Anyway, I was very uncomfortable and feeling “ornery,” and I decided to save the blog entry on Vatican II till tomorrow (Monday). Then I hobbled to my “meditation chair” and pulled down the classic from St. Therese of Lisieux, Story of a Soul, (available in paper, Kindle, Audible). Let me note here that the Wikipedia entry for St. Therese (1873-1897), which I examined closely, is one of this site’s best in terms of detail, sources and accuracy. I had purchased a paper edition a few months ago, with the idea that this work might be a useful resource for the blog. Noting that St. Therese died at the age of 24, I did have a critical curiosity, too, about what a young person—and one who spent her last nine years in a cloistered convent to boot—might have to offer, particularly given that she has been declared a Doctor of the Church (the spiritual counterpart of being rated in the top 20,000 in sales of all titles on Amazon.com as of this morning.) When John Paul II and Jeff Bezos confirm her importance, who can argue with that?
The story of the saint’s life is itself quite a tale, involving as it does her intriguing parents. Therese wrote this work under a “gentle obedience” from two different superiors in the Carmelite cloister. It is actually a compilation of three different ventures undertaken in the later years of her life, and as far as I can tell Therese originally intended these writings as a gift to her superiors, but in her last years she seems to have had some significant insights about her place in the world as a missionary despite her life behind the walls. However, in fact much of her writing was done with an expectation of privacy, so that her spiritual struggles have an air of realism that has probably contributed to the extensive use of her book by over a century of Catholics.
It would be wrong to say that Therese had limited experience to draw from. Her French parents had both sought entry into religious life themselves before finally marrying. Nonetheless, they were determined to live after marriage as “brother and sister” (i.e., celibate) until a confessor suggested another path, which led to the birth of eight children. Half died in early childhood, and Therese’s mother—whom the future saint adored—may not have been fully accessible to her children, as the foreword to my text makes allusions to Therese living with other relatives and attending a boarding school. Again her biographers leave clues that Therese bore scars from her pre-convent years, perhaps along the lines of Separation Anxiety Disorder or other similar affliction. Her mother was misdiagnosed for eleven years till a competent physician identified an advanced breast cancer that killed her while Therese was still a minor. I might add, too, that at least two of Therese’s siblings became cloistered Carmelites and it was during a conversation between the three of them that the first section of Journey of a Soul was discussed.
As a guy, I guess that my reluctance to embrace St. Therese was her subtitle “The Little Flower.” I had a similar reaction to devotions to St. Anthony in the seminary, where we prayed to the Franciscan saint as “the lily of purity.” Much to my delight, Therese opens her autobiography with a discussion of flowers, a four page discursus actually. Regardless of how later Catholics have understood the flower analogy, Therese begins with her own question of how someone can resist the all-powerful love of God and then proceeds to posit her own answer. The flower is analogous to the individual human. Each human has a capacity and a disposition to grow in a different way, as do flowers. Varieties of flora can be spectacularly beautiful (like the $200/dozen roses you send to your wife*—at work, of course) or they can be Florida viburnum. Her point is that all flowers grow under the same sun and are empowered in unique ways according to their nature. It is an optimistic and, one might say, ambitious view of the spiritual life in union with God. Therese had misgivings about an autobiography, and she had to address them, by justifying the fact that God could make something beautiful from any species of plants, so to speak. It was her way of addressing a question that bedeviled Augustine and Thomas, grace and free will.
I am looking forward to continuing this work. I have a hunger to return to the inner life and truth of God in his Scriptures and in his saints. I felt this acutely when I received a letter from someone who offered me an exhaustive diatribe (the writer’s words) against Planned Parenthood and the Democratic Party. I have been looking for the right way to explain to the writer what my blogsite is about, and beyond that, my utter exhaustion with diatribes of all sorts. I live in a Church and a nation where it is unsafe at the present moment to speak in any language other than a diatribe. I find great appeal in a 20ish French woman who found the ultimate un-diatribe vehicle to talk about that which is most important. I will let you know what I continue to discover.
*And of course it is wives’ moral duty to tell their husbands they spent too much—but their hearts are never in the telling.