While on retreat last summer I read Monica Furlong’s scholarly examination of the life of Thérèse of Lisieux. Furlong immediately places Thérèse historically, theologically, and relationally in a dynamic interplay of person and place in time. This is what I learned.
Thérèse lived from January 2, 1873 until September 30, 1897. She was one of nine children born to Zelie and Louis Martin in Alençon, France. The Martins were dedicated Catholics influenced by Jansenism, which believed that grace was irresistible, thus one was predestined for heaven or hell. This religious background fed a moralistic and at times, morbid spirituality. Monica Furlong observes excessive self-examination along with diminishment of the joys of this world in the Martin household.
Furlong’s brief history of Christianity will help us understand the spirituality Thérèse expressed. Judaism’s patriarchal assumptions were taken into Christianity. Although women were active and responsible participants in the early Christian church, “the young church . . . rejected women as potential leaders . . . and much of their formative influence on Christianity was lost” (Furlong 2 intro).
Greek philosophy also influenced the early Christian church, with its emphasis on the separation of the mind from the body. Then the interpretation of the world as a conflict between good and evil, taught in Manicheism, added to this dualistic perception of the world. Here Furlong identifies a “dramatic split at the heart of experience” (3 intro). When Christians could have chosen to organize their spirituality in the light of unity and bliss they chose instead “fantasies of conflict and punishment” (Furlong 3 intro).
Even though the central teaching of the Christian faith is that God became incarnate, spirituality remained disembodied, leaving the integration of the person’s experiences of flesh and emotional realities of their lives misunderstood and dishonored. This theology encouraged and sanctioned physical austerities within the Carmel convent, which Thérèse and four sisters joined. These are painful accounts for me to read. Thérèse’s experiences of extreme devotion and extreme suffering were not uncommon, but were in fact regarded as appropriate to the life of a nun.
Thus, much of her life remained unexamined. For example, after her father passed away, Thérèse decided it was time for her youngest sister to join the convent. And as Furlong states, “Nothing, not Celine’s own wishes, those of a cherished priest or a fellow-sister, counted beside such a dream.” For Thérèse had made up her mind. “The contradictions of Thérèse’s nature strike us, the extraordinary egotism buried in the claimed of self-abandonment” (94).
Thérèse fantasized about achieving heroic feats for her Jesus. She would willingly have even been martyred. As I reread this discussion in Furlong’s work, I believe Thérèse was martyred in the restricted life of her convent. Lacking any acceptable model of a dynamic life outside the oppressive religious system she knew, she surrendered to this simple life where her greatest work had to be in minutiae—am I loving in this moment, and this, and this? Thus Thérèse turns inward. She tames her ambitions with a strict discipline of attending to her power to love in the few relationships she is allowed in her closed convent. So we have her ‘Little Way’ or ‘Little Doctrine.’ (96).
Biographers have long elevated Thérèse’s tenderness and surrender to loneliness and pain, in “one of the favorite moulds of traditional female sanctity” (Furlong 1 intro). But Furlong is willing to observe that her passion for God drew her out of anything like a normal adolescence for her time and an brought her to an early death at the age of twenty-four.
A question that I form in the postmodern period is this. “Is Thérèse really so expert at noticing the movement of the Holy Spirit in her life? I am always looking for freedom in life. Can we step away from that which entangles us, stand up straight and see the road for ourselves? Can we do more than normalize bizarre behavior, when it occurs, in those around us? I wonder, how was it that Catherine of Siena lived so largely in her patriarchal age? How is that that some women have, even within the church, lived with so much more influence in their time? And as I am forming that question, I am wondering too, if the scope of a life in one’s lifetime, is any way to judge a life at all.
How can we respect Thérèse when we now know that the very structures of society that made her work possible are faulty? Well, how can we respect ourselves, once our own spirituality is revealed as less than ideal, free or healthy?
One way I have been able to think about my own life is to understand that although the meaning I had assumed my life held was dismantled before my eyes, my life still is meaningful. In fact, as I shared in class last week, I believe that my engagement in a community identifying itself as trustworthy, that later proved untrustworthy, is doubly valued by God. I did what I could in a crooked system. So did Thérèse. The difference between us is that many of the false constructs of my world have been revealed and dismantled. Therese simply trusted. She was not able to identify those who used her gift of faith for their own advantage. If she had lived into her forties or fifties, I wonder how her relationships and spirituality would have changed.
Many would desire for Thérèse to be treated as a real person, less like a miniature angel in her home. Many would desire that the doors of any convent be closed to her until she is at least a few years older than sixteen. Many would desire that she be fed a balanced diet at the convent once admitted. Many would desire that she be cared for with appropriate medical intervention when ill.
Mistakes were made. But were they mistakes? Could it be that her life is perfectly meaningful just as it occurred? It seems to me that our lives are very much like parts in a cosmic drama. While we are occupied in our roles or labors, we only know in part why we live so. I think it will be incredible to see our lives from another realm.