Spiritual Childhood According to St. Benedict and St. Thérèse

Reading Time: 17 minutes

By Stephen Hill, Ave Maria University

Spiritual childhood is so important to the Christian life that this teaching falls from the mouth of Our Lord Himself as related by all three synoptic Gospels (Mt. 18:3, 19:14; Mk. 10:15; Lk. 18:17). Indeed, since our Lord considers this disposition necessary in order to enter Heaven, He continues to teach it through His Church. Most recently, our Lord renewed this teaching by giving St. Thérèse of Lisieux a double portion of that true, childlike spirit. Despite only composing a short autobiography and some letters, she has exercised more influence over the past century than the most prolific authors. Understanding her vast impact can be deepened by rediscovering the rich tradition which she inherited from another influential author of a single work: St. Benedict. This paper will demonstrate that St. Benedict, too, can be said to express the teaching of spiritual childhood throughout his Rule. Without expressing it in so many words, the very organization of monasteries according to the Rule of St. Benedict cultivates a childlike spirit. This paper will focus on two ways in which the Rule forms his followers according to this spirituality: a familial structure of the community and a repetitious, cyclical life. As the progenitor of religious life in the West, even the Carmelites have experienced his influence. Therefore, we can say that St. Thérèse herself, whether consciously or not, inherited her understanding from this tradition.


            There is no doubt that the “little way” of spiritual childhood proposed by St. Thérèse has had a wide-sweeping influence in the life of Christians. Her sway began small when “she taught the way of spiritual childhood by word and example to the novices of her monastery.”[1] After her death, her doctrine was “set forth clearly in all her writings which have gone to the ends of the world, and which assuredly no one has read without being charmed thereby, or without reading them again and again with great pleasure and much profit.”[2] Over the past century, the Magisterium has consistently promoted a devotion to her and her doctrine. Pius XI, who beatified and canonized her, declared at her canonization that “We nurse the hope today of seeing springing up in the souls of the faithful of Christ a burning desire of leading a life of spiritual childhood [original emphasis].”[3] St. John Paul II, who shared the hopes of Pius XI, proclaimed St. Thérèse a Doctor of the Church in 1997.[4] By doing so, he confirmed upon her “an outstanding recognition which raises her in the esteem of the entire Christian community beyond any academic title.” A Doctor of the Church is one whose doctrine “can be a reference point, not only because it conforms to revealed truth, but also because it sheds new light on the mysteries of faith, a deeper understanding of Christ’s mystery.”[5]

            St. Thérèse was instrumental in explicating the doctrine of spiritual childhood. She may be fittingly compared to another Doctor of the Church: St. Francis de Sales. Fr. Louis Bouyer of the Oratory, in his book The Meaning of Monastic Life, wrote that the glory of St. Francis de Sales was that “he has discouraged Christians living in the world from imitating the externals of monasticism, while helping them to adopt and adapt its vital principles.”[6] The same praise should be given to St. Thérèse on spiritual childhood. She reiterated this ancient and venerable doctrine in a manner accessible to the masses. Therefore, her autobiography and letters have justly merited for her the title of Doctor of the Church. For those who desire a richer understanding of the renewal of St. Thérèse, it can only be gained by exploring the spiritual inheritance she received from St. Benedict.


Few texts have had such a profound impact on society, and especially on religious life, in the West as the Rule of St. Benedict.[7] It is true, according to Dom Paul Delatte, O.S.B., that “the Church venerates [St. Benedict] as the patriarch of the monks of the West; and God has so disposed the course of history that every religious Order is in some way indebted to him and has learnt from his fatherly wisdom.”[8] One of the most eminent manifestations of the wisdom of St. Benedict is the structure of religious life he codified. The children of St. Benedict are formed and taught to cultivate a childlike spirit primarily in two ways: through a familial structure of the community and a repetitious, cyclical life.

