Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Book Review: Story of a Soul

Title: Story of a Soul

Author: Therese of Lisieux

Editor: John Clarke

Illustrations: black and white photos

Publisher: Institute of Carmelite Studies

Date: 1976

Length: 299 pages including notes and indices

Quote: “Jesus was watching over his little fiancee; He had willed that all turn out for her good, even her faults which, corrected very early, stood her in good stead to make her grow in perfection.”

That's the way the tubercular young nun was encouraged to write and talk about herself in the 1890s. If you can stand it, you'll probably enjoy St. Therese's memoir of her short life dedicated to “spiritual childhood.”

Even Christians of the next generation often rejected Therese's message. It might have been the cult (in the nice Catholic sense, the admiration of a particular saint) of Therese as a role model for all those who were dying young, at the turn of the past century, from tuberculosis and other bacterial infections, that gave us the song, “Jesus is gathering buds...for the palace of Heaven...Full-blooming flowers alone will not do; some must be young and ungrown.” Many people, including the late Guideposts editor Catherine Marshall, hate that song. Taking a “spiritual” view of untimely death can lead to neglecting our healthier instinct to prevent it, just as taking a “spiritual” view of poverty can lead to neglecting our obligation to share and circulate wealth. There are situations where any consideration of poor St. Therese's words or works can become the precise opposite to the words and works of Jesus Christ.

There are also situations where this Story of a Soul may offer genuine and legitimate comfort to the bereaved, or to those whose diseases remain incurable. Although Therese's “baby talk” seems more likely to enrage than to comfort people to whom it might be quoted, it has been appreciated by many people who have sought it out for themselves.

What does anyone need to be told about Therese of Lisieux? She was a victim of the “White Plague” of tuberculosis that ravaged Europe and North America in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Her mother had died while Therese Martin was very young, and Therese had chosen to let her older sister Pauline be her “Mamma.” As the girls grew up, Pauline entered the Carmelite convent, where she was given the name Agnes and eventually became “Mother Agnes” to another sister, Celine, “Sister Genevieve.” (Another sister and a first cousin also entered the convent, and yet another Martin sister joined a different religious order.)

Therese Martin wasn't expected to survive infancy, but she did. Perhaps a ninth child, whose given name had been a hand-me-down from one of the older sisters she never saw, who had always been called “little Therese” to distinguish between her and that never forgotten sister Melanie Therese, can be excused for hamming up the baby talk and “eternal spiritual childhood” at the same time that she was taking the sort of calm, brave, mature view of her impending death that might be expected from someone over age eighty.

This, of course, is not a level of maturity on which adolescents consistently live. Therese seems to have enjoyed little if any of the pleasure of being a healthy child; she mentions several periods of minor illness before she began coughing blood at twenty-three, and in photos her baby face consistently looks tired and baggy-eyed. She had the usual adolescent mood swings, during which she seems to have romanticized her own illness. She claims to have prayed that God would “change all the consolations into this world into bitterness for me.” The bonds even of childhood friendship were not for her; she did manage to claim a friend for one term at school, but after the break this friend met her with the “cold glance” of a child who had very likely been warned not to get too close to any of the sickly Martin family. She developed a sort of spiritual obsession with the salvation of a felon condemned to die. She was mortified when, having travelled some distance with her father to visit a friend's church, she had to sit through a funeral service in a colorful party dress: “I would much have preferred to go out of the church,” and she couldn't wait to leave that town. One of the comforts the Story of a Soul may offer is its testimony that the future saint was once a teenager.

Therese doesn't spend much time, in her autobiography, lamenting that she could not be a mother or even an aunt. She seems to have grown up knowing that, by surviving to age twenty-four, she would have gone well beyond what was expected. From age two she claims to have been, and her family support the claim that she was, more concerned with being a good enough Catholic to hope to go straight to Heaven.

According to Catholic beliefs, she succeeded: people prayed to the departed Sister Therese for the strength to endure illness and death as bravely as she did, and felt that their prayers were answered. Non-Catholics recognize the healing effect of contemplating heroic acts as a natural biochemical phenomenon that's been named, after another Catholic nun, the “Mother Teresa effect.”

But this came later. In the summer of 1897, Sister Therese was relieved of all convent “duties” except sitting in the sun and writing her memoirs. She did not really finish her memoirs, nor did she have much to remember except her spiritual thoughts—that's what convent life is all about. Then she became too ill to write. Then she died. Her book, heavily edited by Mother Agnes, was published in 1898. She was officially canonized as a saint in 1925.

In 1957, a facsimile edition of Therese's manuscripts was released. In 1973, a new French edition of Histoire d'une ame, produced by comparing what Therese wrote and what her sister had released for immediate publication, was printed. John Clarke prepared this version of Story of a Soul by translating directly from the 1973 French edition.

I feel a need to present this poor misused book with a warning. This web site has never endorsed, and will never endorse, any attempt to use any religious writing in efforts to tell people how to feel about situations where Christians have been commanded to do something to help those people. Such efforts are hypocritical, blasphemous, and probably a mortal sin. If we are aware that someone is in need of any material benefit God has entrusted to our stewardship, whether it's food or lodging or money or medicine or a textbook we used last year and wanted to keep, we must stifle any blasphemous babble that the Tempter may present to our minds. There are three alternatives: either we recognize and do our Christian duty to meet the material need, applying any lofty thoughts about the spirituality of suffering to ourselves and not the other person; or we have a valid reason to believe that this person's exceptional circumstances justify our not meeting his or her need, as when an alcoholic asks for money outside a liquor store; or we fail to do our Christian duty out of greed, vanity, laziness, or cowardice, for which sins we will assuredly be able to punish ourselves until we repent. In the latter case, the more pious verbiage we spew, the more vile our sin becomes.

Only the person suffering, in spite of others having done all they could do for him or her, should ever look for spiritual guidance in the Story of a Soul. Should the rest of us read this book at all? Yes, if we want to read the story of an almost contemporary saint. Yes, if we want to read about what it was like to grow up in France in the 1880s. Yes, if we want to consider Therese as part of Women's History. Although it's possible that Therese's religious fervor may confuse or alienate non-Christians or the very young, any reader who is familiar with the religious context of the language she uses is likely to enjoy her memoir.

This edition of the Story of a Soul is not hard to find. We have to charge $5 per book + $5 per package, and Therese no longer needs a dollar. However, you could add two or three Fair Trade Books of similar size to the package along with this one. Payment may be sent to the address in the "Contact" box at the very bottom of the screen.