A description of the soul's journey to full union with God

The Unitive Way of the Perfect


Ch 41 : A Form of Perfect Life: the Way of Spiritual Childhood

The way of spiritual childhood taught by St. Teresa of Lisieux was highly praised on several occasions by Pope Benedict XV, and by Pope Pius XI who often expressed his confidence in the providential mission of the saint for the spiritual formation of souls in our day. The way of childhood which she recommends to us is explained by the innate qualities of the child, which should be found in an eminent degree in the child of God. There is in this idea a deep intuition in perfect harmony with what theology teaches on sanctifying grace, the infused virtues, and the gifts of the Holy Ghost. By recalling the innate qualities of the child, the principal virtues of the child of God, and what distinguishes spiritual childhood from natural childhood, we shall find great light on the doctrine of grace.


What are ordinarily the innate qualities of a child? In spite of his little defects, we find in a child, as a rule, simplicity and conciousness of his weakness, especially if he has been baptized and is being raised in a Christian manner.

The simplicity, or the absence of duplicity, of a child is wholly spontaneous; in him there is no labored refinement, no affectation. He generally says what he thinks and expresses what he desires without subterfuge, without fear of what people will say. As a rule he does not pose; he shows himself as he is. Conscious of his weakness, for he can do nothing of himself, he depends in everything on his father and mother, from whom he should receive everything. This awareness of his weakness is the seed of humility, which leads him to practice the three theological virtues, often in a profoundly simnple manner.

At first the child spontaneously believes what his parents tell him; often they speak to him of God and teach him to pray. Innately the child has confidence in his parents, who teach him to hope in God even before he knows the formula of the act of hope, which he will soon read in his catechism and recite morning and evening. Finally with all his heart the child loves his parents, to whom he owe  everything; and if his father and mother are truly Christian, they lift the lively affection of this young heart toward God, our Lord, and His holy Mother. In this simplicity, this consciousness of his weakness, and this simple practice of the three theological virtues, there is the seed of the loftiest spiritual life. For this reason, when Jesus wished to teach His apostles the importance of humility, setting a little child in the midst of them He said: "Amen I say to you, unless you be converted, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." (1) In recent years we have seen realized the prediction of Pope Pius X: "There will be saints among the children," called at an early age to frequent Communion.

Later on, during the awkward age, the child often loses his simplicity, the consciousness of his weakness, and wishes to act prematurely like a man; he gives evidence of pride and duplicity. And if he delights in speaking of certain virtues, it is less of the theological virtues than of human virtues, like fortitude and courage, which lend importance to his budding personality, and a certain prudence which he does not know how to distinguish from false prudence, and which, in his attempt to hide disorders in his life, may turn into deceit.

The harsh experience of life then reminds him of his weakness; at times he meets with injustice, which shows him the value of a higher justice. He suffers from lies that are believed, thus discovering the value of uprightness. Finally, if he reflects, if he has not ceased to pray a little every day, he understands Christ's words: "Without Me you can do nothing," and the profound meaning of the Our Father again becomes apparent to him. He repeats this prayer of his childhood, sometimes spending ten minutes saying the Our Father once from the depths of his heart. He has again found the road of salvation.


St. Teresa of the Child Jesus reminds us that the principal virtues of the child of God are those in which are reproduced in an eminent degree the innate qualities of the child, minus his defects. Consequently the way of spiritual childhood will teach us to be supernaturally ourselves minus our defects.

The child of God should, first of all, be simple and upright, without duplicity; he should exclude hypocrisy and falsehood from his life, and not seek to pass for what he is not, as our Lord declares in the Sermon on the Mount: "If thy eye be single, thy whole body shall be lightsome": (2) that is, if the gaze of your spirit is honest, if your intention is upright, your whole life will be illumined.

The child of God should preserve the consciousness of his weakness and indigence; he should constantly recall that God our Father freely created him from nothing, and that without God's grace he can do absolutely nothing in the order of sanctification and salvation. If the child of God grows in this humility, he will have an ever deeper faith in the divine word, greater even than little children have in the words of their parents. He will have a faith devoid of human respect, he will be proud of his faith; and from time to time it will become in him penetrating and sweet, above all reasoning. He will truly live by the mysteries of salvation and will taste them; he will contemplate them with admiration, as a little child looks into the eyes of his beloved father.