Understanding the familial spirit of a monastery is necessary to understanding the doctrine of spiritual childhood. Since God cannot be known directly and immediately in essence, it is necessary for people to ascend to a knowledge of God through His effects in the world and through analogical images.[9] The ascent from physical effects to God is possible because the Form, Type, and Perfection of all creation is ultimately found in God. The natural world, therefore, ought to reflect supernatural realities. It is on this principle that the Rule of St. Benedict andthe doctrine of St. Thérèse are founded. In the writings of the latter, she constantly depicts her spiritual doctrine with parent-child imagery. For example, when describing a mystical experience at Santa Croce in Rome, St. Thérèse said that she “behaved towards Him [God] like a child who thinks it may do as it pleases and looks on its Father’s treasures as its own.”[10] St. Thérèse was accustomed to fall asleep during mental prayer on account of the fatigue the Carmelite way of life imposed upon her body. In response, she was “not distressed. [She remembered] that little children are equally dear to their parents whether they are asleep or awake.”[11] Again, when imagining her relationship with God in light of her faults, St. Thérèse confidently wrote: “I know that a mother is ever ready to forgive her child’s small, thoughtless faults. How often have I not had this sweet experience! No reproach could have touched me more than one single kiss from my Mother.”[12] Later, she also described herself as “throwing myself without delay into Our Lord’s Arms. I imitated those tiny children, who, when they are frightened, hide their faces on their father’s shoulder.”[13]

St. Thérèse’s approach is no different than that of Our Lord Himself in the Gospels. He often relates parables that use family imagery to demonstrate supernatural realities. The parable of the Prodigal Son is a profound analogical demonstration of God’s relationship to His children. Likewise, Christ reminds His audience: “Or which of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone?Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him?” (Matthew 7:9-11, RSVCE). Lest this teaching might seem like a metaphor, Christ demonstrated the reality of God’s relationship to creation by teaching His disciples to call God “our Father” (Matt. 6:9; Luke 11:2).


            The Rule of St. Benedict does not explicitly teach about spiritual childhood the way St. Thérèse did. It does not consist of images and stories like in The Story of a Soul. Therefore, to understand how St. Benedict promoted such a doctrine, one must first understand what the essence of spiritual childhood is within the monastic tradition. Certainly, it includes viewing oneself as a child of God and approaching Him with love and trust. Yet, spiritual childhood entails much more than that. It affects the entire disposition of the monk or nun. In the Gospel of Luke, Christ admonishes His apostles saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God.Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Luke 18:16-17). In his sermon on this passage St. Ambrose asked, “why does [Christ] say that children are more fit for the kingdom of heaven?”[14] If it were simply a preference of age then there would be no motivation to grow up or mature. Further, children are not enviable because of their often-erratic temperament or inability to reason thoroughly. No, “it is because they are ignorant of” sinful acts and passions, “but to be ignorant of these things is not virtue, we must also despise them. For virtue consists not in our inability to sin, but in our unwillingness. Childhood then is not meant here, but that goodness which rivals the simplicity of children [emphasis added].”[15]

            Simplicity is the essence of childhood and the goal towards which monasticism has always striven. As early as the fourth century, John Cassian testified to this spirit of childlike simplicity. During his travels to meet the desert monks and nuns, he was taught about this aim of monasticism. Everything from the Liturgy and their Rule of life to their clothes sought the same end. They strove always that “the observance of simplicity and innocence may be preserved [even] by the very character of [their] clothing.” For example, throughout the entire Office, they wore “very small hoods coming down to the end of the neck and shoulders, which only cover the head, in order that they may constantly be moved to preserve the simplicity and innocence of little children by imitating their actual dress. And these men have returned to childhood in Christ and sing at all hours with heart and soul.”[16] As St. Benedict was clearly familiar with the works of Cassian[17] and practiced in the monastic life, it is reasonable to believe that his composition of the Rule was ordered towards the same end.

