Archive for the ‘Saint Thérèse of Lisieux’ Category


Why I Love You, O Mary ! — Saint Thérèse Of Lisieux

April 2, 2014
With you I’ve suffered and now I want To sing on your lap, Mary, why I love you,

With you I’ve suffered and now I want To sing on your lap, Mary, why I love you,

Biography St Therese of Lisieux — Tejvan Pettinger
From an early age it was Therese’s ambition and desire to be a saint. She was born into a pious and loving Catholic family. She remembers the idyll of her early childhood, spending time with her parents and 5 sisters in the un spoilt French countryside. However this early childhood idyll was broken by the early death of her Mother (from breast cancer). Aged only 4 years old, she felt the pain of separation and instinctively turned to the Virgin Mary for comfort and reassurance.

The next couple of years of St Therese’s’ life was a period of inner turmoil. She was unhappy at school, where her natural precociousness and piety, made other school children jealous. Eventually her father agreed for Therese to return home and be taught by her elder sister, Celine.

She enjoyed being taught at home, however after a while, her eldest sister made a decision to leave to enter the local Carmel Convent at Lisieux. This made Therese feel like she had lost her second mother. Shortly afterwards Therese experienced a painful illness, in which she suffered delusions. The doctors were at a loss as to the cause. For 3 weeks she suffered with a high fever. Eventually Therese felt completely healed after her sister’s placed a statue of the Virgin Mary at the foot of the bed. Therese felt her health and mental state returned to normal very quickly.

Soon after on Christmas Eve 1884, she recounts having a remarkable conversion of spirit. She says she lost her inclination to please herself with her own desires. Instead she felt a burning desire to pray for the souls of others and forget herself. She says that on this day, she lost her childhood immaturity and felt a very strong calling to enter the convent at the unprecedented early age of 15.

St Therese with Pope
Initially the Church authorities refused to allow a girl, who was so young to enter holy orders. They advised her to come back when she was 21 and “grown up”. However Therese’s mind was made up, she couldn’t bear to wait, she felt God was calling her to enter the cloistered life. Therese was so determined she travelled to the Vatican to personally petition the Pope. Breaking protocol she spoke to the Pope asking for permission to enter a convent. Soon after, her heart’s desire was fulfilled, and she was able to join her 2 sisters in the Carmelite convent of Lisieux.

Convent life was not without its hardships; it was cold and accommodation was basic. Not all sisters warmed to this 15-year-old girl. At times she became the subject of gossip, one of her superiors took a very hash attitude to this young “spoilt middle class” girl. However Therese sought always to respond to criticism and gossip with the attitude of love. No matter what others said Therese responded by denying her sense of ego. Eventually the nun who had criticized Therese so much said. “why do you always smile at me, Why are you always so kind, even when I treat you badly”

Love attracts love, mine rushes forth unto Thee, it would fain fill up the abyss which attracts it; but alas! it is not even as one drop of dew lost in the Ocean. To love Thee as Thou lovest me I must borrow Thy very Love – then only, can I find rest.
- St Therese

This was the “little way” which Therese sought to follow. Her philosophy was that; what was important was not doing great works, but doing little things with the power of love. If we can maintain the right attitude then nothing shall remain that can’t be accomplished. St Therese was encouraged by the elder nuns to ask her to write down her way of spiritual practice. She wrote 3 books that explained her “little way” and also included her personal spiritual autobiography.

“The good God does not need years to accomplish His work of love in a soul; one ray from His Heart can, in an instant, make His flower bloom for eternity…”
- St Therese

St Therese died tragically early at the age of 24 from Tuberculosis. However after her death, the writings became avidly read by, first other nuns, and then the wider Catholic community. Although initially intended only for a small audience her books have been frequently republished. In 1997, St Therese was declared one of the only 3 female Doctors of the Catholic Church (there are 33 doctors of the church in total). Thus after her death she was able to achieve her intuitive feeling that she would be able to do something great and help save souls.

St Therese was canonized by Pope Pius XI on May 17, 1925, only 26 years after her death.


Oh ! I would like to sing, Mary, why I loveyou,
Whyyour sweet name thrills my heart,
And why the thought of your supreme greatness
Could not bring fear to my soul.
If I gazed on you in your sublime glory,
Surpassing the splendor of all the blessed,
I could not believe that I am your child.
O Mary, before you I would lower my eyes !…


If a child is to cherish his mother,
She has to cry with him and share his sorrows.
O my dearest Mother, on this foreign shore
How many tears you shed to draw me to you !…
In pondering your life in the holy Gospels,
I dare look at you and come near you.
It’s not difficult for me to believe I’m your child,
For I see you human and suffering like me…


When an angel from Heaven bids you be the Mother
O the God who is to reign for all eternity,
I see you prefer, O Mary, what a mystery !
The ineffable treasure of virginity.
O Immaculate Virgin, I understand how your soul
Is dearer to the Lord than his heavenly dwelling.
I understand how your soul, Humble and Sweet Valley,
Can contain Jesus, the Ocean of Love !…


Oh ! I loveyou, Mary, saying you are the servant
Of the God whom you charm by your humility.
This hidden virtue makes you all-powerful.
It attracts the Holy Trinity into your heart.
Then the Spirit of Love covering you with his shadow,
The Son equal to the Father became incarnate in you,
There will be a great many of his sinner brothers,
Since he will be called : Jesus, your first-born !…


O beloved Mother, despite my littleness,
Like you I possess The All-Powerful within me.
But I don’t tremble in seeing my weakness ;
The treasures of a mother belong to her child,
And I am your child, O my dearest Mother.
Aren’t your virtues and yourlove mine too ?
So when the white Host comes into my heart,
Jesus, your Sweet Lamb, thinks he is resting in you !…


You make me feel that it’s not impossible
To follow in your footsteps, O Queen of the elect.
You made visible the narrow road to Heaven
While always practicing the humblest virtues.
Near you, Mary, I like to stay little.
I see the vanity of greatness here below.
At the home of Saint Elizabeth, receiving your visit,
I learn how to practice ardent charity.

There, Sweet Queen of angels, I listen, delighted,
To the sacred canticle springing forth from your heart.
You teach me to sing divine praises,
To glory in Jesus my Savior.
Your words of love are mystical roses
Destined to perfume the centuries to come.
In you the Almighty has done great things.
I want to ponder them to bless him for them.

When good Saint Joseph did not know of the miracle
That you wanted to hide in your humility,
You let him cry close by the Tabernacle
Veiling the Savior’s divine beauty !…

Oh Mary ! how I loveyour eloquent silence !
For me it is a sweet, melodious concert
That speaks to me of the greatness and power
Of a soul which looks only to Heaven for help…

Later in Bethlehem, O Joseph and Mary !
I see you rejected by all the villagers.
No one wants to take in poor foreigners.
There’s room for the great ones…
There’s room for the great ones, and it’s in a stable
That the Queen of Heaven must give birth to a God.
O my dearest Mother, how lovable I find you,
How great I find you in such a poor place !…


When I see the Eternal God wrapped in swaddling clothes,
When I hear the poor cry of the Divine Word,
O my dearest Mother, I no longer envy the angels,
For their Powerful Lord is my dearest Brother !…
How I loveyou, Mary, you who made
This Divine Flower blossom on our shores !…
How I loveyou listening to the shepherds and wisemen
And keeping it all in your heart with care !…


I loveyou mingling with the other women
Walking toward the holy temple.
I loveyou presenting the Savior of our souls
To the blessed Old Man who pressed Him to his heart.
At first I smile as I listen to his canticle,
But soon his tone makes me shed tears.
Plunging a prophetic glance into the future,
Simeon presents you with a sword of sorrows.


O Queen of martyrs, till the evening of your life
That sorrowful sword will pierce your heart.
Already you must leave your native land
To flee a king’s jealous fury.
Jesus sleeps in peace under the folds of your veil.
Joseph comes begging you to leave at once,
And at once your obedience is revealed.
You leave without delay or reasoning.


O Mary, it seems to me that in the land of Egypt
Your heart remains joyful in poverty,
For is not Jesus the fairest Homeland,
What does exile matter to you ? You hold Heaven…
But in Jerusalem a bitter sadness
Comes to flood your heart like a vast ocean.
For three days, Jesus hides from your tenderness.
That is indeed exile in all its harshness !…


At last you find him and you are overcome with joy,
You say to the fair Child captivating the doctors :
“O my Son, why have you done this ?
Your father and I have been searching for you in tears.”
And the Child God replies (O what a deep mystery !)
To his dearest Mother holding out her arms to him :
“Why were you searching for me ?
I must be about My Father’s business. Didn’t you know ?”


The Gospel tells me that, growing in wisdom,
Jesus remains subject to Joseph and Mary,
And my heart reveals to me with what tenderness
He always obeys his dear parents.
Now I understand the mystery of the temple,
The hidden words of my Lovable King.
Mother, your sweet Child wants you to be the example
Of the soul searching for Him in the night of faith.


Since the King of Heaven wanted his Mother
To be plunged into the night, in anguish of heart,
Mary, is it thus a blessing to suffer on earth ?
Yes, to suffer while loving is the purest happiness !…
All that He has given me, Jesus can take back.
Tell him not to bother with me…
He can indeed hide from me, I’m willing to wait for him
Till the day without sunset when my faith will fade away…


Mother full of grace, I know that in Nazareth
You live in poverty, wanting nothing more.
No rapture, miracle, or ecstasy
Embellish your life, O Queen of the Elect !…
The number of little ones on earth is truly great.
They can raise their eyes to you without trembling.
It’s by the ordinary way, incomparable Mother,
That you like to walk to guide them to Heaven.


While waiting for Heaven, O my dear Mother,
I want to live with you, to follow you each day.
Mother, contemplating you, I joyfully immerse myself,
Discovering in your heart abysses of love.
Your motherly gaze banishes all my fears.
It teaches me to cry, it teaches me to rejoice.
Instead of scorning pure and simple joys,
You want to share in them, you deign to bless them.


At Cana, seeing the married couple’s anxiety
Which they cannot hide, for they have run out of wine,
In your concern you tell the Savior,
Hoping for the help of his divine power.
Jesus seems at first to reject your prayer :
« Woman, what does this matter, » he answers, « to you and to me ? »
But in the depths of his heart, He calls you his Mother,
And he works his first miracle for you…


One day when sinners are listening to the doctrine
Of Him who would like to welcome them in Heaven,
Mary, I find you with them on the hill.
Someone says to Jesus that you wish to see him.
Then, before the whole multitude, your Divine Son
Shows us the immensity of his love for us.
He says : “Who is my brother and my sister and my Mother,
If not the one who does my will ?”


