Entering into young adulthood is a process fraught with confusion, frustration, and a refreshing smack in the face from a sense of one’s own inadequacy. This process is intensified for those of us who grew up with a sense of entitlement, and especially so for only-children. The rude awakening of having to take responsibility for one’s own career path and general life decisions strips us naked in front of the fact that we are given free will so that we can discover and adhere to our vocation. The illusion that mommy and daddy will make a deal with God and work out my own vocation for me wears off for most when they enter their first full-time job, in which they are subject to the authority of someone who is not willing to give them an easy break when they complain, or to give them a raise merely because they want it.
When it comes to the matter of one’s God-given vocation, an attitude of entitlement may hardly seem like a value as one pursues eternal life in heaven, a gift of which none of us are worthy. “Blessed are the poor in spirit…those who suffer….those who mourn.” Hardly an invitation to those whose hearts are engorged by spiritual and material excess, and who expect eternal beatitude to be given to them “just because.” And yet the “childishness” of such an entitled attitude that results from a spoiled childhood is exactly what allowed Saint Therese of the Child Jesus to grow in simplicity of spirit and to live “like a child” before the great Mystery of God.
In her autobiography, Therese recounts a moment from her early childhood in which her older sister Leonie offered her and her other sister Celine to pick from a basket of toys: “One day Léonie, thinking no doubt that she was too big to play with dolls, brought us a basket filled with clothes, pretty pieces of stuff, and other trifles on which her doll was laid: ‘Here, dears,’ she said, ‘choose whatever you like.’ Céline looked at it, and took a woollen ball. After thinking about it for a minute, I put out my hand saying: ‘I choose everything,’ and I carried off both doll and basket without more ado.”
Therese, being the “baby” of the family, was used to special treatment from her parents as well as from her older siblings. She admits to having been spoiled as a child, but recognizes the value it had as she pursued her vocation in the Carmelite convent of Lisieux: “This childish incident was a forecast, so to speak, of my whole life. Later on, when the way of perfection was opened out before me, I realised that in order to become a Saint one must suffer much, always seek the most perfect path, and forget oneself. I also understood that there are many degrees of holiness, that each soul is free to respond to the calls of Our Lord, to do much or little for His Love—in a word, to choose amongst the sacrifices He asks. And then also, as in the days of my childhood, I cried out: ‘My God, I choose everything, I will not be a Saint by halves, I am not afraid of suffering for Thee, I only fear one thing, and that is to do my own will. Accept the offering of my will, for I choose all that Thou willest.’”
This whimsical anecdote from the childhood of a “spoiled brat” is very telling of the markedly “Theresian” spirituality that manifested during her life in Carmel and even more so in her heavenly life, from which she promised to offer “a shower of roses, doing good” for those on earth. Her sense of entitlement took on a new meaning after she became a Carmelite nun: rather than expecting to always get every material good she asked for, she expected to be embraced and blessed by Christ every time she turned to Him. This conversion required a renunciation. To ask instead for every spiritual good rather than for every material good, she understood that the willingness to sacrifice and to suffer was necessary. And yet her desire to receive His love, to receive He who is truly “Everything,” made it so that her suffering was just another opportunity for her to express her love for He who completely satisfies her infinite desire for “everything.”
In a time where the attainment of material wealth, of an infinite amount of finite goods, tends to dominate our sense of self and purpose in life, Therese’s sense of entitlement offers us an invitation to ask ourselves what truly corresponds to our need for total fulfillment. The human desire for “everything,” for a sense of completeness and fullness in life, is inherent to our being as made in the image and likeness of God. We want to be great as He is great, for this desire constitutes the very being of our personhood. And yet the assumption that the attainment of an infinite amount of finite goods rather naively sets us up to fall short as we pursue fulfillment. Instead, we ought to look more deeply into our hearts, with a childlike simplicity, and ask if we are looking for more and more finite things, or for He who is Infinite in Himself.