Very Different Biographies
By Bernard Bro
Publisher: Ignatius Press
Review Author: Cicero Bruce
Thérèse of Lisieux made the first record of her life, and that record, written in obedience to her Carmelite superior, is the primary source of the saint’s latest biographers Dominican Fr. Bernard Bro and bestselling author Kathryn Harrison. Published in French two years after Thérèse’s untimely death, her Historie d’une Âme has passed through 89 editions and been translated into 60 languages. The autobiography’s definitive English edition (Story of a Soul) appeared in 1996, rendered from original manuscripts by scholar John Clarke, O.C.D. Clarke’s translation of Thérèse’s autobiography proved indispensable to Harrison, whose account, unlike Bro’s, depends entirely upon previously published materials in English.
The subject of Bro’s and Harrison’s Saint Thérèse of Lisieux was the last child of Louis and Zélie Martin. Louis and Zélie, both of whom the Church has declared “venerable,” were extraordinarily pious throughout their lives, even by the provincial standards of 19th-century rural France. They seemed altogether “untouched,” Harrison remarks, “by the Enlightenment’s call to reason, its optimism and humanism.” Before they met and married, they desired, above all, to live reclusive lives devoted to prayer and adoration. But meet they did upon Alençon’s Bridge of St. Leonard, and were later sacramentally joined in a life “governed,” as Bro describes it, “by the liturgy, guided by real abandonment to the divine will.” With money earned from Zélie’s profitable lace-making business, they provided for the poor, whom they believed to be God’s true representatives. What is more, they housed the aged, routinely visited the dying, and, at risk of contagion, cared for homeless consumptives.
In well-intentioned imitation of Joseph and Mary, the devout couple initiated their marriage with a naïve vow of celibacy. After several months, however, a priest corrected their misunderstanding of what God expected of their shared vocation. The lesson was well learned, for at length the Martins produced nine children. “I am madly in love with children,” Zélie wrote presciently a few days before Thérèse’s birth on January 2, 1873. “I was born to have them, but it will soon be time for this to end.” Zélie was nearly 41, and soon to suffer the excruciating pangs of breast cancer, of which she died four and half years later, leaving her youngest child in the care of Marie, Pauline, Léonie, and Céline — who, along with Thérèse, were the sole offspring of Zélie and Louis to survive childhood.
On the Martin sisters, says Bro, was bestowed the vocation denied their mother. Five years after Zélie’s death, Pauline, age 16, entered the Carmel of Lisieux, where she would later become prioress. Her departure devastated young Thérèse, for whom Pauline had become a second mother. The child fell so ill and feverish that many thought she would die. She was cured suddenly after seeing the statue of Mary in her bedroom smile at her, a grace she tried unsuccessfully to keep a secret from those who badgered her about the details of the miraculous event, and who finally dismissed it as a story made up by an imaginative little girl seeking attention. Leaving Thérèse and Céline at home to care for their declining father, the two other sisters soon followed Pauline’s lead. Marie added another Martin to the local Carmel; Léonie joined the Poor Clares.
Thérèse also longed for the cloistered life. On Pentecost Sunday 1887, she apprised her father that she would join the nuns of Carmel as soon as they would have her. What she had received from the Benedictines who educated her and from her favorite books, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis and End of the Present World and the Mysteries of the Life to Come by Abbé Arminjon, “was not information,” declares Harrison, “so much as confirmation of all she had learned as a child of Zélie and Louis Martin: the joys and tribulations of the present world counted for nothing. All that mattered was preparing for the next life.” For Thérèse, the obvious way to prepare for the world to come was to retreat from the diversions of the world into which she had been born.
Her entry into Carmel, though inevitable, was neither easy nor immediate. The superior, disinclined to burden her convent with a callow adolescent, rejected Thérèse’s first application for admission. Thérèse then petitioned the bishop. He, too, said no. Notwithstanding these setbacks, Thérèse waited faithfully for an opportunity to join Pauline and Marie. Her chance came when Louis Martin and Céline took Thérèse on a pilgrimage to Rome. There, as Providence would have it, the Martins were granted an audience with Pope Leo XIII, then celebrating his jubilee. They were forbidden in advance to speak to the Holy Father, but upon coming into his presence, Thérèse prostrated herself before her last hope and begged his Holiness to open the doors of Carmel to her.