O Immaculate Virgin, most tender of Mothers,
In listening to Jesus, you are not saddened.
But you rejoice that He makes us understand
How our souls become his family here below.
Yes, you rejoice that He gives us his life,
The infinite treasures of his divinity !…
How can we not loveyou, O my dear Mother,
On seeing so much love and so much humility ?


Youlove us, Mary, as Jesus loves us,
And for us you accept being separated from Him.
To love is to give everything. It’s to give oneself.
You wanted to prove this by remaining our support.
The Savior knew your immense tenderness.
He knew the secrets of your maternal heart.
Refuge of sinners, He leaves us to you
When He leaves the Cross to wait for us in Heaven.


Mary, at the top of Calvary standing beside the Cross
To me you seem like a priest at the altar,
Offering yourbeloved Jesus, the sweet Emmanuel,
To appease the Father’s justice…
A prophet said, O afflicted Mother,
“There is no sorrow like your sorrow !
” O Queen of Martyrs, while remaining in exile
You lavish on us all the blood of your heart !


Saint John’s home becomes your only refuge.
Zebedee’s son is to replace Jesus…
That is the last detail the Gospel gives.
It tells me nothing more of the Queen of Heaven.
But, O my dear Mother, doesn’t its profound silence
Reveal that The Eternal Word Himself
Wants to sing the secrets of your life
To charm your children, all the Elect of Heaven ?


Soon I’ll hear that sweet harmony.
Soon I’ll go to beautiful Heaven to see you.
You who came to smile at me in the morning of my life,
Come smile at me again … Mother… It’s evening now !…
I no longer fear the splendor of your supreme glory.
With you I’ve suffered and now I want
To sing on your lap, Mary, why I loveyou,
And to go on saying that I am your child !…



Reading Selections from “The Love of Saint Thérèse” by Philip Zaleski

October 14, 2010

Saint Thérèse: A Fairy Tale Told Backwards

Philip Zaleski is a research associate in religion at Smith College .This is his review of five recent books concerning Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. Some wonderful summation at the end that explains why I always keep running into Saint Thérèse. Shame on me for not featuring her more amongst these posts. Fr. Robert Barron’s reactions to her here.

Thérèse and Leo XIII
The Pope leaned toward her, so that “their faces nearly touched,” and Thérèse hurriedly whispered her desire (despite her bishop’s opposition) to become a Carmelite nun. Leo, flustered by this breach of protocol, first ventured a conventional response: “Ah well, my child, do what the superiors say.” When Thérèse continued to argue, he appealed to God, enunciating each syllable like a patient schoolmaster: “Go . . . Go . . . you will enter if God wills it.” But Thérèse refused to budge, clutching the Pope’s legs more tightly still; finally papal guards intervened, lifting and dragging the now-sobbing girl to the exit. “In the bottom of my heart I felt a great peace,” Thérèse recalled some years later, “[but] bitterness filled my soul, for Jesus was silent.”

This incident tells us much about Thérèse: her boldness, her stubbornness, her confidence, even at a young age, in her divinely appointed mission. It tells us just as much about how others saw and still see her. The old Pope is by turns interested but bewildered, annoyed but charmed. His chameleon response encapsulates the world’s response to Thérèse. Has any saint provoked such a spectrum of reactions as she?

The Lowbrow Saint
The English novelist Vita Sackville-West, in one of the first biographies of Thérèse, dismissed her as “the lowbrow” among saints and claimed that “there was no originality in her thought,” and Catholic theologian Karl Rahner confessed that “many things in Thérèse and her writings irritate me or quite simply bore me.” On the other hand, along with Pius X’s encomium, we have Hans Urs von Balthasar declaring that Thérèse’s “whole life [was] an exposition of God’s word,” Pope John Paul II describing her as “a living icon” of God, and a tidal wave of popular support, expressed in the sales of her autobiography, Story of a Soul, which has reached millions of hands in sixty different languages and in the vast crowds that venerated the saint’s relics during their recent voyage around the world. These responses cover nearly a century of controversy; as the third Christian millennium opens, a new crop of Thérèse books has appeared to continue the debate.

Arthur Cavanaugh’s Thérèse: The Saint Who Loved Us: A Personal View
Even at a glance, Arthur Cavanaugh’s Thérèse: The Saint Who Loved Us: A Personal View, stands out on two accounts: it is the only book under review that avoids a generic title; and it bears that rare ornament, a double subtitle. It is the second subtitle that catches the eye. Here is something more than a standard biography; Cavanaugh writes in confessional mode, dishing out highlights of his own Catholic odyssey and explaining how St. Thérèse more than once helped him on his way. As a child plagued by loneliness and self-doubt, he first encountered the saint by glimpsing her statue in a shadowy corner of his local church. The image was unexceptional: a plaster Thérèse in black robes, sandaled, holding a crucifix wreathed in roses. But something awoke in the boy: “As I steered up one Woodhaven street and down another, the image of a young nun, a crucifix of roses in her arms, floated above, like a banner in the sky, following after me, all the way home.”

This quasi-miraculous event presaged a lifetime of Theresian interludes. In Paris in 1945, sick with pneumonia and awaiting Army transport back to the United States, Cavanaugh stumbled upon a procession transporting the saint’s relics from Notre Dame Cathedral, their temporary refuge during Allied bombings, to their permanent home in Lisieux; this glimpse of the tiny, silk-enclosed casket brought him back to the Church. In New York in 1956, he lent a picture of Thérèse, patroness of all the sick, to a friend dying of bone cancer and realized, as he did so, the primacy of God’s love. In 1999, again in New York, he revisited Thérèse’s relics in St. Patrick’s Cathedral during their dramatic American tour and confirmed, as his first subtitle declares, that “she was the saint who loved us.” The tone throughout is intelligent, nostalgic, devout; the style sometimes breathless, like a romance novel — Cavanaugh seems genuinely moonstruck by his saint — with a fondness for italicized exclamations (“The roses, the roses!”, “Who was it, who could it be rather than my Thérèse?”) but nonetheless thoroughly engaging, with the winsome appeal of a love story with a happy ending.

All this has the makings of a compelling memoir, but Cavanaugh heads in another direction. Thérèse’s gravitational pull is too strong; he is locked into her orbit, and his personal memories serve merely as bookends to a recounting of Thérèse’s own life. For reasons that remain unclear, he does not proceed chronologically but shuttles back and forth in time, going from Thérèse’s death to her childhood to her posthumous fame to her convent years. This historical back-and-forth is ably handled, however, and the reader has little trouble assembling from these shards a coherent life.

A Fairy Tale Told Backwards
And what a life it was, beginning in the damascene-and-brocade furnishings of a French bourgeois household and ending on a straw pallet in an unheated convent cell. In some measure, Thérèse’s story is a fairy tale told backwards, a reverse Cinderella story in which our heroine exchanges golden slippers for rough monastic sandals and embraces a life of self-denial and suffering. Yet, like the original, this tale has a happy ending, sealed by love, in which death itself plays the fool.

Nauseating As A Surfeit Of Marshmallows
Thérèse’s first years had the quality of a golden age. She was a pampered princess, holding court over her four older siblings and adoring parents in a sheltered realm of well-bred manners and well-cooked meals. “Everything on this earth smiled on me; I found flowers under each of my steps,” she remembered in Story of a Soul, employing the richly embroidered, overly sweet language that characterizes much of that volume (Sackville-West, exaggerating the effect, calls it “as nauseating as a surfeit of marshmallows”). Was she stifled by this warm but banal environment? Perhaps. Some of Thérèse’s biographers have wondered that anything extraordinary could grow in such circumstances. But the close-knit family life instilled in her an unshakable belief in love’s omnipotence, while the unflagging religious devotions in which all participated — daily Mass, praying the rosary, fasting, keeping the Sabbath — taught her the closeness of God and the fragile beauty of earthly things.

The death of her mother, when Thérèse was only four, shattered this cozy world. Suddenly, she later recalled, “the earth seemed to be a place of exile”; a long siege of grief and sorrow ensued, culminating in a mysterious illness marked by hallucinations and seizures. She was cured by what she and her family considered a miracle, one of the few times in her life that Thérèse — in striking contrast to her Carmelite predecessor and namesake Teresa of Avila — enjoyed a mystical transport: as she prayed for relief to a statue of Our Lady of Victories, the plaster figure grew radiantly lovely — “more beautiful than anything I had seen before” — and smiled at her. The sickness vanished, never to reappear.

Her “Conversion”
What emerged instead, growing in intensity over the years, was a desire to follow in the footsteps of her older sisters by becoming a cloistered nun. First, however, she needed to be purged of her overweening self-love, perhaps the inevitable consequence of being a cosseted child in a culture that idolized childhood. The turning point, which Thérèse described as her “conversion” and as “a little miracle to make me grow up in an instant” — the inner counterpart to the external event of the smiling Virgin — came on Christmas Eve of 1886. She was ascending the stairs when she overheard her father complain about her spoiled, self-serving behavior; his angry words, perhaps because they fell upon a mind filled with images of the birth of one who came to serve others, triggered a revolution. “On that luminous night,” she reported, “Our Lord accomplished in an instant the work I had not been able to do during years. Love and a spirit of self-forgetfulness took complete possession of my heart, and thenceforward I was perfectly happy.” Students of French Catholic history or of God’s contrapuntal grace will note that Paul Claudel’s conversion transpired earlier the same day and a hundred miles to the southwest, during vespers at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

The immediate fruit of this transformation was a desire to work for the salvation of sinners. From now on, Thérèse vowed, she would rescue the fallen through the intensity and splendor of her prayers. She would take up impossible cases — reprobates, murderers, the dregs of humanity — and reclaim their souls. The next summer she read in the newspaper La Croix about Henri Pranzini, sentenced to the guillotine for triple murder. She resolved to redeem this vagabond-thug for God, declaring him her “first child” and entering an intense cycle of prayer, personal sacrifice, and attendance at Mass. She was absolutely certain that she would succeed; God could not reject petitions so passionate and pure. On the morning of his death, Pranzini again refused to repent. Then, when all seemed lost, an instant before offering his neck to the blade, the murderer seized a crucifix proffered by the attending priest and kissed it three times. When Thérèse heard the news, she burst into tears. God had spoken; henceforth she would be a missionary of love.

