I was in my late teens when I first read the life of Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897), a gift book from a devoted aunt who sought to encourage vocations in all her nephews and nieces. It is hard to explain my subsequent fascination with this French nun who died of consumption at age 24 without revealing my own emerging sensitivities to things spiritual at a crucial time in my adolescence. Thérèse offered an almost embarrassing intimacy to readers in her autobiography, which began as a personal memoir she wrote at the request of her older sister and never intended for publication. It was treasured by her community after her death. Like many readers, I found in her a spiritual friend, passionate, tragic and perfectly sublimated.
I outgrew the saccharine portrait that was presented in the touched-up photos of Thérèse as a cult grew up around her memory and led to her canonization in 1925. I was not surprised to learn that the earliest published editions of The Story of A Soul had been carefully edited to enhance the image of the “Little Flower.”
I was reintroduced to a more realistic portrait of the saint in Ida Friederike Görres’ 1959 biography The Hidden Face, and was again drawn to the real Thérèse, offered as a survivor, not an exemplar, of Jansenist piety. Her little way, in effect, was a rejection of the self-lacerating, hothouse spirituality typical of contemplative life in the late 19th century. Görres published an untouched photo of Thérèse taken shortly before her death, described by someone seeing it for the first time as “the face of the female Christ.” It was indeed the face of someone who knew she was dying, stripped of illusion, clearly in touch with some universal human intuition about the mystery of life and the reality of death.
Thérèse has again emerged in our time, offered by traditionalists as a poster child for young vocations and as representing spiritual submissiveness — a facile and dubious title, to my mind, for someone whose holiness emerges as more muscular than that. A 1986 French film captured the simple directness of this young woman’s fierce determination to pursue the face of God in a contemplative setting. “Thérèse,” produced by Maurice Bernart and now available on YouTube, is both stark and beautiful, depicting a life and death in vignettes based on Thérèse’s diary.
She exemplified a spiritual desire for God that transcended her culture in much the way that Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila escaped their ages to reveal a maturity only the Gospel can command and enable in human nature. Their pure will to keep the first commandment, to love God above all else, mind, heart, body and spirit, opened them to transfiguration, the glory God promises anyone who seeks the divine face. Though they arrived at this experience from different times and cultures, each of these women got it right. Be one with Christ, in love with Christ, and God will do the rest.
The idea that all of us benefit from such pioneers is tantalizing. The five-minute mile stood like a barrier for decades until the first runner broke it. Then a flood of contenders followed quickly. It was as though the real barrier was not physical but spiritual. What was thought to be impossible was impossible until someone actually broke through. Then the way was open for everyone. Achievement in another stuns us because it reveals to us our own potential.
Every person who offers pure praise advances human evolution, makes God more accessible to the collective imagination. The secret transformation of a single heart inspires the journey of the entire pilgrim community.
Thérèse of Lisieux, in her brief but intense contemplative life, brought the flame of divine love to earth in her own heart. It was the one offering she had, and she gave it back to God without reserve. It was her only accomplishment. We have all been blessed by her.
Pat Marrin is resident cartoonist at National Catholic Reporter and the former editor of Celebration Magazine, NCR’s liturgical resource. This reflection, written in 1999, is from Celebration’s archive and is reposted here with permission.