Chalon, Jean. Thérèse of Lisieux: A Life of Love, translated by Anne Collier Rehill. Ligouri, Mo.: Ligouri Publications, 1997.
A reverent, romanticized version of its subject, this book has the biographical essentials but is short on critical insight. It suffices, however, as an introduction.
Day, Dorothy. Thérèse. Springfield, Ill.: Templegate, 1991.
This book is not so much a biography as a commentary on the autobiographical manuscripts. As such, it is invaluable. Day's reflections are to the point and often insightful, refreshingly free of knee‐jerk pieties. She will surprise the unwary, as for example by her not especially sympathetic estimate of Louis Martin. Besides, in recording how she first came to know Thérèse's writings, she is candid about her aversion to the autobiographies, a reaction common to many initial readers. She found the period style repellent, but she plodded on. This response is a worthy caution: whoever starts to feel put off by Thérèse should leap ahead, from Manuscript A to Manuscript C. Starting there, one sequence could be C‐B‐A‐B‐C. That, at least, is my recommendation.
Gaucher, Guy. Histoire d'une vie: Thérèse Martin. Paris: Cerf, 1997.
Msgr. Gaucher, a Carmel friar, has spent more than fifty years in theresian studies, and this biographical introduction is by far the best, and fortunately it is available in English translation as Story of a Life (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987). Drawing richly on archival sources, Gaucher, superior of the Lisieux Carmel until the fall of 2005, affords (p.372) many details not found in other profiles, and he quotes generously. Not least, there are lots of period photographs.
Görres, Ida Friedericke. The Hidden Face: A Study of Thérèse of Lisieux. San Francisco, Calif.: Ignatius, 2003.
Excellently translated from the German by the well‐known team of Richard and Clare Winston and first published in 1959, this book has long been the measure of all theresian biographies. It is psychologically probing and even‐handed, especially commendable in profiling the dynamics of the Martin sisters in relation to Marie de Gonzague. Görres was the first to draw heavily upon the testimony of the hearings for Thérèse's beatification. Unfortunately, she skirts the central issue of Thérèse's final darkness, and her discussion is marred by occasional flights into a fulsome rhetoric of piety. The original text has abundant footnotes of a theological sort, with many patristic references.
Piat, Stéphane‐Joseph. Histoire d'une famille. Paris: Pierre Téqui, 1945.
This book, whose English translation has been reissued in paperback, continues to serve as the best‐known hagiographical portrait not only of Thérèse but of her immediate family, with an especially high regard for Louis. It provides, however, interest of its own as an à rébours mirror of piety and of antimodern prejudices. This book was written in the Vichy years; the urge for atonement of Third Republican sins may have been strong within Catholic France, and the model of rectitude provided by the Martin family must have been irresistible.
The Carmel at Lisieux retains the notes that Fr. Piat, a Franciscan, amassed in composing this book. He enjoyed a tremendous advantage over all other theresian scholars in being able to draw upon a vast amount of nicely detailed reminiscence set down by Céline. Hers is a document which in itself would deserve publication, but unfortunately the substance of her notes disappeared with Piat. The Archives of Carmel has a typescript of what is left, with painfully large lacunae indicated.
Robo, Etienne. Two Portraits of Saint Teresa [sic] of Lisieux. Westminster, Md.: Newman, 1957.
A probing, challenging look, first at Pauline's rosewatery image‐making—the indignation on this matter is now quite dated—and then with emphasis on Thérèse's unrelenting struggle with her own willful pursuit of sainthood. Robo exalts her so highly that she becomes someone you can admire but not love. He makes too little of her petitesse and faiblesse, and he neglects the table of bitterness. However imbalanced, this work remains a thoughtful and imposing interpretation of the high cost of saintliness.
Six, Jean‐François. Vie de Thérèse de Lisieux. Paris: Seuil, 1975.
Well known in France as a biographer of Charles de Foucauld, Six has authored several studies of Thérèse, this one being his condensation of two other efforts. It abounds in lively, even controversial insights and suggestions. For example, he discusses her love of Jesus as an inverted form of the courtly love ethos. He claims that Thérèse and her (p.373) sisters intended that her autobiography would serve to overcome the calumnious rumors against her family after the confinement of Louis.
Six also takes a number of excursions into the sociology of the time, spending undue length on the reparationist devotion of the Sacred Heart movement, which was of no interest to Thérèse. He also discusses the status of feminism in France during the last year of her life. And he deserves credit for bringing Isidore's anti‐semitism squarely into the light but seeing it within its context as well.
About theresian spirituality he argues persuasively that it confounds the implicit pride of effort—the staircase of aristocratic virtue is replaced by the effortless confiance in taking the divine elevator—and that Christian love is not to be found in great works nor in institutions but in one's daily life. Six makes Thérèse a foil to both her prioresses, Gonzague and Pauline, who in his estimate saw suffering as a value in itself. As to the dark night, he is respectful of mystery.
Six has published a three‐volume edition which arranges all of Thérèse's writings in Carmel by chronology, rather than by genre, an innovative approach which helps the reader to see her development as Carmelite and writer integrally. The volumes of Thérèse de Lisieux par elle‐même are I. Scruples et humiliations (from April 1888 to Christmas of 1894); II. La confiance et l'amour (January 1895 to Easter 1896); and III. L'épreuve et la grâce (April 1896 to September 1897) (Paris: Desclee de Brouwer, 1996–1997).
Soeur Marie de la Trinité. Une novice de Sainte Thérèse, edited by Pierre Descouvement. Paris: Cerf, 1993.
Sometimes called the Carnet Rouge, this episodic testimony from one of the four novices trained by Thérèse as their compagne proves an invaluable quasi‐biographical document on how she did so: how she disciplined, what readings she urged (San Juan de la Cruz), how she dealt with their emotional vicissitudes, what she shared of herself, how she taught them her little way. Adulatory yet didactic in turn, Marie's account shows that unqualified love for Thérèse was not restricted to her natural family.
Van der Meersch, Maxence. La Petite Thérèse de Lisieux. Paris: Albin Michel, 1947.
One of the most widely read and controversial profiles, this book caused a lot of consternation upon its appearance. It draws a very unsympathetic portrait of Marie de Gonzague, as though she had forced mortifications upon Thérèse, and makes some wildly errant suppositions, e.g., that Thérèse never knew a spiritual director because Gonzague did not allow her one (p. 84). Sappy in hagiographic moments and full of exclamatory sighs, novelist van der Meersch sobers up to read the little way in Socratic terms, arguing that Thérèse was in a constant struggle for self‐knowledge. His sense of chronology is sloppy and his dependence upon Histoire d'une âme severely limits this book, but it has some rousing and thoughtful insights, especially in discussing Thérèse's exposure of calcul and egotism in even our “good” acts.
