St. Thérèse: Doctor of the Church

He did it! For some months there had been a rumor that Pope John Paul II might declare St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897) a doctor of the Church, and on Sunday, September 24, at the International Youth Congress in Paris, he did so. The pope thus completed the circle by which Thérèse Martin, despite her tender age of fourteen, traveled to Rome with her father to request, at the knees of Leo XIII, permission to enter the Carmelite convent of LeMans. He did it almost 100 years to the day after her excruciating death of pulmonary tuberculosis on September 30, 1897—a death that she had offered to her divine lover for the benefit of suffering souls around the world, particularly in the mission lands.

The event in Paris touched me deeply. My daughter Tanya (second baptismal name, Thérèse) was born on the feast day of St. Thérèse, October 3. Since the time I was twelve or so, no saint has been closer to me. Thérèse is a saint of simplicity, of childlike love for God, and kindliness toward all God’s creatures. Therese is now also a doctor of the Church—the second woman to be so, after her Carmelite namesake, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Catherine of Siena. There is, I think, much rejoicing in the Church, in heaven and on earth.

For years, I have made a habit of visiting Catholic churches around the world to seek out a statue of St. Thérèse—in Bangladesh, in Mexico, in Eastern Europe, wherever—and only in one, I believe, have I failed to discover a statue. (There are, besides, more than 2500 churches worldwide named in her honor. One in Johnstown was our family parish for a brief but happy time.) Even before she had been officially declared a saint, in 1924—a record for brevity of time between death and canonization—Therese had been the most beloved patroness of the French troops in the trenches of World War I, and she was with joy declared the patroness of France, the eldest daughter of the Church, coequal with St. Joan of Arc. How could it be so, since she had never set foot outside her Carmelite cloister after the age of seventeen?

Thérèse played a significant role in the conversion of Clare Boothe Luce (so Clare once told me), and she taught a new way of being Christlike to millions upon millions. In her simplicity, she went to the essence of Christianity: God is love, suffering love, and all he asks of us is that, moment by moment, staccato second by staccato second, we purposefully open our hearts to his action within us. We don’t have to act with our own power, not when he offers us his. To be a saint, it is not necessary to do great things. It suffices to do all the daily tasks we face with all the love God suffuses into us, even when we do not feel its presence, but are left in aridity. In that case, we trust God in the night, the inner darkness that may be our lot, as it was Therese’s during much of her short life. She told God that she did not need the feeling of loving him; she was content to come to him with nothing in her hands. She wanted to show him that she would not waver, as long as he chose to hide his face.

An evangelical Protestant might say this sounds suspiciously like justification by faith. And so it in effect is, but Thérèse would certainly have called it justification by love—not our love, but God’s love poured into us.

Visitors to the Notre Dame campus will find a three-foot statue of St. Thérèse of Lisieux on the far side of St. Mary’s Lake, almost exactly opposite the log chapel where the university began, built by missionary priests from the suburb of Saint-Croix outside LeMans, before Thérèse was even born. My friend Charlie Cingolani and I put that statue up with our own hands (you can tell from the amateurish workmanship of the base) in 1948 or 1949, when we were seminarians in Holy Cross Hall, which stood nearby before its demolition. Our classmates helped to pay for it—about $100, I think, and it came from France or Italy. We got the idea from our summer bicycle trips to the Carmelite monastery in Loretto, Pennsylvania, near our hometowns. It was, I believe, the first monastery named for St. Thérèse in America, or perhaps anywhere in the world, and we used to attend early Mass there at daybreak, and pray matins with the unseen nuns on the other side of the grille. (You can imagine what memories flood my mind when I listen to the popular new CDs of women singing Gregorian chant.)

Those lucky enough to see the film made in France a decade or so ago about the life of this hidden young saint, called simply Thérèse, will have some idea of the suffering and narrow confines of her life. As she foresaw, and wrote, this did not prevent the love of God in her from coming to manifest itself in every part of the world, and from teaching millions a way to sanctity that is hidden, humble, and potent. She called it her little way, a way not by great things, but by ordinary deeds done with God’s intensity.

