The Practice of Effortless-Effort

Yesterday, I sat down to begin reading one of Susan Muto’s most recent books, Twelve Little Ways to Transform Your Heart: Lessons in Holiness from St. Thérèse of Lisieux (Ave Maria Press, 2016).

In the first chapter, “The Little Way of Hiddenness,” Susan explores the centrality of hiddenness in the spirituality of Thérèse. Therese had for most of her life been doted upon as the youngest child in her relatively wealthy family. She was used to being the center of attention. But when she entered into the life of a cloistered nun, she did so ready to embrace a lifestyle that eschewed dramatic good works and the affirmation of others. It may seem paradoxical, but choosing such a hidden life did not cause her to become inwardly focused, but instead grew in her a dynamic and vibrant love for others – which if you are familiar with the stories of Christian mystics, is commonly what happens to such folks (Catherine of Genoa, Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Sienna, Thomas Merton, and Henri Nouwen, to name a few).

Susan goes on to point out that most of us, for most of our lives, actually live in relative obscurity – and that such hiddenness is by no means a barrier to a vibrant spiritual life, but instead is a “veritable treasury of graces” (p. 20).

One practice that aids us in receiving such graces is what Susan calls the “discipline of non-effort” (p. 21), in contrast to willfulness and excessive striving. She is not advocating a passive, fatalistic attitude, but instead, is encouraging us to engage our wills to choose to look for and trust God’s leading – even in “the small stuff” of life.

This summer, Susan and I spent a week together editing our soon-to-be-published book Understanding Our Story (Wipf & Stock publishing). We spent eight days, nearly 10-12 hours each day, working intensely on reorganizing and editing a treatise that has been in the works for over seven years – Susan “thinking out loud,” me translating her thinking via laptop into words on a page.

I must admit that for the first few days, I was feeling really stressed. We had originally allocated 3 days for this round of editing, and by day 2, we had only gotten through the glossary – we hadn’t even looked at the introduction, ten chapters, and the epilogue and bibliography! “Lord have mercy!” I thought. Thankfully, God did have mercy. And working with Susan, I experienced first-hand the “disposition of effortless effort” (p. 21) that she writes about (and lives).

Don’t get me wrong. I’d be lying if I didn’t describe that week as physically and mentally grueling. But instead of getting more and more tired as the week went on, I found myself surprisingly refreshed and energized. I found myself moving from a feeling of willful striving (“we have to hurry up and get this project done to meet the publication deadline!”) to engaging my will to “relax” in the midst of this hard work. And by the end of the week, I felt as though I had begun to take some baby steps in what “effortless effort” means: using the gift of my willpower to choose to rest and trust that God would lead us in what we were doing – even the mundane work of editing a book.

Driving late to an appointment in heavy traffic, standing in the slowest checkout line at the grocery store, filling out that repetitive medical history for the umpteenth time … all of these aspects of “the hidden life” for this 21st-century suburban-American woman are providing a rich setting to learn the practice of “effortless effort.” I am finding it truly transformative. Thank you, Thérèse – and Susan – for showing me one “little way” of living that, while hidden, is proving highly significant in this little life.




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