St. Thérèse of Lisieux, or to use the name chosen on the occasion of her profession of vows, Thérèse de L'Enfant Jesus et de la Sainte Face, is found on small holy cards that portray her staring out frankly at the viewer, clad in a brown-and-white Carmelite robe, typically holding a bouquet of multicolored roses and a crucifix. She can be found in churches large and small around the world, standing silently in the identical pose as a polychromed plaster statue, a figure in brilliant stained glass, or a portrait in a faded fresco. She can be found in the millions of copies of her autobiography, in countless languages and editions, scattered in homes, apartments, rectories and religious communities. And she can be found in the hearts of those who feel that, above almost all the saints, it is she who understands what it means to be a human being who suffers and rejoices in everyday life. Today we celebrate the feast day of this Doctor of the Church, and perhaps the most popular of all modern saints.
Her life—at once simple and complex, clear and opaque, childlike and mature, humble and bold, joyful and sorrowful—speaks to millions of people. And it spoke to me from the first moment I "met" her in the indie-movie "Thérèse," directed by Alain Cavalier, which I saw with a friend in 1985 in a small theater in Connecticut. (I had never heard of her before the movie.) After the movie, which moved me deeply (though I didn't understand why) my friend said, as we made our way through the parking lot, "What a waste of a life." It was the first time that I realized that my reaction to a religious event (which was what the movie was for me) could be so at odds with someone else's. "All that suffering for nothing," he continued.
Though there are parts of her story that I find difficult to accept (her childhood religiosity can sound pretentious, precious and even a little neurotic), though her efforts at self-denial sometimes are close to masochistic, and though it is embarrassing to admit that one of my favorite saints is one of the most girlish and cloying, it is finally the woman herself who appeals to me. Like every other saint, Thérèse Martin was a product of her times, raised in the overheated environment of a super-religious family and formed in the pieties of nineteenth-century French convent life. So it is hardly surprising that some of her words and actions occasionally baffle us. But shining through the nineteenth-century piety, like a pale green shoot bursting through dark soil, is a stunningly original personality, a person who, despite the difficulties of life, holds out to us her little way, and says to us one thing: Love.
I find Thérèse a companionable presence, a cheerful sister, a patient woman and a lifelong believer. She is joyful, patient and generous. She is someone whose company, had I known her, would have made me a better Christian. Most of all, she reminds me of those men and women who I have met over the course of my life who are—to use an underused word—kind. So Thérèse is someone I like to read about, pray with and pray to.
Some days when I pray to Thérèse, I remember my original introduction to her life, at that little movie theater, and I think about my friend's biting comments. They still shock me. A waste of a life, he said. And I find myself almost embarrassed for her. But Thérèse Martin heard similarly harsh comments in the monastery, from sisters jealous of her youth, confused by her sanctity, and baffled by her charity. Such misunderstanding was part of her life.
And I imagine Thérèse in heaven, smiling at this misunderstanding. Smiling at those who still see her as too naïve, too humble or too pious. Smiling at those who underestimate the power of her little way. Smiling at all of these people. And praying for them, too.
Happy Feast Day.
James Martin, SJ