Saint Thérèse of Lisieux shows us the pampered daughter of successful and deeply religious tradespeople who-through a personal appeal to the pope-entered a convent at the early age of fifteen. There, Thérèse embraced sacrifice and self-renunciation in a single-minded pursuit of the "nothingness" she felt would bring her closer to God. With feeling, Harrison shows us the sensitive four-year-old whose mother's death haunted her forever and contributed to the ascetic spirituality that strengthened her to embrace even the deadly throes of tuberculosis. Tellingly placed in the context of late-nineteenth-century French social and religious practices, this is a powerful story of a life lived with enormous passion and a searing, triumphant voyage of the spirit.
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At her death, in 1897, it would seem that Thérèse Martin, twenty-four years old, had achieved all she'd set out to accomplish: nothingness, hiddenness, self denied to the point of invisibility. Many of the Carmelite nuns who had lived with her for nine years, sharing work and prayers and meals, reflected that they had hardly known her and, as one put it, “would never have suspected her sanctity.”
Two years later, in 1899, the town of Lisieux was so inundated by pilgrims seeking Thérèse's relics that her grave had to be put under guard. The official beatification process was under way by 1910, the notoriously slow-moving Roman Curia scrambling to avoid being “anticipated” by the “voice of the people.” Poor grain of sand, counted for nothing. Poor thread, under the feet of all. Poor atom, for whom contempt, insults, and humiliation were too glorious: she was a celebrity with an international reputation for granting miracles.
On May 17, 1925, Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face became Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, in the fastest canonization to date in the history of the Catholic Church. In 1997, to mark the centenary of her death, Pope John Paul II declared Thérèse a Doctor of the Church, a title bestowed on those few saints (only thirty-two thus far, of whom three are women) whose spiritual knowledge and teaching are deemed extraordinary.
The subject of countless biographies, Thérèse is herself a best-seller, her own words translated into nearly fifty languages, her effigy smiling down from altars all over the world, a miracle of deceptive sentimentality. Although she is popularly known as the Little Flower, a better name might be the Little Nettle: those who look beyond the smile to the doctrine will find themselves stung and provoked, and the discomfort takes its time to fade.
Much as she claimed to want to disappear among the unpublished, it was Saint Thérèse who did most of the work of turning herself into a readable and compelling text. Springtime Story of a Little White Flower, the title she gave to her autobiography, was written under obedience to her mother superior, who was also her elder sister Pauline. She wrote hurriedly during her one free hour each evening, an hour that came at the end of a long day of work and prayer and illness. A collection of “thoughts on the graces God deigned to grant” her, the book was conceived for an intimate audience, Thérèse's four biological sisters. Only after she had completed it did she imagine that what she'd written might be useful to othersthat among homely anecdotes, the seemingly casual references to grammar lessons and beach trips and even hair ribbons, she had carefully and minutely revealed her path toward “nothingness.”
On September 30, 1898, exactly a year after her death, the 476-page account of her spiritual life was published. Edited, polished, and in some measure conventionalized and stripped of its spontaneity by Pauline, whom she named her literary executrix, it was sent to all the Carmel convents in France in lieu of a more standard obituary notice. The surplus of the run of two thousand copies sold for four francs apiece. Six months later, it was reprinted to satisfy demand; a subsequent edition included letters of praise from bishops and other members of the clergy. By 1915, nearly a million copies were in print; a separate publication anthologized the hundreds of thousands of letters (arriving at a rate of five hundred a day, one thousand a day by 1925) that bore witness to miracles granted by Thérèse's intercession.
