Thérèse of Lisieux: A child of Christ, her time and ours

I have been mildly interested in Thérèse of Lisieux for years. Recent encounters with the Carmelite tradition and some Carmelite nuns seemed to make it urgent that I address the rather sneering attitude I fear I had adopted towad “the little white flower”. Here is my best attempt at a reading of interesting work on the saint, some of it old, some very new. (Longform alert: this is a 5,000 word essay.)

Three telling quotes:
“I need not become great; on the contrary I must remain little, I must become even smaller than I am”. St Thérèse, A Little White Flower: The Autobiography of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, Chapter IX, “The night of the soul”.

[Jesus:] “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” Bible, Mark 10:1

“The very subtitle on the first page gives a clue as to what we may expect: The spring-tide story of a little white flower. There is, to some minds, something infuriating about the imagery and phraseology of the imagery we encounter, as nauseating as a surfeit of marshmallows.” V Sackville-West, The Eagle and the Dove, 1943 [On St Thérèse’s “A little White Flower”.]

RDN essay begins:

Thérèse is an unlikely saint, perhaps. That makes her quite a good candidate for the Church’s admiration, which she began to garner quite seriously by the time she was 14 years old and has kept ever since. The Church, to be cynical about it, likes surprising and pleasing its faithful, and in the 19th Century even more than previously, its survival instincts drew it to populism. In France, after all, the Church faced legislative curtailment – and reasonably feared actual extinction – unless it could garner a new, massive, enthusiasm for faith and obedience and do so in a world which seemed ineluctably drawn away from the transcendental.

The Catholic, faithful, thoughtful person might mourn such realities whilst believing or rationalising that the Church must be humanly realistic in pursuing its heavenly goals. Be that as it may, Thérèse of Lisieux had a very wide appeal, even if refined sophisticates might see her promoters’ presentation of her as vulgar and even repellant.

I share most elite snobberies in an unearned way. I am also a spiritual tourist: an atheist who likes a lot in many religions, and perhaps especially the Roman Catholic church. Even in fictions, I adore the papacy: Hadrian VII is amongst my favourite novels and The Young Pope has me gripped on TV. (And yes, I know the latter is manipulative tripe. But such excellent tripe is rare.) Worse, I am also a ascetic-manqué: one who goes without very little. One way or the other, I have in my time been lazy in talking about what little I had read or experienced of Thérèse. I like the vulgarities of Lourdes, and see what I loftily call their peasant strengths as going well alongside the great relief from misery many pilgrims find there. Contrariwise, my response to Lisieux and its great saint was quite sneering. I didn’t even really bother to disentangle her actual life and writing from the spin – admiring or disparaging – put on them by succeeding generations, nor to look deeper into the originals. Mea culpa.

I should have known better since Vita Sackville-West (more formally, Victoria, Lady Nicolson CH), had written beautifully about Thérèse in her The Eagle and the Dove (1943). It was on my mother’s bookshelves and at some point I am pretty sure I read and admired it. This aristocratic Bloomsbury bohemian writer very nicely balances her understanding of the distaste felt about Thérèse’s style with a rich – a proper – appreciation of the saint’s character. “It would be but a shallow spirit, however, which peered exclusively and with a dismissive irritation at Thérèse’s mannerisms, for the tough core of heroism is there, even if it must be disinterred from under layers and layers of cotton wool”. That is so much my own impression that I wonder if I didn’t first gain at least a hint of it from VS-W.

Thérèse was not the Church’s only modern-era saviour, but she was an important contributor to its renewed fortunes. She was highly novel and yet typically modern. Hers was an intensely private story but one which was perfect for reproduction and amplification. Discussing the merit of her “little way” of spirituality, she compares it favourably with the convenience of the modern lift, or elevator. Here was a proper saint for the consumer society.

Here, too, was a young person, a devout, difficult and –  it is easy to imagine, tiresome – girl who grew into a brave and articulate young woman. It may well be that she really was a gullible, needy, demanding, egotistical brat whose winsome ways were milk-curdlingly disingenuous. Well, I am inclined to think, one can allow all that and find such a claim at the very heart of her real claim to grandeur. Go figure.

