I am very late today because I started my day opening a new copy of Story of a Soul, by St. Therese of Lisieux. Many of you may already know her as the young Carmelite sister who died at age 24, but left behind a work of spiritual genius, Story of a Soul, that won her a title from Pope John Paul II as Doctor of the Church.
Following the principles of my old prof, Dr. Kallina, I first examined the pedigree of the text, which in many cases is a story in itself. And sure enough the story of the text, quite apart from its meaning and content, is food enough for a daily meditation. The text I am presently balancing in my lap along with my IPad and a hot cup of Dunkin' Donuts Chocolate Donut Coffee (nowhere will this sentence ever be spontaneously replicated in English) is published by the Institute of Carmelite Studies in Washington, DC. This is the second edition of the text, released in 1996. The original is a translation by Father John Clark, undertaken in 1975, and his original introduction is included in the 1996 edition, a most useful essay in its own right.
Clark, of course, is working from French renderings, which have gone through their own complicated history. For starters, one of the extraordinary facts of St. Therese is her short and secluded life: she lived in a sheltered Catholic home till the age of 15, then in the convent for nine years till her death. On the face of it, why would anyone care what this nondescript novice had to say about anything? Does the nature of the text itself answer this question?
Clark discusses both the texts and the way they were "promoted" so to speak. There are in truth three versions of "Journey of a Soul." The first, "A," is an autobiographical sketch written by the saint under obedience by her superior; Therese gave a copy book to the superior as a gift. This first manuscript concluded with her entrance into the convent. The second or "B" manuscript was written at the request of Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart (her spiritual director?) who expressly wishes the saint to expound her "little doctrine" in the older woman's terms. Clark observes that by this time Therese was experiencing significant symptoms of the disease that would ultimately kill her.
The "C" document is a tribute to "feminine diplomacy," as Clarke puts it. Therese's original superior regretted that the original autobiography (A) had ended with entrance into the convent without any description of her years in religious life. No longer having authority over the author, the former superior began a gentle but persistent campaign to have the general superior put Therese under obedience to include her convent years. Therese was by this time seriously ill, and finishing the work was itself a heroic act. It was only around this juncture that Therese had any real sense that her writing might have a life of its own after her death, and she felt that her own expression was perhaps inadequate. She asked her sister Pauline to edit her writing, giving her the power to make editorial changes, including addition and subtraction.
After her death, Pauline asked permission to have all three manuscripts published (Pauline herself was a Carmelite nun), and the Mother Prioress agreed on the condition that the texts be unified to read as one outpouring of Therese's soul...to Mother Prioress. From a literary vantage point, Clark commends Pauline's redaction as an excellent work. For a decade the writing was presented in this form, but when formal investigation of the sister's life for possible sainthood began in 1910, the Roman auditors ordered that the true subjects of Therese's writing be made public for future publication.
The news of this led historians of the early twentieth century to seek the original texts from Therese's hand, as their profession would demand. The originals did exist, and the Carmelite community did try to allow her family (that is, Therese's natural family members in the Community) to do the editing, after being ordered to do so by the Church in 1947. Pauline was the natural choice, but now in her 80's she was the first of many to discover that the manuscripts were without paragraph divisions, pagination, etc. Eventually the work was undertaken by a Father Francois, who reproduced Therese's texts precisely as the saint had produced them. The finished work was so stark--and unlike the Therese remembered by her Order--that a new French edition was commissioned "to meet the needs of the ordinary person" as the preface reads. The translation was completed in 1972.
Clark's English translation of the new French edition was completed in 1975 and made possible the wonders of the saint's spiritual insights and experiences to U.S. Catholics for the first time. Previously she had been revered as the saint who won heaven by living a very small, secluded, and unremarkable life. It turns out she had much to say after all.
On My Mind