Story of a Soul, as it was eventually titled, was not a novel, but it shared a romantic sensibility and cherished plot elements with immensely popular nineteenth-century fiction, books such as Les Misérables, Little Women, and David Copperfield, whose characters had entered the culture at large. Marrying romance to classic elements of hagiographyapparitions of the Virgin, temptations by the devil, symbolic dreams, presentiments of glory, conversionThérèse wrote of the death of her self-sacrificing and affectionate mother, of the devotion of her father, of her striving to become a saint, and of the reversals she suffered. Her life on the page was dramatized by the irresistible alchemy of tuberculosis, the same literary disease that ennobled and transfigured the heroines of Victor Hugo, Louisa May Alcott, and Charles Dickens, and that acted as a powerful accelerant in Thérèse's own corporeal and spiritual life. Unconsciously, Thérèse created a perfect vehicle for conveying the teachings of the Church, because she made the rigors of mysticism incidental to human drama.
Story of a Soul is a love story, a desperate and feverish one, involving tears and palpitations, wild hopes and bleak anguish, the audacity of a commoner who set her heart on a king, a child bride who, in her zeal for Christ, her beloved, defied one after another Church official until, at fourteen, she arrived in Rome to petition the pope to allow her premature entry into a convent. Consumers of more contemporary and conventional romance might find her narrative quaint and mannered, suffused with earnestness, lacking in irony. Reading Thérèse is akin to having a conversation with a disconcertingly precocious child; she has that quality of being awkward and artful at the same instant, forcing our abrupt awareness of both her depth and her vulnerability. She bares her soul, and to witness this is to realize how seldom humans do.
“To me it seemed like the story of a 'steel bar,'” Albino Luciani (who would later become Pope John Paul I) commented on the book's original title, succinctly identifying the paradox of the Little Flower. Few personalities have been so obscured by sentiment, few wills so cloaked by feminine convention. The romantic formulas that Thérèse used to tell her story contributed not only to its vast popularity, but also to the profound misunderstanding of an ambitious and intelligent young woman, a shy neurotic who fashioned a martyr's death from circumstances that threatened to withhold all means toward the glorious sainthood she envisioned for herself.
No one provides more stark an example of the radical nature of discipleship to Christ. “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself,” Jesus admonished. “Leave the dead to bury their own dead,” he told the would-be Christian, the one who wanted to first honor his biological father.
Is it possible to have a moderate belief in God? Can we believe in God and continue to live a life of moderation? “They knew too well how to ally the joys of this earth to the service of God,” Thérèse said of the good Catholics in her hometown, separating herself from those who didn't look for total and obliterating union with the divine, who didn't believe that to love Christ demanded a complete sacrifice of self. Indeed, to her father's pious friends, the God of Thérèse Martin might have appeared as violent as the devil, her heaven as annihilating as the atheist's last breath.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
An interesting biography. My feeling was that Harrison doesn't believe it possible that Therese was a "saint" yet wanted to. She kept tring to make the case that Therese had been abandoned as an infant (to a wet nurse, briefly), then her mother died at a young age, then her sisters entered the Carmel. It seemed more probably to me that Theres was raised to be a saint, had little choice but to enter the convent. Both her parents had wanted to be "Religious," but were not accepted. All of their surviving offspring became nuns except one daughter who I couldn't keep track of: she entered so many different convents I'm surprised any would take her. I think she ended up in Canada in a teaching order or teaching position. And, Therese, of course, never took her final vows. One of the down-sides of listening to tapes on the iPod is that it is difficult and frustrating to back up just a bit. The indexing is not done well. Now I should read Therese's Story of a Soul.
The book's sources were good, just not used very well. Example: her saying Therese 'imprisoned' herself in the convent. Therese wanted to be a Nun from a very early age. How Therese and Mother Marie aided the TB's progress. Therese wanted to do as much as she could for as long as possible. There was no guaruntee that even outside the convent, she would have lived. Also, Therese firmly believed this world was not her true home, and saw the TB as God's call to her that He would take her home. Painting Therese as a neurotic child and Religious. At the book's end, when it mentions the Hall of Relics at the Carmel, it says something about Therese's hair being scalped off her head. The Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration cut the hair of those becoming novices. It symbolizes total renunciation of the vanities of the world, which the author should have found out, Carmelites being in the same regard. I read the book twice, and while it didn't have the sentimentality alot of books on Therese do, there was a slant (feminist? I'm not sure, that was puzzling.