School for Sneers
As there has long been an open season on Christianity and its Church, it is natural that one of the most prominent of saints, and probably the most beloved, should be (p.374) subjected to abuse. In the Gospels, Christ is reviled and scorned by men. In our time, women have caught on to the game and have played it with particular relish against Thérèse. To judge from some of the women who review such efforts, I would guess that plenty of readers savor spiteful, black‐washing portraits. In an age when vulgarity and mediocrity are given standing ovations, it is hard to accept that someone can be exemplary of singular goodness. Ironically, Thérèse, convinced of her own littleness, offends the more substantial littleness of others.
How would she have responded to criticism, well meant or, as here, otherwise? The word from Avila was that no matter what criticisms a Carmelite hears about herself, even unmerited and malicious ones, they identify only a fraction of her true faults. Thérèse was wise enough to have kept that safeguard of humility offered by Madre Teresa.
Here are a few of the most egregious examples of contempt to date.
Harrison, Kathryn. Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. New York: Viking, 2003.
The mathematics in this breezy account does not add up. Harrison notes that 500,000 people attended Thérèse's canonization in Rome, in 1925. From what she writes, we might presume they were affected by the same infantile, repressed, morbid, egotistic urges of the young woman they had come to celebrate, that they too had closed themselves off from life, experience, the democracy of passions. Here is one witheringly dismissive estimate of what Thérèse achieved: “the (reactionary) comfort of traditional, emblematic femininity. Eternally presexual and childlike, Thérèse had chosen a respectable means of power for women: invalidism. Dying of love, she never saw herself—nor was she perceived—as impotent but divinely set apart” (p. 195). She did not, in sum, contribute anything toward the feminist agenda of power and performance in the male‐dominated professions. Thoroughly unmodern, she has somehow managed to get millions of people over a century of generations to share in her untimely delusions.
Harrison's impressionistic reading, though sustained by the close documentary work of Msgr. Gaucher and Fr. Clark, warps the facts with gratuitous cruelty time and again. The “adoption” of Pranzini as Thérèse's first child proved “a triumph of sexual repression” (p. 69). Of her determination to enter Carmel: “Louis, along with Céline, was scripted as a possible adversary, his ‘dearness’ dependent upon his passivity” (pp. 72–73). Well‐educated and affluent, the Martin sisters at Carmel “provided worthy adversaries for the proud Marie de Gonzague; they were more satisfying to order around” (p. 90). Thérèse's attempts to learn acceptance of unpleasant tasks became “a game that was over the heads of her sisters, a strategy she would have occasion to use again and again” (p. 93).
Nowhere does Harrison show any interest in the Carmelite tradition which deeply informed Thérèse's spirituality nor, far worse, does she relate that spirituality to Christ and the Gospels. Severed by an arbitrary convenience from those abiding, definitive contexts, Thérèse can easily be portrayed in the grotesque hues of a Freudian send‐up.
Rasy, Elisabetta. La Prima Estasi. Milan: Mondadori, 1985.
An essayist and journalist, Rasy made her first venture into fiction with this misnamed romanzo. It is not a novel so much as a colorful and at times perverse musing on Thérèse, an (p.375) editorializing about her life with special attention to its physicality: sleep, eating, the body. Rasy indulges in some slighting—the Martins’ “ceremonious and somnolent religiosity” (p. 67), the Carmel's “obtuse petrification of domestic intimacy” (p. 80)—and she makes no effort to reach the Christian source of her subject's spirituality, so that the fact that “her attraction to pain increased with her suffering” (p. 82) is passed off as mere morbidity. It was Christ's leanness on the cross which struck her, as did the dirty laundry water at Carmel, which Rasy reads as “a sinister parody of evangelical waters” (pp. 96, 101).
The deprecations have a striking penetration that seems justified by the sheer force of rhetoric but they are usually short of genuine insight. For instance, Thérèse wanted to become not saintly but a saint, “as if, extenuated from a rigid nomenclature, sainthood were only a calendric question, and the saints’ calendar a nearly complete repository” (p. 30). Or this: the disappearance of food into her mouth seemed “a corrupt magic, the first of her opaque martyrdoms” (p. 98).
At times, Rasy's flights into fanciful imagery are engaging. She compares the photography with the elevator, both of them altering human proportion and human effort, disconcerting the senses. Of the camera's eye she says: “As if the eye of God were that dark hole capable of transforming the provisional, corruptible chemistry of her body into a lasting and certain chemistry, an inorganic resurrection” (p. 91). And, toward the close, she likens the miscellany of the Derniers entretiens in the summer of 1897 to the disiecta membra of Teresa of Avila, exhumed and snipped at time and again (p. 131).
Some passages are brilliantly suggestive. The fact of few voices at Carmel and the infrequency of speaking restored to Thérèse the elasticity and power of speech itself, something she had felt compromised about before entering the order (p. 105). On Thérèse's awareness of how intention could be misconstrued by act both in herself and in others, Rasy says, “as if divine grace had arrested judgment or had unmasked its vacuous high‐handedness” (p. 106). And the letters of Thérèse depict both a passion and the conditions making it inaccessible (p. 109).
This provocative little book can be safely read only when the reader is familiar with all of Thérèse's own writings.
Sackville‐West, Vida. The Eagle and the Dove. London: Michael Joseph, 1943.
The title is derived from Richard Crashaw's magnificent celebration of Teresa of Avila, but she is only the eagle here; Thérèse, the dove. A close and informed complementary study of these two major Carmelite writers is not Sackville‐West's intent. Rather, she becomes so taken with the golden age of the august, securely reputable Madre Teresa and the exotica of her mysticism that she cannot quite accommodate her own nearly contemporary (and not clearly mystical) Thérèse. She seems to fall into another trap: Madre Teresa was speaking as a mature, deeply experienced woman; Thérèse was by comparison so young as to be all but dismissed. And Sackville‐West plays the class card rather too obviously, thus dogging her own insights with snobbery. Likely the populist promotion of Thérèse was not entirely out of this author's remembrance during this writing, and she was writing from Histoire d'une âme only.
Balthasar, Hans Urs von. Thérèse de Lisieux: Histoire d'une mission. Paris: Médiaspaul, 1972.
A probing and provocative study by a major Jesuit theologian, this book abounds in insights and is generous with quotations from the theresian texts. It is the sort of book with which you can find yourself arguing and yet remain grateful for the engagement. Everyone interested in the theological Thérèse will find much to chew on here, especially in the concluding discussion of mysticism. Balthasar's confusion of her neant with hell is just a beginning, and he vacillates brilliantly on the nature of her “solidarity” with the sinners at the table of bitterness.
