The Sameness and Difference of Saint Thérèse

During the last fortnight, when I should have been thinking about what to put in this Ad Rem, I became bogged down in some academic and administrative matters that zapped my writing time. (Exam week and grading papers among these! If you’re a teacher, you’ll get this.) But during that time also, I replied to a correspondent who wanted my thoughts on something she had sent me on Saint Thérèse and her “Little Way.” The more I pondered my Ad-Rem dilemma, the more I thought that what I had written about this matter might be of some interest to a broader audience. My correspondent is aware that I’m sharing this letter, to which I have made only slight alterations for my present purposes.

Dear X,

Pax Christi. Here are my thoughts on your thoughts on Saint Thérèse:

  1. You focus on Saint Thérèse’s novelty, uniqueness, difference from other saints. It is my estimation that, in so doing, you separate whereas you should distinguish and you force an artificial wedge between “little” and “great” saints. In the following comments, I will focus on her similarity to the other saints, considering what sanctity is in its essentials, and then attempt to show where she is, indeed, different.
  2. Saint Thérèse was a Catholic. She recited and believed the same Credo as all the other saints. She was baptized, confirmed, went to confession, assisted at Holy Mass, received Holy Communion, etc., just as the other saints did. She had devotion to the Most Holy Mother of God, the saints, the angels. Above all, she adored the Holy and Undivided Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
  3. As a daughter of Eve, she was possessed of that same human nature as the rest of us, with its body and soul, passions, intellect, and will (in other words, its full complement of twenty-six powers). As a girl, and, later, as a grown woman who was very much a lady, she was feminine, as all of the gentler sex should be. As a girl, she had many of the downsides of girlishness, even to the point of being a bit of a brat at times, which she frankly admits, if not in so many words. To say that she overcame this would be quite an understatement, but I mention these particulars (which she had in common with other ladies) because they are a part of her personal makeup that I will address below.
  4. As one of the Christian faithful, her sanctity was, at a metaphysical level, substantially the same as the sanctity of all the other saints, for it consisted of the infusion of Sanctifying Grace and the Gifts of the Holy Ghost; the possession and exercise of the infused theological virtues, the infused moral virtues, and the acquired moral virtues all in a relatively high degree, which brought her to the life of the Beatitudes on earth as a foretaste of Heavenly beatitude, which she actually attained after death. (That part of the Sermon on the Mount that contains the Beatitudes constitutes the Gospel for the Feast of All Saints.) The life of perfection she lived implies that the virtues she posessed were the result of the excellent practice of acts proper to them, including acts of prayer, penance, etc. Therefore, as her sanctity is substantially the same as what is found in other saints, the differences without exception fall into the metaphysical category of “accident.” [As my correspondent would know, the ten Aristotelian Categories are referred to here.]
  5. As a religious and, more specifically, a Carmelite, she lived the consecrated life of the evangelical counsels in an institute that had produced numerous other saints. As Blessed Columba Marmion assures us, the religious life is nothing other than an intense living of the vows of one’s Baptism by adding to the commandments of God the counsels of evangelical perfection. Saint Thérèse did nothing contrary to the Catholic and Carmelite traditions she received; on the contrary, she lived them in a saintly manner. When she entered Carmel, she underwent the same formation, lived the same Rule, took the same vows, ate the same food, observed the same horarium, undertook the same (common) penances and wore the same habit as the other sisters — albeit in her own size! Whatever excuses she had from the common horarium, table, etc., during illnesses were “baked into the cake,” so to speak, inasmuch as such excuses are foreseen and granted in cases where they are needed — as is the custom, I believe, in all institutions.