St. Benedict does not directly address the disposition of simplicity except when briefly commenting on how a monk ought to pray after the Divine Office.[18] Yet, the effect is inevitable given the structure and theology he promoted. Delatte notes that to “love nothing apart from God or more than God” frees the soul to be absolutely docile in the hands of God. Over time “there is this tendency” to “build up again the edifice of [self-will],” and monks and nuns must fight to “never unlearn the simplicity and unaffectedness of [their] first submission.”[19] Because of the strong propensity to pride, the wisdom of monasticism has established the practice of obedience to God through one’s superiors. These superiors are true fathers and mothers to their children, and a monk or nun ought “to hide from one’s Abbot none of the evil thoughts that beset one’s heart, nor the sins committed in secret, but humbly to confess them.”[20] Although this discipline is meant to cultivate humility, its purpose is not to humiliate or discourage. On the contrary, the practice “establishes [the monks and nuns] in simplicity and absolute loyalty, it creates a profound unity in [their] life, a conformity between the inward and the outward.”[21]

Those who enter monastic life demonstrate a desire “to introduce oneness and simplicity into [their] life” and to become people “who busy themselves with God only and seek nothing but union with Him.”[22] They are rightly called “monks [from the Greek for “alone”[23]] because of their single, undivided life, which removes their spirit from the distraction of manifold interests and by which they are borne towards the oneness of God and the perfection of holy love.”[24] To reinvoke a natural analogy, this is akin to the undivided attention of the baby at the breast of its mother (Is. 66:11). The entire organization of the Rule of St. Benedict has no other purpose than to achieve the childlike simplicity which Delatte so accurately praises:

It is the glory of the monastic life to be founded in loyalty and absolute sincerity, to be delivered from all the diplomacy and shiftiness of the world. Happy are those who have nothing to hide, who know nothing of tortuous or subterranean maneuvers, who live full in the day. Happy those who have brought all their being to a perfect simplicity, and who, before God and before men, are what they are, without duality, stiffness, or effort, but with flexibility and ease.[25]


How does the Rule of St. Benedict realize such childlike simplicity? The Church does not possess the text of any sermons or conferences given by St. Benedict, but the effects are apparent from the Rule itself. St. Benedict declared his purpose in composing “this Rule [so] that, observing it in monasteries, we may show that we have acquired at least some moral righteousness, or a beginning of the monastic life […] Thou, therefore, who hasten to the heavenly home, with the help of Christ fulfill this little rule written for a beginning; and then thou shalt with God’s help attain at last to the greater heights of knowledge and virtue which we have mentioned above.”[26] The Rule is ordered towards a practical formation; it is a “school of the Lord’s service.”[27] His approach is to form the monks and nuns in charity and “virtuous zeal which separates from vice and leads to God and life everlasting.”[28]

There is no competition between the interior and exterior. The exterior forms the interior, which is why Benedict has ordered the Rule in the way he did. Just as Christ and St. Thérèse understood that natural images teach people about supernatural realities, St. Benedict incorporated this reality into the very structure of the Rule. St. Thomas Aquinas, when discussing humility, points out that this virtue may be cultivated “first and chiefly by a gift of grace, and in this way the inner man precedes the outward man. The other way is by human effort, whereby he first of all restrains the outward man, and afterwards succeeds in plucking out the inward root.”[29] The same rationale can be applied to developing spiritual childhood. On the one hand, people may meditate and think about the perfections of a genuine and healthy relationship between parents and children. By God’s grace, this meditation within the interior of the person will bring about a practical, external, and living application of spiritual childhood. On the other hand, people may begin by deliberately practicing a rule of life wherein they are forced to experience childhood again but as adults. As a result, the continuous conforming of one’s actions to a spirit of childhood will produce a corresponding interior reality—a rediscovery of what was lost.