Her “Act Of Oblation To Merciful Love”
Once she entered the convent, Thérèse wrote poems, plays (in which she also acted), and her famous memoirs. Her most precious undertaking, however, remained the salvation of souls through prayer. In order to succeed in this tremendous enterprise, she needed to give herself unflinchingly to God. She did so during June 1895, in her “Act of Oblation to Merciful Love”:

In order to live in one single act of perfect Love, I OFFER MYSELF AS A VICTIM OF HOLOCAUST TO YOUR MERCIFUL LOVE, asking you to consume me incessantly, allowing the waves of infinite tenderness shut up within You to overflow into my soul, and that thus I may become a martyr of Your Love, O my God! . . . I want, O my Beloved, at each beat of my heart to renew this offering to You an infinite number of times, until the shadows have disappeared and I may be able to tell You of my Love in an Eternal Face to Face!

The peculiar orthography, with its exclamation marks, capitals, and italics so reminiscent of an adolescent’s diary, faithfully reproduces the original. It reveals the high pitch of Thérèse’s emotions but may obscure the gravity of her intentions. Yes, she was young and in her youthful ardor she sometimes fell into bathos, but she was venturing something new in the history of the Church, a vocation that encompassed all others:

I understood that it was LOVE ALONE that made the Church’s members act, and that if love ever became extinct, apostles would not preach the gospel, martyrs would refuse to shed their blood. I understood that LOVE CONTAINED ALL VOCATIONS, THAT LOVE WAS EVERYTHING , THAT IT EMBRACED ALL TIME AND ALL PLACES, IN A WORD, THAT IT IS ETERNAL!

Then, in the excess of my ecstatic joy, I cried out: O Jesus, my love, at last I have found my vocation. MY VOCATION IS LOVE!

The Little Way
Love subsumed every work, every way; in love she would travel all roads at once, be soldier and peacemaker, apostle and hermit, priest and nun. Through the austere life of a cloistered Carmelite, devoted to contemplation, the opus Dei, and menial chores — that is, loving God through mind, heart, and body — she would help Jesus to save the world. Thenceforth, love would dictate every aspect of her behavior — how she would fold the laundry, scrub the floors, kneel before the altar. For love, she would always put others first. A friend of mine once observed that “it must have been terrible to find that Thérèse was being particularly nice to you, because she always made a point of being particularly nice to people she didn’t like.” Thérèse developed a distrust of mysticism (“I do not wish to see the good God here on earth. . . . I prefer to live in faith.”) and replaced it with what she called her Little Way, an immediate and complete abandonment to God’s love.

The Little Way is in some sense a devotional analogue to Kierkegaard’s leap of faith: instead of an intellectual vault over the abyss of doubt into Christian faith, an emotional vault over the abyss of self into Christian love. Cavanaugh describes it, inelegantly, as “a doctrine of liberation, taking us beyond our faults and limitations into a whole new realm of possibility.” It is the way of childhood, of, in Thérèse’s words, “a small child abandoning itself without fear in its father’s arms,” but also the way of the soldier, of storming heaven, “the way to force Jesus to come to your help.” It is, she said, a form of martyrdom of love. In this spirit she embraced the sufferings of being a Carmelite — lack of sleep, lack of freedom to talk or travel, lack of familial or romantic attachment — and the sufferings of her own deteriorating health: “Out of love I will suffer and out of love rejoice.”

Sickness and Death
As tuberculosis ravaged her body, new miseries struck: doubts about her profession, about the goodness of creation, even about the intentions of God. In the woods outside her window she saw a “black hole,” and declared, “I am in a hole just like that, body and soul. Ah! what darkness.” Yet this storm she weathered, too, through prayer and confidence in the primacy of love. After all, she pointed out on her deathbed, Jesus died as a “victim of love” and so might she; “to die of love does not mean to die in transports.” It does mean, however, that love will be one’s condition in the next world as well as in this vale of tears — a realization that leads to Thérèse’s most famous saying, “I will spend my heaven doing good on earth.” Love, for her, was an eternal project.

So ended the speeded-up life of St. Thérèse, but not, of course, her story. Cavanaugh devotes a large portion of his book to Thérèse’s posthumous fame, telling with zeal the rise of her cult and making much of its numerous ironies — for example, that she was canonized largely because of public acclaim for a book that she desired neither to write nor to publish (she wrote under obedience to her prioress). The Story of a Soul was also, as Cavanaugh takes pains to point out, heavily bowdlerized. Shortly after Thérèse’s death, her sister Pauline (by this time Mother Agnes, superior of the community), convinced that Thérèse was a saint, decided to edit the manuscripts to ensure that nothing indiscreet would see the light of day. She proceeded to delete, condense, expand, interpolate, and reorganize at will, introducing more than seven thousand alterations to the text, quenching much of the work’s fire while retaining its sentiment, helping to produce the cloying tone on which Sackville-West and others have gagged. Cavanaugh, surprisingly, insists that Mother Agnes did “nothing to mar or efface her sister’s doctrine or her message to us.”

In a sense this is true: Thérèse’s doctrine of the Little Way survived even Agnes’ meddling hands. But we cannot overestimate the harm done by caramelizing Carmel, by producing a Thérèse whose courage and toughness — amply evidenced in the profundity of her life and the nobility of her death — remained for two generations obscured by this redaction of her writing. This is not to suggest that her unexpurgated autobiography is free of mawkishness. Even now few can read the book without wincing at the innumerable metaphors about flowers, little angels, little queens, and the like. But these are infelicities, not fatal flaws.

The Story of a Soul
The book, largely through word of mouth, became a best-seller; the public, it seems, does not mind a bit of sugar in its saints. Thérèse’s fame continued to spread. She was beatified in 1923 and, after letters attesting to miracles started arriving at the Vatican at the rate of one thousand per day, canonized in 1925. Then something happened that Cavanaugh describes as “unprecedented in the annals of the Church”: a saint became a worldwide sensation. Shrines devoted to Thérèse sprang up from Alaska to Fiji. Statues of Thérèse appeared in thousands of churches. The Story of a Soul found its way into millions of homes, entrancing Protestants (and even Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims), as well as Catholics. In Lisieux, a vast basilica dedicated to Thérèse was erected southwest of the city center. She had become not only the greatest and most provocative saint of modern times, but the most popular as well.

Steven Payne’s Saint Thérèse of Lisieux: Doctor of the Universal Church
Many reasons have been adduced for the public’s lavish response: Thérèse’s physical beauty (photographs show a pleasing, full-cheeked face with brooding eyes); her romantic death; her floral imagery; her native energy and kindness; her dazzling promise to spend eternity saving earthly souls, confirmed in the eyes of many by the bumper crop of reported miracles connected to her intercession; her doctrine of the Little Way, which laid out a path of sanctity in the midst of ordinary life. In any event, it is the last that led John Paul II in 1997, on the centenary of her death, to proclaim Thérèse a doctor of the Church, only the third woman (after Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena) and thirty-third saint to be so honored. To understand why and how this happened, and, in the process, to help explain Thérèse’s universal appeal, is the aim of Steven Payne’s Saint Thérèse of Lisieux: Doctor of the Universal Church.

Payne’s work lacks the intimacy and simplicity of Cavanaugh’s congenial account. His manner is dry, formal, and understated. Nonetheless, the book draws one in, in part because its topic has generated some controversy: after all, Thérèse was neither a scholar nor a theologian; her schooling was limited; she published nothing during her life; her writings suffer from surface naïveté and a penchant for overblown metaphors. Why, then, should she rank alongside Augustine, Aquinas, and Anselm as a doctor ecclesiae?

Is Thérèse a Doctor?
Payne begins, in workmanlike fashion, by recounting the etymological history of the title. The term “doctor” emerges in the Pauline letters of the Vulgate, as a translation for the Greek “teacher.” A doctor is one who transmits the gospel, teaching by word and example. During the patristic era, it became an honorific attached to those outstanding in evangelical skill and zeal. During the eighth century, the Venerable Bede crowned four men — Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory, and Jerome — with the title, a choice officially ratified, a half-millennium later, by Boniface VIII’s bull of 1298. This handful of doctors soon became a multitude, as Aquinas, Bonaventure, John Chrysostom, Basil, Gregory Nazianzen, and others joined the ranks. The list, now thirty-three strong, ranges from the famous (Bernard of Clairvaux, John of the Cross) to the obscure (Ephraim the Syrian, Lawrence of Brindisi). All satisfy the three defining criteria of outstanding holiness, eminence of doctrine, and an official proclamation by pope or general church council.

Does the Little Flower meet these qualifications? From the very beginning, she had her advocates; the abbot of Gethsemane Abbey in Louisville, Kentucky, seems to have been the first to propose her for the doctorate, just three years after her canonization. The first worldwide petition circulated in 1932 and gathered, within a year, the signatures of 342 bishops. Prominent theologians such as Erich Przywara, Yves Congar, and Hans Urs von Balthasar championed Thérèse’s mission and detailed her contributions to theology and spirituality. Nonetheless, the drive stalled, the reason, as Pius XI tersely remarked, being “obstat sexus.”

But in 1970 Paul VI named as doctors two women, Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena, and the wheels began to turn for Thérèse, setting in motion a process of committee meetings, documentations, debates, analyses, and pronouncements, with curial officials, cardinals, bishops, and laity tugging this way and that. Payne sorts through the tangle with an attention to detail that will delight some readers and weary others; for example, he glosses each chapter of the Positio, a “large, red, clothbound, folio-sized volume of nearly one thousand pages” encasing a small mountain of background documents along with the reflections of seven theologians on the proposed doctorate. Naming a new doctor of the Church is, Payne amply demonstrates, a daunting process, but one completed, in the case of Thérèse, in near-record time. The participants enjoyed one great advantage, for thanks to numerous eyewitness testimonies and the saint’s own obsessively self-referential writings, more is known about Thérèse than about all but a few other saints.