  6. Her most fundamental sources for learning about the spiritual life were identical to everyone else: Holy Scripture and Apostolic Tradition as mediated to us through the infallible magisterium of the Church. Recall that she formulated her “Little Way” from the Gospels, and said that they gave her all her little soul needed. Beyond that, many of the other sources she had to nourish her interior life were common to very many people: The Imitation of Christ, Dom Guéranger’s Liturgical Year, the works of the Carmelite masters, etc. She lavished praise on these sources, and cites some of them with more or less frequency in her own writings.
  7. As with all the saints, she lived the spiritual live in concrete circumstances, some of which were common to others, and some of which were entirely unique. We can call this her “milieu.” This milieu included trite, flowery, and overly-methodical spiritual books (that other luminaries of the time complained about, e.g., Dom Guéranger, Blessed Dom Marmion, Dom François de Sales Pollien, all of whom were contemporaries of Saint Thérèse), and a Jansenist spirit of excessive fear and diminished love (that others also condemned). It is important that we realize that much of what is “unique” about the Little Flower consists in her breaking free of and reacting against these detestable things that were part of her milieu. In addition to her milieu, she had — as we all do (ironically) — a unique character that was formed by her temperament, experiences, graces given, and her free-willed responses to all this. We can call his her “personality.” In Saint Thérèse, then, we have a singular person, in a specific milieu, with a unique personality, but living the same essential spiritual life of all the saints (see #4, above), and the same Carmelite life as her sisters in religion (see #5, above).
  8. Where, then, does she differ from the other saints? Not, I mean, where does she differ in her milieu or her personality, but where does she differ in her approach to the spiritual life — an approach we might also call a “method,” or, better, a “way”? She differs, to the extent that she does, in precisely this: her internal conceptualization of the spiritual life, that is, how she imaged and conceptualized the interior life of grace. From this follows how she explained the interior life to others in her writings. You may be tempted, Dear X, to think that this is inappropriately belittling1 of Saint Thérèse and what is great (or little) about her, but it is not. Our internal conceptualizations of things are how we think, and so much of the interior life entails thinking — the rest, acting on those thoughts. Another “little one” (who changed his name from a Hebrew one meaning “asked for” to a Latin one meaning “small”) said this to the Catholics of Rome: “And be not conformed to this world; but be reformed in the newness of your mind, that you may prove what is the good, and the acceptable, and the perfect will of God” (Rom. 12:2). To do penance (Greek: μετάνοια, metanoia) is to have a “change of mind,” as Brother Francis liked to inform people. It all starts in the mind. Saint Thérèse thought well and effectively about the interior life, and — more importantly — she lived accordingly. She was, therefore, wise, in keeping with Brother Francis’ wonderful definition of wisdom: “Wisdom is the most perfect knowledge of the most important truths in the right order of emphasis, accompanied by a total, permanent disposition to live accordingly.” When I consider Saint Thérèse’s grand achievement, it is apparent to me that she accomplished what Dom François de Sales Pollien eloquently outlines in his book, La Vie intérieure simplifyée et ramenée à son fondement (1894), who wrote his book without any reference to her. He was born before she was and he died long after she did. He may have heard of her, but he did not learn from her, for his book was published four years before her l’Histoire d’une Âme (1898). One might argue that what Saint Thérèse accomplished was, first, to summarize the interior life simply and effectively (both for herself and others), and second, to live accordingly, which is by far the more difficult task. These are undeniably great things!
  9. Was Saint Thérèse unique? You bet she was! All the Saints were and are. In the Lesson from Ecclesiasticus for the Common of Confessor Bishops which begins “Behold a great priest who in his days pleased God…,” we come across this line: “there was not found the like to him, who kept the law of the Most High…” That line comes from Ecclesiasticus 44:20, and refers in its actual Biblical context to Abraham. The Church applies it to many Confessor-Bishop saints in her liturgy. In each instance, “there was not found the like to him.” And so it is with all the saints.

I hope my explanations are helpful to you. Please consider them prayerfully, and please pray for me!

God bless and Mary keep you.

1.) I’ll leave the question as to whether one can actually “belittle” the Little Way to competent logicians and philologists.