I first read Thérèse of Lisieux when on retreat half a dozen years ago. The effect on me was significant. I thought of it today, the memorial of St. Thérèse.
She was a young woman when she entered a cloistered Carmelite convent in Lisieux, Normandy. She was raised in the almost feverishly pious atmosphere of late-nineteenth century Catholic culture, which had already become something of a counter-culture in Republican France. Her four older sisters became nuns, three in the Lisieux community.
Thérèse entered the Carmelite community when she was fifteen, and if I recall correctly she was so young she required a canonical exception to be allowed into the convent, something she desired very intensely. By age twenty-four, she would die of tuberculosis.
Her nickname is Little Flower of Jesus. Her sister, Mother Agnes, became prioress before Thérèse’s death. She asked Thérèse to write down her inner thoughts and religious ideas. The result was published posthumously, The Story of A Soul.
It was that book I read on retreat. What arrested me was the vivid and naive realism of Thérèse’s spiritual imagination. Her piety is earnest and is untouched by irony. There’s absolutely no psychological self-consciousness. In one passage, the virginal young nun imagines herself holding the baby Jesus in her arms. Her maternal instinct is fused to her spiritual desire to love Christ ever more fully. In other passage she offers to suffer in Hell so that others might be saved.
I mentioned to a theologian friend that I was enraptured by the Little Flower. He said I was being absurd. He said that one must put away childish things in the spiritual life, or something like that. I thought him wrong and still do, and I quoted Jesus to him: Be ye converted and become as children!
St. Thérèse of Lisieux is important for me, and for most of us, because she guides us away from irony, critique, and self-awareness and toward a literal-minded piety that is childish enough to actually speak to the Lord with the expectation that he will listenand respond. We all need to refine our theological understanding. We need a deeper knowledge of scripture. Immersion in church history edifies. But it’s all for naught if we don’t allow these truths to fire our imaginations and become intimate realities we can see, touch, and smell.Thérèse does not teach theology. John Paul II declared her a Doctor of the Church because she can teach us how to make our ideas into dreams, our beliefs into prayers.
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