Meeting the Criteria
The assembled experts had no difficulty dealing with the first doctoral criterion of outstanding sanctity. To a man (and one woman) they praised Thérèse’s radiant holiness, agreeing that her humility, her goodness, her integrity, her radical submission to God’s will, set upon her unmistakably the seal of sanctity. As the Positio mentions, people of many faiths revere Thérèse for her holiness; more than one Orthodox icon contains her image, and Cairo houses a Muslim shrine in her honor. Far more vexing was the second criterion, that of “eminence of doctrine.” According to precedent, the candidate must bring to the theological table a teaching that is original, profound, faithful to tradition, and of strong and lasting influence. But did Thérèse have any doctrine at all to offer the Church?

A consensus developed that Thérèse did fulfill the requirement — but only with a caveat. One must first acknowledge that a new kind of doctor has emerged in the Church, a master of spirituality rather than theology, and that the definition of doctor ecclesiae must evolve to keep pace. The cases of Francis de Sales (proclaimed doctor in 1877) and Anthony of Padua (1946) initiated this new understanding; Thérèse confirmed it. This granted, her preeminence becomes apparent. Her Little Way, with its radical insistence upon childlikeness and absolute love, constitutes an original and profound elaboration of gospel principles.

The influence of her doctrine is enormous and seems likely to last. Austria’s Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, the most distinguished of the seven theologians to examine the case, argued in the Positio that Thérèse’s mission came directly from God, and that it has “changed the climate of the Church” through its definitive rejection of Jansenism in favor of the “Mystery of a God who is Love.” That Thérèse accomplished this largely through the example of her personal sanctity constitutes her particular “charism of wisdom.” John Paul II, during his homily for the October 19, 1997, Mass proclaiming Thérèse a doctor, confirmed this perspective by observing that “it is precisely this convergence of doctrine and concrete experience, of truth and life, which shines with particular brightness in this saint.”

A Master Of “The Science Of Divine Love”
In Divini Amoris Scientia, his apostolic letter announcing the doctorate, the Pope goes even further. Thérèse was a master of “the science of divine love” who “experienced divine revelation,” “knew Jesus,” and “penetrated the mysteries of his infancy,” making her a “living icon” of God. Moreover, the Pope adds, Thérèse’s Little Way is at once “unique” and “the most basic and most universal truth.” She thus draws from the wellsprings of the gospel and prepares the future harvest of the Church. Adding his own coda to this crescendo of praise, Payne suggests that Thérèse’s writings may be taken as a model for a new kind of theological reflection, deeply rooted in Scripture and tradition, that yields fundamental insights — witness her “rediscovery” of the God of infinite mercy or her revolutionary idea of heaven as a place, not only of beatific vision, but of earthly activity. Thérèse proves to be not only a saint, but, in Balthasar’s memorable phrase, a saint who practices “theology on its knees.”

The Case Against Therèse: Kathryn Harrison’s Saint Therèse of Lisieux
Unless, of course, one sees her as a closet neurotic, a masochist and fetishist, a hysteric driven by forces beyond her control. Such is the interpretation offered by Kathryn Harrison, novelist and memoirist (Thicker Than Water; The Kiss). Harrison is celebrated for her lyrical style, and she doesn’t disappoint in this regard, painting scenes from Thérèse’s life with beautiful precision. Here is Thérèse as a teenage nun:

The austerity of the convent, its bare cells and simple, whitewashed refectory, its stone hallways traveled by identically dressed women, silent except for the sweep of the habit, the hiss of rope sandals — all this presents a physical grace and order that materialism had buried. At fifteen, an age that seeks a new language, a separate identity, Thérèse must have longed for bare stone floors underfoot as much as she did doctrine overhead.

Harrison goes about her job briskly, covering all the major events of Thérèse’s life in a compact two hundred pages. It is what she does with these events that raises eyebrows, then hackles. The first clue is the author’s disproportionate focus upon Thérèse’s mother, a sure sign that a Freudian sensibility is at work. Soon enough, Harrison informs us that “contemporary readers” (in which category she clearly places herself) “cannot free themselves from post-Freudian suspicion,” and suspicion becomes the instrument with which Harrison dissects Thérèse, who suffers death by a thousand cuts under the deconstructionist scalpel.

She is guilty of “monomania,” of “zero ability to deal with rejection and separation”; her attempt to save Pranzini is “a triumph of sexual repression”; her desire to fulfill her Lenten vows despite her fatal illness is “a spasm of masochistic excitement”; Christ is for her “a narcotic promise”; even her charity in giving other Carmelite sisters the first pick of tools, while reserving old or damaged items for herself, is nothing but “fetishism.” The Church comes under a similar Freudian-Foucaultian barrage. It is “hostile to all earthly pleasures”; Carmelite spirituality is one of many “programs that deny human frailty and desire”; the Divine Office promotes “exhaustion, lack of feeling, the emotional depletion from which many religious suffer.” As for that dramatic moment in Thérèse’s childhood illness when she shouted out, “They want to poison me” — who knew, before Harrison, that this expressed Thérèse’s “toxic despair” at being forced to swallow the Church’s teaching that God is love?

These wayward interpretations mount as the book progresses, reaching their climax in the declaration that Thérèse’s typically floral and admittedly florid metaphorical description, in her poem “The Divine Dew, or The Virginal Milk of Mary,” of Jesus as a “new bud, gracious and scarlet red,” when properly decoded, reveals the Lord as “a phallic flower who, crucified, bleeds milk.” The reader waits breathlessly for Harrison to extend the analysis to Jesus’ masochistic desire for the Cross (itself a phallic symbol, the crossbar representing thwarted sexuality), or to his deeply neurotic relationship with his mother.

Here and there, Harrison seems to realize the inadequacy of her approach. She rarely tells us directly what she thinks, often placing her analysis in the hands of imagined readers (“a contemporary audience does insist upon psychology before marvels”). In one passage Harrison suggests indirectly, by way of rhetorical questions, that neurosis and supernatural revelation might mingle in the same religious experience. One wishes that she had explored this further, because the path to sanctity is indeed strewn with brambles, and no doubt many of the Church’s great saints give evidence of abnormal psychology. But this she fails to do. Instead, she has written a study that is blind to the true meaning of Thérèse’s life, that describes a Catholicism Thérèse would never recognize as her own, and that, faced with the mystery of holiness, retreats into neo-Freudian reductionism. This lovely poisoned pill of a book is the last to give anyone as an introduction to Thérèse.

Saint Therèse of Lisieux: Her Family, Her God, Her Message By Bernard Bro Ignatius
Saint Therèse of Lisieux: A Transformation in Christ By Thomas Keating Lantern
The battered reader may turn with relief from Harrison to the lucid, down-to-earth presentations of Bernard Bro and Thomas Keating, each of whom advances, albeit incrementally, our understanding of the saint. Bro, a Dominican and a celebrated Thérèse scholar, has produced a sturdy, sensitive biography, here translated from the French, that covers all the important bases and, in two or three places, ventures into unexplored territory. He is particularly good at emphasizing the unprecedented nature of Thérèse’s abandonment to God, a surrender that skips all the stages of mystical ascent favored by earlier saints. Also helpful is his emphasis upon the Christocentric nature of Thérèse’s devotions; he suggests that non-Christians who might appropriate Thérèse as an apostle of generic love miss the point, for she teaches not love for its own sake, but love of Christ for Christ’s sake. Unfortunately these discussions and others are marred by a puzzling translation in which the bones of the original French syntax and diction show through; it is anyone’s guess what is meant by “one can live alone and still live intensely with genius, poetry, action, generosity, but one dies of it” or “God alone can testify to God through a current Pentecost.” These incoherencies aside, Bro’s work may serve as a worthy alternative to Cavanaugh for those craving a more comprehensive discussion of Thérèse’s always elusive theology.

Readers in search of a condensed approach to Thérèse’s spirituality might turn to Keating’s slim volume. In his customary warm, unaffected manner, Keating examines six of Jesus’ best-known parables to see how they “resonate” with the teachings of Thérèse, whom he considers to be “the key figure in the recovery of the contemplative dimensions of the gospel in our time.” Keating’s approach offers much comforting advice (“God is fully present at all times!”), little intellectual analysis, and the occasional patch of jargon (“the Little Way is the path of liberation from our false self with its over-identification with our emotional programs for happiness and our cultural conditioning”). The shortest of the books under review, it has the merits of concision, clarity, and simplicity.

A Teacher For Our Time
What can we deduce from these recent studies of Thérèse? Above all, that we have entered a period of recapitulation in our understanding of this great saint. The primary materials — autobiography, notebooks, letters, poems, conversations — have been published and competently translated into all the major tongues; the authors discussed in this review usefully gloss these writings but, with the exception of Payne, break little new ground. We might surmise that the subject of Thérèse has been exhausted, but in fact various aspects of this great saint and her mission are crying out for investigation. A definitive scholarly biography has not yet been published. The last major theological study of the saint, by Balthasar, appeared more than half a century ago. A number of new areas for meditation, research, and writing beckon. “Thérèse,” as John Paul II has said, “is a teacher for our time,” and one can readily discern ways in which her significance for contemporary culture needs elaboration.

A Prototype For Feminine Devotion And Feminine Heroism
Thérèse provides an example of a woman free, for the most part, from those mystical extremes (vision, bi-location, levitation, ascetical excess) that characterize so many of her great female predecessors. What Thérèse did, any woman could do. Thus, she offers a prototype for feminine devotion and feminine heroism particularly apt for a skeptical age, a sanctity that, as John Paul II wrote in Divini Amoris Scientia, demonstrates “that practicality and deep resonance of life and wisdom which belongs to the feminine genius.” Nor did she see any separation between mission in the ordinary sense of preaching the gospel and her perceived mission to teach the Little Way. She staunchly supported, through prayer and letter-writing, the missionary activity of the Church. At a time when interfaith etiquette is often assumed to require silence or compromise in the face of other religions, Thérèse provides a bulwark of support for new evangelization and (hope is always permitted) for the re-evangelization of Europe.

Thérèse also bolstered the priesthood, succoring and strengthening God’s ministers through prayer and friendship. Many good priests feel misunderstood, even abandoned. Thérèse points a way for those who would like to help. In addition, she offers a solution to the issue of women’s ordination by cultivating the vocation of love as an expression of the universal priesthood of all believers.

