St. Therese of Lisieux titled the last chapter of her masterwork, Story of a Soul, with the beautiful heading: “Those you have given me.”
This is, in my mind, one of the most beautiful lines in her work. For it reflects an incredible understanding of how human beings should treat each other. Every person that St. Therese met, even those who annoyed her, she treated as a gift from God. Rather than reject those who rejected her, she worked all the harder to be nice to them, and thanked God in joyful gratitude for allowing them to influence her life. We would be wise to follow her virtuous example.
For everyone – those who help us, those who torment us, and those who ignore us – they are all woven into God’s master plan for our salvation. Everyone that we meet affects us in some way – for good or for ill. But if we accept the ill that others do to us as sufferings we must bear, and embrace our crosses, we will find that they too are helping us on our road to salvation, if we allow them to do so.
Every human being we meet is a gift to us. Every human we interact with brings us consolation or suffering. Even those who ignore us (and whom we ignore) are faces we meet on the way to eternity, destined like us to either heaven or hell. Everyone we meet is a potential brother or sister in Christ, and should be treated as such.
The reverse is true, too. Everyone we meet is changed by our presence, often in ways that we cannot perceive. We, too, are gifts to other people, and should see and treat ourselves accordingly.
We have the power to influence people to follow Christ by our good example. Even a smile to a sorrowful stranger has an impact, which we may not be able to see – but it affect those around us. And the better people we are, the better the chance that we will be able to point them to Christ.
Very few of us understand this power we have, to radically change souls for good or for ill.
As Christians, we are told to “see the face of Christ in all people.” But it is difficult for our limited human minds to do this, with all the obvious imperfections of other humans. Often, I fall into the trap of growing angry towards others who inconvenience me or annoy me. And it is not my place to judge hearts, but I often find myself judging others, despite Christ’s command. And I suspect I am not alone.
Christ warned us to avoid this view of thinking. Instead, he enjoined us to treat others with dignity, as the Scriptures tell us: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matt 5:44)
So it must be for us; we should love our enemies and those who inconvenience us. They are our crosses – and we must embrace our crosses. We must treat those who annoy us as fellow humans, not as enemies.
But we are often blinded by our own self-centeredness into ignoring our influence on people. We tend to see ourselves as “free agents,” without influence on others, and act accordingly - to our own detriment and that of others.
Therese’s view of people as gifts is far more Christ-centered. Her “little way” is a wonderful way of understanding the role of other people in our salvation. Far from being strangers to each other, we become what we are called to be – servants in Christ, if we chose to do so.