Action prayer is nonverbal communication to God, using our attitudes and our attempts to obey, which draws its energy from Christ’s example and empowerment.
We are accustomed to thinking of prayer as verbal—an exchange of words—or at least mental, a centering-down of thoughts that allows stillness to grow in us as we make our way through the daily mill. With the Little Way, we intentionally press further, drawing the outer world inward as we intersect with it and respond to it. Our actions and reactions become the prayer. We are transformed into givers as we practice giving, into listeners because we listen, into champions as we defend the weak, into the image of Christ because we act like Christ (Col 3:10). Our lives themselves address God directly. Thérèse Martin,1 a French nun, sought to practice this sort of embodied prayer.
Thérèse (1873–1897) was the youngest of nine. Her mother died when she was four years old, and the loss plunged her into a childhood of insecurity. When she was thirteen, however, she found in Jesus’ birth the comfort of one who understood her vulnerability. At a Christmas Eve service, she tells that “the sweet infant Jesus, scarce yet an hour old, flooded with his glorious sunshine the darkness into which my soul was plunged. In becoming weak and little for love of me, he made me strong and brave.”2 She never lost her sensitivity, but in Jesus she also found a child-like humility with which to engage the world.
At the age of fifteen, she sought to join the Carmelite religious order in Lisieux, a small town in Normandy. Initially the superior declined her application because of her age, but the girl’s steady character eventually won out. She made her final vows two years later and was soon raised to assist the mistress of novices. Her abbess assigned her the job of writing an autobiography when she was twenty-two, and we have this work as The Story of a Soul.3 A year later, after her death from tuberculosis, the history circulated among the convents and eventually acquired a large following.
Declaring spiritual disciplines, even the rosary, too involved for her, Thérèse practiced what she called the Little Way. She read the Bible, and her verbal prayers were direct and personal—an unpretentious toddler telling her father what she wanted and trusting him to provide. Trivial actions done for God’s glory became her nonverbal prayer. Life, she said, presented sufficient challenges and opportunities for grace without complicating the matter. Instead of adding special spiritual disciplines, she sought to do ordinary things with extraordinary love. “The smallest action, done with love, [was] more important than great deeds done for personal glory, gratification, or simply out of obedience.”4
As an example of her plan, Thérèse noted an instance that occurred one day during meditation. As the sisters waited in quiet contemplation, one of them fidgeted incessantly with her rosary beads until Thérèse felt crazed with irritation. She wanted to turn and glare the nun into silence. She became so frustrated that she began to sweat. At last, she writes, “instead of vainly attempting not to hear it, I set myself to listen attentively as though it were delightful music, and my meditation—which was not the prayer of ‘quiet’—was passed in offering this music to Our Lord.”5
In Thérèse’s Little Way, we too can find an open path to engagement with Jesus, even when verbal prayer is drowned out. We are accustomed to thinking of prayer as solely conversation, an exchange of words. God does make himself known through language (John 1:1); however, our relationship with him is not “just talk.” Though we could not know God if he did not speak to us through Scriptures and by his Son, God also reveals himself in nature and in his actions (Rom 1:19–20; Ps 98:2; Jer 33:6). In the same way, we reveal and yield our wills to God by our actions, as well as our speech (Jas 1:22–25).
As we respond to others, Jesus is the one who receives our replies (Mic 6:6–8). When we act instead of avoiding the work or the person, he is the one we obey. Even as we wait for the right service-projects, skills-fit, or timing, this formation prayer takes advantage of the incidents and interpersonal encounters that occur daily. We begin to see everyday actions and reactions as our communion with him. By allowing what we do to contribute to our conversation with God, we permit him to transform us in the areas of action and emotion, not just thought.
For those of us whose defaults already tend toward help and service, practicing the Little Way transforms both our acknowledged and our unknown motives into intentional choices for Jesus. Even when we fear that our kindnesses will not be reciprocated, we choose to trust our Father to enfold us and Jesus to satisfy our needs for belonging and welcome. Then we can participate without needing affirmation from our fellows because God himself receives and delights in our service. We look to please God, instead of depending on others to notice and respond to our giving (Matt 6:1–6). Without expectation of reward or thanks to refuel us, we act from Jesus’ strength and with his bravery. And in acting from his character, we are changed into his character.
1The following story of Thérèse Martin’s life relies on Thomas Plassmann, Lives of Saints with Excerpts from Their Writings (New York: Crawley, 1954), n.p. [cited 12 Jan 2006]. Online: www.ewtn.com/therese/therese1.htm.
2Thérèse of Lisieux, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux: An Autobiography (trans. Thomas N. Taylor; London: Burns, Oates, & Washbourne, 1927), 86.
3Thérèse of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul (trans. John Beevers; New York: Image, 1989).
4Society of the Little Flower, “Learn about Therese,” n.p. [cited 7 June 2012]. Online: www.littleflower.org/abouttherese/learn/index.asp.
5Thérèse, Autobiography, 186.