Mystic, Comic, Everything | Fr. Bernard Bro | Chapter One of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux: Her Family, Her God, Her Message | Ignatius Insight
Tall and strong, with the appearance of a child, a tone of voice, an expression, hiding within her a wisdom, a perfection, a perspicacity of a fifty-year-old. . . . Little innocent thing, to whom one would give God without confession, but whose head is full of mischief to play on anyone she pleases. Mystic, comic, everything ... she can make you weep with devotion and just as easily split your sides with laughter during our recreations. (GC 2:778)This is the most vivid portrait that has been preserved of her: it was that of her subprioress, when Thérèse was twenty years old. Is that enough to make her "the greatest saint of modern times"?
We have the opportunity to avail ourselves of much testimony about her. In addition to the account of her life that she herself wrote, at twenty-two years of age and completed three months before her death, her sisters, her companions, left a series of interviews, sometimes noted day by day, that retain the sense of immediacy of television news. Through the (apparent) banality of these cartoon strips of piety, we always find the same reality: with Thérèse of Lisieux, we are with someone who, in the face of the two abysses that every man encounters, himself and God, has gone the limit, but while remaining our companion. Thérèse is indeed the human being faced with the abyss of freedom and the possibilities of choice-and faced with another abyss: that of an interlocutor called God (cf. pp. 30-31).
We are still at the dawn of the third great crisis of our civilization: it is no longer merely man confronted with his weakness (with the Greeks); no longer merely man confronted with his guilt (with Luther, at that tragic time for Europe, after the black plagues at the end of the Middle Ages); man today finds himself confronted with his solitude and with the desperate quest for a meaning to his life, confronted with the need to search for what would be an "authentic existence", "true life", which he fears never being able to enjoy. Among the innumerable witnesses that could be called to the stand in this interrogation, such as Rimbaud, Van Gogh, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, or Kundera, I have intentionally kept two cries, because they seem to express the question that was Thérèse's own: "Here is my oId anguish, right there in the hollow of my body, like a bad wound that every movement irritates; I know its name, it is the fear of eternal solitude. And I have the fear that there may not be any answer" (Camus).
I implored, I begged for a sign, I sent messages to the heavens: no response. The heavens do not even know my name. I wondered at every moment what I might be in the eyes of God. Now I knew the answer: Nothing. God does not see me, God does not know me, God does not hear me. You see this void over our heads? That is God. You see this hole in the earth? That is God. You see this opening in the door? That is God again. The silence is God. Absence is God. God is the solitude of men. Thérèse was familiar with this anguish:
When I want to rest my heart fatigued by the darkness which surrounds it by the memory of the luminous country after which I aspire, my torment redoubles; it seems to me that the darkness, borrowing the voice of sinners, says mockingly to me: "You are dreaming about the light, about a fatherland embalmed in the sweetest perfumes; you are dreaming about the eternal possession of the Creator of all these marvels; you believe that one day you will walk out of this fog which surrounds you! Advance, advance; rejoice in death which will give you not what you hope for but a night still more profound, the night of nothingness." (SS 213)For years, Thérèse sought her place in society. She had, of course, entered Carmel, but she sought to explain to herself what the essence of it was for her. And one day, completely radiant, she wrote:
Martyrdom was the dream of my youth and this dream has grown with me within Carmel's cloisters. But here again, I feel that my dream is a folly, for I cannot confine myself to desiring one kind of martyrdom. . . . I opened the Epistles of St. Paul to find some kind of answer. Chapters 12 and 13 of the First Epistle to the Corinthians fell under my eyes. I read there, in the first of these chapters, that all cannot be apostles, prophets, doctors, etc. . . . The answer did not fulfill my desires. . . . I continued my reading, and the Apostle explains how all the most PERFECT gifts are nothing without LOVE... .She had chosen the feast of Pentecost 1887 to confide to her father her desire to enter Carmel:
I finally had rest. . . . I understood that LOVE COMPRISED ALL VOCATIONS, THAT LOVE WAS EVERYTHING, THAT IT EMBRACED ALL TIMES AND ALL PLACES....
