Along with Francis of Assisi, Thérèse of Lisieux ranks among the most venerated and popular Catholic saints and commands an impressive following that includes those with no religious faith or affiliation. Thérèse’s life, writings and reputation have prompted countless works in print, ranging from pious, uncritical hagiography to postmodern and feminist critique. The Web site of Amazon.com lists 153 books by or about the young French Carmelite who took the 20th-century world by storm without ever leaving her provincial monastery. Her autobiography, intended for a few convents of her order, has now been translated into 50 languages.
Since 1927 she has been the patroness of missions and missionaries. Moreover, at the centenary of her death in 1997, Pope John Paul II proclaimed Thérèse—whose theological education was limited to personal study of the Scriptures and Carmelite authors—a doctor of the church. This is a saint with universal staying power, despite the “littleness” of her life and message and the sentimental spirituality with which she is often identified.
So it comes as no surprise that the editors of the Penguin Lives series would include her in the company of such notables as Augustine of Hippo, the Buddha, Dante, Leonardo da Vinci, Mozart, Virginia Woolf and one of her own role models, Joan of Arc.
This brief, impassioned biography is the latest work of Kathryn Harrison, a prominent novelist and essayist, whose literary interests are not hagiographical and whose style is compelling. In it she presents Thérèse as a best seller in her own right, the author of a love story that is readable and captivating, “a miracle of deceptive sentimentality.” By a close reading of family correspondence, testimonies of witnesses and the most authoritative English translations, Harrison deftly reveals both light and shadow in Thérèse’s autobiography, Springtime Story of a Little White Flower, which is best known under the title Story of a Soul. Guided by detailed chronologies and critical primary sources, she offers a corrective to the saccharine images and romantic phrases that have contributed to Thérèse’s great popularity as well as to a demeaning misinterpretation of her holiness. Harrison’s Thérèse emerges as a complex personality: neurotic and headstrong; intelligent, imaginative and ambitious—even as she writes that love must “lower itself to nothingness.” An introverted, hypersensitive artist, Thérèse nonetheless found emotional and mystical release in her self-revelation; this marks her as one of the first “modern” saints.
Harrison is prompted to ask whether a more appropriate name for the “Little Flower” might be “Little Nettle,” because once readers move beyond the bland smile on holy cards to the unadulterated doctrine of this steel magnolia, “they will find themselves stung...and the discomfort takes its time to fade.” In other words, the reader will not find a pious and passive tubercular victim of divine love in these pages. Here is a Thérèse whose voice is strong and sometimes dissonant amid the religious expectations of her time. Having been rejected by ecclesiastical authority, she clamors disruptively to be heard by Pope Leo XIII in her plea to enter Carmel at age 15. In the last dark months of her life, in the throes of disease and desolation, when her heart has turned to stone and heaven seems lost to her, Thérèse sings what she wants to believe. Hers is the “tough love” that marks the maturing mystic whose way to light and life is through darkness, suffering and self-emptying.
There are thorns and thistles among the roses that Harrison’s Thérèse scatters: her narcissism and scrupulosity, rejection of her body and its sensual delights, morbid obsession with her own dying. Such traits betray the modern idea of holiness as wholeness. Yet they are at the heart of Harrison’s portrayal and the key to a true understanding of Thérèse’s downward path to holiness, of her “little way” that has such appeal. Like the Apostle Paul, her weakness manifests God’s power, love and mercy. She accepts herself as she is, and learns that her claim to love is precisely because she can boast of nothing except weakness. Hers will be the way of imperfection and of the ordinary. After citing one of the most anguished passages from Thérèse’s “Manuscript C,” where she fears that death will lead her more deeply into a “night of nothingness,” Harrison contends this is precisely where she takes her place among moderns: “If we allow her to become a saint, if we believe in her, it’s because here, finally, she has achieved mortality.” Hers is a path without protection, a precarious “little way.”
While it follows closely the salient facts of Thérèse’s short life, Harrison’s narrative tends strongly toward psycho-biography in its interpretation of them. The author sees patterns of abandonment and loneliness in Thérèse as fundamental to her self-discovery as God’s beloved child. The bridal language so prominent in the saint’s poetry and letters becomes a sign of repressed sexuality and rejection of the body. Such analysis will seem far-fetched to some readers, since the language of sublimation was common in spiritual works popular with women religious of the time. Surprisingly for this reviewer, there is only passing reference to Thérèse’s personal discovery of the Scriptures, which form the basis and heart of her vocation to love.
Harrison’s lyrical prose and lucid interpretation make this a fascinating addition to the substantial collection of works on Thérèse of Lisieux. It reminds us in timely fashion of what Dorothy Day wrote in a preface to her own biographical study of the saint: “In these days of fear and trembling at what [we] have wrought on earth in destructiveness and hate, Thérèse is the saint we need.”