In this way, Thérèse anticipated the nouvelle theologie of such great twentieth-century theologians as Henri de Lubac, S.J., and Hans Urs von Balthasar (whose own book on Thérèse shows how much more complicated a great mind can be in expressing the pure and simple and direct insights of Thérèse). For Thérèse showed how grace—God’s active love—works in and through nature, not (as some have pictured it in recent centuries) on top of it, like icing on a cake. It is not the icing but the yeast. Thérèse saw nature intact and whole, and she rejoiced in every aspect of it, even its broken, incomplete, and distorted parts, because she saw it suffused with the solicitations of God’s love. Better than most theologians she saw grace and nature as one and yet distinct. She did not collapse them into one another; neither did she keep them separated. She saw God’s love acting through everything that is.

Still, to say “saw” of Thérèse—she “saw” God’s redeeming love—risks falsifying Thérèse’s witness. Often, for years on end, she saw nothing; she looked for her beloved, and no one appeared. It is wrong to imagine that Thérèse constantly experienced burning ardor, eyes afire with vision, faith alive with sight. She didn’t. She spent years in darkness, seeing what you and I see, ordinary things, and of God nothing at all.

Faith is not a feeling, not even a feeling of devotion, not an ardor. It is often, so far as ordinary sentiments go, an emptiness, an aridity, a dry torment, a mind jumbled with distraction, directionless, unfeeling. Faith is a calm and feelingless redirecting of mind and will toward the unseen love, notable more for its steadiness and willingness to go on acting just as it would if it had been carried along by transports of joy, instead of being left bereft of signs and comforts. Only in that way can faith be tested for truth, steadfastness, and authenticity. Only in that way is it shown to be the real thing.

Until some years ago, I think I had read everything that Thérèse had ever written. Yet in the last twenty years, new documents have come to light, and unexpurgated versions of her earlier writings—they had been edited by her older sister, who was also a Carmelite—have now been published. So I have been promising myself another visit to the whole body of her thought. It has never failed to lead me through complexities, to cut to the quick, to have immediate practical bearing. Many of the best minds I have met—Balthasar (in his book), John Courtney Murray (it was he, I believe, who introduced Clare Boothe Luce to Therese), Clare herself—report a piercing experience upon reading Thérèse. She is a kind of measuring rod, her thought true and straight, seeming to come directly from the simplicity of Christ in the gospels. To be a doctor, one does not have to have a doctorate in theology, a test that even Jesus did not pass.

We are lucky to have now a truly spectacular book, Thérèse and Lisieux, published—wonderful event!—by an evangelical publishing house, Eerdmans. It offers us candid and lavish photos of the material things of Therese’s life: her home, her holy cards, her books, schools she attended, people she knew, streets she walked, the interior of the convent, the sisters she lived with and died among. It is a wonderful incarnational book, recreating the look and feel of that time and place. The book’s magnificent photos are by the award winning Helmuth Nils Loose, and its fact packed, memory jogging text by a devotedly studious priest, Pierre Descouvemont. Simply by providing context for the photographs, Descouvemont weaves together one of the most engaging biographies I have encountered. The book is 330 pages, and there are 600 photos, including some of important texts in Thérèse’s life, so you can see that every page has one or more photos.

There are many photos of Thérèse herself—the unretouched ones, discovered only in recent years—and photos of the nuns she lived with, the interior of the convent and of her cell, the monstrance used for exhibition of the Blessed Sacrament, the pictures of the holy face of Jesus, that tormented face taken from the shroud of Turin, that so moved her. Before Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas, Thérèse knew the importance of encounter and of the human face. The name she was given in Carmel was Thérèse of the Infant Jesus and of the Holy Face: the face beaten and spat upon, sweaty and blood-streaked, infinitely sad, the face that also inspired the painter Georges Rouault. She kept that face always before her.

In the years 1873 to 1897, what social class could have been more despised than the petty bourgeoisie? What form of life could have been thought more narrow, more conventional, more stifling? Against which world did the novelists and the artists rail more—even the Catholic artists such as Claudel, Mauriac, and Bloy—than the bourgeoisie of the fin-de-siecle, with their sentimentalities, love of order, and efficient, comfortable sweetness? This was the world that formed Thérèse. The youngest daughter of a physician, the home that nourished her, we see in these stunning photographs, was solid as its oaken furniture, well appointed as its colorful needlepoint tablecloths, orderly in the conventions it observed. This was the world the artists mocked. Once again, we see the Lord choosing the poor and despised things of this world as the best in which to reveal himself.

