One of the obstacles many people find when encountering St Therese is her very feminine, sweetly, sentimental style. As an American, Protestant man first meeting Therese (I tell the story here) I reacted pretty strongly to all the simpering smiles, the armsful of roses and stuff like, “I looked up in the sky and saw the stars were in the shape of a “T” and I thought how marvelous that my Daddy in heaven had written my name in the stars!”
“What!” I thought “Surely this is the very worst sort of Catholicism. This is in such bad taste. The French should know better. This syrupy sweet sentimental stuff is even worse than the Evangelical posters saying, ‘When there was only one set of footprints…that’s when I carried you.”
When I read Story of a Soul things only improved marginally. I began to get the “little way” but still did not think it so very remarkable. How was this different than the old hymn, “who sweeps a room as for his cause makes that and the action fine”? How was this so profoundly different from the cross stitch over the table in my Baptist grandmother’s kitchen which read, “Only one life, ’twill soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last”?
The secret, when you get down to it, is in the doctrine of the incarnation. Therese is teaching us that the way of truly following the Lord is locked into our every day experiences and our every day challenges. The little way is a secret way. It is the hidden path, the extraordinary life embedded in the ordinary life. It is the supernatural buried deep in the natural. She is therefore a great witness to all who would follow Christ.
So I began to understand, but I really understood once I read an extraordinary book called The Last Conversations. When Therese was dying from tuberculosis her natural sisters in the convent attended her deathbed. As they did, they kept notebooks and simply recorded like a diary what went on. Consequently you are taken directly into the sickroom with Therese and you follow the steps of her illness. You read about the visits from her family, the doctor’s visits and the torturous treatments she received–all of which were hopeless. The sisters recorded literally her last conversations.
Here is where you glimpse the true Therese. Yes, Story of a Soul is good, but here you see her final passion and how her life hidden with Christ in God becomes a full and final identification with Christ’s own passion. Here you see how she stared into the darkness and confronted the abyss of atheism and the temptation of suicide.
In The Last Conversations–if you had any doubt–you realize why Pope Pius X called her “the greatest saint of the modern age.”
Anyone who has any interest at all in St Therese really should get this book. It is the proper sequel to The Story of a Soul, and if you have any heart at all it will be torn out by this little flower.
In my book St Benedict and St Therese – The Little Rule and the Little Way I write “If she is a little flower, she is a steel magnolia.”
PS: Just for today, to honor St Therese I’m putting my book on Benedict and Therese on sale for just $9.95. It’s usually $18.95. Go here to learn more