Updated: May 29
By Pauline Gilmore
St. Therese and Martin Luther both came from similar experiences of scrupulosity. They had a strong obsession with sin, fearing that their every action was offensive to God. God's justice was terrifying and always on their minds. It was from this soil that sprouted two very different understandings of our relationship to God.
Out of this experience, Martin Luther never felt peace with God. He wanted to feel forgiven, but nothing seemed to release him from his overwhelming guilt. What did give him peace was his new interpretation of St. Paul. Luther concluded that we really cannot be righteous in God's sight, so there was no need to go to Confession. Christ rather had imputed His righteousness to Him, so Luther stood perfected before God. Christ stands in front of the sinner when God comes in judgment, like a hen protecting a baby chicken. This may sound good, but it means that the sinner is still dirty, bad, and unchanged. This imputed righteousness does not allow for healing and restoration from a grace that actually makes one holy, it simply covers the sinner before God. Luther separated justification from sanctification.
In the Catholic understanding, Christ merited grace from the cross which is made available to us through the sacraments to transform our hearts, making us into beloved sons and daughters who are truly healed from sin. Through the merits of Christ, we can be infused with His life and virtues. We truly do become His Body on earth, and live a life of faith and faithfulness to Him for the rest of our lives. We utilize the Sacrament of Penance whenever we commit mortal sin, and we can be confident of the forgiveness of our sins.
This is the same conclusion reached by St. Therese of Lisieux, whose theology is rooted in the love of God and Christ her spouse. She dealt with her scrupulosity through confidence in God’s grace. Her path to holiness known as “The Little Way” is one of the reasons she is a Doctor of the Church who has been called by Pope St. Pius X “the greatest saint of modern times.”
Not only do St. Therese and Martin Luther come to different understandings of salvation, but further, Therese’s humble obedience to her trusted sisters and spiritual director stands in contrast with Luther, who defied the authority of the Roman Catholic Church to start a new, separated branch of Christianity, called Lutheranism.
The starting place of St. Therese’s theology is, “All is grace;” All comes from and starts with God and his abundant free gifts to us. We only exist at this very moment because God’s love is sustaining us in existence! Therefore, we can never do anything on our own. This is the primary grace of God that allows us to act and have free will. We truly do act towards our salvation, but only as secondary agents.
Salvation according to Therese
In her spirituality of “The Little Way,” St. Therese breaks down very simply a path to holiness that is available to every soul. Some analogies that St. Therese uses for her understanding of grace and merit are a throwing flower petals, a little bird, and the elevator to Heaven, all of which we discuss in further detail.
In the first analogy, when we perform good works, we are like little children throwing flowers to God our king. He is not changed by our small actions, but he deserves our praises and small sacrifices of good works and prayer that spring from our love for him. We give praise to God when we “throw out flowers” by “doing small things with great love.” Our works have merit insofar as they are pleasing to God, but God in his perfection does not “need” them. Our actions are how we demonstrate the love we have for God, springing from the relationship we have with him from prayer. We simply want to do our best to love and serve God in light of all the good he has done for us.
The second image gleaned from St. Therese’s writings is of a little bird trying to fly towards the sun. On her own, the little bird could never reach the great sun in all its magnitude, but she trusts that her daring abandonment will attract the love of God “who came not to call the righteous but the sinners.” She trusts that her littleness will attract God’s gaze, and He will ultimately be the one to bring her to himself. Even if the bird gets distracted by the world, she does not despair in her little failings, rather, she knows that God came for sinners. Since God knows how weak she is, she is not afraid of his justice, but paradoxically this littleness instills a greater confidence.
Finally, my favorite analogy that St. Therese uses is her discussion of an elevator. She looks to the greatness of heaven and the saints who have “climbed the steep stairway of perfection,” but sees this path as being insurmountable. With confident hope in the love and mercy of God, she states, “God would not inspire me with desires that can not be realized, so in spite of my littleness, I can hope to be a saint.” Rather than giving in to discouragement in her desire to be united to God, the greatest lover of her soul, she says that “the elevator that will bring me to Heaven is your arms, O Jesus.” In this way, she trusts that God wants us to be in heaven even more than we even want it, since we have imperfect wills and desires. Therefore, the path to holiness is not about doing the most extraordinary and marvelous things to be a saint, rather it is about remaining little so that God can do the work of perfection in us.
Recommended for further reading is St. Therese’s autobiographical work, “The Story of a Soul.”