Teaching Alongside St. Thérèse, and Learning to Love My Littleness

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Photo by Thomas Curryer on Unsplash

"I shouted at them a lot this morning," I said as I buried my face in my hands, successfully masking my face but not my shame. "I'm just tired of talking over them all the time."

My colleague, fellow elementary teacher Kat, sat beside me on the bench outside the front doors of our school. It was a balmy 46 degree October morning in Denver, and, desperate for some fresh air and the perspective that comes from a change of scene, we'd decided to eat lunch outside during our prep period.

Kat made a general sound of assent but didn't interrupt, gently encouraging me to continue.

"I just... As a perfectionist, I think I measure the worth of each day by how many times I lose my patience with them. Like, if I yell at them, then the whole day is shot. I'm not teaching them everything they need to learn that day, because they're not paying attention, and I have to stop class a hundred times. And," I hesitate, because for some reason this particular imperfection is the hardest one to admit to, "in those moments, I know that I have failed, again, to love them well."

As if failing to love people well is my special skill. As if this isn't something that every human runs up against dozens of times a day.

But because I know the heights of holiness I am called to, I can't shake the shame I feel when I so blatantly miss the mark.

Kat nodded thoughtfully, and that in itself was a grace, to be received with understanding and empathy. I get it, she seemed to say. I've been there. "Can I read you something by St. Thérèse?" she asked me.


Referring to a photo her soon-to-be sister-in-law had texted her, a picture of a page from Fr. Michael Gaitley's 33 Days to Merciful Love, she read this excerpt from St. Thérèse's own writings:

"And if the good God wants you weak and helpless like a child... do you believe that you will have less merit? .... Agree to stumble at every step therefore, even to fall, to carry your cross weakly, to love your helplessness. Your soul will draw more profit from it than if, carried by grace, you would accomplish with enthusiasm heroic actions that would fill your soul with personal satisfaction and pride."

After supplementing my reflection with some of her own challenges, Kat concluded, "The Lord wants us little right now, Sarah." 

I would like to be perfect. I would like to have classroom management totally figured out by now. I would like to be the kind of teacher who never raises her voice, who exhibits total control of the happenings in her classroom. And if none of that is possible immediately, I would at least like to be cured of the irritation and impatience I feel along the way to achieving it.

But my frustration provides an example of my littleness, and the more I can recognize and accept without bitterness or shame my littleness -- that is, the myriad ways I falter and fail each day -- the more I allow God the room to fill my heart with Him, to do what I am incapable of -- in other words, to be my Savior.

The shame I'm tempted to feel when I mess up is not of God. Instead, it is a projection of my own human weakness in desiring perfection and the false belief that I am only worthy -- of others', but especially, of God's -- love if I never succumb to my frailties.

Is it possible, though, that God delights in my weaknesses, because, when recognized and surrendered, they are the very paths that lead me closer to Him? "[The Lord] said to me," Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians, "'My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.' I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me." (2 Cor 12:9)

And the secret to embracing my littleness lies, not in hiding my face in shame each time I make another mistake, but in running to the Lord in freedom, asking for His grace to abound and heal me, knowing that He welcomes each tiny return with the jubilation of the father whose prodigal son has returned.

Shortly after our conversation, Kat and I embarked on the study of Divine Mercy outlined in Fr. Gaitley's 33 Days to Merciful Love, and now that we've completed it, I can say that I have learned to trust God and His goodness, and to surrender everything over to Him, more in the last five weeks than I ever have.

That's not to say that I never struggle at all anymore when I mess up. And it's not also not admitting blithe complacency in areas I really do need to work on.

But if I, as Fr. Gaitley proposes, keep trying and trusting in the Lord's goodness, He will, as Thérèse says, "know how He can come and get me," to help me the rest of the way.

And learning to see my failings through the eyes of a merciful God, who longs to draw me closer to His heart at every moment of every day, and isn't repelled by my weaknesses but wants to be invited into them, is making all the difference.