A year after Thérèse’s painful death—during her last weeks she almost suffocated many times as her lungs deteriorated with tuberculosis—her sisters arranged the publication of the notes about her life that her prioress had asked her to leave. The edition was cheap and the press run a modest 2000. It kept being reprinted and selling out, in ever more presentable editions. Thérèse became canonized in the eyes of the people years before the Vatican even opened its process of inquiry, and the trickle of miracles attributed to her intercession swelled into a torrent. This would not have surprised Thérèse. She said that after her death she would rain roses (that is, miracles) on the earth. She changed our very idea about heaven. She hated to hear talk of rest or reward, saying that she intended to spend her heaven doing good upon earth. She believed penetratingly that this is what God does, what God’s love wishes to do ever more extensively. She wanted to help open souls to let him act in them.

In this way, Thérèse claimed that she would also be— even from her little cell in Carmel, with the name of St. Stanislav written above it (one can see it clearly in a photo)— a missionary, a priest in the cure of souls, and a martyr. You don’t have to leave home for a foreign land to be a martyr, she believed; she had known the suffering of her father in his old age, and she knew her own illness and had long borne a terrible inner aridity.

Among her sisters during recreation hours, she was the one they counted on for puns, jokes, and delicious mimicry of the convent doctor and others in their lives. She thought God shows his love through good humor, not least when we keep it up despite our feelings. Only after her death, reading her reflections, did those sisters begin to see the aridity and pain she had lived with almost all her years in the convent. For years, she could not feel belief in God or heaven or eternal life; only emptiness, and the fear that she was deluded in her choice of life.

As we learn from Fr. Descouvemont’s text, she told her successive confessors of these doubts; the first one said not to linger on them—which wasn’t bad advice in itself, but also wasn’t much help. A new confessor at the convent told her this was a trial that many most loved by God had long endured; what matters is not our feelings, but the quiet witness of our daily actions (which express our will, despite our feelings). This is just what she herself believed, but she was much helped by knowing that she was walking a recognizable path. From then on, she flew. One day, some months later, as suddenly as it had descended, the cloud of doubt lifted; not so, though, the aridity.

In a way, Thérèse was glad not to be gifted with sweet feelings when she prayed; she wanted the comfort to go to the one behind the holy face, who suffered so much. She particularly suffered much from distractions, inner desolation, and inability to concentrate after receiving the Lord in Communion, but this, too, strangely pleased her, we learn from Fr. Descouvemont. She believed that by suffering her love would be purer, more intense, and more useful to God in granting graces to those in need. Her belief suggests that God has designed the world in such a way that, if certain petitions of suffering are made, then certain contingencies in line with those petitions will fall into place; and otherwise not. God is not a manipulator of events, but he has created the whole vast contingent complex of history with infinite love, on the model of the suffering love revealed in his Son. According to that model, the love that humans return to him bears fruit far beyond their ken. Humans in their freedom are called to be coworkers with him in bringing his love to one another.

The generosity of an evangelical publisher such as Eerdmans in publishing this book is a great event, much to be celebrated. Physically and intellectually, it is a beautiful book. The price is steep—the price of two books, maybe even three ($60). But it is worth sacrificing two or three other books, and it will make an unforgettable gift. It is the sort of book that will change lives. You will not come from it seeing the world the same way. It will open up new worlds of humble possibility to you, and bring you great joy, as it has done for me.

Thérèse really is a doctor of the Church. She really does teach, and no writer of theology you have ever read will carry you so unerringly to the living heart of the gospels, so limpidly and beautifully put. Perhaps, some will say, the title “doctor” should be reserved to those with erudition, who wrestle with the complexities of faith and the many conceptual systems through which the faith has been expressed in history. But I for one am delighted that it is also used for an innocent child, who standing in the midst of the doctors, confounded them with how clearly the Lord has taught her to see things. St. Pius X called her the greatest saint of modern times. Emmanuel Mounier, the great lay founder of the influential journal Esprit, liked to say Therese is a ruse of the Holy Spirit, and I would add, a ruse to confound entire national theological societies, even today.

Therese anticipated the Second Vatican Council and the great pontificate of John Paul II by nearly 100 years, through the love that poured through her as a vessel of light and grace for the scores of millions who repair to her teaching. It is the teaching of the gospels for those who come to them to learn as little children, even though they are much burdened adults, in need of mercy and the love of God.


Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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