One exasperating problem persists: Balthasar's book appeared sixteen years after the publication of the autobiographical manuscripts yet he still quotes from a 1940 edition of the Histoire, an inexcusable anachronism. For instance, in Manuscript B (5) when Thérèse likens herself to a little bird enveloped in clouds so it cannot see the “Star of Love,” she says only that to believe there is nothing but those clouds becomes “le moment de la joie parfaite” but Balthasar quotes instead Pauline's explanatory gloss, changing clouds to the cliché “la nuit de cette vie” with this tag on her sister's joie parfaite: “le moment de pousser ma confiance jusqu’ aux limites extrêmes.” That might be fair as interpretation, but it is distracting to have to read Pauline side by side with Thérèse.
Baudry, Père Joseph. Thérèse et ses théologiens. Paris: Carmel, 1998.
A collection of basically historiographic reviews and appreciative estimates by current theresian scholars, mostly religious, of their predecessors. Of particular interest is the first essay, Conrad de Meester's detailed review of the making of Thérèse's manuscripts into L'Histoire d'une âme; also, Guy Gaucher's on the initial attempt, as early as 1932, to appoint Thérèse a doctor of the church. Pope Pius XI gave a terse refusal: Obstat sexus. Also worthy of note is the essay on Erich Przywara, S.J., who wrote a book of Geistliche Lieder (1930), lyrical poems celebrating Carmelite spirituality.
Bro, Bernard. La Gloire et le Mendiant. Paris: Cerf, 1974.
Known in translation by the misleading title The Little Way: The Spirituality of Thérèse of Lisieux (Westminster, Md.: Christian Classics, 1980), this is a thoughtful and challenging work, departing from the usual unloading and analysis of theresian writing. Instead, Fr. Bro affords many insights which take inspiration from Thérèse. Especially biting is his discussion of the modern and fashionable shunning of death, the most obvious datum in anyone's future, and how Thérèse faced it with equanimity, even in her darkness. And he notes that the no‐less‐fashionable idea that hell does not exist voids the cross of Christ of all significance.
He gives an inordinate, documentary attention to the Pranzini case, though skirting the essential issue which our otherwise blighted age has sensibly brought to the fore, the possibility that Pranzini, Thérèse's first child, was not the “greatest sinner” as she thought, but an innocent man, as he protested to the last. Bro concentrates on how the case manifested the cruel media‐summoned urge to punish, which perverts the notion of justice itself into vengeance.
Clapier, Jean. Aimer jusqu'à Mourir d'Amour. Paris: Cerf, 2003.
A very admirable, dense study, this book is especially valuable for its review of theresian theology relative to the cults of the Infant Jesus, the Sacred Heart, and the Holy Face. Clapier, a Carmelite father, gives particularly close heed to the letters and the poems and shows how distant Thérèse stood from and implicitly overcame the vindictive ethos of divine justice current in her time. I cavil, however, with his claim that Louis's time in Bon Sauveur, “l'épreuve familiale,” annihilated her voluntarism and prepared her for her darkness of 1896–1897 and yet that this kenosis still left her with a “volonté croyante” [“a believing will”]. One could argue that her voluntarism is alive and well in the extravagant claims of Manuscript B and even into C, where she is telling Gonzague how she discovered the true sense of charity. And what is the “néantisation de l'appui majeur de la foi” [“the annihilation of the major prop of faith”] (p. 294) other than “la perte de la foi” [“the loss of faith”]?
Combes, André. The Spirituality of St. Thérèse, translated by Msgr. Philip Hallett. New York: P. J. Kennedy & Sons, 1950.
This book appeared nearly a decade before the publication of the autobiographical manuscripts, so it has chiefly historical value. It abounds with insights and helpful caveats. Abbé Combes urges us not to reduce Thérèse to one‐liners and catch phrases. He clarifies such loaded terms as enfance spirituelle (esprit d'enfance is now preferred) and la petite voie (NB: she never quotes from Matthew 18:3 about the need to become like little children). He reads her work as a fusion of asceticism (excluding the already unfashionable mortification) and mysticism, the latter coming in 1895 with the offrande and then the elevator: inspirations and insights rather than ecstatic visions.
The major problem with this book lies in its primary colors of hagiographical assumptions. Theresian spirituality appears forbiddingly seamless and inaccessible thanks to such exalting nonsense as this: “from this pure sanctity, from this heart given over to the pure love of God, from this pure prayer, arises a pure spiritual life, which grows to ever greater strength” (p. 159)—an amazing feat in someone convinced of her paltriness. She would herself have recoiled from this kind of portraiture, as her late remarks on Mary as Queen of Heaven indicate.
He concludes that she stands as antidote to midcentury evils but arguing that convincingly would require another book. She was an innocent in a comparatively innocent age. When he quotes her remark about feeling the same confidence in God even were she to commit every possible crime, her spiritual consciousness being somehow unalterable, he forgets that genocides and world wars have forever altered our awareness of how deep and how warped criminality could become. Mystery apart, suffering has changed its valence to so high a number that it can barely be charted.
De Meester, Conrad. Dynamique de la Confiance, 2d ed. Paris: Cerf, 1995.
Although lengthy at 550 pages, this study of the genesis of the little way remains perhaps the best introduction to the spirituality of Thérèse. De Meester handles the (p.378) texts with careful attention to nuances. He traces the evolution of l'enfance spirituelle and distinguishes confiance as the maturation of hope in love, thus getting past the lexical fact that Thérèse short‐circuits faith and hope, investing all in love.
De Meester's notes are also instructive, particularly in regard to Hans Urs von Balthasar (esp. pp. 389–392), and in an appendix he takes on the delicate issue of Thérèse's scruples in terms of her adolescent sexuality.
De Meester, Conrad. With Empty Hands: The Message of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, translated by Mary Seymour. Washington, D.C.: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 2002.
De Meester, having devoted most of his mature life to the study of Thérèse (and of her spiritual sister at the Dijon Carmel, Elizabeth of the Trinity), stresses “the dynamics of hope” in Thérèse's confident love of God. Although he recognizes that for Thérèse love is finally the only road of Christian life, he claims that hope is the source of dynamic life, encouraging self‐forgetting and allowing a broader vision and understanding of the future. One wonders whether his own notion of Carmelite spirituality has overly informed his reading of Thérèse, for whom hope is infrequently in lexical usage.
Descouvemont, Abbé Pierre. Sainte Thérèse de Lisieux, docteur de l'Église: Guide de Lecture. Paris: Cerf, 1997.