And finally, she lived with complete fidelity as a contemplative and a celibate, two modes of practice under fierce attack these days. The most ancient disciplines and devotions of Christian life become, in Thérèse’s hands, not so much entrenched positions to defend as astonishing new movements of the Holy Spirit. Here, again, she provides hope for the future.

One wants to be cautious about corralling any saint into the culture wars, but others have already dragged Thérèse onto the battlefield. During the extended debates that preceded her proclamation as a doctor of the Church, the loudest opposition came from those who perceived her as a standard-bearer for female subservience and outmoded devotional practices, a lapdog of the Catholic right. Such an interpretation fails for several reasons — most obviously because it fails to see that Thérèse dwells neither on the left nor on the right but in the very heart of the Church. Thérèse makes the same demands upon everyone; her Little Way, precisely because it unfolds in the most humdrum of circumstances, and through the agency of love — the natural inclination of every heart — calls everyone to sanctity. There is no escape.

In Symbolic Relation To The Culture Of Her Age
Why, then, such vociferous and opposing views? Perhaps because Thérèse stands, to borrow Oscar Wilde’s felicitous phrase (which he applied to himself), in symbolic relation to the culture of her age. Comparing Thérèse to Wilde, her contemporary, reveals much. Both wrote obsessively about themselves and both declared their own greatness — he as artist, she as saint. Wilde attempted to conform Christ to himself (his prison memoir, De Profundis, paints Jesus as an eloquent aesthete); Thérèse attempted to conform herself to Christ. In a sense, although neither knew of the other, we can imagine them joined in battle. Against his celebration of self, her self-denial. Against his promiscuity, her chastity. Against his indulgence, her obedience. Against his cult of earthly beauty, her cult of heavenly glory.

Of the victor there can be no doubt. Wilde converted on his deathbed, received into the Catholic Church by a Passionist priest, a follower of St. Paul of the Cross, who saw in the Crucifixion “the greatest work of divine love,” a perception that Thérèse, master of “the science of divine love,” would surely second. Who knows? Perhaps Wilde, who died just three years after Thérèse, was one of the first fruits of her resolution “to spend her heaven doing good on earth,” his last-minute submission to Christ a realization that Christianity must rule both culture and souls. From this perspective Thérèse, not Wilde, is the touchstone against which modern culture must be measured. We may safely say that Thérèse’s mission, as these five books reveal through commission and omission, has just begun.


Thèrése Of Lisieux: An Example Of Elevated Prudence

November 6, 2009
Thèrése Of Lisieux

Thèrése Of Lisieux

In The Priority of Christ Fr. Robert Barron gives us vignettes of various Saints and the theological virtues, showing us how the infusion of divine grace while exercising these virtues leads to a supernaturally elevated life. To be perfectly honest, I never liked Thèrése Of Lisieux and always found her life somewhere between gruesome and cloyingly sentimental.

The last time I encountered such a combination was the 2004 Boston Red Sox: coming back from a three games to none deficit to defeat my beloved Yankees amidst signs in the stands of “You Gotta Believe,” etc.  But I digress…

Fr. Barron takes Thèrése’s sappy tale and transforms it into something I can relate to, a story that illustrates divine grace in action. Reading Selections follow:

The Queen Of The Virtues
In the classical philosophical tradition, prudence is the regina virtutum (the queen of the virtues), that quality around which the other moral virtues cluster and find their order. This is because prudence is the power according to which the ethical life as such unfolds. Thomas Aquinas tells us that prudentia is a sort of vision, a governing insight in regard to those things that should be done and sought: recta ratio agibilium. As such it is distinguishable from artistic knowledge, which is right reason in regard to things to be made, and speculative reason, which is contemplative insight into truth for its own sake.

One of the marks of prudence is its orientation to particulars, to what Aquinas calls singularia, all of the elements, features, and contingencies that constitute a given moral situation. To be sure, a dimension of prudence is a firm grasp of the generalities by which the ethical life is governed, but its real distinguishing characteristic is a feel for the hic et nunc (here and now) of the moral playing field. This is not unlike the sense that an experienced quarterback has for the flow of the football game, the shifting configuration of the defense that opposes him, the opportunities that can suddenly present themselves in the middle of a play.

In the breakthrough of grace, this natural virtue is transformed, elevated into supernatural prudence, which is to say, a moral sensibility radically in service of the love of God. The ratio of the supernaturally prudent person is rectified, ordered, by the radical desire to be like God, to will the good of the other as other. This is why Augustine can define elevated prudence as amor bene discernens ea quibus adiuventur ad tendendum in Deum ab his quibus impediri potest (the love that well discriminates between those things which foster the tending toward God and those which can impede it). A feel for the expression of divine love in concrete situations is infused or supernaturalized prudence.

Thèrése’s Seemingly Imprudent Way Of Love
I will take St. Thèrése  of Lisieux as a model of this form of the moral life. What will become eminently clear in the sketch of her life that I offer is that many of her decisions and acts were anything but prudent in the accepted sense of the term. Thèrése ’s extravagant way of love will seem imprudent to the ordinary observer attuned to the finalities of the natural order. But hers is the virtue not of the “gentlewoman” but of the saint, and the very exaggerated quality of her ethical moves will help us to discern that difference.

Evaluating The Story of a Soul
Practically every commentator on Thèrése of Lisieux confesses to an initially negative reaction to The Story of a Soul, the saint’s wildly popular spiritual autobiography. Ida Friederike Gorres’s account of her first assessment of Thèrése ’s book is typical: “How small everything is. How painfully little. It is as though we must stoop to enter into a world where everything is made to a bird-like measure, where everything is sweet, pale and fragile, like the lace in which the saint’s mother dealt. What a shut-in faintly perfumed air seems to rise from it.”I must confess that when I first encountered The Story of a Soul in the context of a seminary course, I too found it off-putting, and my post-Freudian mind was only too eager to see in it ample evidence of neuroses and repressions.

But two phenomena tend to produce in even the most skeptical reader a desire to go back, to reconsider. First, some extremely sophisticated intellectuals have found Thèrése  compelling: Popes Pius X, Pius XI, Pius XII, and John Paul II, Thomas Merton, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dorothy Day, and Edith Stein, to name but a few. My thesis director in Paris, Michel Corbin, commented one day on the French custom of referring to Teresa of Avila as la grande Thérèse and Thèrése  of Lisieux as la petite Thérèse, and he mused, “Mais je crois bien que c’est Thèrése  de Lisieux qui est vraiment la grande Thèrése .

Second, there is the practically unprecedented phenomenon of Thèrése’s postmortem popularity. Within a few years of her death, reports of favors and miracles granted through her intercession began to flood into the convent at Lisieux from all over the world. In The Story of a Soul, Therése had written that after her death she would send a pluie de roses (a shower of roses) on the earth, and this promise, it seemed was being fulfilled.

In 1925, just twenty-eight years after her death, a volume of three thousand closely printed pages reproducing excerpts from those letters was published, and that same year, supported by enormous popular acclaim, the nun who at her death was known to perhaps thirty people was canonized a saint and declared by the pope to be “the greatest saint of modern times.” There is clearly something here, something beyond bourgeois religious sentimentality and Freudian repressions..

The Noncompetitive Divine Reality Of Divine Love
Thèrése  tells us that she endeavored to write down her spiritual memoir at the prompting of her sister, who was also her religious superior to whom she was bound in obedience After praying that she say nothing displeasing to Christ, she took up the Gospel of Mark, and her eyes fell on these words “Jesus, having gone up the mountain, called to him those whom he chose, and they came to him “This verse, she says, is the interpretive key to her life, for it describes the way Christ has worked in her soul “he does not call those who are worthy, but those whom he pleases “

Hers will be a story of a divine love, graciously willing the good of the other that awakens an imitative reaction in the one who is loved. It is not a narrative of economic exchange — rewards for worthiness — but of the loop of grace, unmerited love engendering disinterested love, the divine life propagating itself in what is other

But there is more to it. She says that for a long time this purely gracious quality of the divine love bothered her, for it smacked of injustice how could we explain how God gives more to some and less to others, if all reference to merit is removed’ ‘What solved the problem for her was a comparison with the variety of flowers “I understood that if all the flowers wanted to be roses, nature would lose her springtime beauty, and the fields would no longer be decked with little wild flowers.” Aquinas said that God is an artist and his canvas the whole of creation and that the variety of created goods contributes to the beauty and complexity of the design that God is crafting. Thèrése will tell how, then, God the artist of creation worked in her case, cultivating one of his smaller flowers.

Then Thèrése uses a magnificent metaphor that shows that she grasped something about the divine-nondivine relationship that was also central to Aquinas “Just as the sun shines simultaneously on the tall cedars and on each little flower as though it were alone on the earth, so Our Lord is occupied particularly with each soul as though there were no others like it.”The noncompetitive divine reality, which does not become ingredient in the created world, is not “closer” to the greatest of his creatures than to the least and cannot be preoccupied with one at the expense of the other. Thus, Thèrése can honestly speak of herself, one of God’s smallest flowers, as though she were the privileged object of God’s affection and interest.

A Keen Sense Of Order
One notices in the pages of The Story of a Soul, amidst all of the girlish enthusiasms, a keen sense of order. Thèrése  tells us that her life can be neatly divided into three periods: from her birth until the age of four, when her mother passed away; from the age of four until the age of thirteen, when she had a powerful “conversion” experience; and from the age of thirteen until the present, her time in the Carmelite convent of Lisieux. It will be useful for us to follow this same division. Thèrése  was born on January 2, 1873, the youngest child of Louis Martin and Zelie Guérin, extremely pious and industrious members of the solid French middle class.

Her mother was quite a successful purveyor of the delicate laces for which her native region of Alencon was internationally known, and her father was a watchmaker and jeweler. Both had, in their youth, sought the religious life — he among the Augustinians and she with the Sisters of Charity — but both had finally opted for secular careers. They married in 1858, when Louis was thirty-five and Zelie twenty-seven, and for the first ten months of their marriage they lived as brother and sister, until, at the prompting of a spiritual director and at Zelie’s insistence, they commenced a sexual relationship. They eventually produced nine children, five of whom, all daughters, survived into adulthood. Though both parents were professionally tied to the world of fine things, they cultivated a home life that had an intensely religious, almost monastic flavor. Prayers, devotions, Mass, fasting, and abstinence according to the liturgical season were the structuring elements of their daily life.