When, aged 14, Thérèse Martin insisted she wanted to enter conventual life, she was provincial, literate but otherwise minimally educated, and inexperienced. A good deal wiser (she was never every sort of fool), and amazingly tough, she died ten years later knowing the world only from letters from outside.

Back in 1887, the teenager made her first and only trip out of Normandy, to the Vatican. It is a relief to note that her party went via Venice and seem to have been eager, joyous, tourists, though with the conventional disdain of the masses she encountered. Hers was not a peasant or a poor background: she came from quite a prosperous, secure, and very loving family. Typically of her, she broke ecclesiastical protocol, hijacked a group audience, and petitioned the Pope in person to be granted special, under-age, entry to a convent. The next year, after further campaigning, she got her wish. In much of this, she seems extraordinarily a child of our times: drenched, one might say, in chippy entitlement. However, against that stereotype, she embraced the ordinary rigours and nuisances of Carmelite enclosure, and put them and, soon, her great sufferings from disease at the service of her spirituality, and thus – the logic of these things goes – of God. It is important to stress that the humiliations of monastic life are often trivial – but it is not a trivial matter when people submit to them with grace.

And yet Thérèse is always Thérèse. In demanding to be Christ’s plaything – his toy – she is claiming, in spectacular lèse-majesté, a direct, familial connection with the Holy Family. There is no sense of this all being a spiritual analogy, or a rhetorical device, at least in her mind: she has, she thinks, been gifted a special saintly relationship. Even when she suffered a “long night of the soul”, just as she was weakening with disease, it seems that her faith did not waver; rather, she lost her previous sense that Jesus was smiling upon her.  At the very least, and even if this was mostly gullible tosh, there is stubbornness at work, and at some point there is grandness in obstinacy.

That is not exactly a commonplace story, but it hardly hints at the fame Thérèse would have thrust on her almost immediately after her death. She was hugely ambitious, but whilst it is clear she expected to good deal from heaven, there is (so far as I know) no surviving word from her that she thought her earthly word and image might be useful posthumously. Like Marcus Aurelius in Ancient Rome, she wrote a deeply personal account of her thinking and spirituality; like his, it could be repetitive; like his, it was written without any obvious expectation of publication or wide promotion; like his, it became a watchword for millions. Like his private work, men carried  St Thérèse’s writings into the roar of battle.

Unlike some saints, her story does not include anything spectacular. She did not have the amazing visions in public that put her near-contemporary Bernadette Soubirous and Lourdes on the map.  She did not inflict on herself the eremitical asceticism, or have thrust on her the violent death, often associated with sainthood. Even her miracles were minor. She was not obviously attractive in any way. Extraordinarily, all of that – those lackings in drama – are the bedrock of her astonishing charisma (her charism, as the Church puts it). It is her ordinariness which makes her a revolutionary or radical saint.

The “point” of Thérèse’s spirituality is that what she wrote and said demonstrated precisely what ordinariness might be transmuted into, given grace or will-power (depending on how one sees these things).

Some features of her posthumous story are unsettling. Thérèse left a good deal of writing behind her, much of it in the very early years guided by, and in the later years ordered and then edited by, her older sister Pauline (her monastic superior), one of three Martin siblings in the Carmel at the time she lived and died there. It is not absurd to see the whole Theresian story as a family psycho-drama: her longing for her dead mother, her manipulable father, and her manipulative sisters may be the quaking bed-rock of her being. But again: so what? Such a narrative would merely reinforce the claim that we are all three-wheeled wagons that must somehow be made to run straight.

It has often been claimed that Pauline somewhat gilded the lily. In particular the older sister seemed to emphasise a rhetoric of youth and even childishness. These tropes seemed to pander to the taste for sentimentality and bathos which were then common throughout society (and not much more so amongst the Latin French than amongst the Anglo-Saxon rosbifs). More obviously than Pauline manipulated Thérèse’s writing, Celine, another older sister (and also in the convent) manipulated the images of Thérèse which became ubiquitous. Indeed, as told by Sophia Deboick, the production, reproduction and promotion of pictures of Thérèse – variously accurate and fanciful – show how sanctity and industrial capitalism can be a marriage made on earth and maybe in heaven. Again, the sugariness of the Thérèsian quotations and images were popular but not perhaps for the squeamish, though an age which worshipped Princess Diana in death and whiles away hours on the neoteny and oxytocin of YouTube can hardly complain. [A link to the Deboick paper appears below.]

Actually, for some decades – unless a monumental fraud has been committed, at least on the scale of the Turin Shroud or the manufacture of relics – we have been able to read manuscripts derived directly from Thérèse’s own hand. She seems to have accepted the language of the diminutive of her own volition, and probably as a perfectly normal child – literally, at first – of her times. If the sisters over-egged Thérèse, it doesn’t much matter: they influenced or tweaked her work rather than perverted it.

The spiritual language of Thérèse and her promoters emphasised that hers was “a little way”, suitable to someone who was not yet fully grown, and who hinted that adulthood, let alone a well-developed psyche, were not necessary to the person who sought to love God. But whilst this sort of talk is uncommon amongst great saints, it is authentically Christian. It comes straight from the Bible and from Jesus, as the Bible quotation at the top of this piece shows. The Carmelite John F Russell does a good job in unpicking the idea of “spiritual childhood” which is attributed to Thérèse. It’s a question, he lets us see, of allowing that Christ himself promoted the idea; that it has a long and serious tradition in Francis of Assisi and Bernard of Clairvaux; and that, yes, aspects of the tradition appealed strongly to the adult, tempered Thérèse as well as to the devout child. Russell then allows that Thérèse’s promoters went too far in over-simplifying even this message of simplicity. But their manipulations did not by any means obscure the core message. [A link to the Russell material appears below.]

Today’s website devoted to the Teresian sites at Lisieux (it seems official) describes the process of getting back to the original unadorned texts as seeing Thérèse in “stripped” as opposed to “sweetened” form. [A link appears below.] Almost, Thérèse unplugged. So now, and without too many contortions, the church can have it both ways. They have the sentimentalized Thérèse and the tough-nut Thérèse equally to hand, as required, and appealing to different demographics.

One useful lesson to remember from Thérèse – whether she is speaking unadorned or filtered by her sister – is that not only does she appeal to different sorts of person; she appeals to the same person differently as the reader matures. This last is beautifully discussed in a piece of writing by Stephanie Paulsell. [A link appears below.] She compares her reading of the Autobiography as it differed across three stages of her own life: as a 12 year-old (adoring, if credulous); as a 24 year-old (quite snooty about the sentimentality); and aged 44 (greatly appreciative of the strengths lurking in the saint’s work). It is almost as though this American writer’s experience is a mirror or simulacrum of the revisionism of the historiography of Thérèse’s spirituality.

Reinforced by the insights of VS-W, Deboick, Paulsell, and Russell we can insist that the deep appeal of Thérèse is that it is pettiness – her limitations – which make her powerfully instructive to people everywhere when they are daunted by their own inadequacies but seek to develop spiritually. She was immature; she was inexperienced; she was sequestered; she was ignorant; her expressions of faith were mawkish and presumptuous. Exactly as she said of herself, where she could go others could readily follow. In her ignorance, she turned out to be a worthwhile doctor of the church; in her isolation, she had special appeal for missionaries.

Hers was, indeed, a voice of constructive yearning: she was a saint whose message was not likely to be lost on anyone who knew longing and had all but given up on trying for the heights.

So what matters is not what Thérèse achieved in her life, but what she made of her absence of obvious success. Thérèse felt she had a priestly vocation and she thought she could have preached better sermons on the Virgin Mary than had any priest she had heard. She doesn’t seem to have kicked against the sexism of her Church’s teaching. Rather, she reached for a grander approach (or was it pragmatism?) and decided that St Francis was right: one could do great things without being priested. Besides, being denied what she sought in this way was just another difficulty she could put into her spirituality bag. Another case: she yearned to be a missionary, and had to put that denial to work in her own way. She imagined herself willing on the missionaries, from her cell and – she further imagined – later from heaven. She had her reward posthumously, when many missions and missionaries took her as a beacon.