If the child of God does not go astray, he will see his hope grow stronger from day to day and become transformed into trusting abandonment to Providence. In proportion to his fidelity to the duty of the moment, to the signified divine will, will be his abandonment to the divine good pleasure as yet unknown. The arms of the Lord are, says St. Teresa Of the Child Jesus, like a divine elevator that lifts man up to God.

Finally, the child of God grows steadily in the love of his Father. He loves Him for Himself and not simply for His benefits, as a little child loves his mother more than the caresses he receives from her. The child of God loves his Father in trial as in joy; when life is difficult, he remembers that he should love the Lord with all his strength and even with all his mind, and be always united to Him in the higher part of his soul as an adorer "in spirit and in truth."

This last characteristic shows that the way of spiritual childhood often demands courage in trial, the virtue of Christian fortitude united to the gift of fortitude. This is especially evident toward the end of the life of St. Teresa of the Child Jesus (3) when she had to pass through the tunnel, which St. John of the Cross calls the night of the spirit. She passed through this profound darkness with admirable faith, praying for unbelievers, with perfect abandonment and most pure and ardent charity, which led her to the transforming union, the immediate prelude of eternal life.

The way of childhood thus understood wonderfully harmonizes several seemingly contradictory virtues: meekness and fortitude, and also simplicity and prudence, to which Jesus referred when He said to His apostles: "Behold I send you as sheep in the midst of wolves. Be ye therefore wise as serpents and simple as doves."

We must be prudent with the world, which is often perverse; we must also be strong, at times even to martyrdom, as in Spain and Mexico in recent years. But to have this superior prudence and fortitude, we need the gifts of counsel and fortitude, and to have them we must be increasingly simple and childlike toward God, our Lord, and the Blessed Virgin. The less we should be children in our dealings with men, the more we should become children of God. From Him alone can come the fortitude and prudence we need in the struggles of today: we must hope in God and divine grace more than in the strength of popular movements; and should this force stray farther and farther into the way of atheistic communism, we should continue to resist even to martyrdom, placing our trust in God like a little child in the goodness of his father. Father H. Petitot, O.P., in his book, St. Teresa of Lisieux: a Spiritual Renascence, emphasizes this intimate union of virtues so contrary in appearance in St. Teresa of Lisieux.

Another point of capital importance is that when well understood the way of spiritual childhood wonderfully harmonizes also true humility with the desire for the loving contemplation of the mysteries of salvation. Thereby we see that this contemplation, which proceeds from living faith illumined by the gifts of understanding and wisdom, is in the normal way of sanctity. This penetrating and at times sweet contemplation of the mysteries of faith is not something extraordinary like visions, revelations, and the stigmata, extrinsic favors, so to speak, which we do not find in the life of St. Teresa of Lisieux; it is, on the contrary, the normal fruit of sanctifying grace, called the grace of the virtues and the gifts and the seed of glory. It is the normal prelude of eternal life. This point of doctrine stands out clearly in the writings of St. Teresa of the Child Jesus. She makes us desire and ask the Lord for this loving contemplation of the mysteries of the Incarnation, the redemption, the Eucharist, the Mass, and the indwelling of the Blessed Trinity in our souls.


Lastly, in her teaching on the way of spiritual childhood, St. Teresa sets forth clearly what constitutes the distinction between spiritual and natural childhood. Differentiating between them, St. Paul tells us: "Do not become children in sense. But in malice be children; and in sense be perfect." (4) Consequently maturity of judgment first of all distinguishes spiritual from natural childhood. But there is also a character to which St. Francis de Sales (5) draws attention. In the natural order, in proportion as the child grows, the more self-sufficient he should become, for some day he will no longer have his parents. In the order of grace, on the contrary, the more the child of God grows, the more he understands that he will never be self-sufficient and that he depends intimately on God. As he matures, he should live more by the special inspiration of the Holy Ghost, who, by His seven gifts, supplies for the imperfections of his virtues to such an extent that he is finally more passive under the divine action than given up to his personal activity. In the end he will enter into the bosom of the Father where he will find his beatitude.