By her own admission, Thèrése ’s childhood was idyllic. She was surrounded by an adoring family, all of whom doted on her. The youngest Martin’s cherubic looks and pleasant, pious disposition only intensified the affection of her parents and sisters. With her father — whom she referred to as le petit roi and to whom she was la petite reine –Thèrése  developed an especially intense rapport. Since he was nearly fifty when she was born, from Thérèse’s perspective Louis was always a venerable and rather delicate old man, and there is no question that her strong sense of the fatherly love of God — evident throughout The Story of a Soul — was mediated to her by the unconditional affection of her petit roi. Very early in her life, she had the intuition that she would become a religious. When someone told her that her sister Pauline was going to become a Carmelite, Thèrése  thought, “I too will become a religious.” This, she comments, “is one of my first memories and I haven’t changed my resolution since then.” It is certainly a mark of her elevated prudence that in regard to the religious life Thèrése  would remain adamant, steadfast, clear, unambiguously committed to her last day. That she was called by God to serve him radically was the principal light by which she steered.

A Moral Know-How Informed By Divine Love
Supernatural prudence is a moral know-how informed by divine love, and divine love is, by nature, inexhaustible, all-embracing, and relentless. We discern a sign that Thèrése  was in its grip in an anecdote from the opening section of her autobiography. “One day Léonie [one of her sisters] . . . came to us with a basket filled with dresses and pretty pieces for making others; her doll was resting on top. ‘Here my little sister, choose; I’m giving you all this.’ Céline stretched out her had and took a little ball of wool, which pleased her. After a moment’s reflection, I stretched out mine saying: ‘I choose all!”

She comments that, surprisingly enough, no one in her family saw anything wrong with this. She herself sees it as a summation of her entire life: “Later on, when perfection was set before me, I understood that to become a saint one had to suffer much, seek out always the perfect thing to do and forget self . . . Then as in the days of my childhood, I cried out: ‘My God, I choose all! I don’t want to be a saint by halves.”To govern one’s life in accordance with the divine love is to be not moderate but necessarily excessive. Indeed, in the Christian moral tradition, charity is seen as the one virtue whose practice cannot be exaggerated, for it partakes most directly of the infinity of God’s to-be. In The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton notices that the great Christian saints are marked always by a quality of excess: “Francis of Assisi was a more shouting optimist than Walt Whitman…and St. Jerome, in denouncing all evil, could paint the world blacker than Schopenhauer.”Whatever form the saintly life takes, it can never be a halfway proposition, and it belongs to the heart of supernatural prudence to grasp this.

The End Of Childhood
The idyll of her childhood came to an end with the death of her mother in 1877, when Thèrése  was only four. One of the soberest passages in The Stoiy of a Soul is Thèrése’s account of her mother’s reception of extreme unction. What she finds most remarkable was how unmoved she herself was, how emotionally distant from the scene, though her mother was everything to her. This repression signaled the commencement of what she terms “the most painful” of the three stages of her life. In the months following her mother’s passing, Therése became “retiring and sensitive to an excessive degree,” scrupulous and self-regarding. She also began to develop a keen sense of the ephemerality of this world and a consequent longing for the permanence of heaven. While listening to sermons on Sunday mornings, Therése would gaze at her father’s “handsome face” and take in his otherworldly air: “he seemed no longer held by earth, so much did his soul love to lose itself in the eternal truths.”Her spiritual feelings — both melancholy and blissful — came to full expression on Sunday, the beautiful sabbath day that seemed to pass far too quickly: “I longed for the everlasting repose of heaven, that never-ending Sunday of the Fatherland.”° This deepening of perception and sentiment, occasioned by the loss of her mother, would in time become essential to Thèrése ’s mature religious prudence, but more immediately it would trigger terrible storms in her emotional life.

During this period, she experienced the terrifying vision that would haunt her and her family and that would later beguile innumerable biographers and commentators. While her father was away on a business trip, Thèrése  was looking out her bedroom window on a particularly lovely day. To her surprise, she saw a man dressed like her father and of about his physical proportions, though far more stooped than M. Martin. She then noticed that his face was covered with something like an apron. Convinced that her father was home early from his trip and endeavoring to play a trick on her, she cried out to him, but the figure ignored her and continued to walk around the garden at a steady pace. He went toward a grove of trees, and Thèrése eagerly waited for him to emerge on the other side, but he had disappeared: “the prophetic vision had vanished.”

Only many years later did the meaning of the scene became clear to Therése. In his old age, after four of his five daughters had entered religious life, M. Martin became psychologically imbalanced. He would sometimes speak incoherently and, to the horror of his children, would occasionally wander off to distant towns, leaving no indication as to his whereabouts. During these last sad years of his life, M. Martin would also, curiously, be known to cover his face with a cloth. His youngest daughter thus interpreted the vision as a sort of proleptic sign of her father’s future suffering, and she furthermore linked it to the passion of Jesus: “just as the adorable Face of Jesus was veiled during his passion, so the face of His faithful servant had to be veiled in the days of his sufferings in order that it might shine in the heavenly Fatherland.”Now was all of this in fact a prophetic perception or simply a hallucination born of a young girl’s anxiety and sense of loss? Perhaps it was both, for nothing prevents God from Using a psychological disturbance to communicate some spiritual truth, but what matters is that Thèrése  perceived the tight connection between the painfully self-emptying love of her father and the paradigmatically self-emptying love of Christ and that she used that link to bolster her sense of God’s intimate providence in her life.

The Saddest Years Of Her Life
Her unsettled psyche would become even more shaken during what she termed “the saddest years” of her life, the five years spent at the Abbey school in Lisieux, the village to which the Martins had moved after Zélie’s death. Academically gifted but socially inept, Thèrése  had to endure the taunts and practical jokes of her relatively crude classmates. The incessant persecution she underwent helps to explain the insensitivity, even arrogance, of this remark: “It seemed hard to see myself among flowers of all kinds with roots frequently indelicate; and I had to find in the common soil the food necessary for sustenance.” She hated the rough games that the other children played, but she found one friend with a quiet soul like her own, and with her she engaged in the unlikely “game” of hermit, in which each child would pretend to be a desert monk and outdo the other in silence and self-denial! One does not have to be an expert in child psychology to know that such behavior was bound to make her unpopular with her peers, and Thèrése  internalized their critique, seeing herself for the first time in her life as something of a failure, “counted, weighed and found wanting.”

The full effects of her mother’s death would appear when her eldest sister, Pauline — whom Thérese had claimed as a substitute mother — decided to enter the Carmelite convent. This second maternal loss proved to be too much, and not long after Pauline enter the Carmel, Thèrése  fell victim to a frightening and mysterious malady, which she describes vividly in her autobiography. Toward the close of 1882, she began to experience severe headaches, but not so debilitating as to keep her from school. Around Easter of 1883, M. Martin went on a business trip with his older daughters, and Thèrése  stayed at home with her late mother’s brother.

While they were talking about her mother, Thèrése  began to cry so violently that her uncle became alarmed. Surprised that the emotional wound was still so tender, the uncle tried to divert her by talking about plans for an upcoming holiday, but it was too late. The fit of crying was succeeded by another round of severe headaches and then an attack of shivering, like fever chills. This physical assault went on the entire night. When her father returned, he found Thèrése  surexcité, overstimulated, but he was convinced that she would soon enough be back to normal. In March, she felt well enough to attend the veil-taking of her sister Pauline, but the next morning, she fell again into a state so alarming that her family seriously feared that she had lost her reason. Here is Gorres’s description: “The child screamed and shrieked in extreme fear, contorted her face, rolled her eyes, saw monsters and nightmarish figures everywhere, sometimes failed to recognize members of the family, was shaken by convulsions, twisted her limbs, tried to throw herself out of bed and had to be forcibly restrained.”

In a passage not included in the original published version of Story of a Soul, Thèrése  remarked of her state of mind during this illness: “I was absolutely terrified by everything: my bed seemed to be surrounded by frightful precipices; some nails in the wall of the room took on the appearance of big charred fingers, making me cry out in fear. One day, while Papa was looking at me in silence, the hat in his hand was suddenly transformed into some indescribably dreadful shape, and I showed such great fear that poor Papa left the room, sobbing.”

Given these symptoms, it is not surprising that Thèrése  herself would conclude, “I can’t describe this strange sickness, but I’m now convinced it was the work of the devil.”Once again, it is easy enough to speculate that this was a psychotic episode prompted by a personal loss to a pampered and narcissistic child, but what matters is not so much the etiology of the struggle as Thèrése ’s reaction to and assessment of it. God operates through secondary causes, and these can include emotional and psychological disturbances. She came in time to appreciate her illness (see Learning To Dwell In This Desert)  as “a real martyrdom” for her soul, a testing, a trial, a cleansing, a putting to death. What was being purged in her? Perhaps it was precisely the narcissism, fussy self-absorption, and spiritual athleticism that had been inculcated in her by her family. Perhaps it was the childish overreliance on the approval of her peers and the need to be the center of attention.

Unmerited Love, A Manifestation Of Grace
In any case, what saved her was a manifestation of grace, of unmerited love. On Pentecost Sunday, May 13, 1883, Thèrése  was, as usual, in bed, unable to function. ‘While she muttered to herself her sister Marie knelt by her bed and prayed to a statue of the Blessed Mother that stood on the table nearby. Thèrése  joined her in prayer, and “all of a sudden, the Blessed Virgin appeared beautiful to me, so beautiful that never had I seen anything so attractive; her face was suffused with an ineffable benevolence and tenderness, but what penetrated to the very depths of my soul was the ravishing smile of the Virgin.”At that moment, she tells us, all of her pain — physical and emotional –disappeared, and two tears of “unmixed joy” rolled down her face.

Was this a miracle or a hallucination, a supernatural phenomenon or a wish-fulfilling fantasy? Again, though we could debate those questions endlessly, they are perhaps not the central questions. What matters is that Thèrése  took it to be a grace, a sign that she was loved by God despite her debility, and this realization rescued her from her fears. A person cannot live the divine life until he drops all her strategies of self-justification and allows himself to be drawn into the loop of grace. Supernatural prudence — concrete know-how in the arena of love — is impossible without this breakthrough. And this is why the smile of the Virgin is such a key moment in the spiritual development of St. Thèrése .