The language she and her promoters adopted, and the images that were put out, though they helped with her popularity, came with the risk that they set people off in precisely the wrong direction. In fact, as her cultus thrived, it matured and it also reconsidered its roots. The result was the extraordinary phenomenon by which Thérèse came to be seen as a plausible Doctor of the Church. [Useful links appear below.] From being an emotional, and perhaps an emotionally retarded, and emotive icon of untutored feeling, her writing was seen to be replete in evidence that from a remarkably early age and throughout her young life she had things to say that were intellectually and spiritually profound for all that they came disguised or packaged in expressions which seemed naive. On inspection, she seems have been precocious in a good way.

Though she wasn’t heard whilst she lived, it turned out that she was neither quiet nor quietist. In some ways, she is more interesting than Thomas Merton, who is so famously articulate. Celebrated as a voice of protest, he was often no more original than any other ’68-er (as both Evelyn and Auberon Waugh had the temerity to point out). [Links appear below.] As a spiritual guide his value is partly that he articulated the difficulty of a soul chafing against the constraints of discipline. It does, however, seem fair to point out that in some sense he really did fail: the monk sworn to silence and stability became a polemical wanderer. Contrariwise, Thérèse triumphantly made herself become a quiet, obedient, stable monastic. In short, Merton may be a little less interesting, intellectually, than he is cracked up to be; and Thérèse a little more. Spiritually, it is more difficult to call the shots: like poetry, matters of the heart are not easily calibrated.

It seems fair to say that now the dust has settled we can be grateful to nearly all the players in the Theresian saga. To her, of course; to her promoters, even if they “sweetened” her; to those whose textual researches “stripped” her; and to those who insist that there are elements of serious value in almost every reading of the saint.

The case for Thérèse’s being a valuable spiritual guide is enhanced by any manipulation, exaggeration or over-writing to which her story has been subjected. The less like a heroine, or even a saint, she is – the weaker, the more normal, the more irritating, we find it likely that Thérèse was, whatever the spin put on her – the more we can marvel at her concomitant steeliness of determination to make whatever she was – warts and weakness and all – valuable. She did not herself insist, but her followers are free to believe, that her witness and testimony match those of saints who were far more literate or who had been vouchsafed far bigger visions and miracles or had faced far more dramatic martyrdoms.

The saint in her time

Thérèse was the complete deal. Hers was a martyrdom, witness, theology and spirituality for all. This was, to deploy the insights of Hannah Arendt in a very different context, almost a spirituality of the banal. It is surely quite useful to see that in the modern age, as perhaps it should have done before, the Church has dignified the mature, fully-fledged, spirituality of the apparently unremarkable. It has seen the glory lurking in the unspectacular. The Church might have come to that understanding without Thérèse, and Thérèse may only have sketched out that insight. But she lived it and her writing and the brilliant PR work of her sisters all made the proposition suddenly sort of obvious from the Vatican and the chateau to the suburbs and favellas. Living in the 19th Century of the First Vatican Council and its promulgation of Papal Infallibility amongst other more enduringly attractive doctrines, Thérèse might be thought a useful though unwitting precursor to the 20th Century of the Second Vatican Council (Vatican ll) which pleased many and appalled some. Vatican II was essentially about opening the Church to seeking the kind of relevance and responsiveness to popular culture and especially to informality that The Martin sisters, perhaps unconsciously, represented. It was what had been called Catholic Modernism long before it came to fruition. It is not clear, though, that Thérèse  Martin would have been a friend of the supposed liberalism of Vatican II.

In the mid-19th Century, as in the Counter-Reformation, the Church met threats to its position by a fighting retreat into strictness and authoritarianism. These moves came with a dose of narrow-mindedness and even bigotry (they eventually morphed into the far-right politics of Action Française). Sophia Deboick provides a brisk guide to this context and the several ways in which the Martin family (especially an influential uncle) were part of the reactionary Roman Catholic scene. In what now seems an augury of the fame Thérèse was to attain in death, Deboick points out that even during her life, and to her chagrin, the proto-saint in her Carmel was deployed in the notorious “Diana Vaughan” anti-Freemason hoax.

