Saturday, October 1, 2016

Feast Day of St. Therese of Lisieux: The Strong Woman Called the "Little Flower"

What broke open connecting with St. Therese for me? A good translation and a second book. I wrote about it for Patheos several years ago and Therese's feast day seems a good time to share it here.

Brede, No Treacle*: St. Therese and Rumer Godden

Canonized less than thirty years after her death, Thérèse's only book, The Story of a Soul, was enough to get her named a saint, and more recently a Doctor of the Church. Thérèse is the youngest person to be so named and only the third woman to receive this honor.

This all is quite praiseworthy. What is it, then, about this saint that divides Catholics sharply into two camps: those who love her unreservedly and those who are pointedly indifferent when her name is mentioned?

In a nutshell, it is Thérèse's own words that lead many to distastefully associate her with saccharin piety. Her autobiography was written as a young girl to her sister in the flowery, sentimental French style of the late 19th century. Older translations, if anything, heighten the over-wrought style. The other problem is the subject matter: early childhood devotion to Jesus, testimony about her relationship with Jesus, and Thérèse's struggles in the convent to do small things for Christ. Even talented writers might struggle to communicate these concepts well, much less a young woman with limited writing experience.

I read The Story of a Soul long ago because I was urged to do so by many devotees of "The Little Flower," as she is called. Wishing to politely turn off those suggestions, I read the book as fast as possible. Naturally, I got little from it.

The key, as I discovered recently, is not only to read St. Thérèse with attention, but to have a translation that cuts through her "treacle." Robert Edmonson's translation from Paraclete Press does precisely that. Thérèse's trademark piety, sincerity, and liveliness cannot be denied, but this translation makes it easier to see beneath her superficial-seeming surface to the complex person underneath. She emerges as tough, uncompromising, and heroic with a strong core of common sense.
The second experience that I had concerns the priests. Never having lived close to them, I couldn't understand the principal goal of the Carmelite reform [to pray for priests]. To pray for sinners delighted me, but to pray for the souls of priests, whom I thought of as purer than crystal, seemed astonishing to me. ...

For a month I lived with many holy priests, and I saw that if their sublime dignity raises them above the Angels, they are nonetheless weak and fragile men . ... If holy priests whom Jesus calls in the Gospel "the salt of the earth" show in their behavior that they have an extreme need of prayers, what can one say about the ones who are lukewarm? Didn't Jesus add, "But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?" [Mt 5:13]
Her observation sadly resonates all too well with the modern reader. The 15-year-old Thérèse is revealed as someone who faces the truth and applies the only action she can take, which is prayer.

Thérèse also reveals her extreme struggles to love her neighbors in the convent, often accompanied by a lively sense of the ridiculous. There is the example of her determination to assist an elderly Sister down a long hallway after dinner, which begins with the aged woman shaking her hourglass at Thérèse to get her attention. This contains so much truth, conveyed with such good humor, that we can see the Sister's personality exactly because we know people just like her. Thérèse is never afraid to laugh at herself either.
... I've made a sort of speech about charity that must have tired you out reading it. Forgive me, beloved Mother, and remember that right now the nurses are practicing on my behalf what I've just written. They're not afraid to go two miles when twenty steps would suffice. So I've been able to observe charity in action! ...

When I begin to take up my pen, here's a good Sister who passes near me, a pitchfork over her shoulder. She thinks she's entertaining me by chatting with me a little. Hay, ducks, hens, a doctor's visit, everything's on the table. To tell you the truth, that doesn't last long, but there's more than one good, charitable Sister, and suddenly another hay cutter drops some flowers in my lap, thinking that perhaps she'll inspire some poetic ideas in me. Not seeking out flowers right then, I would prefer that they remain attached to their stems.
It has become fashionable to discount St. Thérèse's spiritual struggles by filtering them through modern perspectives. Biographers look at the girl whose mother died when she was very small, at her "abandonment" by her older sisters as they one by one entered the convent, at her early entry into the cloister. They speak of neuroses and a stifled personality by living in the unrealistic atmosphere of the convent.

It's better to take Thérèse at her word. Many people suffered similar life circumstances and worse, but were never suffused with the love of God, or the wisdom, that Thérèse relates.

An antidote to the heaping of modern perspectives onto Thérèse's insights might be to read one of the finest books ever written about convent life. In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden is fictional but it portrays cloistered convent life in such a real, luminous way that it could be mistaken for an autobiography.

Philippa Talbot, a successful career woman in her 40s, leaves London to join a cloistered Benedictine community. Once she enters, the narrative never leaves that setting, yet the story is riveting. There are mysteries and minor intrigues, but the focus is on the characters, who are fully realized with flaws and virtues alike. Readers soon realize that life among the religious is no easier path; an enclosed community requires more Christian development from the souls within, not less.

Rumer Godden lived at the gatehouse of an English enclosed community for three years while writing In This House of Brede, during which time she converted to Catholicism, and eventually became a Benedictine Oblate. The deep understanding that comes from real exposure to the life infuses the novel with such authenticity that the book is still recommended by actual cloistered religious to those who wonder what such life can be like.

Godden had a talent for looking into the heart of what makes us truly human, both good and bad. In holding up her characters' flaws, she holds up a mirror into which we blush to look, even when the flaws seem relatively minor.
... Odd, she [Philippa] had thought, I never seriously visualized coming out of Brede again; it had not occurred to her, but in those minutes it occurred painfully. She could have blushed to think how once she had taken it for granted that, if she made enough effort—steeled herself—it would be settled. "I know," Dame Clare said afterwards. "I was as confident. Once upon a time I even thought God had taste, choosing me!"

Dame Perpetua had been more blunt. "Weren't you surprised that God should have chosen you?" a young woman reporter, writing a piece on vocations, had asked her. "Yes," Dame Perpetua had answered, "but not nearly as surprised that he should have chosen some of the others—but then God's not as fastidious as we are."
Rumer Godden is the talented writer who provides perspective for the cloistered life that Thérèse experienced. Her insights into the rich, full life that can be had in the convent are the final antidote for those who believe otherwise.

I am no longer indifferent to St. Thérèse. She has become a solid friend who has provided good advice for overcoming my faults and loving my neighbors better. Thanks to Robert Edmonson and Rumer Godden, there are new lessons to be learned both for those who are devoted to St. Thérèse and those who are indifferent.

Treacle = British for molasses (sort of)

Wikipedia sez: The most common forms of treacle are the pale syrup that is also known as golden syrup and the darker syrup that is usually referred to as dark treacle or black treacle. Dark treacle has a distinctively strong flavour, slightly bitter, and a richer colour than golden syrup,[3] yet not as dark as molasses.

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