My senior year of high school, I converted to Catholicism. For about seven years I’d been attending religion classes because both my middle school and high school are private Catholic schools. Intellectually I was well developed in my faith, but in my prayer life I was still like a little kid. I didn’t know how to pray or how to start learning. I knew that repetitive prayers were ineffective for me - what worked best were Mass and Adoration. For me, “effective prayer” meant that I found God in my prayer - prayer might make me feel better as well, but I was seeking a presence of someone, and if my prayer didn’t bring me into contact with that presence, it wasn’t worth my time and left me frustrated and impatient.
In college that I learned that prayer can be different for each person, and often a person's prayer life might fit with one kind of spirituality or another. Spiritualities are different ways or methods by which people of faith arrive at holiness. In the Benedictine spirituality there’s an emphasis on work, prayer, and simplicity of life. In the Dominican spirituality there’s an emphasis on study and preaching, in addition to a rich musical and liturgical life. There was one spirituality I often encountered in a variety of individual Catholics and Catholic communities; this was the spirituality of St. Therese of Lisieux - the Little Way. This spirituality is one that I think can be summed up in the words of Therese herself: "...let us take our place humbly amongst the imperfect, deeming ourselves little souls whom good God must sustain at each moment."
What is it that makes the Little Way so appealing? To answer that, I think you have to ask what makes littleness appealing. Catholics seem to have a deep fascination with “little saints.” Saints like Therese of Lisieux or Mother Teresa or Maria Goretti. We find ourselves compelled by their littleness, amazed at how they could accomplish so much by making themselves so small. They offer a challenge to the pride and self-centeredness of our time; it can be refreshing to choose littleness in the midst of a world so focused on celebrity and grandeur. Both littleness and pride are a choice to be small. In the case of pride we choose to be small-minded and small-hearted people, and in doing so we strip ourselves of life and love. Littleness too means making yourself small, but it baffles pride, because from that smallness pours forth life and love. Pride wants us to puff ourselves up, whether we are worthy or not, and to take what we wish, whether we deserve it or not. Littleness rebels against this, claiming over and over “I am not worthy” and “I give all to God”. It’s not a surprise, then, that many Catholics seek to emulate the behavior and spirituality of the little saints, seeking holiness in making themselves small as these saints once did.
But what about the saints that aren’t little? What about Benedict or Catherine of Siena or Paul? We remind ourselves that Jesus called us to be meek and humble of heart, but He also crushed hell and death and with His very Body and Blood established the Kingdom of God. Littleness may be one way of making manifest meekness and humility, but it is not the only way. Paul, too, was meek and humble of heart - but he was also a giant, the Prince of the Church, a convert evangelized by Christ Himself, the great Apostle to the Gentiles, and martyr. His heart was not a little heart - quite the opposite. He had a heart so great, so big that it dared to love the gentiles, dared to rebel against Rome, dared to admonish and encourage countless communities. He was a man filled with tremendous hope, ambition, daring, and love, and he had the heart and soul to fit all of those things within him. This was a man who made manifest the glory and victory of heaven, so great and overwhelming that his cup was not merely filled, but overflowed.
The virtue of greatness, or magnanimity, defies pride as well, but it does so in a different way than littleness. Magnanimity is being generous, high-minded, and noble. The word comes from the Latin words for “great” and “soul”. Both magnanimity and littleness begin with humility, the ability to see oneself clearly, truly, and accurately. The magnanimous person is aware of their own greatness, rejoices in it, gives thanks to God for it, and allows themselves to be filled by it. Where pride might tempt some to take praise without merit, the magnanimous person challenges themselves to be as meritorious as they can, so that whatever praise is given to them might be true. The little person is aware of their own goodness, but rather than being filled by it, they empty themselves of it, turning all over to God. Pride cannot tempt the little person to take praise without merit, because it cannot even tempt them to take praise at all.
With that, it might seem like littleness is superior to magnanimity. Magnanimity may seem more susceptible to pride because we might think ourselves to be meritorious when we are not. But littleness, too, is susceptible to pride. When you give everything away to God, that action itself becomes a source for pride; you can be tempted to think of yourself as so holy, so self-sacrificing, so humble. And with littleness, you may make the mistake of thinking you lack merit when you do not. Thinking that you lack some goodness when you actually have it seems to be worse than claiming a goodness you do not have. Whatever merit you have, comes from God, is a direct gift from Him - to reject it by claiming you do not have it is to reject God’s gift, as though you don’t want it. This is worse than claiming a goodness you do not have, because at least in claiming something you do not have, you wish for it.
I have tried myself to fit into the mold of spiritual littleness, following the footsteps of Mother Teresa, my confirmation saint. I have sought to empty myself, turning everything over to God, saying again and again that I am not worthy. I have found that such a spiritual life makes me withered, stunted, and shrunken. Giving everything to Him becomes a numb repetition, inspired by obligation, not obedience. Speaking my own unworthiness, asking for littleness, these too become numb, empty actions, devoid of love. I come to feel as though I have nothing and no one, because I have given it all away. This has taught me that, though I am short in stature, I was not made to be little. Spiritual littleness is not something which makes me holy, it is not something which draws me nearer to God or which deepens my love for Him.
The most powerful moments of prayer I have known are the ones in which God calls me away from littleness, admonishing me for shrinking myself and crying out for me to ask for great things. He has made it clear that it is not a little heart He wishes to give me, but a big heart, one big enough to welcome and to love all I encounter. When I scold myself for wanting a magnanimous life, telling myself I am being too ambitious, God scolds me in return, telling me that He made me to dare and to hope for the seemingly impossible things of heaven. He tells me that He wants me to be someone who blazes through the world. He tells me He wishes me to be great-souled, to keep pace with saints like Paul. He did not ask me to be little, or to give everything away to Him. My sacrifice is to say yes to all that He asks of me - to overcome my fears or misgivings and to chase after the great life He wills for me. When I do this I grow in holiness and love. In those moments when I let myself grow beyond the measures I believed possible, I find Him.