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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.”
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 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.
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?
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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. Let me suggest a few.
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.
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.
Philip Zaleski is a research associate in religion at Smith College. His next book, a study of prayer cowritten with his wife Carol, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin.