Faith Notebook: St Thérèse and young people, a counter-cultural spirituality

Many of the quarter of a million pilgrims who visited the relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux here recently were young. What drew so many of this iPod-wearing, Wii-playing generation to the relics of a French nun? I wonder if it’s something to do with the attraction of holiness and authentic spirituality in contrast to much of what our contemporary culture has to offer? Many young Catholics have not been taught much about Catholic spirituality and it can be hard to develop a habit of prayer in such a distracted culture of texts and web-surfing. Some might have a vague familiarity with the language of our faith, but might not know the value of the Sacraments and the Scriptures, or of personal prayer and devotions to the Saints.

In our pick-and-choose culture it could also be easy to assume that a young person cannot possibly agree with Catholic teaching, let alone be inspired by it. It might seem easier to offer only the bits of the Faith which don’t demand too much. However, if the young don’t have spiritual encouragement and are taught only parts of the Faith, sanctity can begin to seem unattainable, part of a bygone age of stained glass heroes. In this context many young people are hungry for authentic spirituality, and St Thérèse and her 'Little Way' are like manna in the desert. I was moved to be in Westminster Cathedral for a time of prayer for young people with the relics last week. Here were hundreds of men and women who felt some connection with a woman whose buzzwords were not ‘celebrity’ or ‘self’, but were ‘humility’, ‘love’ and ‘self-surrender’.

St Thérèse knew great suffering in her life and died at 24. In all things she sought to be love in the world through her witness, her prayers and sacrifices, in the heart of the Church. Her spirituality, or ‘Little Way’, involved seeking God’s will in the present moment, and making Christ present by doing small things with great love. She ‘offered up’ the small unavoidable difficulties of each day as sacrifices united to Christ’s suffering. Though she knew her weaknesses and imperfections, she was aware of God’s tremendous love for her. They say that the young like a radical agenda, and perhaps in today’s culture St Thérèse’s ‘Little Way’ is as counter-cultural as it gets.

In 21st century Britain for a young person to live out the ‘Little Way’ can mean not giving into the pressure to sleep with a boyfriend after dating for a few weeks. It can mean not joining in and watching a Youtube video of a drunk friend being humiliated. It can mean offering loving and concerned advice to a friend who’s on the brink of buying a morning-after pill. In a culture in which a good deed is often awarded or sponsored, the hiddenness of the ‘Little Way’ could seem almost wasteful. What makes sense of the ‘Little Way’ is that God’s grace is poured out onto others through a person’s love and sacrifices.

This ‘Little Way’ is not a fluffy 'please everyone' version of the Faith. If young people live out the Christian message in all its fullness they’ll face difficulties and will be called to heroism at some point. But, as St Thérèse found, in this way there is a much deeper joy and peace to be found, and perhaps this is what may have drawn some people during the relics visit. In our culture holiness is still relevant; it is still very attractive, and in these recent weeks thousands of men and women were reminded through St Thérèse that holiness is still possible for the young.

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