The Inspiration of St. Therese of Lisieux

St. Therese and the Bohemians – Santiago (of Causa Belli and the newer, less politically-oriented blog Constantly Risking) has written a post on the attraction of the Little Flower, St. Therese:

An interesting phenomenon I’ve noticed in my reading is that of the hip, young, radical writer encountering the meek St. Therese of Lisieux. I guess it’s fair to say that I don’t have enough evidence to claim that this phenomenon constitutes a universal pattern, but it’s happened more than once, maybe three times. It usually goes like this: a young writer says, “What could this little bourgeois girl possibly know about God and the plight of the modern believer?” Then the young writer reads her work and is a bit astonished to find out the answer: Quite a lot.

Santiago cites as three examples: Thomas Merton (Seven Storey Mountain); Tony Hendra (Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul) and Michael Novak (who discusses his encounter in “Controversial Engagements” First Things 92 (April 1999): 21-29.).

It is an interesting phenomenon, and one other bohemian comes to mind — Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, who was introduced to The Story of a Soul by her confessor, Father Zachary, in 1928:

. . . an unbound book which had a tan cover with a not too attractive picture of a young nun with a sweet, insipid face, holding a crucifix and a huge bouquet of roses. I was by now familiar with the statutes of this little sister which were to be seen in every church. . . . I wasn’t looking for anything so simple and felt slightly aggrieved at Father Zachary. Men, and priests too, were very insulting to women, I thought, handing out what they felt suited to their intelligence; in other words, pious pap.

I dutifully read The Story of a Soul and am ashamed to confess that I found it colorless, monotonous, too small in fact for my notice. . . . Joan of Arc leading an army fitted more into my concept of a saint, familar as I was with the history of labor with its martyrs in the service of their brothers. “Love of a brother is to lay down one’s life on the barricades, in revolt against the hunger and injustice of the world,” I told Father Zachary, trying to convert him to my point of view.

At that time, Day was working for the Anti-Imperialist League, a Communist Party affiliate. Eventually, with the encouragement of Fr. Zachary, she came to distance herself from Marxism (although remaining committed to the poor and least among us). Likewise, she gradually came to discover — along with Thomas Merton, Michael Novak, and other young bohemians — the power and glory of The Little Flower.

Dorothy came to write her own book on St. Therese, detailing those aspects of Theresa’s life that touched her most, as a way of introducing the saint to the rest of the Catholic Workers. She closes the book with the following passage from Pope Pius XII:

The dazzling genius of Augustine, the luminous wisdom of Thomas Aquinas, have shed forth upon souls the rays of an imperishable splendor; through them, Christ and his doctrine have become better known. The divine poem lived out by Francis of Assisi has given to the world an imitation, as yet unequaled, of the life of God made man. Through him legions of men and women have learned to love God more perfectly. But a little Carmelite who had hardly reached adult age has conquered in less than half a century innumerable hosts of disciples. Doctors of the law have become children at her school; the Supreme Shepherd has exalted her and prays to her with humale and assiduous supplications; and even at this moment from one end of the earth to the other, there are millions of souls whose interior life has received the beneficient influence of the little book, The Autobiography.
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