In recent years many faiths have educated their clergy and religious to be brilliant, well-educated, entertaining speakers and socially committed individuals. But these qualities do not in and of themselves earn trust.
Nothing inspires, and is so quickly recognized by believers, as is authentic holiness or godliness. Few have won as much trust in the years since her death as has the holy saint, the Little Flower, discussed in the following lines.
During the height of her active maturity in the Catholic Worker movement, Dorothy Day made time over several years to research and to write a biography of the “Little Flower,” St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus of the Holy Face, or St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Happily, this book, originally published in 1960, reissued 1979, reprinted 1985, is still in print through Templegate Publishers. This book represents Dorothy Day’s decades-long education in the school of the Little Flower.
Therese is a book about a saint by a likely saint. Despite Dorothy Day’s occasional repetition of phrases due to Day’s busy life, Therese is one of the most thoughtful and inspiring books generated within American Catholic literature. Because its subject is the Little Flower, who has been declared one of the soon-to-be thirty-four Doctors of the Church, it is likely to remain known centuries longer than some of Day’s currently more popular books.
Almost half of Day’s Therese is about family love, whether that of the author, or that of the subject, christened Marie-Françoise-Thérèse Martin in 1873. But the whole book is about love, divine and human, for love was the means, the end, and the transcendent purpose of Thérèse’s life. Thérèse discovered in her final years that her vocation was to be love.
The arresting first two paragraphs of Therese display Dorothy Day at her spiritual journalist best:
“The first time I heard the name of St. Therese of the Child Jesus of the Holy Face (to give her whole title), also known as Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower, was when I lay in the maternity ward of Bellevue Hospital in New York. Bellevue is the largest hospital in the world, and doctors from all over the world come there. If you are poor you can have free hospital care. At that time, if you could pay anything, there was a flat rate for having a baby–thirty dollars for a ten day’s stay, in a long ward with about sixty beds. I was so fortunate as to have a bed next to the window looking out over the East River so that I could see the sun rise in the morning and light up the turgid water and make gay the little tugs and the long tankers that went by the window. When there was fog it seemed as though the world ended outside my window, and the sound of fog horns haunted the day and the night.
As a matter of fact, my world did end at the window those ten days that I was in the hospital, because I was supremely happy. If I had written the greatest book, composed the greatest symphony, painted the most beautiful painting or carved the most exquisite figure, I could not have felt more the exalted creator than I did when they placed my child in my arms. To think that this thing of beauty, sighing gently in my arms, reaching her little mouth for my breast, clutching at me with her tiny beautiful hands, had come from my flesh, was my own child! Such a great feeling of happiness and joy filled me that I was hungry for Someone to thank, to love, even to worship, for so great a good that had been bestowed upon me. That tiny child was not enough to contain my love, nor could the father, though my heart was warm with love for both.”
(Day, Dorothy. 1985. Therese. Springfield, Ill: Templegate, p. v.)
Thanks to the World Wide Web and the University of Toronto it is now possible to read the same English translation of Thérèse’s autobiographic A Little White Flower that Dorothy Day read in 1928, to retrace Dorothy Day’s steps in her discovery of Thérèse, and also to find the book that eluded Day’s grasp at the time of her writing Therese, The End of the Present World and the Mysteries of the Future Life, by Fr. Charles Arminjon, which was an influence on the young Thérèse prior to entering the Carmel at Lisieux.
Dorothy Day’s initial rebuff and later embrace of Thérèse’s spirituality is a familiar story among Catholic intellectuals and men and women “of the world.” Thérèse inspired several twentieth-century generations to enter religious life, and whether in religious life or not, to adopt her “Little Way.” But as Day matured in her day-in day-out tasks of Christian love and charity seeking justice, she returned to Thérèse definitively. Day concluded:
“It was the ‘worker,’ the common man, who first spread her fame by word of mouth. It was the masses who proclaimed her a saint. It was the ‘people.’”
(Day, Dorothy. 1985. Therese. Springfield, Ill: Templegate, p. 173.)
On first glance, Thérèse appears too pious, too simple. To this I respond, “Simple, all right. Simple like Mozart is simple.” A genius of the first rank makes the difficult appear straightforward and sublimely clear. Thérèse’s spiritual genius was recognized almost immediately after her death in 1897 with an intensity that spread as quickly as did the translations of her autobiography across dozens of languages and countries.
