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.
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.