“Humility is the mother of all Virtues”, said Mother Teresa, and I think it’s fitting to begin with a quote from a nun who devoted her life to loving and caring for poor souls while going into a discussion of a younger nun who had devoted her life to the same goal, in a less direct (in the sense of intersession though, a perhaps more direct) way. St. Therese of Lisieux is someone I could talk about for hours, and it isn’t my goal here to go into depth in any serious way into her life; rather, I’ve decided only to take one snippet of who she was, and examine it, and perhaps display a meaningful contemplation on the matter. The snippet that I’ve taken is her title, “The Little Flower”. I couldn’t dream of a more perfect title than this to describe and portray Therese, not even the name her father use to call her could trump it, “My queen”. More than characteristic and dainty, the title carries heavier significance; that is, portraying humility in a loving and merciful way.
Carried in her name, there is a certain depth that many of us don’t see. The name, “Little Flower”, is perhaps a very beautiful name for Humility. Before pursuing this line of thought any longer, let’s get a clear definition on what humility is. My favorite and perhaps the most clearly stated definition is from St. Bernard: “Humility is the virtue by which a man knowing himself, as he truly is, abases himself.” I particularly like this definition of humility because it takes into account that Humility is Truth, “knowing himself as he truly is”, and that’s what I will focus on for the time being. Usually humility is seen as needlessly hating yourself and having a low self esteem. Being “humiliated”, tends to be characterized by feeling terrible about yourself; and the root of the word is, “humus”, which is the earth beneath our feet: dirt. That’s often how we feel when entering upon humility. Yet when we meet a humble person, and they are joyful and we speak of them with esteem. It seems the dirt under our feet has become the perfume of flowers and most often it is the humble among us who are most widely loved and most joyful. Yet when we find someone with an unhealthy low self esteem, we can intuitively see the difference and don’t find in him beauty or sweetness. The humble person sees the world as it truly is, and finds himself not taking himself so seriously as to constantly criticize and put himself down. He also sees faults in others, but knows that they only differ from his in kind, not in number. In other words, he is forgiving and merciful to himself and to those around him. The humble man is this way because he sees himself as he truly is and easily sees the world as it truly is also.
So it seems true humility is, as Bernard says, knowing who we truly are. That is, with all of our weakness, frailty, dependence, and sinfulness. But let’s not forget that it is also seeing the good in ourselves, it also means to see that we are intrinsically good and beautiful, to see our abilities and potential. Most importantly, it means to know that God created us purposefully and holds us in existence with Love. When we see these things, we give them to Christ, so that He might make us beautiful so that we might share in the beauty. This is why humility is the mother of all virtues, because through seeing ourselves as we are, insecure and frail, we find ourselves grasping towards security and strength, who is named Jesus. By that act of grasping towards Him, all other virtues are born. In this way we can see St. Teresa and St. Bernard’s view of humility fit perfectly together.
With a more clear understanding of humility, as lived by the saints, we might be in a better place to look to St. Therese’s title. The “Little Flower” acknowledges many things that coincide with the nature of man and the nature of our relationship with God. First of all, it shows that the flower is rooted in the Earth, just as one is rooted in Truth, when one is humble. It’s roots are shallow and it cannot grasp all of the earth, but only a tiny fraction of it, from which it draw its life. This life does not just flow from the soil, but from the water that is poured upon it. We call this water, Grace. A small wildflower is constantly desperate for grace and looks to its roots for it. It is easily broken and very frail, it’s life is so dependent that even a week without grace might cause it to perish. If its roots are not secure in life-giving rich soil, it can easily become malnourished and perish. In this way, if our lives are not rooted in truth and grace, and our families not holy and life-giving, one might easily become lost. If a careless passer-by might walk on it, the stem may break, and kill the life within it. These things show just how frail and dependent a small wildflower is. Worst of all, if it is left on its own, and grows unseen and unloved, over time, it slowly loses wilts, and loses its precious petals. I hope the allegory I’ve hoped to portray is becoming more apparent. This title is ideal for humility because as a flower, it does not only take into account the simplicity and frailty of one’s soul, but also the beauty of it. The flower, though a small and pathetic wildflower, is nevertheless a beautiful image of God and a reflection of His glory. Its colors give delight and with peace, one can come upon a small wildflower and see in it, much beauty and working of God. Its sweet perfume is wonderful, making one sigh and giving delight. It gives life to those around it too, bees especially derive nourishment from the flower. In all this goodness, it remains meek, and insignificant. This is where the comparison comes to a most beautiful conclusion.
In the flower’s weakness, dependency, and insignificance, it exists for something greater. Christ comes and Loves it. He comes and adores it, and sees the sweetness in it. He uproots the flower, to re-plant in His kingdom, only if the flower will allow itself to release its earthly attachments. Though He created all things, and though so many of them hold such great glory, He chooses to come and take the little wildflower to participate in His infinite glory. He chooses to Love and to die for a simple wildflower. With all its beauties and treasures, it is nothing compared to Him, and yet He still chooses to Love it, and offer eternal life to it, so that it might never wilt and might never lose its petals.
“Jesus set before me the book of nature. I understand how all the flowers God has created are beautiful, how the splendor of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not take away the perfume of the violet or the delightful simplicity of the daisy. I understand that if all flowers wanted to be roses, nature would lose her springtime beauty, and the fields would not longer be decked out with little wild flowers. So it is in the world of souls, Jesus’ garden. He has created smaller ones and those must be content to be daisies or violets destined to give joy to God’s glances when He looks down at His feet. Perfection consists in doing His will, in being what He wills us to be.”
-St. Therese of Lisieux