Thérèse had barely been elevated to the position denominated in this title when this book appeared. It is an exhaustive thematic study, heavily referenced and thus frequently repetitive but well indexed. Clearly, the book is meant to ratify the claim that Thérèse is a doctor bona fide, which is fine, but the discussion is rigorously uncritical.
Ouellette, Fernand. Je serai l'Amour: Trajets sur Thérèse de Lisieux. Quebec: Fides, 1996.
This lengthy series of meditations on Thérèse offers some very frank assessments, e.g., that Pauline's institutionalization of Thérèse was a means of protecting Thérèse from herself. Ouellette charges that her ecclesiastical interpreters continue in that effort. As for her devotees, the titanic basilica at Lisieux is at the furthest remove from Thérèse's message of silence and hiddenness. This book draws in a number of helpfully suggestive references, particularly to the mystic Henri Suso. Indeed, Ouellette rather too freely identifies Thérèse herself as a mystic without indicating his grounds for that identification. Still, this book offers much to the patient reader and now has a companion volume (see next entry), smaller but with even more helpful insights.
Ouellette, Fernand. Autres trajets avec Thérèse de Lisieux. Quebec: Fides, 2001.
This addendum to the author's Je serai l'Amour is composed chiefly of essays on Thérèse's implicit roots in the grand tradition of seventeenth‐century spirituality. We can only wish Ouellette had probed further, i.e., beyond his exclusive reliance upon Henri Bremond's multivolume Histoire littéraire du sentiment religieux en France, and deeper since the affinities are so pronounced, especially with luminaries such as François de Sales and Alexandre Biny, that the Spanish mystical tradition might be (p.379) offset by extended research. Although influenced by San Juan de la Cruz and quoting him heavily, Thérèse in her sensibility had a truly Gallic family.
Przywara, Erich, S.J. Humanitas: Der Mensch zwischen gestern und morgen. Nurnberg: Glock and Lutz, 1952.
This volume is a collection of very short essays which appeared in Przywara's journal, Humanitas, over a generation. The scattered references to Thérèse can be found in the index. They tend to be iterative as Przywara pursues the same theme with variations, the burden of the post‐Renaissance, post‐Reformation, post‐Enlightenment era, the void in which one must decide whether one is a child of God or a child of the world alone. His sources are chiefly nineteenth‐century offshoots of idealism and Romanticism: Cardinal Newman, Donoso Cortès, Kierkegaard, and above all Nietzsche, whom he sees as a foil to Thérèse. To Nietzsche's amor fati as a Dionysian affirmation of contradictions in the turmoil of being, Przywara poses Thérèse's toy ball of Jesus sent rolling in divine love. He neglects the table of bitterness, the emblem of her mature spiritual perception. Even so, this volume as a whole is a rich anatomy of the central intellectual issues of modern religious life. Seldom has Thérèse been put in such heady company of contemporaries but Przywara, two generations before she became a doctor of the Church, makes clear that she can hold her own.
Bancillon, Brigitte. “Le dossier médical de sainte Thérèse de Lisieux,” unpublished doctoral dissertation. Université Pierre‐et‐Marie‐Curie, Paris, 1983.
Dr. Bancillon canvasses all available testimony on Thérèse's last illness, arguing that she might have died not from tuberculosis but from another pulmonary infection. She quotes generously from the letters of Marie Guérin (Sr. Marie de l'Eucharistie) to Isidore on Thérèse in her last months. Most important, Bancillon's documentation includes a scathing evaluation of de Cornière from a doctor whom Msgr. Gaucher had consulted for his book La Passion de Thérèse de Lisieux (see below).
Gaucher, Guy. La passion de Thérèse de Lisieux. Paris: Cerf, 1993.
This study of Thérèse's final illness by a major theresian scholar strives to overcome dolorist readings of Thérèse. Msgr. Gaucher emphasizes the joyful and loving strengths in her which broke the mold of both stiff sanctity and the perverse cult of suffering for its own sake, the counterfeits which have to a degree threatened a just evaluation of Thérèse and her spirituality. Gaucher does not carry this perception into the abyss where she resided at the last, but he has many helpful, corrective insights.
Moré, Marcel. “La Table des Pécheurs.” Dieu Vivant 24 (1953).
One of the most engaging and insightful works on Thérèse, this 100‐page monograph, although written before the publication of the autobiographical manuscripts (he had a (p.380) peek at them via Abbé Combes), is still worth a close reading. Moré makes clear how central to her spirituality is the table of sinners. The danger to Carmel lay in seeing humanity in two parts, those holy enough for the Fire of Love and those having to deal with divine justice. He argues that Thérèse saw the pharisaism in this view.
According to Moré, her offrande was made so that not only she but those counted as sinners would be consumed by divine love. The real grace given her was to get into the skin of sinners and feel their anguish and desolation. This carrying of others’ suffering in herself was something other than the standard mortifications. And as the little bird story in Manuscript B shows, suffering is not a chastisement from a vengeful, punitive God but an épreuve to prompt a sinful heart's cry of love, i.e., suffering is itself integral to salvation.
Moré was writing when Christianity was still deeply informed by Jansenism—as to a degree it continues to be—and he argues that theresian spirituality confounds it. That perspective is commonplace now but during the decade between the Nazi occupation and France's loss of empire in Indochina, sanctimonious reparation for national transgressions was still fashionable: Hitler was the punishment for Third Republican secularism, etc.
Within that historical frame, Moré does further service by his trenchant criticisms of the editors of Histoire d'une âme, meaning the Martin sisters. He even charges that Pauline rigged an ecstasy for Thérèse's final moments to make her end accord with the tradition of saintly deaths. She or “they” distorted the manuscript at crucial points, as when the first‐person singular is used where Thérèse meant to generalize by using the third. In sum, the point of Thérèse's writing is not to sanctify her life but to show how each of our own can be sanctified. She is an exemplar, not a mediator, and writes on behalf of the sinful, not the pious.
It may be some irony, but Moré's only problem is that of a pious believer: like Thérèse, he cannot imagine a nonbeliever, even a convinced one, not languishing in despondency before a godless universe. Do atheists have to live in anguish? Do they look as though they are eating bitter bread? A Christian cannot imagine that it is possible to lead a meaningful life without God.
Renault, Emmanuel. L'Épreuve de la foi: Le combat de Thérèse de Lisieux. Paris: Cerf, 1991.