Such a rediscovery is achieved, firstly, through embracing the familial spirit of the community; a family spirit is integral to communal life. The Rule opens with the declaration: “Hearken, O my son, to the precept of your master, and incline the ear of your heart: willingly receive and faithfully fulfill the admonition of your loving father [emphasis added].”[30] Delatte comments on the extraordinary uniqueness of this opening line: “Other rules have a more impersonal character, a more concise and formal legislative air: St. Benedict in his first words puts himself in intimate contact with his followers.”[31] From the outset he is striving to cultivate a familial spirit among the community. The first-person perspective of the prologue establishes an intimate connection between St. Benedict and his future children. In order to perpetuate the family atmosphere, it was necessary to establish a visible and living image of St. Benedict and God. For this reason, St. Benedict admonishes all future Abbots and Abbesses “always to remember what [they are] called and correspond to [their] name by [their] works. For [they are] believed to hold the place of Christ in the monastery, since [they are] called by His name, as the Apostle says: ‘You have received the spirit of the adoption of sons, in which we cry: Abba, Father.’”[32] Therefore, whenever a monk or nun calls upon their Abbot/Abbess, whether in the most important or mundane circumstances, the intimacy of fatherhood/motherhood will be called to mind. The monk or nun ought not to grow accustomed or desensitized to this reality. When calling upon their superior, let them always remember what they call them—father, mother.

St. Benedict does not wish there to be simply a collection of parent-child relationships with each separate and distinct from the others. Rather, the whole community ought to be united in familial charity. For this reason, he exhorts the community to “let the younger brethren, then, reverence their elders, and the elder love the younger.”[33] They ought to foster this love, once again, through externals and not just in an abstract sense. He orders them “in calling each other by name, [to] let no one address another by his simple name; but let the elders call the younger brethren fratres, and the younger call their elders nonni, by which is conveyed the reverence due to a father.”[34]

Now, it is indispensable to note that their love should extend far beyond simple formalities and pleasantries in speech; they should “practice this zeal with most fervent love, that is, in honor preventing one another […] Let them obey one another with rivalry. Let no one follow what he judges good for himself, but rather what seems good for another. Let them tender the charity of brotherhood with chaste love.”[35] The Abbot/Abbess is reminded throughout the Rule to order all things for the good of souls and “to use the greatest care with erring brethren, and to strive with all possible prudence and zeal not to lose any one of the sheep committed to him. He must know that he has undertaken the charge of weakly souls, and not a tyranny over the strong.”[36] The Abbacy, because it requires governing many and varied souls, requires genuine virtue, particularly “discretion, the mother of virtue” so that the Abbot or Abbess may “so temper all things, that the strong may have something to strive after, and the weak may not be dismayed.”[37] Even admonitions will be fruitful if it is remembered that “it behooves him rather to profit his brethren than preside over them,” and if St. Benedict’s command to “let him hate sin, and love the brethren” is heeded.[38] It may be fittingly declared that in the Order of St. Benedict, “there is no clearer mark of the family character of the monastery than this insistence by St. Benedict that the Abbot should know his subjects and lead each of them individually.”[39]

According to Delatte, the permanence of the family spirit is safeguarded by the vow of stability which is unique to the children of St. Benedict, because “stability consists in a deep and lasting belonging to a family, normally to the very monastery of one’s profession.”[40] Far from being a vestige of the past, “stability is a mark of Benedictine life, and [monks/nuns] should hold to it as to a family possession.”[41] Without stability, it would be far too easy for one to attempt to transfer to a different monastery or Religious Order in difficult times. Stability guarantees perseverance when life is not as rosy as was originally imagined especially since the bond of unity is not of blood, as with a natural family, but of a free and willing association.

In addition to cultivating a family atmosphere, where each member can rediscover a spirit of childhood through loving, filial submission to the Abbot or Abbess, the Rule of St. Benedict also uses a repetitious cycle of life to achieve the same end. Initially, the connection between a cyclical way of life and childhood might not be clear. G.K. Chesterton makes an important observation on this point. While attempting to refute some common claims of materialism, he addresses the issue of repetition in life. According to materialists, the repetition in nature is due to its lifelessness. The world has no reason or free will and therefore repeats itself mechanically. Chesterton disagrees, however, and declared that people change their action because they tire not because they have life. Nature and children, on the other hand, persist in the same actions over and over again. His insight is worth quoting in full:

Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.[42]

As has been demonstrated above, submitting oneself to a life of certain external actions can affect internal dispositions. Applying that same principle to the rhythmic structure of the monastic life, the same effects are produced. Monastic life is constituted by various cycles nested within each other: daily, weekly, yearly. For the most part, these cycles are liturgical in nature. In the first place, there is the daily cycle: Rising from sleep, the Liturgy of the Hours, meals, recreation, manual labor, classes, etc. Admittedly, there is some variation, but it is always essentially the same. Next, the weekly liturgy repeats depending on the usage and custom of the monastery and congregation.[43] Finally, there is the annual cycle of the entire liturgical year. The yearly cycle possesses the fullness of what the Liturgy and the Rule of St. Benedict strive to achieve. Its fruits are accessible to all, but the monks and nuns who consecrate themselves to live the Liturgy can imbibe its fruit most profoundly. Dom Prosper Gueranger, O.S.B. summarized the liturgical cycle thus:

The year thus planned for us by the Church herself produces a drama the most sublime that has ever been offered to the admiration of man […] Each mystery has its time and place by means of the sublime succession of the respective anniversaries. A divine fact happened nineteen hundred years ago; its anniversary is kept in the liturgy, and its impression is thus reiterated every year in the minds of the faithful, with a freshness, as though God were then doing for the first time what He did so many ages past.[44]

It is the Liturgy itself, under the inspiration and movement of God, that is the ultimate teacher in the way of spiritual childhood. St. Benedict codified a way of life built upon and centered around this mystery of the Liturgy. By ordering that “nothing be preferred to the work of God,”[45] he made this yearly cycle the guiding principle of all monastic life.

            Traditionally, eternity has been understood as a perpetual present—the absence of time. Therefore, as Chesterton rightly noted, the repetitive appetite of children is a participation in the eternal youth of God. In much the same way, the monastic life participates in the eternity of God because of its continuous repetition. By repeating the same day, same week, and same year in due cycles, there is a kind of experience of eternity in this life by the monk or nun. St. Benedict’s entire goal might be characterized as ordering himself and his followers unto this participation in the eternal present of God. In this manner, the experience of eternity forms the children of St. Benedict so that, starting from practical experience, they gradually learn to exclaim with their whole hearts: “do it again!” every morning at Lauds and “do it again!” every evening at Vespers and “do it again!” at the beginning of each Advent. Indeed, his children offer the sacrifice again and again every day, and they celebrate His Resurrection every week, because we must have a childlike wonder at our redemption.


The spirit necessary to persist in an everlasting way of life was not found wanting in St. Thérèse of Lisieux. She both possessed and handed on such a childlike spirit as a sister in Carmel and in her writings. Her writings have exercised a definitive influence on the life of Christians in the 20th and 21st centuries. Understanding the rich tradition she inherited from the influence of St. Benedict and his children can further deepen a contemporary appreciation of her doctrine. Upon examining the Rule of St. Benedict, it has been demonstrated that the ascetical tradition of monasticism does not strive to inculcate a spirit of childishness but the simplicity of childhood. The wisdom of St. Benedictdeliberately organized life in a repetitive, cyclical way which is fortified by a genuine familial spirit among the community. Therefore, the spiritual life is a continuous search for a childlike rejoicing in the mysteries of Christ, and the liturgy is the fullest expression of that pure, unadulterated joy which St. Benedict and St. Thérèse possessed and taught.[46]

[1] Homily of Canonization given by Pope Pius XI. See, Rev. Thomas N. Taylor, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux: The Little Flower of Jesus, (New York: P.J. Kennedy & Sons, 1930), 271.

[2] Taylor, 271.

[3] Taylor, 272.

[4] John Paul II, Proclamation of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face as a Doctor of the Church, Homily, Vatican Website,October 19, 1997, https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/homilies/1997/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_19101997.html.

[5] John Paul II, sec. 3.

