Saint Thérèse of Lisieux: a saint for modern times, a saint for pandemic times.
In honor of the release of this stunning biography-in-verse, Paraclete is pleased to host this reading and conversation between Sarah Law and fellow poet Laura Reece Hogan.
“This is a poetry pilgrimage you’ll want to take.”
This blog post was written by Sarah Law, author of Thérèse: Poems.
Towards the end of her short life, a twenty-four-year-old woman came to the conclusion that ‘Everything is grace.’ Sister Thérèse had received little education and seen little of the world, and she died before the start of the twentieth century. But something about, or within, her life had led her to this lucid insight. It is difficult to identify exactly what qualities made her such a significant figure for many, including me. This elusive quality of grace she both perceived and embodied has drawn me back over many years (far more years of life than Thérèse had herself) to look again at her message in all its resonant littleness. And because resonant littleness is such a hallmark of her life and spirituality, it seemed appropriate for me to approach Thérèse with poetry, a form that often works with littleness as a way of approaching mystery. Such was the starting point of my collection Thérèse: Poems (published on September 2nd with Paraclete Press).
The details of Thérèse's short life are well known. Marie Françoise-Thérèse Martin was born in 1873, in Alençon, Normandy, the final child and fifth surviving daughter of Louis and Zélie Martin, devout Catholics and members of the bourgeois middle class. Thérèse’s mother died when Thérèse was four. Louis moved the family to Lisieux to be nearer to his brother-in-law, Isidore Guérin, and his family. Thérèse briefly attended school but was mostly home educated. When Thérèse was nine, her favourite older sister, Pauline, left home to enter the Carmelite convent in Lisieux. Four years later, her eldest sister, Marie, joined the same convent. Two years after that in 1888, Thérèse herself entered the Carmel.
Thérèse was an obedient, affectionate, and attentive nun. In the Carmel she developed a spirituality that was notably confident and daring rather than fearful. She died tragically young, after months of dreadful suffering, from tuberculosis in September 1897. She also struggled with doubts about the existence of heaven throughout these last months of her life, finding consolation in neither faith nor hope. But within the confines of her circumstances, her will was extremely strong, and her commitment to loving God and her religious sisters was remarkable. So too was her wider love for humanity and the sense she had, towards the end of her life, that after death she would continue her mission to help those on earth. However, at her death, another nun in the same community wondered whatever could be said about Thérèse, the young sister who had been so kind and quiet. Surely her obituary would be extremely brief?
In fact, her death-notice or circulaire, an obituary circulated among other Carmelite convents, was comprised of Thérèse’s own writings, and was in effect a book-length memoir. It was found so moving that when it became available to the general public, further print-runs were needed. By 1925 Thérèse was canonised and declared ‘the greatest saint of modern times’ by Pope Saint Pius X. She is Patroness of the Missions, of France, of Russia, and of florists. Her relics have toured the world. She remains immensely popular among devout Catholics and beyond. In 2009, thousands of people came to pay respects to her relics when they visited various venues in England, and again in Scotland in 2019. They have toured much of the rest of the world too. There is something about Thérèse which still catches at the heart.
Her memoir has never been out of print and has been translated into many languages. As well as the three manuscripts which make up The Story of a Soul and Thérèse’s own letters, poems and short plays, there are her purported last words recorded by her sisters, family correspondence, and witness statements for the beatification and canonisation processes. Through reading these, certain moments in Thérèse’s life stand out as lucid and resonant, if not conventionally significant, and from these moments I drew many of my poems. For example, when she was a very young child, she wanted to know how everyone could be filled with God’s love when so many were small and far from perfect: her older sister Pauline poured water into a tall glass and a little cup to show her that neither was fuller than the other. Another example is the ‘conversion’ from tearful sensitivity she felt one Christmas as a teenager. She prayed for Henri Pranzini, a condemned criminal, and was convinced that she had been given a sign of his conversion on the scaffold. Telling her beloved father she wanted to enter the Carmel, she was moved when he picked and gave her a little white flower. Then there is the daring spiritual metaphor she drew from her experience of being in a lift, or elevator, during her 1887 trip to Paris: she likened it to the undeserved uplift of divine love.
Moreover, when she entered Carmel, at the age of just fifteen, the strict rules and enclosed lifestyle meant that Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face (her chosen names) had to find ways of loving others and of understanding herself through instances of littleness: of helping an elderly sister to the refectory; accepting another sister’s irritating noises during prayer; finding peace and grace in chores as much as community worship, writing her poems, plays, letters, and memoir in scraps of free time, and finally enduring the physical and mental anguish of her last months. She also directed a small group of novices, and she wrote to two missionary priests, one of whom revealed his own fears and doubts to her. Had she been a man, she said, she would have become a priest. But instead she chose to become Love itself at the heart of the Church.
Thérèse was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church in 1997, and her 'Little Way' of confidence and small acts of kindness made resonant through love is well-known. But how can Thérèse help us in these extraordinary times of the coronavirus pandemic?
By the end of March 2020, the UK, like much of the rest of the world, was in lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic. A world of strict enclosure, a world where health could not be taken for granted and where fatal respiratory infection could suddenly sweep through a community: all of these contexts have become frighteningly real to me. Like many, I have become intensely aware of life's fragility, even while I have felt more drawn to prayer and simple trust than ever before.
I have wondered how Thérèse would see such a situation as our current crisis, and I have come to realise how closely in fact she did live out her life of religious enclosure in the context of ubiquitous mortality. In a time before vaccines or antibiotics, the nineteenth century saw many deaths from infectious diseases, including not only tuberculosis but also waves of lethal influenza. There was a severe outbreak of the latter in the Lisieux Carmel in Thérèse's time, when she was still a recently professed nun, one of the few who did not fall ill. She would have known the fear of infection and the exhaustion of caring for others, as many in her small community succumbed to the influenza and several died.
In addition, it is never easy to live confined with others long term, no matter the depth of our commitment to and love for them. I am sure that Thérèse experienced the added anxieties and frictions of life enclosed with others during times of heightened stress – something many households and families have also no doubt experienced with the lockdown.
I have come to feel strongly that Thérèse would view the pandemic not as a chastisement, but as yet another lesson, albeit a challenging one, in how to love. My essential understanding of Thérèse is that she saw everything in that way. She was a student of love, and the harder the lesson, the more determined she was to learn it and put it into action for the rest of her life and beyond. It is a lesson I am still trying to learn myself; I fail and relearn it every day, and I feel that Thérèse would encourage me to never give up.
A poem from Thérèse: Poems
This first poem from my collection acts as a kind of preface to the more biographical poems. The Lourdes Courtyard is the name of one of the outside spaces in the Lisieux Carmel. I imagine it as a place often filled with light and with the beautiful spiritual presence of their much-loved saint.
They come and go –
the holy souls,
to quench their thirst
in its bright water
and in this little square
where greenery courts
the dry chapel walls
a brief sunlight
finds her there,
absent and present,
sitting, hands in prayer
then standing back
by the window ledge
as though she is part
of the sun’s course, its
moving, weightless pressure,
its fleeting warmth.
Close your eyes.
It is a busy stillness,
all bees and honeysuckle.
To conclude, here is a meditation from an ongoing project of short poems and prose fragments:
Disease spreads her wings like a black moth over our mortal community. As a student of love, I will not fear her. Every ragged flutter is a puzzle for love to resolve. The conundrum is that love is both method and answer, a cool clean cloth to the fevered brow.
Mon Père, disease casts a harsh shadow – but look at the waves of light gathering in her wake.