A brief but scrupulous study of Thérèse's téméraire abandon, her audacious sacrifice of herself, and the fundament of mystery (so acknowledged by Renault) which remains in this young woman's late life and early death. This book is a model of honesty and probity by a Carmelite and scholar. It includes many helpful caveats, e.g., the degree and manner of suffering are determined by one's education but also by one's capacity for reflection and one's openness to grace (p. 33); anyone's testing in faith remains a mystery even for that person herself (p. 35); to be valid, the little way must satisfy many and varied conditions of ordinary people's lives (p. 80); pious urges to palliate Thérèse's offrande cannot reach its mystery—what is the point if rewards for it are finally set out as they were for Job (p. 100)? Very highly recommended.
Vasse, Denis. La souffrance sans jouissance ou le martyre de l'amour. Paris: Seuil, 1998.
There are many shrewd aperçus here about the nature of suffering via Thérèse's experience of it: her breakout from childhood narcissism; the chastity of her suffering (p.381) which was a love of others through Christ alone and of him through others; by contrast, the perversity in neurosis, which seeks only self‐satisfaction. Vasse argues that, taken together, a psychological and spiritual interpretation of Manuscript A ends in what he calls a theological anthropology of the Incarnation, reading the presence of the Holy Spirit only in the flesh.
He emphasizes that Thérèse was called not to suffering but to love, which can only mean dispossession of oneself. Without love, suffering too readily becomes obsessive disquiet, plunged in anger, bitterness, even hatred. But to resist the suffering of douleur and sécheresse would be to abandon the little way, to presume one can act on one's own to protect oneself instead of allowing God to act within one.
All that is fine, but Vasse clogs the works with some spurious psychobiographical assumptions: Zélie's naming Thérèse after her deceased sister of the year before shows that Zélie's relation to Thérèse was marked by a desire for death (p. 35). Because of her mother's “pulsion de mort” (p. 47), Thérèse could not nurse. The neurotic affection Thérèse showed for those around her, especially Pauline, stemmed from an unconscious horror which Zélie had instilled in her in the form of guilt and denial (p. 48). Rosalie Taille, the wet nurse, became her unconscious figure of God's compassion (p. 51). Do we need this colorful nonsense?
Ahern, Patrick. Maurice and Thérèse: The Story of a Love. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1998.
This wildly popular book is a translation with linking commentary on the ten letters of each correspondent, the troubled, young, soon‐to‐be friar of the missionary White Order, Maurice Bellière, and Thérèse, to whom Pauline gave him. Bishop Ahern does not make clear that Thérèse had to be tactfully disingenuous with Bellière's struggles in self‐doubt, she herself having entered a far deeper void which she of course could not disclose to him.
Chevalier, Emmanuelle, et al. Thérèse de Lisieux ou la grande saga d'une petite soeur, 1897–1997. Paris: Fayard, 1997.
For the centenary of her death, this book serves as the first “reception history” of Thérèse over a broad canvas. It surveys rather too briskly the groundswell (“vox populi”) which pushed Thérèse toward beatification and canonization; then, the substantial cult of her during the First World War when Catholics of Austria and Germany were fighting Catholics of France and both sides sent to Lisieux many ex votos of gratitude for cures or rescues. Thérèse was still only a sister. There is a particularly engaging account of the Martin sisters during the German invasion and occupation, 1940–1944, at the end of which Lisieux was severely bombed and the community had repaired to the basilica. The authors also survey the nettlesome works of Lucie Delarue‐Mardrus and Maxence van der Meersch (see above), the former denouncing as early as 1926 the glittering theatrification of Thérèse.
Far more egregious than that charge is the photographic inlay in this volume, which makes clear how the kitschification of Thérèse has proceeded, even to T‐shirts. (p.382) Lamentations against this commerce—Bernanos denounced Thérèse's “simoniac sisters”—are useless because the kitsch inevitably attends the democratic process of assimilating any “star” personality.
Guitton, Jean. Le Génie de Thérèse de Lisieux. Paris: Emmanuel, 1995.
By “genius,” Guitton means her simplicity, including the effortless abandon, which, he rightly observes, requires much effort from the rest of us. This Thérèse is wholly orthodox, but Guitton finds her the most accessible of saints for Protestants by her attention to grace, her evangelism (meaning her careful reading of Scripture), her appeal to those beyond cloistered life. He is not the first to compare Edith Stein to her: both geniuses of the new, he says, of the direct, the communicable, the simple.
At the close, however, dismay confounds the reader (me, anyway) as Guitton celebrates the crackpot Arminjon, purveyor of apocalyptic fantasies, such as of Asian hordes overwhelming Europe and Jews taking over in Germany. This peculiar hybrid of Gobineau and Jules Verne inspired the youngest Martin sisters in their adolescence—in adulthood only a tabloid reader would be able to keep up with him—with his vision of a celestial amusement park as payoff for the elect. It remains inexplicable that Thérèse ingested this prophetic foolishness in the same years that she was learning by heart the Imitatio Christi.
This collection of essays was first published in 1965.
Hermine, Micheline. Destins de femmes, désir d'absolu: Essai sur Madame Bovary et Thérèse de Lisieux. Paris: Beauchesne, 1997.
By any reckoning an exceptional book, this bizarre pairing by an established French novelist makes a strong case for the radical insufficiency of life registered in fiction and fact. One might presume its real parallel is drawn between Flaubert and Thérèse. Hermine wastes a lot of space with idle and minute grounds for comparing Emma and Thérèse, and she necessarily ignores abandon in Thérèse, a spiritual dynamic wholly absent in the hypertrophically bitter Flaubert and his famous victim. Still, this is a refreshing departure from the usual.
Langlois, Claude. Les dernières paroles de Thérèse de Lisieux. Paris: Salvator, 2000.
This work proves to be an admirable piece of sleuthing as Langlois, an eminent historian of what the French call “sciences religieuses,” weighs the evidence of Pauline's various editings of her own efforts to record her sister's “last conversations.” It becomes clear how much is left to conjecture: it is not even certain that the questions or prompting remarks to which Thérèse was supposedly responding were the ones Pauline actually put to her. In the end, we are sobered by the refractory force and fragilities of memory: Pauline gathered the “corpus” of Thérèse's words but not the “integrality” of the words themselves.
Langlois, Claude. Le poème de septembre: Lecture du Manuscrit B de Thérèse de Lisieux. Paris: Cerf, 2002.
An almost pedantically detailed study of Thérèse's handwriting in this central portion of her “autobiography,” this book belongs to a specialists’ circle, but it sometimes breaks out of its confines and offers a number of helpful insights, chiefly on Thérèse's (p.383) supersession of abandon by a peremptory claim of reciprocity with Christ. Langlois courageously and unflinchingly looks at attendant implications.
Maître, Jacques. L'Orpheline de la Bérésina: Thérèse de Lisieux (1873–1897). Paris: Cerf, 1996.
