St. Thérèse unknowingly mastered phenomenology, which is the reason her simple childlike way is so compelling. She approaches us from the standpoint of experience and interpretive hermeneutics rather than academic deduction. The dry path of knowledge through rigorous analysis of medieval metaphysics, while necessary, does not readily connect with our lived experience. It confirms us in our faith but rarely, if ever, drives us to unravel mystery, which is what phenomenology accomplishes in us. Thérèse wrote in a way that evokes a sense of mystery – a sense that something is there – what is it?
A key figure in phenomenology, Martin Heidegger was instrumental in influencing modern philosophy to ask the same question. He developed a single concept that summed up his philosophy – presence is not being. There always is something hidden – what is it? Like Thérèse he knew that the dry path of knowledge through rigorous analysis would never reveal what was hidden. To understand the true meaning of being, we need to look at the reality of lived experience that precedes the science of rigorous analysis leading to unhelpful and uninspiring pre-conceived ideas about that meaning. We need to let being speak to us rather than us telling being what it is through our theories.
“…then the decisive question, and the place where an answer to the crisis is to be found, is in bringing the subject matters under investigation to an original experience, before their concealment by a particular scientific inquiry.”Heidegger, Martin. History of the Concept of Time (Studies in Continental Thought) (pp. 4-5). Indiana University Press. Kindle Edition.
The more we measure, weigh, and otherwise analyze as our starting point, the more true being withdraws because “presence is not being,” or we might say, “its current presentation is not its true being.” The more we develop theory and think we understand something (analyzing its presence) the more the true essence of a thing (its true being) is hidden. He was on the right track; he urged us in the right direction. To avoid the pitfall of driving being into hiding, we must approach the meaning of being phenomenologically.
This amounts to saying that the manner of research is neither historiological nor systematic, but instead phenomenological.Heidegger, Martin. History of the Concept of Time (Studies in Continental Thought) (p. 7). Indiana University Press. Kindle Edition.
Unfortunately, Heidegger’s metaphysics were bad (not to mention his politics). He forsook the metaphysics of Aquinas for that of Friedrich Nietzsche. That left him pointing in the right direction and asking the right questions but with a metaphysics that could lead nowhere but to the angst and fear of death – to nothingness – to an admiration for Nietzsche’s “eternal recurrence.”
What if we ask the right questions and approach the meaning of being but with a good metaphysics? This is what Thérèse does for us. For Thérèse God not only is the first cause (necessary but dry scholastic knowledge – an analysis of presence), God is the “first phenomenon” of lived experience (true being through hiddenness in mystery). God is the “original experience” Heidegger seeks. Our Little Flower frames her autobiography from the outset with a stunning display of phenomenological insight imbued with proper metaphysics.
Our Lord has deigned to explain this mystery to me. He showed me the book of nature, and I understood that every flower created by Him is beautiful, that the brilliance of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not lessen the perfume of the violet or the sweet simplicity of the daisy. I understood that if all the lowly flowers wished to be roses, nature would lose its springtide beauty, and the fields would no longer be enameled with lovely hues. And so it is in the world of souls, Our Lord’s living garden. He has been pleased to create great Saints who may be compared to the lily and the rose, but He has also created lesser ones, who must be content to be daisies or simple violets flowering at His Feet, and whose mission it is to gladden His Divine Eyes when He deigns to look down on them. And the more gladly they do His Will the greater is their perfection… As the sun shines both on the cedar and on the floweret, so the Divine Sun illumines every soul, great and small, and all correspond to His care–just as in nature the seasons are so disposed that on the appointed day the humblest daisy shall unfold its petals.St. Therese of Lisieux. The Story of a Soul (Illustrated) (pp. 14-15). Kindle Edition.
Heidegger proposed that every great philosopher has one idea that they spend their life developing. With her metaphor of the “book of nature”, Thérèse presents us with her one idea that she develops both intellectually and through lived experience into a towering model of spirituality – her “little way” of childlike trust in God. She revealed for us a heavenly Augustinian/Platonic form for the perfection of souls through the divine order inherent in the grace of Our Lord. To reveal the Platonic form and then explain it, she first had to contemplate “an original experience, before their concealment by a particular scientific inquiry” and develop a manner of correlative insight that was “neither historiological nor systematic, but instead phenomenological.”
Thérèse opened for us a spirituality of mysticism that is ordinary. She unlocked for us the “little way,” the pathway of childlike trust in God that is imbued with the “ordinary” mysticism of phenomenology. Not everyone is a St. Francis, a St. Teresa of Jesus, a St. John of the Cross, or a St. Padre Pio with special signal graces, even stigmata, creating new spring times for the universal Church. However, everyone can live the unremarkable way of Thérèse, a way of “original experience” and phenomenological purity in that experience through proper metaphysics. The “little way” is the way of ordinary mysticism. We all can participate in ordinary mysticism.
Martin Heidegger could see what was needed to understand the true meaning of our being. He profoundly changed the world through a simple concept that “presence is not being.” The result was that we must seek meaning through original experience, through an ordinary type of mysticism. St. Thérèse might agree. However, by choosing the lens of Nietzsche rather than that of Aquinas, Heidegger had nowhere to find life in that ordinary mysticism. Only four days after Heidegger’s eighteenth birthday, St. Thérèse of Lisieux died in the loving embrace of Jesus, who is the source of her, and of all, life-giving metaphysics. Thérèse experientially lived and wrote under order of her superior about the magnificence of her encounter with THE “original experience,” THE original phenomenon, Jesus Christ.
Martin Heidegger could have found all the answers he would spend the rest of his life seeking had he avoided Nietzsche and read one small book as the soil from which to develop his one idea – The Story of a Soul by St. Thérèse.