Posted October 24, 20003
Book: Saint Therese of Lisieux
Author: Kathryn Harrison
Penguin, NY, pp. 227
Excerpt from Jacket:
Saint Therese of Lisieux, who lived in obscurity in a Carmelite convent until her death at the age of twenty-four, became — through her posthumously published autobiography — one of the world’s most influential religious figures. In Saint Therese of Lisieux, best selling novelist and memoirist Kathryn Harrison, whose depictions of women have been called “powerful” (The New York Times Book Review) and “luminously intelligent” (The Boston Sunday Globe), brings to the saint’s life her storytelling gift and deep insight as she reveals the hopes and fears of the young girl behind the religious icon.
Saint Therese of Lisieux shows us the pampered daughter of successful and deeply religious tradespeople and one who — through a personal appeal to the pope — entered a convent at the early age of fifteen. There, Therese embraced sacrifice and self-renunciation in a single-minded pursuit of the “nothingness” she felt would bring her closer to God. With feeling, Harrison shows us the sensitive four-year-old whose mother’s death haunted her forever and contributed to the ascetic spirituality that strengthened her to accept even the deadly throes of tuberculosis. Tellingly placed in the context of late-nineteenth-century French social and religious practices, this is a powerful story of a life lived with enormous passion and a searing triumphant voyage of the spirit.
Excerpt from Book:
Story of a Soul by Therese was not a novel, but it shared a romantic sensibility and cherished plot elements with immensely popular nineteenth-century fiction, books such as Les Miserables, Little Women, and David Copperfield, whose characters had entered the culture at large. Marrying romance to classic elements of hagiography — apparitions of the Virgin, temptations by the devil, symbolic dreams, presentiments of glory, conversion — Therese wrote of the death of her self-sacrificing and affectionate mother, of the devotion of her father, of her striving to become a saint, and of the reversals she suffered. Her life on the page was dramatized by the irresistible alchemy of tuberculosis, the same literary disease that ennobled and transfigured the heroines of Victor Hugo, Louisa May Alcott, and Charles Dickens, and that acted as a powerful accelerant in Therese’s own corporeal and spiritual life. Unconsciously, Therese created a perfect vehicle for conveying the teachings of the Church because she made the rigors of mysticism incidental to human drama.
Story of a Soul is a love story, a desperate and feverish one, involving tears and palpitations, wild hopes and bleak anguish, the audacity of a commoner who set her heart on a king, a child bride who, in her zeal for Christ, her beloved, defied one after another Church official until, at fourteen, she arrived in Rome to petition the pope to allow her premature entry into a convent. Consumers of more contemporary and conventional romance might find her narrative quaint and mannered, suffused with earnestness, lacking in irony. Reading Therese is akin to having a conversation with a disconcertingly precocious child; she has that quality of being awkward and artful at the same instant, forcing our abrupt awareness of both her depth and her vulnerability. She bares her soul, and to witness this is to realize how seldom humans do.
“To me it seemed like the story of a ‘steel bar,’” Albino Luciani (who would later become Pope John Paul I) commented on the book’s original title, succinctly identifying the paradox of the Little Flower. Few personalities have been so obscured by sentiment, few wills so cloaked by feminine convention. The romantic formulas that Therese used to tell her story contributed not only to its vast popularity, but also to the profound misunderstanding of an ambitious and intelligent young woman, a shy neurotic who fashioned a martyr’s death from circumstances that threatened to withhold all means toward the glorious sainthood she envisioned for herself.
. . . Is it possible to have a moderate belief in God? Can we believe in God and continue to live a life of moderation? “They knew too well how to ally the joys of this earth to the service of God,” Therese said of the good Catholics in her hometown, separating herself from those who didn’t look for total and obliterating union with the divine, who didn’t believe that to love Christ demanded a complete sacrifice of self. Indeed, to her father’s pious friends, the God of Therese Martin might have appeared as violent as the devil, her heaven as annihilating as the atheist’s last breath.