When I was a girl, my mother gave me a gift of a beautiful hard-bound copy of the classic Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. It was one of my favorite books, and so it was with great joy and anticipation that took my girls recently to see the newly-released movie Little Women. Coming from a family of four daughters myself, the story has always resonated with me and elicits reminders of my own childhood memories and adventures with my three sisters. What a blessing to now be able to share a story that so greatly influenced me in my formative years with my daughters!
The story is the delightful tale, loosely based on the author’s own family life, of the coming of age of four sisters in Massachusetts during the Civil War era. Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March, with their wise and benevolent mother, navigate the wartime absence of their father while spreading their wings and developing into womanhood, facing the joys and pains of life and sisterhood together as a family. There are so many inspirations and lessons which can be drawn from the story. However, an outstanding theme is the evolution of the protagonist Jo, headstrong, courageous, and independent, from fiercely self-reliant and resistant to love and marriage, into the receptive and womanly figure she becomes at the story’s end.
Jo, a gifted writer, strives to provide for her family in her father’s absence while resisting marriage to her friend and closest companion, Theodore Laurence, or “Laurie.” Without disclosing any spoilers, suffice it to say that Jo learns over time of her natural desire for love and companionship from others and how she needs to allow herself to accept love and affection.
Like Jo, we often charge through our days nurturing and providing for our families, friends, and others we come into contact with, forgetting our need and desire to receive love and caring from others and from God. Just as on an airplane we are instructed to put on our own oxygen mask in case of emergency before helping others, we need to be open to receive the love and mercy of God for ourselves before we can effectively extend it to our families and others around us.
The French Carmelite contemporary of St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, famously encouraged her mother superior in her farewell letter to “Let yourself be loved.” With these resonant words, she was reminding her superior, and us, that we should be ready to accept God’s love in spite of our weakness and sinfulness. This involves a radical realization of the immensity of God’s love and mercy and the openness to receive it.
Letting ourselves be loved by God sounds simple enough, but we often resist him for various reasons. Often, we feel our unworthiness and hesitate to believe that he could love us because of our sins and faults. Contemplating Jesus’ suffering on the Cross, however, should help us realize how deep and complete his love for us is. We can also remember the treasure trove of messages which Our Lord conveyed to St. Faustina concerning his Divine Mercy. One example is when he instructed her to, “Tell [all people], My daughter, that I am Love and Mercy itself. When a soul approaches Me with trust, I fill it with such an abundance of graces that it cannot contain them within itself, but radiates them to other souls.” (Jesus, Diary (1074) The words of Jesus and his sacrifice on the Cross assure us that if we are seeking God, we should not have a servile fear of him, but rather, run to him and readily receive all he has to offer. Similarly, we also resist human love at times. For Jo in Little Women, the journey of her life and the events which took place helped her to begin to understand her need for human love.
Times have changed, but God never does. Just as Jo March in the 1868 setting of Little Women felt her weakness and dependence, we also today experience the same desire to be loved by God and others. The world tells us we must always be strong, independent, and successful to be loved, but God’s message is different. “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest,” he says. (Matt 11:28 NAB) We need each other, and the world will be a better place when we learn to humbly love and care for one another and to depend on God to be our source of strength and our provider.