Then, in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out: . . . MY VOCATION IS LOVE!" (SS 193-94)
Everything around us corresponded with our tastes; we were given the greatest liberty; I would say our life on earth was the ideal of happiness. . . . It was necessary to turn away from it freely. . . . I chose the feast of Pentecost . . . . all day long begging the apostles to pray for me, to inspire me with the right words. Shouldn't they help the timid child who was chosen by God to be the apostle of the apostles through her prayers and sacrifices? ... (SS 106-7)Her father was convinced. But the others remained ... And the trip to Rome would still not win the victory. Here is how she described her interview with the pope:
God is making me pass through real trials before having me enter Carmel. I am going to tell you how my visit with the pope went. . . . I did not want to return to my place without having spoken to the pope. I said what you were telling me in your letter The good pope is so old that one would say he is dead He can hardly say anything. . . . I would have liked to be able to explain my business, but there was no way. The Holy Father said simply: "If God wills it, you will enter." (LT 36, GC 1:353)She would have to wait. Finally, everyone would be won over by the one who admitted: "I haven't any fear of anyone; I have always gone where I pleased. I always slipped by them" (LC July 10, no. 8, p. 85).
A "trick of the Holy Spirit". That is the primary statement of fact. Thérèse of Lisieux, beneath the appearance of a very nice little girl, is a soldier, a warrior. She is the equal of the greatest among the giants God has recommended to us, but under the most banal exterior.
In April 1932 , during a private audience with Bishop Picaud of Bayeux and Lisieux, Pius XI thought that the image of Thérèse was in the process of being watered down, and at that time he used the expression "a great man" to describe her.  The bishop reported this to the Carmel. Which was a bit of.a shock to her sisters, for whom Thérèse still remained a "little angel". But it was quite in these terms that Thérèse had spoken of herself "armed for war", taking up the call of Teresa of Avila to her daughters to "equal strong men" (cf. LT 201, GC 2:1016-17).
She brought about a revolution. We are only at the beginning of it.
She passed through the door of Carmel at fifteen and a half years of age. Now, Carmel is far from being "heaven". And she admitted:
Nothing near Jesus. Aridity! . . . Sleep! . . . But at least there is silence! . .. I would be unhappy possessing [all created beauties], my heart would be so empty! . . . It is incredible how big my heart appears to me when I consider all earth's treasures. But when I consider Jesus, how little it appears to me! . . . I would so much like to love Him! . . . Love Him more than He has ever been loved! (LT 74, GC 1:499-500)In Carmel, there was solitude, a life of penitence, one meal per day, seven months out of twelve; little, too little, sleep; cold (a ingle room was heated); the experience of life with those one did not choose; the daily pinpricks. She noted with a smile: "The refectory, which I was given charge of immediately after I received the Habit, furnished me, on more than one occasion, with the chance of putting my self-love in its proper place, i.e., under my feet" (SS 160) .
She did not allow herself to weaken: "My nature was such that fear made me recoil; with love, not only did I advance, I actually flew" (SS 174).
I have experienced it; when I am feeling nothing, when I am INCAPABLE of praying, of practicing virtue, then is the moment for seeking opportunities, nothings, which please Jesus more than mastery of the world or even martyrdom suffered with generosity. For example, a smile, a friendly word, when I would want to say nothing, or put on a look of annoyance. (LT 143, GC 2:801)To understand her secret as a warrior, we might go back to Nehru's admission to Malraux: "I have three enemies: the Chinese, famine, and myself. But, of the three, the most difficult is myself." Very quickly she learned that nothing can be done on the path of what for her was the true life without fighting against herself, against illusion. She, who, up to the end, had the childish fears of a little girl, would never fear the truth, never fear to "do the truth", as Saint John says: whether about herself, her faults, her own limits, about her family, her community, her sisters, or one day about death itself. She did not fear that the truth would diminish her. Quite the contrary. It was never a malicious truth. For she found here the true way to be victorious: by disarming, by never resisting. Instead of sidestepping an issue, cheating, trying to justify herself, telling herself stories, she disarmed, and she disarmed from the very moment when the truth was at issue. Then she found something greater: a confidence that opened up freedom to her.