This sense of immersion in grace was intensified at Thèrése ’s First Communion the following spring. Introducing one of the most rapturous passages in The Story of a Soul, she tell us that “the smallest details of that heavenly day have left unspeakable memories in my soul.”At the heart of the experience was the feeling of being unconditionally loved by the divine reality. Regarding reception of the body of Christ for the first time, Thèrése exclaims, “Ah! How sweet was that first kiss of Jesus! It was a kiss of love; I felt that I was loved, and I said: ‘I love you and I give myself to you forever!” Then the nature of that love is made plain: “There were no demands made, no struggles, no sacrifices; for a long time now Jesus and poor little Thèrése  looked at and understood each other. That day, it was no longer simply a look, it was a fusion; they were no longer two, Thèrése  had vanished as a drop of water is lost in the immensity of the ocean.

The Dynamics Of The Divine Life
When one enters into the dynamics of the divine life, all games of calculation, payment and return of payment, and economic considerations are necessarily set aside. The love that one receives awakens an answering love, but it is not a matter of strict justice, as though something were owed; it is rather a joyful participation, a desire to imitate what one loves. This is why the nonviolent language of “looking at” — found, by the way, in the Curé of Ars, Jacques Maritain, and a number of other spiritual writers — is so important. What this mutual regard effects is the coinherence that I have spoken of throughout the book, the radical one-in-the-otherness that Thèrése  so evocatively refers to as “fusion.”

Then comes the typically Christian consequence, the embrace of the cross: “The day after my Communion…I felt born within my heart a great desire to suffer and at the same time the interior assurance that Jesus reserved a great number of crosses for me… Suffering became my attraction.”This has nothing to do with masochism and everything to do with coinherence. When we are connected to the divine life made available in Jesus, we become enamored of the cross, the instrument by which he effected a coinherence with the sinful human race, bearing and carrying away its sinfulness. We want to suffer, not because suffering is desirable in itself but because it is what he chose to endure out of love. Now we can understand that when Thèrése spoke earlier of the encounter with God in love that involved no “sacrifice,” she did not mean that friendship with God is painless, cheap grace. Rather, it is a love — free of the complications and distortions of economic exchange — that makes one want to suffer on behalf of the other that makes suffering, in this sense, attractive.

Thèrése concludes her reflection on First Communion thus: “Up until this time, I had suffered without loving suffering, but since this day I felt a real love for it.”As a child, she had “offered things up” to God and had endured trials and accepted mortifications, but these were all part of a game of the ego, a calculated attempt to win the approval of her family and of God. They were the strategies of the prodigal son’s elder brother. But the “fusion” that took place at her First Communion burned those childish attitudes away.

Thèrése’s Conversion: The Infusion of Charity
But there was yet another decisive step in what Thèrése calls her “conversion.” Like almost all the other events of her life, it was small, private, nothing to which a biographer would ordinarily call attention. But with her exquisite sensitivity to the subtle ways that grace insinuates itself into nature, she read it, quite properly, as spiritually momentous. It took place, appropriately enough, on Christmas Day, the memorial of the time when nature and grace met most definitively and dramatically.

Thèrése tells us that prior to this event, she found herself in an ambiguous spiritual condition. On the one hand, the grace of her First Communion — the desire to suffer in love only because she was loved by God — was clearly operative; but on the other hand, she still felt the tug of her childish preoccupation with being praised and petted. She would typically perform simple acts of kindness for the benefit of her sister, but “if Celine was unfortunate enough not to seem happy or surprised because of these little services, I became unhappy and proved it by my tears.” What would enable her to love purely and simply, with the charity characteristic of the Trinity? “God would have to work a little miracle to make me grow up in an instant, and this miracle he performed on that unforgettable Christmas day.”As we’ve seen, the theological virtues — which elevate all of the natural virtues — cannot be merited or attained through repetition or habituation; instead they must, as Thèrése  rightly perceives, be received as gifts, “little miracles.”

The Martins had returned from Midnight Mass, and Thèrése , as was her wont, hurried to look at her shoes, which, in accord with a family Christmas tradition, would be filled with little presents. She tells us that. her father used to take particular delight in hearing his youngest daughter’s I cries of happiness as she “drew each surprise from the magic shoes.” But this time her father seemed annoyed at the ritual, and while Thèrése  was making her way upstairs and presumably out of earshot, he muttered to no one in particular, “Well, fortunately this will be the last year!”

Both Thèrése  and Celine heard the remark, and Céline, exquisitely sensitive to her sister’s feelings, said, “Oh, don’t go downstairs; it would cause you too much grief to look at your slippers right now!”

It was one of those quiet but decisive moments in a young person’s psychological development, when an illusion is shattered and a veil is pulled back, when reality breaks through a carapace of self-protection and self-delusion. The petit roi was not a flawless saint, and the petite reine was not the center of the universe. One would suspect that this cross remark of her father might have precipitated in Thérese another breakdown, comparable to the one that followed Pauline’s entry into Carmel, or at the very least a flood of self-pitying tears:

 “But Thèrése was no longer the same; Jesus had changed her heart!” Suppressing her tears, she went rapidly back down the stairs, placed the shoes directly in front of her father, and with unfeigned enthusiasm took each item out and rejoiced over it. So contagious was her happiness that M. Martin regained his customary good cheer and commenced laughing along with his daughter.

When faced with the temptation to self-regard, she resolved to love, to will not her own good but the good of her father. And this reversal came not through habituation or moral achievement but as a sheer grace. Like the apostles in the Gospel story, she had fished all night and caught nothing but then Jesus took the net himself and cast it into the sea. “I felt charity enter into my soul, and the need to forget myself and to please others; since then I’ve been happy!” I cannot think of a more succinct summary of the Christian way: the divine life, which can come only as a gift, changes us in such a way that we want to live for the other, and this conversion produces joy. Everything else in Christian ethics and dogmatics is commentary.

Prudence Transformed
With the infusion of charity comes, as we have seen, the transformation of the natural virtues. In Thèrése’s case, prudence was especially transfigured and rendered prominent, so that she became adept at discerning the demand of love in the particular situation. We see this discernment immediately operative in Thèrése’s desire to save sinners, to thirst for them with the intensity of Jesus himself “I wanted to give my Beloved to drink and I felt myself consumed with a thirst for souls… I burned with a desire to snatch them from the eternal flames.”Not long after her Christmas conversion, she heard of the notorious case of Henri Pranzini, a man convicted of multiple grisly murders and awaiting his execution in what appeared to be an attitude of complete impenitence. She made his conversion her special project; he became “her sinner.”

After offering innumerable prayers, arranging for Masses, and drawing others into her circle of concern, she asked God for some sign that Pranzini had been brought to penitence. The morning after the execution, a copy of the newspaper La Croix came into her hands, and she read with astonishment that just before putting his head in the guillotine, Pranzini had “taken hold of the crucifix the priest was holding out to him and kissed the sacred wounds three times.” The ruthless killer had become Thèrése’s “first child” in the: order of grace. Her elevated prudence had told her what to do, even in what appeared to be a hopeless situation.

She also, very quickly, knew precisely what to do with the rest of her life. The desire for Carmel, which had been present to some degree ever since she was a small child, now became a burning conviction, a “divine call so strong that had I been forced to pass through flames, I would have done it out of love for Jesus.” She felt, she tells us, the support of her mother from heaven, and Celine was, as usual, her great advocate, but she was afraid to tell her father of her vocation. She was, after all, barely fifteen. She broke the news to him on Pentecost Sunday 1887; after some hesitation, he became convinced that her desire was from God, and he accordingly gave his permission.

In the months that followed, Thèrése  met obstacle after obstacle as key figures, both in her own family and in the church, expressed deep concern about the advisability of allowing a girl so young to make such a weighty decision. The section of The Story of a Soul in which this period of her life is narrated is actually quite funny, for we hear how this pampered and inexperienced teenager met with high ecclesiastics and bishops and, through a combination of intelligence, charm, stubbornness, and sheer moxie managed to outstare them and wear them down. When the bishop of Bayeux refused to circumvent the usual procedures and allow her to enter Carmel early, Thèrése  resolved to bring her case to the highest court, to the pope himself.

With her father and sister she joined a group of ultramontane French pilgrims on an Italian journey that was far more sightseeing expedition than pilgrimage. Thèrése  was both fascinated and disgusted by the worldly ways of these purportedly religious people, and she, with her exaggerated pieties, was undoubtedly a source of amusement to them. They arrived, finally, in Rome, and on November 20, 1887, after donning the traditional garb, Thèrése  had her papal audience. All of the pilgrims had been carefully instructed not to address the pope, but Thèrése  ignored this instruction. Kneeling before Leo XIII, she blurted out, “Most Holy Father, I have a great favor to ask you. Holy Father, in honor of your jubilee, permit me to enter Carmel at the age of fifteen!”

When apprised of her situation, the pope responded, “Well, my child, do what the Superiors tell you.”

But Thèrése  persisted: “Oh! Holy Father, if you say yes, everybody will agree”

Looking at her intently, he said, “Go…go . You will enter if God wills it.” At that point, still begging and weeping, she was carried off bodily by two papal guards.

It probably would have appeared to any neutral observer that with this bizarre performance Thèrése had spoiled any chance she might have had to enter Carmel early. Nevertheless, just a month later, the bishop of Bayeux granted permission for her to enter the cloister after Lent. We will never be able to say with certainty precisely what it was that convinced the various ecclesiastics to give in, but the sheer persistence and singleness of purpose so plainly evident in Thèrése must have been decisive factors.

So amidst much rejoicing and in the presence of the bishop, who kept calling her “his little girl,” Thèrése was formally received at the Lisieux Carmel on April 9, 1888. For the remaining nine years of her short life, she would remain cloistered within the walls of this small Carmelite world and in the company of twenty or so sisters. But in this very restricted environment she would develop the distinctive spiritual path for which she became famous, the “little way,” which I will read as the fruit of elevated prudence.

Thèrése’s Spiritual Doctrine
The best introduction to Thèrése ’s spiritual doctrine is a text that she wrote at the behest of Sr. Marie of the Sacred Heart, a sort of memoir of the retreat that she made in September 11896, just a year before her death. What she offers is a “science of love,” a way of knowing and acting that is utterly conditioned by the love that Jesus has placed in her heart “Jesus deigned to show me the road that leads to this Divine Furnace, and this road is the surrender of the little child who sleeps without fear in its Father’s arms.”