If you are engaged by psychoanalytic studies of long‐dead and never couched analysands, this book can be enthusiastically recommended. Maître draws extensively on the theresian corpus and even fetches up some arcana (the unmentioned paternal grandmother went to live with the unmentioned wet nurse) while crafting some provocative (insightful, if you will) arguments. He fancies that in a constant quest for love to satisfy her narcissism, Thérèse fashioned two selves out of her psyche: an ever‐loving, ever‐suffering mother (compensatory modeling on Zélie but also inspiration from the Virgin) to a tyrannical son, the petulant Jesus for whom she was a toy to be abused; and the petulant child herself, with regressive infantilism and manipulation, as witnessed in the mysterious illness when she was ten. Theresian littleness becomes a ploy or pretext for eliciting tender and indulgent responses from a feminized God, a kind of celestial Louis. Christ crucified becomes the suffering mother abused by the ungrateful child, us.
Maître writes from such Freudian holiday spots as the Virgin's smile, the Christmas conversion, the dream of the three Spanish mothers. He cites the usual vatic sources (Klein, Lacan, and Him) but gives special attention to British therapist D. W. Winnicott to contend that theresian spirituality derives from the anxieties suffered in separation from her wet nurse and comes full circle in her final weeks when she reverts to infantile talk before her natural sisters. This study has an internal coherence and should satisfy those eager for the reductivism it vigorously affords.
I find it hard to come away from this book without feeling dispirited, chiefly because it unwittingly degrades its subject. The reason lies in Freudianism itself, that whether considered as ideology or ethos it remains pathetically loveless: everything comes down (down, indeed) to the tawdry constituents of sexuality and gender tensions. It is an ignoble reading of the human and rings particularly false in this instance. Proceeding through L'Orpheline, I found myself making a kind of mantra from a turned phrase of Bossuet, that she had only love from her pen, because she had only love in her heart. Of course, the child Thérèse was infantile and selfish at times, as who is not? Yes, she was manipulative with Céline. Yes, it might seem that she protested her littleness too much. Maître ignores altogether her attempts to overcome her selfishness; abandon, which gets no discussion here, was her certain antidote to amour‐propre. And grace, the dynamic mechanism in Thérèse's story, is as transcendent mystery wholly alien to Freudian trench work.
Maître's 400‐page presentation has no chronology and in the heinous way of French monographs, there is no index. Neither is there an English translation. Fascinating in its way, but beware.
Renault, Emmanuel. Ce que Thérèse de Lisieux doit à Jean de la Croix. Paris: Cerf, 2004.
In this dense study of spiritual indebtedness (there is another on the same pairing by Guy Gaucher), Renault suggests why Thérèse looked to the high‐flyer and hence loner (p.384) of Carmelite spirituality rather than to the maternal founder of the reformed order. San Juan wrote in a tone of cocksureness, free from the it‐seems‐to‐me of Madre Teresa. Thus he gave Thérèse the needed ballast for her little boat at crucial points in her spiritual development, when she was integrating herself to Carmel's life in her adolescence and again, toward the end, when she needed to fortify her confiance in order to survive the testing darkness.
It is hard to escape the impression that Thérèse read Juan de la Cruz for nuggets, for insights which, taken in aphoristic brevity, took on a sibylline import for her. She cites the same few repeatedly, so they start to read like mottoes: love is paid only by love; God augments our desires by giving; it is our lot to suffer and be despised (the imprisoned Juan was despised, but did anyone ever despise Thérèse?), etc. That is not to diminish their weightiness for her, quite the reverse: the juanist notion that divine love profits even from the evil in us gave her a treasured peace and confers upon her notion of “audace” an ambiguity worth probing. And it was Juan, argues Renault, who gave her the liberating notion of an efficacious Love, that in its ardent purity is itself apostolic. That is how, from within the confines of Carmel, Thérèse could assume a missionary future for herself.
Renault finds close affinity in life and thought between the two saints, “l'accord profond de pensée et de vie” (p. 203), but he candidly notes their differences: Juan had no missionary eagerness to save souls and hence no solidarity with sinners; and Thérèse claimed no glorious exit crowning her life (though Pauline attempted to portray one), which would have been contrary to the humility she wanted to make exemplary for other little people.
Six, Jean‐François. Lumière de la nuit: Les 18 derniers mois de Thérèse de Lisieux. Paris: Seuil, 1995.
A highly contentious study, polemically charged against Pauline, whose recording of the last conversations with her sister is here needlessly set aside as suspect. (For a corrective, see the Langlois study of the Derniers entretiens, cited above.) Six has many insights and the richness of his notes alone would justify attention to this study, but he mars the effect of the whole not only by his hostility to Pauline—as in the case of Etienne Robo, the dismay over Pauline's emendations is anachronistic—but by a peculiar failure to give Manuscript C the in‐depth analysis it deserves.
Zambelli, Raymond, and Claude Tricot. Deux mystiques français: Blaise Pascal et Thérèse de Lisieux. A small book‐length study published in Vie thérésienne over six issues: nos. 145, 146, 147 (1997), nos. 151 and 152 (1998), and no. 153 (1999).
The value of this carefully detailed exercise is twofold: first, it puts into question the commonplace that Thérèse killed off the Goliath of Jansenism, but it challenges our modern understanding of Jansenism itself by helpful nuances, which to many people might well seem historical or merely academic. Second, it conjoins two of the foremost spiritualities of French Catholicism. The question remains, how forced is their proximity to one another?
(p.385) Pascal and Thérèse have more in common than one might initially suppose: two provincials, early bereft of their mothers and raised amid sisters by solicitous widowers, both were wracked by illness and isolation in the face of premature deaths, and both sought intimacy with the hidden God. The authors do not help us much with their titular claim that both writers were mystics; both claimed conversion events but one can have a mystical experience without being a mystic. And does the very word have much valence nowadays?
By drawing on such out‐of‐the‐way sources as the letters to Mlle. de Roannez, the authors substantially modify the loveless hair shirt Pascal who is so easily extracted from the major texts. (Tricot and Père Zambelli use the Brunschvicq edition from Hachette, Pénsees et opuscules.) Coming from the other direction, they rightly identify the danger of a superficially alluring misreading of “the little way of trust and love,” as though it were a vitamin for complacent mediocrity. Neither Pascal nor Thérèse could evade (nor would they have us do so) the centrality of love's bitter suffering as the lot of every Christian. If Pascal's spirituality gives preponderance to divine justice, the theresian emphasis upon God's compassionate love does not confound but complement it.
Beside the emotive first‐person élan of Thérèse, the propositional balance weighing of a fastidious mathematical wizard might seem solemn and dry, but both are at least true to the best of French prose style: they write free of sophistry and humbug. On any reader, both impose themselves as truth seekers. This series of essays deserves broad circulation.