Her sister Céline, older than she, who entered Carmel six years after she did, reported that one day, in watching Thérèse live, she experienced a moment of discouragement and said to her: "Oh, when I think of all I have to acquire." And Thérèse answered her at once: "Rather, how much you have to lose" (CSG 23).
As the novices used to ask her how they should conduct themselves when it came to spiritual direction, Thérèse replied: "With great simplicity, but without relying too much on help that might fail the minute you put it into practice. You would quickly be forced to say, like the spouse in the Song of Songs: 'The watchmen ... took away my mantle, they wounded me; it was only by passing a little beyond them that I found Him whom I love' [cf. Song 5:7; 3:4]. If you ask the watchmen humbly and with detachment where your Beloved is, they will tell you. Nevertheless, most often you will find Jesus only after you have passed beyond all creatures."
What in former times was reserved to privileged souls—Bernard of Citeaux, Ignatius of Loyola, or John of the Cross—we find Thérèse of Lisieux proposing for everyone: to triumph over the agony of her fate, to triumph over fear and solitude in the face of the uncertainties of the future and of death. Thérèse gives away the secrets of this "democratization" of the "night of the spirit". For her, there is in each one of us an infinite, explosive power that can conquer all fear. Thérèse is in agreement with the prophets and the great revolutionaries of her time who were seeking this power: this power exists, it is in each one of us. It is possible to conquer fear, all fear: that of the future, that of limits, that of others, that of death, of oneself. There is one condition for enjoying this infinite Power: accepting the truth about one's incapacity.
It was fitting that, before the last council gave more explicit recognition to the place of the laity and theorized about it, the Church had first been anticipated, even shoved forward, by this little girl. A priest from Vietnam wrote:
The centennial year of Saint Thérèse's birth occurs even here among the most distant. Here, Dalat, tribus Kohos, primitive tribes of the high plains. The mountain people of this region are haunted by fear, fear of spirits. Their worship is centered on the blood of beasts to appease the anger of the spirits. Say to God: "Our Father"? Consecrate oneself to his love? What a revolution! May this year bring to our companions the tenderness of heaven. Here, the spirit of the sun is called Siet Ngkao ("Cut-off-the-head"); the spirit of the rainbow: Jop Mham ("Suck-the-blood", like vampires); the spirit of thunder: Cong Co ("Cut-with-the-axe"); the spirit of water: Kuansan ("Claw-and-eat") . . . And so on for the others: always against man. At last, Thérèse will speak to them of a God who is for man."Cut-off-the-head", "Suck-the-blood", "Claw-and-eat". Who is without his evil spirits, and who has no need of being delivered from fear?
 Jean Paul Sartre, Le Diable et Ie bon Dieu, tableau 10, scene 4.
 Cf. La Semaine religieuse de Bayeux , May 1 , 1932; reprinted in La Croix of May 18, 1932.
Related Ignatius Insight Excerpts and Essays:
• St. Thérèse of Lisieux: Patron Saint of Common Sense | Stephen Sparrow
• The Beginnings | Vernon Johnson | Chapter One of One Lord, One Faith.
• Online Resources for the movie Thérèse
Fr. Bernard Bro, Dominican and doctor of philosophy, has been a professor at the Pontifical Faculties of Saulchoir, preacher at Notre-Dame in Paris, and recognized by the Academie Francaise for the whole of his work. He is considered one of the world's foremost authorities on the life and writings of St. Thérèse.