[6] Louis Bouyer, The Meaning of Monastic Life, trans. Kathleen Pond(New York: P.J. Kennedy & Sons, 1950), ix.

[7] Today it is a disputed question whether The Rule of St. Benedict or The Rule of the Master is prior in time and influence on Western monasticism. See, e.g., Michael Blecker, “Roman Law and ‘Consilium’ in the Regula Magistri and the Rule of St. Benedict,” Speculum vol. 47, no. 1 (Jan. 1972), pp. 1-28.

It seems to this author, however, that although the historical question regarding these two Rules is important, from a spiritual perspective the question is not as relevant. Regardless of the historical reality, the phenomenological experience of the monks and nuns of the West is that they heard the Rule of St. Benedict read three times a year in Chapter, spent countless hours in lectio divina studying The Rule of St. Benedict, and hand-copied innumerable illuminated manuscripts of The Rule of St. Benedict. Therefore, for the purpose of this paper, The Rule of St. Benedict will be considered over The Rule of the Master because of the practical and undeniable influence and guiding spirit it exercised over religious life in the West.

[8] Paul Delatte, O.S.B., Commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict, trans. Justin McCann, O.S.B. (London: Burns, Oates, & Washbourne, 1921), 1.

[9] See Bonaventure, Journey of the Mind to God; Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I., q. 1, a. 7.

[10] Thérèse of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul, trans. Michael Day (New York: Burns, Oates, & Washbourne, 1951), 67.

[11] Thérèse, 78.

[12] Thérèse, 81.

[13] Thérèse, 106.

[14] Ambrose of Milan, quoted in: Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea, Luke ch. 18, lecture 3.

[15] Ambrose, lecture 3.

[16] John Cassian, Institutes, I. iii.

[17] See Rule of St. Benedict, trans. Justin McCann, O.S.B., LXIII: “Moreover, the Conferences of the Fathers, their Institutes, and their Lives, and the Rule of our holy Father Basil—what else are they but examples for well-living and obedient monks and instruments of virtue [emphasis added]?”

[18] See Rule of St. Benedict, LII: “But if another wish perchance pray by himself, let him go in with simplicity and pray, not with a loud voice, but with tears and fervor heart.”

[19] Delatte, 85.

[20] Rule of St. Benedict, VII.

[21] Delatte, 121.

[22] Delatte, 26.

[23] μόνος

[24] Delatte, 26.

[25] Delatte, 71.

[26] Rule of St. Benedict, LXXIII.

[27] Rule of St. Benedict, Prologue.

[28] Rule of St. Benedict, LXXII.

[29] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 161, a. 6, ad. 2.

[30] Rule of St. Benedict., Prologue.

[31] Delatte, 1.

[32] Rule of St. Benedict, II.

[33] Rule of St. Benedict, LXIV.

[34] Rule of St. Benedict, LXIV.

[35] Rule of St. Benedict, LXII.

[36] Rule of St. Benedict, XXVII.

[37] Rule of St. Benedict, LXIV.

[38] Rule of St. Benedict, LXIV.

[39] Delatte, 51.

[40] Delatte, 389.

[41] Delatte, 82.

[42] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, (Lexington, KY: Ortho Publishing, 2014), 64.

[43] Regardless of the Psalter division, the principle is the same: there is a cyclical repetition (e.g., Monday Week I Lauds, Tuesday Week III Vespers, etc.) where specific Psalms, hymns, etc. reappear.

[44] Prosper Gueranger, O.S.B., The Liturgical Year, trans. Laurence Shepherd, O.S.B., vol. 1 (Powers Lake, ND: Marian House), 4.

[45] Rule of St. Benedict, XLIII.

[46] Throughout this paper, I have used the ascetical texts of Delatte and Gueranger because their writings inspired the thesis of this paper. Yet, it is my hope that this paper is simply the first of many which will explore the spirituality and influence of the various Benedictine Congregations. I intend with future research to draw connections between Congregations and their understanding of spiritual childhood as well as contrast what distinct emphases the Congregations have promoted throughout the years.

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