Two Old Testament sources are particularly important for her: Proverbs 9, which includes “Whoever is a little one, let him come to me” (see v. 4); and Isaiah 40, where we find “[God] will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom” (v. 11). God, Thèrése concluded, is pleased to work with those who have become utterly docile to his direction, who have acknowledged their total dependence upon him, their readiness to receive gifts. As we have seen already in her account of her First Communion, any sense that God’s love must be earned or that a relationship with him is a product of economic calculation is repugnant to a healthy spirituality: “Jesus does not demand great actions from us but simply surrender and gratitude.” Hans Urs von Balthasar comments that “her battle is to wipe out the hardcore of Pharisaism that persists in the midst of Christianity; that human will-to-power. . . that drives one to assert one’s own greatness instead of acknowledging that God alone is great.”

When this attitude is in place, anything and everything is possible: Gloria Dei homo vivens. Thèrése writes that she had always longed to be a spouse of Christ, a good Carmelite, and a mother of souls, but that during her retreat she had begun to cultivate a desire for more: “And yet I feel within me other vocations. I feel the vocation of the warrior, the priest, the apostle, the doctor, the martyr. Finally, I feel the need and the desire of carrying out the most heroic deeds for You, O Jesus.” We notice that these mighty deeds and heroic vocations follow from the divine love and are not the condition for it. Filled with Jesus’ love, Thèrése would know what to do in these various roles. If she were a priest, “With what love, O Jesus, I would carry you in my hands when, at my voice, you would come down from heaven”; if she were a martyr, “I would be scourged and crucified. I would die flayed like St. Bartholomew. I would be plunged into boiling oil like St. John; I would undergo all the tortures inflicted on the martyrs.”

Her Insight Into Love
But she is acutely aware, at the same time, that she is a very “little soul,” confined to the narrow space of the Lisieux Carmel, and thus can never realize such lofty ambitions. The tension between the intensity of her desires and the truth of her situation becomes terrible: “Is there a soul more little, more powerless than mine? Nevertheless even because of my weakness, it has pleased you, O Lord, to grant my little childish desires and you desire, today, to grant other desires that are greater than the universe”Like the prodigal son kneeling humbly at his father’s feet, Thèrése  intuits that her smallness is the condition for the possibility of her being filled, but it is not at all clear to her how this will happen.

During her retreat, she turned to the epistles of Paul to find a resolution of the tension. In 1 Corinthians, she read that not all can be apostles,, prophets, doctors, and so on, but this did not satisfy her, for the desire that she felt was precisely to be all these things and more But then she read to the end of the twelfth chapter of 1 Corinthians and found this passage “Yet strive after the better gifts and I will show you a still more excellent way” What follows in chapter 13, of course, is Paul’s hymn to, love, wherein it becomes clear that love is the form of every other virtue and accomplishment within the life of grace “If I have faith to move the mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own but have not love, I gain nothing “Thèrése  intuited that love is the energy that makes possible the preaching of the apostles, the endurance of the martyrs, the teaching of the doctors, the spiritual ascent of the mystic, and thus that it is love that she is secretly seeking when she, desires to fulfill all of those roles “Then, in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out O Jesus, my Love, my vocation at last I have found it my vocation is loveShe concluded that in the heart of the church she would be love — and the heart of the church could be as small as the Carmel at Lisieux.

Now she was in possession of a sure guide, a principle of spiritual measurement “It (the insight into love) was rather the calm and serene peace of the navigator perceiving the beacon which must lead him to the port: O luminous Beacon of love, I know how to reach you, I have found the secret of possessing your flame”She had become a person of supernatural prudence, for she knew how to order all the moves of her life in the light of the highest possible good, the inner dynamics of the divine life The breakthroughs that had occurred at her First Communion and on Christmas Day 1886 had now been fully appropriated “the smallest act of pure love is of more value than all other works together.”This means that she can be pleasing to God and valuable to the church in the humblest places and through the simplest acts.

Acting On A Supernatural Prudence
This supernatural prudence — acquired through grace — gave Thèrése supreme confidence. Even when dealing with priests, the dignity of whose office she clearly recognized, Thèrése easily and naturally assumed the role of spiritual director. When others spoke of their spiritual guides, she could unabashedly say, “My spiritual director, Jesus, teaches…“ And supernatural prudence enabled her to live, even in narrow Carmelite confines, a life of heroic sanctity. All she had to do was to discern the path of love in whatever situation she found herself — and follow it.

A number of vividly related narratives in Story of a Soul exemplify this little path. Again, we will miss the point of these stories if we concentrate on the externals — which seem so homey and unimportant — and miss the quality of love that informs them. Thèrése tells us that there was a nun in the convent with whom she had what we would call a serious personality conflict; in her own words, “someone who managed to irritate me in everything she did.” Knowing that love is not a matter of feeling but of works born of the will, she resolved to do for that sister what she would do for the person she loved the most. Thus, “each time I met her I prayed to God for her … and I took care to render her all the services possible, and when I was tempted to answer her back in a disagreeable manner, I was content with giving her my most friendly smile.”

So convincing was her manner that one day, during recreation, the troublesome nun asked her, “Would you tell me, Sister Thèrése of the Child Jesus, what attracts you so much towards me; everytime you look at me, I see you smile?” Thèrése’s public response to the other nun was “I am happy to see you,” but her private response, shared with her readers, was “Ah! ‘What attracted me was Jesus hidden in the depths of her soul.”As we have seen many times throughout this book, rootedness in the divine love connects us to everything else and everyone else in creation; to realize one’s deepest ontological ground is to realize simultaneously a coinherence with even the most difficult or repugnant fellow creature. To act out of this awareness is to follow the little way.

During her novitiate, Thèrése  was given the assignment of taking care of Sr. St. Pierre, a fussy and demanding elderly woman, “not easy to please.” The younger sister’s task was to escort the infirm sister from her stall at evening prayer to the refectory and then to help her prepare to eat. Here is Thèrése ’s humorous and psychologically penetrating account of her dealings with this difficult colleague: “I had to remove and carry her little bench in a certain way, above all I was not to hurry…It was a question of following the poor invalid by holding her cincture; I did this with as much gentleness as possible. But if…she took a false step, immediately it appeared to her that I was holding her incorrectly.” Then the old nun would protest: “Ah! My God! You are going too fast; I’m going to break something.” When Therese would slow down, Sr. St. Pierre would say “Well, come on, I don’t feel your hand; I’m going to fall” Adding insult to injury, she would then mutter “Ah! I was right when I said you were too young to help me.

When they would arrive at the refectory, further difficulties arose. Therese had to get Sr. St. Pierre seated, but this had to be done skillfully “in order not to hurt her”; then she had to turn back the elderly nun’s sleeves, again just so, lest the old lady be upset.

Night after night this ritual was repeated, and each time Therese resolved to conquer her feelings of annoyance and act in accord with the dictates of love. One winter night, in the midst of her routine, she indulged in a bit of fantasy: “I pictured a well-lighted drawing room, brilliantly gilded, filled with elegantly dressed young ladies conversing together and conferring upon each other all sorts of compliments and other worldly remarks.” Then she surveyed her own surroundings, and all she took in were the drab colors of the cloistei the complaints of Sr. St. Pierre, the dimness and cold of the refectory. Her conclusion: “I would not have exchanged the ten minutes employed in carrying out my humble office of charity to enjoy a thousand years of worldly feasts.”The faculty that enabled Therese to make that extraordinary and counterintuitive assessment is supernatural prudence, a feel for the path of love.

A Dark Passage
I mentioned at the outset of this sketch that many readers of Story of a Soul are initially put off by Therese’s cloying and sentimental style. However even the most skeptical of her readers are usually converted by the account of her terrible struggle, at the end of her life, with unbelief. There is nothing childish or naive about this part of her story. Practically contemporaneous with the onset of the tuberculosis that would eventually kill her was the arrival in Therese’s mind of the worst sort of doubts concerning the existence of heaven. She who had, throughout her life, enjoyed the easiest confidence in the spiritual realm now wondered, Hamlet-like, whether there was anything that followed the sleep of death. And this was no passing bout of intellectual scrupulosity; rather it lasted up until the moment of her death. In The Story of a Soul, she states the facts with a bluntness bordering on desperation: “This trial was to last not a few days or a few weeks, it was not be extinguished until the hour set by God Himself and the hour has not yet come.” What is most important to note is the highly paradoxical way in which Therese interprets this struggle. She reads it as participation, granted to her by God, in the pain experienced by her contemporaries who do not believe in God: “During those very joyful days of the Easter season, Jesus made me feel that there were really souls who have no faith and who, through the abuse of grace, lost this precious treasure, the source of the only real and pure joys. He permitted my soul to be invaded by the thickest darkness.”

On the cross, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Chesterton interpreted this as “the moment when God became an atheist,” that is to say, when God entered so fully into the state of those abandoned by God that he felt their agony. There is something very similar in Therese’s spiritual hermeneutic. Her wrestling with the possibility of atheism or agnosticism was not dumb suffering; rather, it was a gift given to her by God in order to facilitate her entry in love into the state of sinners. It was darkness to be sure, but a darkness that made possible a fuller coinherence. Strangely enough, even when she was “underground” in the murkiness of disbelief her elevated prudence remained a sure guide. This is why Balthasar has it quite right when he maintains that her doubts — though real and painful — were not so much agnosticism as a participation mystique in the psychological and spiritual state of the modern unbeliever. It was her supernatural prudence that allowed her to turn even this dark passage in her life into a way of coinherence.

A Last Step On The Little Way Of Elevated Prudence
On April 3, Good Friday morning, 1896, Therèse coughed up blood, the harbinger of tuberculosis. Though she appeared to be in fairly good health that summer and fall, the disease was progressing. By the spring of 1897, she was gravely ill and had to be relocated to the infirmary of the Carmel. Doctors who came to see her determined that the tuberculosis was widespread and that her illness was terminal.

During these last months of her life, Thérèse engaged in a series of extraordinary conversations with her sisters, wherein she continued to explicate her spiritual doctrine, in the midst of enormous struggles both physical and psychological. Sometimes she became exasperated with their fussing over her but generally she remained kind and responsive during this terrible time. She was convinced that her final illness was a gift from Jesus, a final opportunity to love, the last step on the little way of elevated prudence.


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