« Sky's the limit | Main | Makeover envy »

Big house, small saint

Today is the feast day of a saint who has a strong claim to be the patroness of the CrazyStable--the decidedly unbalanced St. Therese of Lisieux.

therese3.jpgI think she looks a little like Reese Witherspoon in this shot. But the youth and touch of mischief are deceiving. By age 24, this sweet-faced French Carmelite nun would be dead of TB; in a few short decades, she would be canonized; and by century's end, she would be declared a "Doctor" of the Catholic Church--an honorific (not unlike "Doctor Who") reserved for the most towering mystical Time Lords of Catholic teaching.

All this from a small body of devotional writing that, frankly, can read today like a kind of demented Catholic chick-lit. Going back to her famous autobiography, I was struck afresh by the fact that she qualifies, to modern sensibilities, as a full-blown psychiatric train wreck. Motherless at age 4, adored by her doomed-to-dementia daddy, the petted baby in a hothouse family of fervently devout sisters who flocked one by one behind the wall of a cloistered convent...no wonder the poor kid was having fever visions of a smiling Mary statue at an age when today's little girls are playing Barbies. Like the middle-class daddy's girl she was, Therese "wanted it all"--but what she wanted was stuff like suffering, martyrdom, and mystical union with God. Oh, and the convent--she very much wanted to become a cloistered nun, even pouncing on the Pope during a tourist audience to beg for early admission. (The Pope was equivocal, but eventually she got her way.)

Not surprisingly, generations of devout Catholic girls have taken Therese to heart; her name is my Confirmation name, and my aunt's. (My mother chose "Celine," the name of her younger sister.) Rereading her "Story of a Soul" at midlife, as the mother of a daughter poised on the brink of adolescence, I step into a different river than the one that shaped my own spirituality in my youth. The medical writer in me can't resist tallying up the number of diagnoses that jump out from the DSM-IV. Borderline personality...bipolar...obsessive-compulsive...and that's just the stuff she told us about. What's even more harrowing is that this crazy masochistic adolescent let herself be swallowed up by a crazy sadistic milieu--a convent that wouldn't spring you to attend your own father's funeral, a Mother Superior who denied the girl morphine as she coughed up her lungs, for the good of her soul. Therese wrote passionately of how she welcomed trials and suffering; I just want to go back in there and beat up those old nuns who tormented her for pearls of wisdom in her last hours.

Yet Therese's strangest and most radical statements, shorn of the saccharine sentiment piled onto them over the years, retain a mystical power that is more Doctor Who than Drama Queen, more zen than zany. The girl who begged God to toss her around like a ball, to consume her like a fire, to pluck her up to Heaven in an elevator--what does she have to say to us today? Is it so impossible to believe that a headstrong, lonely and sexually terrified bourgeois teenager could evolve in a few short years into an ascended spiritual master when she got all the agony she asked for, and more?

Legions of Therese devotees find it easy to believe, partly because Therese seems (as she promised in life) downright profligate with miracles. In another girly touch, she promised to shower "blessings like rose petals" on the earth after her death; Therese-ophiles love comparing their "rose stories." (Her iconography always shows her with an armload of roses, although your basic plaster St. Therese never looks anything like her--why not, when we have photos of her? Huh?)

I've got my rose stories; they range from the sublime to the ridiculous. Just like this house and its patroness.

No, I do not believe that I am a great saint! I believe myself to be a very small saint, but I think that the Good Lord was pleased to put in me things which created goodness within me and in others. --St. Therese of Lisieux


Posted on Monday, October 1, 2007 at 04:15PM by Registered CommenterBrenda from Brooklyn | CommentsPost a Comment

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
All HTML will be escaped. Hyperlinks will be created for URLs automatically.