Catholicism in Nineteenth‐Century France and Beyond
Baker, Catherine. Les contemplatives. Paris: Stock, 1979.
This sociological profile of Benedictine, Carmelite, Dominican, Ursuline, and Visitandine sisters in modern France is among the most enthralling books I have read in the research for this study. Baker, a young woman with pronounced secular viewpoints, sent out questionnaires and visited many of the conventual sites from which she gathered her responses. The sisters speak anonymously for themselves in sometimes lengthy but consistently engaging ways. The volume is especially pertinent to Thérèse in such matters as the épreuve de la foi. Other topics include the assumptions under which the women entered their orders, the maturation of their spirituality, and their views on community, feminine sexuality, God, the Church post–Vatican II. Alas, Les contemplatives has never been translated and has long been out of print.
Cholvy, Gérard. Christianisme et société en France au XIXe siècle, 1790–1914. Paris: Seuil, 2001.
An excellent survey, dense with primary references, this book does not quite supersede the older generation of church histories (Daniel‐Rops, Dansette; see below) but is highly useful. It includes an extensive glossary and the latest in scholarship on ecclesiastical France. It also marks the trend away from strict ecclesial concerns to the sociology of French Catholicism, which means a convincing abundance of statistical profiles of the departments’ parishes, their populations, etc.
Daniel‐Rops was the most prolific mid‐twentieth‐century historian of ecclesiastical France as well as a writer on the primitive Church and the cults of its early martyrs—and a novelist to boot. His unadorned, encyclopedic style should not deter. Seemingly dated, this exhaustively detailed yet not ponderously scholarly study proves still an excellent introduction to the two generations of the Third Republic during which the Church was at bay. Evenhanded, he could discuss the imposing dangers of modernism which the papacy had continuously to oppose and yet see the failings of the Vatican's integrisme as well.
The bonus comes at the end of 900 pages in a judicious celebration of Thérèse, whom he regards as the foil to both Marxist materialism and Nietzschean despair. Well and good, but undeveloped, and he regards as immitigable paradox what he miscalls her love of suffering and the eerie peace she attained in “the abyss of despair.” His closing remarks on the three cardinal points of her spirituality I shall leave to the reader to discover independently. The English translation is A Fight for God, 1870–1939, translated by John Warrington (Garden City, N.Y.: Image Books, 1967).
Dansette, Adrien. Histoire religieuse de la France contemporaine. Paris: Flammarion, 1948.
This history, ranging from the Revolution to the end of the Third Republic, has the substantial fault of lacking a bibliography and critical notes; it has only an index. It remains, however, a still‐useful chronicle of the contests between the Church and the emergent republicanism of the state. Dansette has been charged with underestimating the degree to which the French populace was alienated from the Church prior to 1789, and he gives little notice to either the ascendant cultish devotional Catholicism of the mid‐ to late nineteenth‐century populace or the extensive missionary work of the Church during that time. Thérèse is given but one paragraph, a fantastic slight.
Soeur Marie de l'Incarnation. La relation du martyre des seize Carmélites de Compiègne, edited by William Bush. Paris: Cerf, 1993.
A thorough documentation of the lives of fourteen sisters of Carmel up to nearly the end of the Terror, when they were guillotined on July 17, 1794. Having been disbanded into public life, they had secretly regrouped before they were arrested. Only one of the sisters escaped (or was cheated of ) martyrdom—all fourteen have been canonized—and two generations later, she wrote an account of the community.
This story inspired the German novelist (and convert) Gertrud von le Fort to compose Die letzte am Schafott [Last on the Scaffold] (1931) from which George Bernanos drew for his last masterwork, Dialogues des Carmélites (1948), which in turn prompted Francis Poulenc's opera of the same title (1956) and a film by R. L. Bruckberger and Philippe Agostini (1960), for which the dialogues have been reduced to one.
Translations of Thérèse's Writings
Bancroft, Alan. St. Thérèse of Lisieux: Poems. London: Fount, 1997.
This proves a charmingly perverse little volume, perverse because Bancroft incorporates so many of Pauline's emendations of her sister's verses (not all of them acknowledged) (p.387) that she might as well have coauthorship; charming, because he wants to overcome some of the banality which weighs heavily in these poems and so he trusses them up with Emily Dickinson–like audacities, which is a stretch. In her very first poem, for example, the flat “sans égal” [“without equal”] is wrenched into a verb, “to out‐tower.” Her address to the Trinity in her famous “Vivre d'Amour” is transformed from “vous êtes Prisonnière de mon Amour!” [“you're a prisoner of my love”] to “a Prisoner! as so Love‐locked by me!” which marks an incontestable improvement.
On the other hand, he himself sometimes flattens: Thérèse's onset of darkness in “la tristesse et l'ennui” becomes merely “I worry and am sad at trouble on its way,” in “Mon Chant d'Aujourd'hui.” Or he warps: in Céline's canticle, he imports Bernini's famous arrow sent upon Madre Teresa. Where Thérèse writes of Christ's face, “Ton doux regard qui m'a blessée” [“Your sweet look which has wounded me”]. Bancroft inserts, “The arrow‐shaft that wounds me so,” which is imagery alien to her spirituality and its diction.
It is fine to read these efforts, provided we heed the usual caveats about translation and remember that Thérèse's French is so accessible that it would not take much effort for even the idlest reader to reach for it.
Beever, John. Story of a Soul. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Image, 1950.
The most important fact about Beever's translation is that it continues to be in print fifty years after the definitive publication of Thérèse's original version in 1956. This signifies how vital Pauline's version of her sister proved to be—more than 7,000 emendations (mostly minor) of the autobiographical manuscripts—in building up her sister's saintly profile, leaving us to wonder whether Thérèse in her own words could have accomplished as much. Did Pauline perhaps have her finger closer to the pulse of her age than her sister did? And does Pauline still speak to Catholicism as eloquently?
Text apart, Beever furnishes a combative, not to say reactionary, self‐portrait in his spirited introduction. While this parti pris is not convincingly compatible with Thérèse's missionary urge, it suggests that Beever would have been at home with Isidore and the La Croix readership at his pharmacy.
Clarke, John. Letters of St. Thérèse of Lisieux: General Correspondence, 2 vols. Washington, D.C.: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1988.
As the letters of Thérèse are an indispensable ancilla to her “autobiographical” writings, this translation by the late Carmelite friar performs a tremendous service. It is in fact a translation of all extant letters both from and to her as published in the 1974 edition from Cerf, Correspondance générale. It includes the helpful introductions and the precise, detailed notes for each letter as they appeared in that edition, and even passages from the letters of correspondents, chiefly family members, concerning Thérèse. Behind all that are a biographical guide to all the correspondents, a chronology of important events in Thérèse's life, a table of biblical references within the letters, and—that miraculous event in a French publication—an index.