On the last page of her book, Day quotes Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, later Pope Pius XII, speaking on the occasion of the blessing of the Basilica of Lisieux in 1937:
“The dazzling genius of Augustine, the luminous wisdom of Thomas Aquinas, have shed forth upon souls the rays of an imperishable splendour: through them, Christ and His doctrine have become better known. The divine poem lived out by Francis of Assisi has given the world an imitation, as yet unequaled, of the life of God made man. Through him legions of men and women learned to love God more perfectly. But a little Carmelite who had hardly reached adult age has conquered in less than half a century innumerable hosts of disciples. Doctors of the law have become children at her school; the Supreme Shepherd has exalted her and prays to her with humble and assiduous supplications; and even at this moment from one end of the earth to the other, there are millions of souls whose interior life has received the beneficent influence of the little book, The Autobiography.”
(Ibid., p. 176.)
Thérèse promised “I will spend my heaven doing good on earth. I will let fall a shower of roses.”
Day lists but a bit of the shower of love from Thérèse:
“So shortly after her death the rain of roses began: cures of cancer, tuberculosis, nephritis, and all manner of painful and mortal diseases. Nuns in need of money to pay off the mortgages on their schools, hospitals and orphanages found it appearing, sometimes in the form of gifts, sometimes carefully placed in a desk drawer. When Therese healed a little Irish child, she appeared to her as a little child in her First Communion frock, and shook hands with her as she left, and radiant little patient who had been unconscious and at the brink of death, sat up and told her mother to bring her her clothes, and food because she was starving. Soldiers saw Therese at the battlefield; she walked in Paris; she appeared to the sick. ‘After my death I will let fall a shower of roses,’ she had said, and sometimes the roses appeared literally, and sometimes just the fragrance of them.”
(Ibid., pp. 172-3)
The persistence of Thérèse’s appeal is surprising. In 2009, Thérèse’s relics were brought on a tour throughout Wales and England in the UK. To the surprise of a highly secularized society (and some of the secularized clergy), hundreds of thousands of people visited the relics, with many confessing their sins and returning to faith after decades.
Here are some of the pilgrims’ stories:
Over 100,000 faithful visited Thérèse’s relics in Westminster Cathedral, with ceremonies ending 10/15/09:
The Carmelite Sr. Patricia Mary of Jesus speaks about St. Thérèse of Lisieux:
Finally, a thoughtful homily by Westminster Archbishop Vincent Nichols:
In 1997, in a document called Divini Amoris Scientia, the Science of Divine Love, John Paul II proclaimed Thérèse a Doctor of the Church. I highly recommend close reading of this important document for those seeking for truth in the Spirit.
Although Thérèse, like John Paul II, had read and mastered the foundational Carmelite literature, the complete works of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, Thérèse read primarily the Gospels during her final illness, to listen directly the Word of the Lord Jesus whom she loved so dearly in a very direct, straightforward, and completely committed way. As a Carmelite, Thérèse wore a wedding gown at her “clothing” as a nun, focusing all her possible love on Jesus.
To the post-Christian imagination, this kind of spiritual commitment has a scary, terrifying aspect. But for Thérèse and her Carmelite sisters (among whom were three of her own sisters, and a cousin), nothing could have been more joyful.
Dorothy Day may be best known for her phrase, a “harsh and dreadful love,” but no one searches the life of Thérèse without searching for the source of joy, our Blessed Lord, to whom Thérèse is one of the supreme guides.
As a boy, I was taught at St. Priscilla School in Chicago by several Franciscan Sisters (from Rochester, MN) who were inspired by Thérèse among others to enter religious life. Years later, I visited my music teacher, Sr. Catherine Cecile Dwerlkotte, OSF, who past the age of 100 told me of the joy that was shared among contemporaries as they agreed together in college to enter the Franciscans as a group. Many of these Franciscan Sisters shared with us the tales of the Little Flower, and Sr. Catherine, to the end of her days, cultivated roses in Thérèse’s memory. She was a woman of high intelligence and wit, but joy and simplicity, and I might add, holiness. May she rest in peace!
Here is a 2010 post by blogger Kathy Riordan in thanks of the still-remembered witness of Sr. Catherine Cecile and her Franciscan sisters.
A few very useful resources on St. Thérèse:
As usual, the Houston Catholic Worker can be relied upon for a thoughtful review, this one by James Allaire.
Here’s some information on the National Shrine of St. Therese, in Darien, Illinois.
EWTN put together a number of web pages during St. Thérèse centenary, here, and here.
Also, please see Saint Therese of Lisieux: A Gateway, which mentions the recent visit of the relics of Thérèse to Peru.
Presently, I’m reading St. Thérèse of Lisieux: Her Last Conversations. More on this when time permits!
© Copyright 2011, Albert J. Schorsch, III
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