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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
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." (PO 369 rº/vº)
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
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.
"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.
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