Left: St Thérèse of Lisieux, the 33nd Doctor of the Church.
In 1997, Pope John Paul II declared St Thérèse of Lisieux a Doctor of the Church, creating a bit of a theological scandal. It has largely been forgotten now, since the voices of women throughout the world went up in a chorus of "amens"--drowning out the Vatican insiders (always men; I recall not a single female objection) who shook their heads and rolled their eyes heavenward. He did what? He declared her--(shocked silence)-- a Doctor of the Church?
I recall a few writers even suggesting it was further proof that he was senile, and what are we going to do with this pontiff? It's the Parkinson's. He's lost his mind.
Indeed, it was likely the Parkinson's. The razzle-dazzle papacy of JPII was coming to an end. The dashing actor and Archbishop, one of the dynamic intellectual architects of Vatican II, was a charismatic priest who once enjoyed hiking and skiing in his spare time. A multilingual diplomat, he unapologetically gave the finger to the Soviets, thereby garnering cultlike fans all over the Eastern bloc, as well as Western Europe. He was enthusiastically elected Pope and reigned with aplomb; my heart swelled every time I saw him. When he was shot, I wept. And then, as he suffered with Parkinson's, I remember feeling actual pain.
Of course, he would take refuge in this modest young woman's spiritual writings. Like him, she endured horrific pain and physical decline. She was ravaged with tuberculosis and died in 1897, at the age of 24.
The Little Way of St Thérèse, subject of endless novenas, prayer cards and pamphlets, was widely regarded as treacly women's stuff, rather like those little self-help books one might buy at the check-out counter at Walmart. Women loved St Thérèse; her philosophy was identifiably and obviously feminine and passive. Everything, every little tiny thing, all acts, all thoughts, all goals... must be offered to God. Even the smallest thing: sweeping floors, cooking beans, kind words. Everything is for God. Pain, too, must be offered to God: a living sacrifice, joined to the Passion of Christ, who also suffered, as we are suffering.
And we must do all things with love. She wrote: "You know well enough that Our Lord does not look so much at the greatness of our actions, nor even at their difficulty, but at the love at which we do them."
This self-consciousness of the Carmelite, the constant spiritual self-interrogation of the contemplative life, therefore entered mainstream Catholic consciousness for the first time. The similarities to Buddhism are striking.
And as our dynamic in-your-face Pope lost strength and experienced his sharp physical decline, he embraced the young saint known as "the Little Flower"--who was so unabashedly popular with teenaged girls and housewives. He did MORE than merely embrace her. He decided she deserved to be placed in the same category as St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas.
Of course she does, but how unbelievable a man--a Pope!--would say so. Writer Stephen Sparrow relates this account of his visit to Lisieux:
Late afternoon I farewelled my new friends and started walking to the station to catch a train back to Paris. Being a hot day I entered a pub for a cold beer. The publican told me he had lived in Lisieux for only a couple of years having bought the business with redundancy money. He was curious about what a Kiwi was doing in town and asked if there was a religious significance to my visit and learning there was, proceeded to shake his head and say he couldn’t understand why people came from all over the world to visit a shrine honouring an obscure nun who did nothing except write down some deep thoughts. ‘She did nothing, nothing at all,’ he kept repeating. I refrained from pointing out that if his thinking caught on, the economic outlook for both the town and his pub would be gloomy to say the least and asked instead if he had ever read anything Thérèse had written. Not surprisingly he hadn’t, so I told him he might discover something important if he took the trouble to read her autobiography and urged him to make a start. The discussion was cut short by the imminent arrival of the train but it highlighted how much ill informed opinion exists about St Thérèse, even in the town in which she grew up and lived."Ill-informed opinion"? No, this man was correct. Her life was modest and austere; she was a simple nun. And that was the whole point.
Her proper title is Sainte Thérèse de l'Enfant-Jésus et de la Sainte Face ("Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face"). Her book, which took the world by storm, was titled, simply, The Story of a Soul. (you can download it here) She seemed childish and quaint, and most theological heavies ignored the book at the time.
"Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden me. The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love."Needless to say, this wasn't considered serious. But oh, how serious it is. It is the most serious thing of all.
As women have entered the world's discourse, we have brought our inspiration and our sensibilities with us. We have made Martha Stewart and Oprah rich; we have forced people to deal with women as Speaker of the House and candidates for President. We have made our own movies and our own art. And we have our own saint, too, who told us that "each small task of everyday life is part of the total harmony of the universe" and reminded women that our work of love--childrearing, laundry, cooking, caring, vigils for the sick--is the living embodiment of the Gospels: "Without love, deeds, even the most brilliant, count as nothing."
Blessed St Thérèse, pray for us.
For more on St Thérèse:
Official website of Sainte Thérèse
Society of the Little Flower
National Shrine of St Thérèse of Lisieux
Tend your Garden of Moral Loneliness
St Thérèse of Lisieux - Catholic Online