A young person, on reaching maturity, leaves his parents to begin life for himself. The middle-aged man occasionally pays a visit to his mother, but he no longer depends on her as he formerly did; instead, it is he who supports her. On the contrary, as the child of God grows up, he becomes so increasingly dependent on his Father that he no longer desires to do anything without Him, without His inspirations or His counsels. Then his whole life is bathed in prayer; he has obtained the best part, which will not be taken away from him. He understands that he must pray always.

This doctrine, at once so simple and so lofty, is set forth in detail in the following page from St. Teresa of Lisieux:

To remain little is to recognize one's nothingness, to expect everything from God, as a little child expects everything from his father; it is to be disturbed about nothing, not to earn a fortune.

Even among poor people, as long as the child is quite small, they give him what he needs; but as soon as he has grown up, his father no longer wishes to feed him and says to him: "Work now, you can be self-supporting." Well, so as never to hear that, I have not wished to grow up. since I feel myself incapable of earning my living, the eternal life of heaven. I have, therefore, always remained little, having no other occupation than to gather the flowers of love and sacrifice and to offer them to God for His pleasure.

To be little also means not to attribute to oneself the virtues that one practices, believing oneself capable of something; but it means recognizing that God places this treasure of virtue in the hand of His little child that he may make use of it when necessity arises; and it is always God's treasure.(6)

This is likewise the teaching of St. Augustine, when he affirms that, in crowning our merits, God crowns His own gifts. This is also what the Council of Trent says: "So great is God's goodness toward us that He wills that His gifts should become merits in us." (7) We can offer Him only what we receive from Him; but what we receive under the form of grace, we offer to Him under the form of merit, adoration, prayer, reparation, and thanksgiving.

St. Teresa adds: "Finally, to be little is not to become discouraged by one's sins, for children often fall, but they are too little to do themselves much harm."

In all this spiritual teaching appears the great doctrine of grace: "Without Me you can do nothing"; "What hast thou that thou hast not received?" St. Teresa lived this lofty doctrine, on which the fathers of the Church and theologians have written so much. She lived it in a very simple and profound manner, allowing the Holy Ghost to lead her, above human reasoning, toward the harbor of salvation, to which she, in her turn, leads many sinners. Happy indeed the theologian who shall have converted as many souls as our saint! The Anglican preacher, Vernon Johnson, was not converted by theologians or by exegetes, but by St. Teresa of the Child Jesus.

St. Gregory the Great expressed his admiration for this way of childhood when he wrote in a homily, which the breviary recalls in the common for virgin martyrs: "When we see young maidens gain the kingdom of heaven by the sword, what do we say, we who are bearded and weak, we who allow ourselves to be dominated by wrath, inflated by pride, disturbed by ambition?"

Truly St. Teresa of Lisieux traced for us the simple road which leads to great heights. In her teaching, as it pleased Pope Pius XI to point out, the gift of wisdom appears in a lofty degree for the direction of souls thirsting for the truth and wishing, above all human conceptions, to live by the word of God.(8)



1. Matt. 18:3.

2. Matt. 6:22.

3. Histoire d'une ame, chap. 9.

4.Cf. I Cor. 14:20.

5. Treatise on the Love of God, Bk. IX, chaps. 13 f.

6. Histoire d'une ame, "Souvenirs et conseils," p. 263.

7. Sess. VI, chap. 16.

8. The way of childhood thus understood, especially as we see it toward the end of the life of St. Teresa of the Child Jesus, is very elevated in its simplicity. Its lofty simplicity comes home to us because the saint certainly passed through the night of the spirit (which corresponds to the sixth mansion of St. Teresa of Avila), as may be seen on reading chapter nine of the Histoire d'une ame. It was the reading of this chapter, some thirty years ago, that gave us the idea of explaining the night of the spirit by a profound and intense influence of the gift of understanding, which brings out in powerful relief the formal motive of humility and of each of the three theological virtues. Thereby these infused virtues are purified of all alloy or attachment to secondary and accessory motives on which until then the soul had dwelt excessively. Cf. supra, chapter 39 on the effects of the passive purification of the spirit.