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Thursday, March 11th, 2021

The Law and the Little Way

In the parlance of the New Testament, ‘the Law’ usually indicates the Mosaic Law, and the statutes and customs derived from it. That is to put it most simply. But whatever else could be said about the nature and content of the law, the point is that it was the object of obedience. In that connection, therefore, attempts to paint Christ as an antinomian fall entirely flat:

Do not think that I have come to destroy the law, or the prophets. I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For amen I say to you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot, or one tittle shall not pass of the law, till all be fulfilled. He therefore that shall break one of these least commandments, and shall so teach men, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven.[1]

There are other passages in the Gospels and the Epistles in which the specific content of the law is clarified. Nevertheless, it is clear that careful observance of the law is not optional for the Christian, but necessary.

But thinking of jots and tittles—that is, of even the littlest things of the law—one thinks of the Little Way of the Virgin of Lisieux, St Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face (1873-1897). Her genius was to bring a corrective simplicity to the contortions and low-grade neuroses that so characterize man in the modern period. And it would not be incorrect to say that this genius was founded upon love of the law.

For her Little Way of Trust and Love is, in truth, about faithful observance. All her biographers note that she was meticulous in her religious discipline: and this is especially interesting given that, objectively speaking, the Carmel of Lisieux was possessed of a certain laxity.[2] But her Little Way is the very opposite of a scrupulous, legalistic posture of the spiritual life. She observed the law, but for the entirely correct reason: love.

St Thérèse knew and taught that the smallest acts done out of love become great things because of the merits of Jesus Christ. Thus, her doctrine is entirely consistent with (indeed, is an expression of) the doctrine of St Thomas, who teaches that charity is the form of all the virtues.[3] Which is to say that that the purpose and perfection of all the virtues is love; all the virtues are reducible to and expressions of love; all the virtues are lived because of love.

It is in this sense that St Thérèse was a great observer of the law, and why she is fittingly regarded as a doctor of the Church. Frail human nature usually baulks at the challenges of the law and is quick to point out its heaviness; however, the Little Way is a decisive remedy for our own lazy or legalistic tendencies: for the divine laws are observed because they are expressions of love.

Imagine if, instead of giving the challenges of the law the last word, we were more like St Thérèse. Imagine if, like her, when confronted with the demands of the laws of love we said, ‘This is the least I can do for God.’ Then we would know why those who instruct the many to observe the law will shine forever like the stars of the firmament.[4]

 

 


[1] Matthew 5, 17-19.

[2] Cf The Hidden Face: a Study of St Thérèse of Lisieux, Ida Friederike Görres, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003; p 232, etc.: “Even on her deathbed Thérèse was tormented by the thought of all the easy-going negligence of the convent, by the lack of understanding of the meaning of perfect obedience.”

[3] STh IIa IIæ, Q 23, art 8.

[4] Cf Daniel 12, 3.

Lightening Meditations