually read the story of her soul, you find oh my gosh, I mean, she’s just a child, and what is she talking about? But when you get it from this point of view, you realize, okay she did have a problem, that she was really suffering with something, right?
Charles: Uh-huh, yeah.
Pamela: In her entire life, I mean, she’s pretty young but then she manages to say so many things. I mean she manages to write books, and even through her sickness write all of her thoughts down. So, what are the most important things that she has taught us through her writing, and through her life?
Charles:Well that anyone could be a Saint. That is I think really the most important thing she taught us because she’s 24 years old, she dies and she joined the Convent at 15 or 16 years old when she joined the Convent. And the thing to it or what’s amazing about it is the Nuns that were in the Convent with her were completely unaware that they were in the presence of a Saint. They just thought she was just a normal everyday Nun. They didn’t know that she had this great spirituality and she kinda had…kinda of an, it was in her interior life. But it was anyone…we don’t have to do like Saint Paul-type missionary journeys. We don’t have to travel to the ends of the world. We can just be kind to the homeless person on the corner, or we can just smile at somebody. She would…that’s what she talked about her little way and the little way to heaven, and just everything you do, no matter what it is, if it’s smiling at a stranger, if it’s you know, giving the waitress an extra dollar type, or just telling someone, just saying hello to somebody. You just…any little thing you do, if you do it for God. You know that really…it can change the world.
And that’s what inspired a little Albanian woman that joined a…you know, joined a Convent in Ireland and moved to India, Saint Teresa. She actually was inspired by the little way, and the story that’s told, and that’s why she took the name Teresa when she became a Nun, was because of Teresa Lisieux. And look what she done. You know we can’t all do great things, but we can do little things with great love. That’s her famous quote, and that’s really, that’s straight out Teresa Lisieux’s playbook.
Pamela: If anybody wants to emulate her, in the sense of doing the little way, explain to her what exactly is this little way? I mean, I know you’ve given examples already. But just define it for people who don’t understand this kind of spirituality.
Charles: From what I know…from what I gather from it is literally just doing the little things. It isn’t…we can’t all…like they say, we can’t all be great. She knew she was just…she knew she was just a young nun living in, you know, out of the way corner of France. That she wasn’t going to do anything great as far as you know, but she could share the Gospel with somebody, or she could do these different things and that was what she understood to be…She said she wanted to find a little way to heaven because she was too small to climb the great steps to heaven. So, she wanted to find…she compared it to like an elevator. And she said, “If rich people have these elevators in their houses nowadays.” I guess elevators was a new invention back then. But she said, “They had these elevators, they don’t have to bother with the stairs.” She said, “Well, I want to climb an elevator to heaven and that elevator is Christ’s arm. I’m going to allow him to lift me to heaven by doing…you know by just cooperating with his grace in every little way I can.”
Pamela: And I think just to let people know, I believe she was a cloistered nun, right?
Charles: Ah, yes, I think so.
Pamela: So there’s…
Charles: No, she’s a Carmelite. Yeah.
Pamela: Yeah, she’s a Carmelite, yeah. So, she does not have to actually go out and go on missions, and you know, have peaceful and do great things. I mean everything had to be done within the walls of the convent.
Charles: Right, yeah and cloistered nuns, that’s, their whole thing is prayer. They just pray, they pray for the Church, they pray for the Pope, they pray for all the world basically. They pray for everyone.
Pamela: Apart from the little way, she’s also had a lot of writings about, I think, the child Jesus. I mean she focuses…because of this constant fear in France at the time, she talked about loving God who came as a child. And do you have any thoughts on that as well?
Charles: It was on Christmas Eve when she was like 13 or 14 years old when she had this epiphany of the child Jesus. And that’s where she really…that’s where she decided that she wanted to dedicate her life to Him. And that was her…her actual religious name that she took was Terese of the Child Jesus. So, she was really dedicated to, you know, Jesus as a child. It really is…I don’t know, when you think about it, you think about…when I think about Jesus, I usually think like, first image on my mind is like Good Friday or the Passion or things like that. Or what I see now. When I was in Israel one time I’ve seen a crucifix and it was Jesus dressed in like royal, it was a carving in a Church. It was dressed in like royal robes with a crown on nailed to a cross at the same time. And it was really like that dramatic King of the Universe, Savior of the world kinda….But she sees Jesus as this helpless infant.
And it really is…like that is just as amazing as Christ dying for us, is Christ taking on flesh for us in the first place. You know, just coming…He didn’t come like…he could have just appeared on earth as a 30-year-old, you know, man. But he didn’t, he appeared as a newborn baby. That’s how he came, he came to us…he didn’t even come as a newborn baby, he came as a fetus, an embryo in his Mother and then went through the whole pregnancy, the whole entire human experience. But she’s seeing him as a child. You know, and that really is…that is, like I said, that’s just as powerful as King of the Universe or ruling…I guess because I’m a man I see more of like the power, she’s seen more of the meek. And it really is, you know, it’s good to think of it that way too. Jesus is the king of the universe but also he came down.
