Bread of Sorrow
Thomas Nevin’s The Last Years of Saint Thérèse, the sequel to his Thérèse of Lisieux: God’s Gentle Warrior, is at once beautiful and maddening. It describes the final years of Thérèse’s life in great detail and with helpful insights, but does it in blustery and reductive prose.
Nevin’s guiding image throughout is the table of sinners, a metaphor Thérèse uses at the beginning of Manuscript C—the final part of The Story of a Soul, the most popular collection of her writings. She describes herself as joined in doubt and darkness with those who have rejected God. She is seated at their table, serves them their bread of sorrow and eats it with them. As Nevin notes, this image is the goal of her adolescent desires to be a warrior, missionary and martyr. She longed to spend herself lavishly out of love for Christ, but ended up doing so along an unexpected way of spiritual pain. Elsewhere Thérèse described her spiritual state as a sécheresse, a dryness or tunnel—a long darkness, perhaps like the tunnel she traveled through in Switzerland on her way to Rome when she was 14.
Nevin’s strength lies in illuminating Thérèse’s writing with biographical details like this. He writes of her relationship with Sister Marie de Saint-Joseph, whose mood swings and rages led her to be expelled from the community after nearly 30 years. Though Sister Marie was difficult to deal with and isolated from the rest of the community, Thérèse volunteered to work with her in the laundry and exchanged notes and poetry with her. She cast herself in the role of an older sibling, making Sr. Marie the small child who scattered flowers before Jesus, a role that Thérèse so loved herself.
Nevin’s strength also lies in corrections of our common understanding of Thérèse. Thérèse is famous for her littleness, usually understood in the form of a “little way,” pursuing sanctity through small acts of great love. But, Nevin reminds us, the heart of the little way is a deep humility. Thérèse studied herself and became well acquainted with her own imperfections: “Her way of imperfection marked the path of trustfulness she wished to give to God.” Whereas Teresa of Avila—also well acquainted with her own sinfulness—mapped a path of ascending spiritual perfection, Nevin concludes, Thérèse wrote of our inadequacy and dependence “ensnaring God’s compassion.”
But the book suffers from many weaknesses. First, it is not clear exactly what kind of book it is. It does not weigh in on scholarly debates or take up many secondary sources and it seems to be written for a popular audience. But Nevin’s prose has many ticks that are out of place in popular writing,—repeatedly referring to the works of St. John of the Cross, for example, by their original Spanish titles. This practice insists and demands, perhaps unintentionally, that we acknowledge his erudition.
Then there is the question of genre. Nevin is a Roman historian by training, but his work delves so deeply into spiritual psychology and the nature of Christian doctrine that it would seem to be more than a work of history. Yet its theological analysis is weak in many respects.
At certain points Nevin argues that Thérèse finally located herself outside the church and Catholicism and that she is heterodox, though he does not spell out exactly what heresy she has embraced. Elsewhere, however, he writes that while Thérèse sees herself at table with those outside the church, she did not fully join them in unbelief—a more credible analysis of the texts. Which does he really mean?
Nevin argues that Thérèse did not hold onto her faith and hope through the darkness. To say that she believed, when she did not believe that she believed, is “nonsense” that “monstrously cheats the very nature of her trial and all her years spent at Carmel in profound aridity and anguish.”
Nevin also underlines her immense charity in that darkness—which becomes theologically incomprehensible if she had lost her faith and hope. For faith, hope and love are gifts of grace and acts of the will. They are not feelings. Without faith, her charity would have been impossible or a sham. Compared to the shams of Catholic history, Thérèse’s love was the real thing. It is difficult to see how Thérèse could have prayed unless she had faith that somewhere behind the aridity was a God to whom one could pray.
Nevin is at his worst when combating “triumphalism,” a term he never quite defines, though assertions of righteousness or orthodoxy seem to be his primary candidates. Nevin finds the most egregious triumphalism in the Psalms: “It is hard to proceed very far through them without dismay and even repugnance.” He contrasts Thérèse’s prayers from the table of sinners to the “near psychosis” of Psalm 23 (“You have prepared a table before me in the presence of my enemies”), an exegesis Thérèse herself would have rejected.
In other places, Nevin tries to tailor his evidence to his analysis, with unconvincing results. He rejects the image of Thérèse showering rose petals from heaven because it seems to conflict with the most important image, the table of sinners. In so doing, Nevin is guilty of the offense of which he accuses others. His book works to counteract an excessive focus on the one image, but does so by excessively focusing on the other. In truth, Thérèse’s greatness and mystery lie in the middle. She sat in darkness at the table of sinners, but she also longed to shower roses and be lifted to God on the elevator of his love. We cannot dismiss any of her images, for her constant love for Jesus and the souls who most need him is a mystery we can only begin to fathom.