To curtail a long story, which Harrison pleasingly elaborates, the Pope preferred to leave the decision to the superior, who finally consented after being persuaded by the Vicar General, who had witnessed and been impressed by Thérèse’s audacious determination. The way cleared, and Thérèse entered the Lisieux Carmel on April 9, 1888, at the unusual age of 15. As it turned out, Thérèse proved to be anything but callow. When she had been some two years cloistered, the prioress, Mother Marie de Gonzague, observed: “The angelic child is seventeen and a half, and she has the judgment of one of thirty, the religious perfection of an old perfected novice, and possession of herself; she is a perfect religious.”
This observation was recorded on the occasion of Thérèse’s profession of faith. During this sacred ceremony, Thérèse wrote a customary letter addressed to the Eternal Groom, in which she implored “Jesus, my Divine Spouse,” to allow her to die a martyr: “Give me martyrdom of heart or body, or rather give me both.” Her wish was apparently granted, for after having lived as a Carmelite for less than a decade, Sr. Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face, also known as the “Little Flower,” died on September 30, 1897, after a brief life of 24 years and a prolonged illness from tuberculosis, the agonizingly painful torments of which she refused to alleviate with readily available morphine, preferring the “narcotic promise of Christ,” as Harrison puts it, and believing, in Bro’s words, “that the least of her sufferings, offered with love, could save a soul.” Twenty-six years after her death, Thérèse was beatified, and, in 1925, her sainthood was proclaimed in the speediest canonization to date in the history of the Catholic Church.
To be sure, Bro and Harrison give us two vivid depictions of St. Thérèse. Yet, attitudinally speaking, their accounts of this Christ-imitating, self-immolating woman of Lisieux have little in common. Harrison’s was written for the Penguin Lives Series, the books of which are intended, as Time aptly describes them, to “whet and then satisfy curiosity.” They are meant, in other words, to tell a good story. And tell a good story Harrison does. But when faced with Thérèse’s curious desire to be consumed in a glorious martyrdom, to become, that is, a virtual oblatory sacrifice to God, Harrison insists on satisfying readers with psychoanalysis. For Harrison, the Absolute remains a figment of the Cartesian mind, a mere human desideratum. “A skeptic,” she writes, “would say that Thérèse gave the name God to her internal strategy for survival.” Perhaps, but a believer would say nothing of sort. “Thérèse did not merely love to love,” Bro rightly avers. “She did not pray to or love ‘a’ God, but the Word and the Father who gave her his Son.” Truly, she loved and prayed to a real presence with an existence separate from, though manifest in, mind and matter. Harrison is the skeptic, and hers is a book penned for a skeptical age.
Bro’s, on the other hand, which appeared originally in French in 1996, is a work composed for and in the light of eternity. Although its underlying hope was realized in 1997, when John Paul II officially declared Thérèse a Doctor of the Church, Bro’s book remains a needful corrective to what the author refers to as “biographies of Thérèse that proceed no farther than descriptions of love on the psychological or psychoanalytical order.” One cannot help thinking of Harrison when reading in Bro’s conclusion: “To those who would like to believe that she despised the world, that she was a victim of an erroneous dualism, or that she was tense about her virginity, and so on, Thérèse has nothing to say.” Clearly, Bro wrote Saint Thérèse of Lisieux for Catholic minds of an orthodox kind, and, although he tells a good story, his hagiography will appeal to a very limited audience.
Harrison’s, on the other hand, will appeal to readers of all kinds, including, it must be admitted, the orthodox Christian who has learned to ignore the secularist discourse of popular biographies and to enjoy and glean what truths they disclose between the lines. Thérèse may or may not have anything to say to Harrison, but Harrison has many instructive things to say about Thérèse. Harrison’s Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, despite its historical relativism and behaviorist humbug, depicts its subject in a style compelling and praiseworthy. Even though Harrison fails to fully appreciate the strength and depth of her subject’s sacramental vision, especially as it was consummated in the throes of a transfiguring death, hers is nonetheless the work of a gifted writer with a penchant for biographical narrative.
Fr. Bernard Bro, Dominican doctor of philosophy, professor at the Pontifical Faculties of Saulchoir, preacher at Notre Dame in Paris, and one of the world’s foremost authorities on Thérèse, is the wiser of the two biographers. His attitude toward his subject is religious and otherworldly. His study, unlike Harrison’s, overcomes the natural temptation to use what he calls “interpretive frameworks” that “flatten, dull, or justify” in order to “get hold of a reality that surpasses us.” While Harrison portrays the life of an unenlightened, grotesquely courageous girl on the fringe of the 19th century, Bro depicts the life of a magnanimous soul whom Pope Pius X called the “greatest saint of modern times,” a soul whose passion for Christ was so violent that she “threw her whole life off-center,” and whose recorded words and deeds “move us off center and oblige us to find our bearings once again” in the whirl of time.
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