Amongst all the attention I bring on St. Joan of Arc, I too seldom make mention of the other half of the dynamic duo, St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Thérèse joined the Carmelite order at age 15 (younger than most). Her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, written under obedience to her superior, became a spiritual classic soon after her death in 1897 at the age of twenty-four. She was canonized on May 17, 1925 by Pope Pius XI and declared a secondary co-patroness of France, on equal footing with Joan of Arc, by Pope Pius XII. Thérèse also wrote recreational plays and poetry, some imbued with her love for and fascination with Joan of Arc. Thérèse’s book is one of the most influential in my own spiritual development, and her poetry and plays about Joan completely shook my world and brought about my intense devotion to the latter.
Thérèse was named a Doctor of the Church by Pope St. John Paul II. Though she never finished formal schooling or went to university, her theological and spiritual brilliance is recognized the world over.
It is easy to be drawn into sentimentality with Thérèse’s style. Here is a young teenage French girl who writes in a very baroque style, and who displays a high degree of sentimentality herself. Yet, that is not what drew me to her spirituality.
Thérèse had a very highly developed intellect. By that I mean the structure of her intellect exuded both profundity and clarity. She was not schooled in philosophy; yet, her mental structure far surpassed in quality and dignity the greatest of the philosophers. Her use of metaphor was powerful in conveying deep philosophical, spiritual, and theological concepts. She could say in one metaphor what Thomas Aquinas would take a book to say, or so I have always felt. Her metaphor of Jesus’ garden of souls that she introduces early in her autobiography is the foundation, the very substrate, of my own model which is over a decade in the making.
Thérèse is the archetype, the model, for a key concept in my model, namely, that it is the intellectual structure of the mind, not formal learning, that is most significant in approaching the “event horizon,” as I call it, between supernatural grace and natural understanding. The intellectual structure most suitable for approaching the event horizon is simple, receptive, and clear. That for which we should seek in high-learning philosophy and theology is not “much” intellect but “right” intellect.
The structure of Thérèse’s intellect is, in my mind, the most powerful force in her writings, as opposed to the flowery sentimentality upon which many focus and that is to be expected from an 18th century French teenage girl. Everything I seek in my own lengthy, often cumbersome and poorly structured philosophical writings is enshrined in Thérèse’s simple but “right” intellect.
I read highly educated philosophers, masters at their universities, seeking only to obtain the intellectual structure of a young 18th century Carmelite nun who never finished high school or went to university. Perhaps I simply should spend more time reading the nun.
As an aside, it is a fact that on her trip to Rome around the age of fourteen, she stayed at the same hotel in Paris, on the same night, as did Friedrich Nietzsche. Perhaps they came across each other in the hallway, or standing in line at reception, or out front after check out. What a mystery. Thérèse walking past Nietzsche in the hallway, perhaps smiling with a “bonjour!” or a bonsoir!” There is a book somewhere just in that simple encounter.