The Little Way v. The Great White Way

May 17, 2013 | 0 comments

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt

The year was 1897. A young Carmelite nun lay dying of tuberculosis. It was a custom in many religious communities of the time for consecrated religious to circulate a brief biography of deceased members as a remembrance and to encourage prayer for the repose of the dead. While she lay on her deathbed, Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus could hear two of her sisters outside discussing the biography they would have to write for her. Bishop Patrick Ahern tells the story in his book, titled Maurice & Thérèse: The Story of a Love:

[St. Thérèse's sisters] were wondering what could be written in [her obituary] that might be of interest, since she had never done anything exceptional. Thérèse was amused and smiled with pleasure, for she had succeeded in keeping the low profile for which she always aimed.

Had Sister Thérèse not been ordered by her religious superiors to write out her childhood memories and her spiritual journey into a testament that would become known to the world as Story of a Soul, she would have faded away into the obscurity she desired, perhaps never to become a canonized saint. St. Thérèse's signature gift to the Church—her Little Way of spiritual childhood, which was her insight into how ordinary souls could become great saints—soon would have been forgotten outside her small circle of religious sisters, family, and friends, and would never have catapulted her to the honor of being named a Doctor of the Church.

It is hard to imagine these days the kind of reticence to speak of the self and one's own inner life that St. Thérèse embodied. While grace perfected that reticence in St. Thérèse into a heroic virtue, it built upon nature, and the nature of the time was not to laud oneself or to speak too much about one's own life.

That was then.

We now live in an age in which the world is our soapbox. Social media make it possible to regale the world with instant updates on the food we ate for breakfast, on how our children did in school, and on how many imaginary crops we planted on nonexistent acreage each evening before bed. If we want to rant about the latest news headlines, there is always an audience somewhere ready to be held captive for a few seconds. And, unlike Lucy Ricardo, whose dream of being in her husband's nightclub act was continually dashed, YouTube is available at a moment's notice to turn us into instant celebrities.

Most of us comprise the 99 Percent of those seeking to captivate the world with the minutiae of our daily grind. We may have a few dozen to a few hundred cyber friends who indulge us with a glance at our latest Facebook update—until their attention wanders to the latest funny cat picture. Then there's the One Percent. People who have managed to find a higher hill on which to plant their soapbox, from which they regale far wider audiences than most of us can capture with Too Much Information about personal events of great meaning to them but of little objective and permanent value to everyone else.

Take for example the latest Hollywood on dit: Just this week, actress Angelina Jolie, previously best known for her role in contributing to the breakup of the marriage of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston—two rather small-scale Hollywood celebrities until the world developed an inexplicable fascination for their personal relationship—has once more returned to the headlines because of her personal life. This time Ms. Jolie took to the pages of the New York Times to announce that she had decided to have a double mastectomy so as to lower her risk of breast cancer. She explains why she felt the world must know of her decision:

On April 27, I finished the three months of medical procedures that the mastectomies involved. During that time I have been able to keep this private and to carry on with my work.

But I am writing about it now because I hope that other women can benefit from my experience. Cancer is still a word that strikes fear into people's hearts, producing a deep sense of powerlessness. But today it is possible to find out through a blood test whether you are highly susceptible to breast and ovarian cancer, and then take action. . . .

I wanted to write this to tell other women that the decision to have a mastectomy was not easy. But it is one I am very happy that I made. My chances of developing breast cancer have dropped from 87 percent to under 5 percent. I can tell my children that they don't need to fear they will lose me to breast cancer.

I hope Ms. Jolie is correct that what she has chosen to do will contribute to a long and healthy life for her, a life in which she can see her children grow up and enjoy time with her children's children, something her own mother had too little time for because of her early death from ovarian cancer. Although I have reservations about the idea of removing parts of one's body because one fears what the future might hold (as distinguished from removal after a disease is diagnosed), now that it is done I wish Ms. Jolie all the best.

Still. Did we really need to know about this? Will it really accomplish the goal of educating women about breast health? Or will it instead direct everyone's attention to Ms. Jolie's chest?

Modesty, as I've written before, is not so much about clothing choices as it is about not drawing undue attention to one's self. St. Thérèse, who wore a full habit within the cloister of a Carmelite monastery, still strove for modesty by maintaining discretion over the deterioration of her health and the concurrent expansion of her interior life. She had to be ordered to write about it, and even then turned over her journals and said no more about it. Her older sister and religious superior, Mother Agnes, recalled that St. Thérèse never asked what Mother Agnes thought of what she'd written. If what she wrote was going to help anyone, God would have to see to it.

And so he did. Long after celebrity pronouncements—even those of some transitory import—fade from our memories, St. Thérèse's spiritual testament will endure and continue to teach the world about the power and possibilities of reaching the heights of heaven by remaining hidden in Christ and little in the sight of man and God. 

Michelle Arnold is a staff apologist at Catholic Answers. You can visit her personal blog or contact her online through Facebook.
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