These two volumes, reasonably priced and in paperback, cannot be commended too highly to anyone seriously interested in this saint.
This welcome alternative to Bancroft has two primary, not to say decisive advantages which merit one's preference: Kinney, a Carmelite friar, translates Thérèse and only Thérèse. He does not import Pauline's nor his own language into his renderings. They are so unadorned as to catch the commonplace, even trite language which pervades much of this work. The other advantage is that Fr. Kinney has translated the lengthy and very helpful detailed introductions to each poem as given in the Nouvelle édition du centenaire from Cerf. Whereas Bancroft thoughtfully includes some of the verse from the récréations, he does not include all of Thérèse's poems. Kinney does, and he includes the fragmentary supplementary poems which bring up the rear of the NEC text.
Bresson, Robert. Procès de Jeanne d'Arc. Pathé Contemporary Films. 1962.
The best cinematic introduction to Thérèse is not about her but her heroine, and the version which speaks closest to her spirituality is Bresson's. (This film is discussed in chapter 6.) Here, in a rendition relentlessly bare of the slightest hint at melodrama, Jeanne is a portrait of spiritual dignity set against indignity, but Bresson divests her judiciary opponents of bogey badness, which means he learned from the grotesque grimacing of Carl Dreyer's judges. The judges in this round proceed through Bresson's innumerable doors with a bemused, almost resigned air, which weirdly underscores the singular nature of Jeanne's trial and the nobility of her enduring it. The only truly dark presence is the whispering malice of the Englishman prodding the French magistrates for condemnation.
As Bresson is arguably one of the great theologians of the twentieth century, it seems fair to mention a few other of his films which are patently theresian in their attention to the acute suffering which attends simplicity and littleness. In my view, the finest of all his thirteen films, Au hasard Balthasar (1966), is a Bressonian version of the table of bitterness, with a donkey passing through various masters misshapen by the cruelty of their foibles. It is possibly the most imposing study of evil portrayed on film: it seeks no rationalization nor resolution of evil as mystery, and it leaves grace, the far deeper mystery, at a cruciform juncture in the immortal closing moments.
Two almost unbearably poignant studies of innocence are based upon novels by the great Georges Bernanos, who deeply loved Thérèse, calling her “notre petit chevalier”: Journal d'un curé de compagne (1951) and Mouchette (1967) are also meditations upon the weakness which is at the center of evil. The titular characters convey the esprit d'enfance exposed to a blind, uncomprehending world. What finally brings these films into proximity with Thérèse is that they conform to the Carmelite ethos itself, in which the self is obscure, hidden, close to forgotten. As is Bresson himself.
Cavalier, Alain. Thérèse. Centre Nationale de la Cinématographie. 1986.
While Catherine Mouchet, the young woman playing Thérèse, has an agreeable energy and sweetness, she does not quite attain a convincing depth: the film, like Thérèse, (p.389) goes too fast (ninety minutes). It is one of its merits that we would have liked to see and know more, even though Cavalier plays loose with many facts (e.g., here Gonzague, not Pauline, orders the initial writing). The actress‐Thérèse's uniform good cheer might be construed as a bourgeois version of the real Thérèse's joie, which remains elusive. The few hints of l'épreuve toward the close are swaddled in agreeable tones. Was Cavalier afraid of her darkness?
The dramatic pull comes from Gonzague, portrayed as imperious and moody yet affectionate by turns, and from a fictive character, Sr. Lucie (perhaps a partial caricature of Sr. Marthe de Jesus), who is in worldly revolt from the Carmel's constraints and at possessive odds with the Martin sisters over Thérèse. She seems to be there for us and eventually escapes down a rope. But the real presence in this highly acclaimed impression (it won six Césars, the French version of the Oscar) is the Carmelite community, from old to young, in discipline and in banter, from récréation to refectory.
Armed with an excellent script, Cavalier interprets Thérèse's story chiefly from within the limits of a secular view, sometimes skeptical and even confrontational, but not once condescending: an anonymous young doctor has a sharp exchange with Gonzague about the apparent inhumanity of denying morphine to Thérèse in her late suffering. But Carmel is given its say, and the prioress's ripostes to the doctor are worth the whole film. Cavalier shows the Carmel as a place occupied by credibly human beings, women who have human failings and human needs, women held together by fundamental charity and obligation. The most delightful scene depicts a Christmas gift giving—a carpenter has sent a wooden baby Jesus carved life‐sized, and the sisters take turns holding it as though it were a real infant—which ends with a spontaneous breakout into the Bacchic euhoe! from La Belle Hélène and dancing. Did Offenbach ever pass within those walls?
With wit, warmth, and balance, Cavalier gives us a gently intriguing film but one more about Carmel than about Thérèse. There is a dubbed version, widely available.
Lonsdale, Michael. Vous m'appelerez petite Thérèse, realization de Anne Fournier. ACPA Production (1998).
This film boasts a brilliant economy: three actors perform scenes from Thérèse's life, all set within the gloomy crypt of St. Sulpice, Paris. One actress (Lila Redouane) plays Thérèse; the other (Françoise Thuriès) plays the parts of all the other women; and Lonsdale himself plays all the men, from Pope Leo XIII to the young suitor dancing with Céline at the disastrous marriage banquet. Where Cavalier departed boldly from biographical facts, Lonsdale hugs them close, so that there is a documentary, textual gravity to the sequences which is relieved only by the spontaneity of the performances. The obvious limit to this approach is its presupposition that the viewer has read the autobiography within retrievable memory of many details. Otherwise, frustration with the ellipses will set in fast, and this film runs to more than two hours. No subtitles.
Vanoni, Benoît. Aventurer sa vie sur le chemin du Carmel. Production Chrétiens Medias (n.d.).
This extraordinary unembellished documentary on modern Carmelite life affords many little revelatory moments into the perdurance of a spirituality at which most of (p.390) us can only guess when visiting the great Norman and Gothic cathedrals. It is drawn from the sisters of six Carmels, four of them in Brittany, one of the most stoutly faithful provinces of France. (The production comes from the provincial capital, Rennes.) The sisters, older and younger, reflect individually to the camera in engagingly dispassionately tones about their devoted lives and their faith, including eclipses. We see them at work. Their candor occasionally surprises: one well on in middle age admits to having passed through a twelve‐year spell of indifference. The serenity of the older sisters is matchless. I came away wondering how young women in America would respond to the strange beauty and toughness of such a life. No subtitles.