The big picture is that when asked by the secular world to be less, the Church declared its obligation to be more; asked to have broader sympathies, it narrowed itself. Papal infallibility in the Vatican and stricter penitence in the monasteries, these were what the Catholic troops wanted to steady the nerve and stiffen the sinew, and there was a huge Catholic revival, and it won over some of the most intelligent and passionate Protestants of northern Europe. There was, they thought, something magnificent in a triumphalism of the transcendental. We see it in the late 19th Century Gothic revival churches of both main European Christian strands. In England, we see it in a deep yearning by many elite figures to put themselves at the service of the Christ who was to be found in any urchin or his destitute parents. But in spite of its abhorrence of industrial society, and its earthly snobbishness, the Church also had its ancient lofty canniness, and it reached out for the message and machinations of the un-smart Martin women with open arms.

The Roman Catholic Church is a mighty institution, and as such, it is surprisingly feline. Many of its followers, of every sort, find qualities in Thérèse as they do, for instance, in the Carmelite tradition.

David Blackbourn, a leading historian 19th Century Europe with a special interest in Catholicism, emphasises that it is not helpful to see the Church of that time as just reactionary, or liberal; as elitist or populist; as legalistic or flexible. A sign of just how broad the Church was came in 1891, shortly after Thérèse became a professed nun. Pope Leo Xlll published the rather liberal encyclical Rerum Novarum, on labour and capital. I don’t know how this line went down in the Carmel of Lisieux. It was certainly a strand of thought that appealed to the intermittently faithful, really quite patrician, bibliophile, intellectual wannabe,  occasional socialist Francois Mitterrand, who endured a good deal of private pain and died with St Thérèse’s picture on his wall. As shown to us in Philip Short’s biography of the President (sub-titled, tellingly, “A study in ambiguity”) at different times, Mitterand actually represented both – several – of the competing strands of Roman Catholic life and thought at the turn of the 20th Century. Rerum Novarum might be taken as the manifesto for Democratic Socialism, or Christian Socialism. A hundred years later, Pope John Paul II produced Centesimus Annus, in effect an update of the earlier work: if Tony Blair had wanted religious authority for his Middle Way, this was it. The Young Pope posits, in effect, a clever, conflicted American returning the papacy to the world of the Martin family, if not to its greatest star.


Thérèse decided early on that she would take all the sufferings she had endured, and they were all quite ordinary even if they escalated and accumulated as the few years she had passed, and turn them from negatives into positives. Since in the end, she died horribly, that is appropriate enough. Her life was just what she wanted: a martyrdom.

Because her writing, or the version and snippets most people know of it, discusses the merit of a childlike attitude to God, it is tempting to think that she was a saint for children. That was one wing of the fate of St Francis, whose severities and cleverness may well have appealed to adults, but whose affinity with nature, such as they were, could make a pretty image for the young. Thérèse is of interest to young people and to those interested in young people, partly because of her riffing on the childlike, and partly because she was very young when she formulated her spiritual language. But the full flowering of her suffering came when she was twenty-four. Her followers must decide for themselves whether she was a young twenty-four, even a case of self-arrested development. They also need to save her from whatever infantilism she or her promoters seem to have indulged in. She died in pain and in doubt. She faced an agonised death, as many TB sufferers did, younger and older than her, before and since. She did so with what seems to be the stoicism which is given to some of the dying of any age. However, and it seems a cruel paradox, she died without the obvious consolation of a primitive, naive, childlike faith of the kind she is most famous for.

Some references

“Story of A Soul”, in Manuscripts of St Thérèse of Lisieux

John F. Russell, O.Carm., S.T.D., “St. Thérèse  and Spiritual Childhood”

Also at:

A Doctor for the Third Millennium
Letter from the O.C.D. and O. Carm. General Superiors on the occasion of the Doctorate of Saint Therese of Lisieux

Bishop Guy Gaucher on the doctorate

Sophia Deboick, “Image, Authenticity and the Cult of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, 1897-1959”

Stephanie Paulsell, “Reading St. Therese”
(In review: Shelf Life Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, trans. John Clarke, O.C.D. ICS Publications, 1975.)

Social Catholicism and Rerum Novarum, etc

The Waughs on Merton
Evelyn Waugh (the father):

Auberon Waugh (the son):

David Backbourn on the Catholic Church in the 19th Century



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Publication date

08 December 2016


Mind & body