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October 1, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 122




Pat Morrison An ordinary life sparks an unlikely revolution

Pat Morrison, NCR managing editor

Exactly 106 years ago today, a few white-veiled lay sisters in a cloistered convent in France bundled up a straw mattress and its bed linens, dragged them from the infirmary out to the garbage dump behind the monastery and burned them. Inside, the community's sacristan and another nun were getting out the funeral bier, the artificial flowers to decorate it and the good gold-plated candlesticks. Efficiently, as only nuns can be efficient, they were preparing for a wake and funeral.

And in yet another corner of the monastery, the nun charged with writing the dead woman's obituary circular was trying to think of something to say about the 24-year-old member of her community who had died just the night before after a long and painful case of tuberculosis.

Sister Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face had been a lovely person, a good Holy Rule-observing Discalced Carmelite nun. But she was, well, unremarkable. The two dozen women who lived with her -- with the possible exception of her three blood sisters and the novices she directed -- considered her pious enough, but extremely ordinary.

Yesterday (Saints (and lesser lights) come marching in, Sept. 30) I mentioned the Catholic fascination with saints. I openly admit to a definite Carmelite bias: In the constellation of beloved holy people, Teresa of Avila and Therese of Lisieux are my favorite women saints. Today is Therese's feast day. Pius XI, who canonized her in 1925, called her "the greatest saint of modern times." But like anyone to whom the appellation "the greatest" is attached, she has both ardent fans and people who really dislike what they think she stands for.

Without a careful reading and some background, Therese of Lisieux appears to embody all that's the worst in the Catholic tradition: a Jansenistic approach to life, morbid fascination with suffering, patriarchy, a pietistic spirituality with no grounding in real life.

Growing up in a religiously obsessed hyper-Catholic environment, the youngest of nine children (five surviving daughters), Marie Francois Therese Martin never quite got beyond the issues of abandonment she felt at the death of her mother when she was 5 and the loss of her favorite sister (and mother-figure) to the cloister. Critics say she entered the cloistered convent in her hometown -- where three of her sisters and a cousin would all become nuns in her lifetime -- in an effort to recreate her fractured family life. Her relationship to God and images of God, say some, are just projections of her father, who babied and pampered her. Therese has been called neurotic, self-absorbed and just plain unhealthy.

But for those who have the determination to cut through the kudzu vine of 19th-century French literary style that can strangle her written thought for contemporary people, Therese is a delightful discovery.

She emerges as a confident, self-possessed young woman, wise beyond her years, funny, creative, warm. Therese also knows incredible pain, both physical and spiritual. In her last months she experienced absolute inner darkness, and admitted she finally understood atheists. As a particularly ravaging strain of TB destroyed her body, she warned those who cared for her never to leave medicine around a seriously ill patient; she knew how tempting suicide can be. And the woman for whom thoughts of God and heaven had been her delight found herself obsessed with thoughts of annihilation: "Give your life, for what? There's nothing, nothing after death," the voices hissed.

She wrote down her memoirs not for publication, but on her superior's orders. Published posthumously as The Story of a Soul, her autobiography has captivated and inspired millions. In the century since Therese's death it has never been out of print and has been translated into hundreds of languages, from Arabic to Swahili.

What Therese records is precisely what her sisters fretted about the day after she died: her utter ordinariness. No visions. No miracles. Just love. Her path to God was a simple one: Run with absolute confidence and trust into the arms of the God who always loves you. Do the most ordinary things with extraordinary love. It became known as "the little way."

When they learned about it, average Catholics thought, "I can do that!" Sanctity was no longer restricted to the religious elite in rectories or cloisters. Holiness was now breaking out into the everyday world, among truck drivers and secretaries, soldiers and homemakers. A 24-year-old "totally ordinary" young woman had started a revolutionary approach to holiness in the Catholic church.

Pat Morrison is NCR managing editor. Her e-mail address is

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