Little Deeds

This week's reflection is written by
V. Rev. Lewis S. Fiorelli, OSFS, Provincial.

St. Francis de Sales was a gifted spiritual guide. Beginners on the spiritual journey often thought that “bigger was better.” Long vigils, prolonged fasting, harsh disciplines and hair-shirts—these are the kinds of spiritual practices that they thought people who aspired to holiness ought to practice. Indeed, many of the biographies of saints of that period tended to place an emphasis on just such practices.

Francis had his hands full. He directed many busy lay women and men. Such practices were just not possible for them. His “gentle and balanced” approach to the spiritual life did not lend itself in that direction anyway.

For him, it was one’s intention that really counted. Did one truly want to please God alone and do whatever God asked of them or permitted? Such a “fiat” disposition was sufficient to be pleasing to God, no matter how “big” or “little” the thing was that God asked or permitted. The emphasis in all his writings is on the “little deeds” of one’s daily life and on the give and take of our relationships with one another. The Lord himself praises the person who gives but a cup of cold water to someone who is thirsty. Surely, it is not the value of the cup of water but the intention of the generous heart that so pleases Jesus (Matthew 10:42).

So, for Francis, it is the “intention, the compassion, the love” which we bring to these “little deeds” that enable them to shoulder such great love. As so often in his writings, he uses bees to make his point. Bees, he tells us, actually make better honey from smaller, more delicate flowers such as rosemary and thyme than they do from larger ones. Similarly, charity is practiced in “little, lowly exercises of devotion” not only more frequently but usually more humbly and, thus, more usefully and holily.

In Part III of his Introduction to the Devout Life he lists a number of such little deeds: “these little daily acts of charity, this headache, toothache, or cold, this bad humor in husband or wife, this broken glass, this contempt or that scorn, this loss of a pair of gloves, ring, or handkerchief, the little inconveniences incurred by going to bed early and getting up early to pray or receive Holy Communion, that little feeling of shame one has in performing certain acts of devotion in public –in short, all such little trials when accepted and embraced with love are highly pleasing to God’s mercy…By means of such trifles as these, borne with love and affection, you will win [God’s] heart and make it all your own” (Introduction, Part III, ch 35).

Early in October, we celebrate the feast of St. Therese, the Little Flower. In the eyes of the world, she did nothing extraordinary, lived the hidden life of a Carmelite nun and died at 24. Yet, she is now a major saint, and a patron of France and of the Missions. Her “little way” is Salesian to the core: “Great opportunities to serve God rarely present themselves but little ones are frequent.…Whether you sleep or take recreation or turn the spit, you will profit greatly in God’s sight by doing all these things because God wishes you to do them” (ibid.).

Thus, we can—all of us—become saints!