Pamela: You can’t say that what I’m going through is different from what Christ went through because he went through exactly everything that you go through as a human being.
Charles: Right, yeah. He was fully human and fully divine. He actually had the full range of human emotion. And he really showed that too in the agony of the garden where he was sweating blood, and he was praying to let this cup pass because he knew what was coming. And he knew what was gonna happen and everything, but he was willing to accept it for our sake. I like that…the one story about her, she tried to enter the convent at 15 and they rebuffed her and they said,” No, you’re too young.” I think at 14 even. And at 15,”Oh, you’re too young,” and the Convent Director, I don’t know what this actual title would be, but basically the Priest in charge, he said, “Well, you can always go to the Bishop.” I guess he never actually assumed that she would actually go to the Bishop. So, she travels into the town and goes to the Bishop, and she tries to come into the Bishop and the Bishop is like, “No, let’s think about it a little bit because you’re only 15 years old. That’s awfully young to be making a lifelong decision.” So, that year she goes with her family on a pilgrimage to Rome. It was Pope Saint Leo the 13th’s 50th anniversary of being a Priest. And she goes to Rome, and while there, you know how they go up, you have to go up and kiss the ring…
Charles: …and just kinda like…kind of like a Papal audience. But it was just kind of…they were supposed to be rushing everyone through and you weren’t supposed to talk, and she just barks out and said, “Please your Holiness, let me enter the convent.” And he laughed at this little girl, a 15-year-old girl saying, “Let me into your convent.” He said, “If it’s possible you’ll enter in the convent.” And she pleaded with him and she never let up. She was very persistent. She knew what she wanted and she was persistent about it. And we really have to be persistent, too, in our…you know when something’s right and you know if something really feels right and you go after it, you cannot let yourself get discouraged by a minor setback. I think that was very important.
Pamela: Right, and that’s very common to a lot of the Patrons, right? I mean that they are persistent, they’ve got this singular focus on doing whatever it is. I mean that’s them.
Charles: That’s what makes them a Saint. That singular focus on doing the will of God. We’d do well to adopt that in our lives.
Pamela: Okay, so I’ll just give people a tip about this because I’m a total skeptic when it comes to novenas. But somebody told me, “If you do this novena, you know, she kinda showers you with roses.” And I thought this was just total nonsense. I thought, but I did the novena and I can tell you for a fact that you see roses everywhere even when you’re not looking. You either get a rose, or you see a rose, or…it’s like roses all the time for the entire nine days that you do the novena. And that is something that…if you are a skeptic, just try this once and you’ll be convinced about, you know, her as a Saint.
Charles: Well, the intercession of the Saints.
Pamela: Yeah. Anything else that you have? Tell us about where you read about her because I read the “Story of soul” which was her, I think her biography and her sister who was her Superior added on to that.
Charles: Yeah, “Story of a soul.” She actually wrote…she wrote three separate letters that was compiled after she died by her sister into a book. And the funny thing is too that her sister, when she made that book, she only thought that it was going to have a very, not a very wide audience basically. She thought it was going to be just to Carmelite nuns to read to kinda help them on what they should be doing as Nuns. And maybe to a few religious around the world or things like that. But it ended up becoming a bestseller and really that’s what propelled her to her canonization. Really, it was just such so much wisdom in this book, that a person that was 50 years studying philosophy and theology hadn’t really wrote something like this. And she was a 25-year-old girl that really, how much schooling would she have even had too if she went in that convent at 15? And yet she wrote this book that is still one of the widely read Catholic books in the world today.
Pamela: And she ended up being the Doctor of the Church, I mean…
Charles: Yeah, a Doctor of the Church. That’s a pretty…How many doctor, I think there 30, 32 or 33 doctors, and only like 5 of them is women. And here she is 24 years old, and she is a doctor of the Church. That’s pretty amazing. Pretty good achievement.
Pamela: It just goes to show that God can use anyone at any place at any time, no matter how old or young or strong, or what your past is, or whatever, you know?
Charles: Or unfit for the job you are. She was a sick girl that, you know, at 24 years old she died and most people really wouldn’t take advice from an 18-year-old or a 20-year-old. But here she is giving spiritual advice to people all around the world to this day in her book.
Pamela: Any other books that you read on her or any other sources that you think would be…
Charles: There’s a website. There’s actually a shrine to her that I visited one time. I never got to go inside, it was closed. It’s in San Antonio, Texas. But there’s a website, I think it’s littleflower.org and there’s really just, it’s a wealth of information as far as St Teresa Lisieux is concerned. I think it’s littleflower.org.