Thérèse of Lisieux, aka The Little Flower, is the patron saint of aviators. Yes, aviators. In spite of the fact that she died in 1897, six whole years before the Wright Brothers. Seemingly, French aviators in World War I took to praying to Thérèse to keep them safe. Judging by the Monuments aux Morts in every French town and village she was singularly unsuccessful. She is also patroness of the Missions even though she never set foot in the mission fields.This was made out to be a great thing when we were young. She prayed for missionaries. But surely there were hundreds of others who toiled as missionaries who were more entitled to have this honour? Our very own Edel Quinn or Mother Kevin would seem to fit that bill nicely .
So what’s with the cult of Thérèse? I remember a biography in our house which I read when I was very young. I loved the black and white illustrations of the Victorian world and the lovely French names which I tried to pronounce. ‘After I am dead I will let fall a shower of roses’ she wrote. (She’s also patroness of florists!) It seemed all me,me,me. My mother, always preaching against selfishness, disliked her for what came across as self-centeredness. Self obsessed she certainly was.
A few years ago the relics of Thérèse were hauled around Ireland and I have to say I felt embarrassed by this display of medievalism. It seemed we were regressing. My blood ran cold recently when I heard someone proposing that there might be a reprise of this obscene caravan of bodily parts. This would be great ammunition for the sneerleaders and God knows, we have had a surfeit of that recently. I decided it was time for another look at Thérèse. I chose to read Thérèse of Lisieux by Monica Furlong.
Furlong (1930 – 2003) was an Anglican feminist writer, a long time campaigner for the ordination of women in the Church of England. Her father was Catholic (the name suggests a Wexford connection) and her mother agnostic. Furlong is a thorough scholar. She admits having a long standing admiration for Thérèse but is nevertheless at great pains to be objective in her portrayal of the Saint.
Thérèse Martin was born into a bourgeois family in Alençon, Normandy in 1873. Her parents Louis and Zélie Martin had had ‘vocations’ but both had been rejected by the respective orders they wished to join. Louis and Zélie’s marriage was more or less arranged by the bridegroom’s mother. According to legend Louis announced to his bride on their wedding night that he wished to live a chaste life. This was a disappointment to Zélie who wished for many children so they could enter religion and live the life that had been denied her. However they were dissuaded from this lifestyle by a confessor and subsequently went at it in earnest producing nine children of whom five daughters survived. All five became nuns. Thérèse was the youngest. She was sent to the country to a wetnurse and did not return to the family until she was into her second year. There was a strict regime of mass at 5.30 am, prayer and fasting in the household. So Religion centered were they that the young Thérèse played at being a nun and even prayed that her mother would die so she could enjoy heaven. Even allowing for the context of nineteenth century Catholic France, these people, by any measurement, qualify as fruitcakes. In fact Monsieur Martin suffered a complete mental breakdown in later life. Madame Martin died when Thérèse was four after which Louis and his daughters moved to nearby Lisieux.
Furlong’s close analysis of life chez Martin leaves us with the impression that this was a highly disfunctional family riven with Jansenist scruples, closeted from the world of everyday joys. Mme Martin even went so far as to fear that the toddler Thérèse might suffer eternal damnation for some trivial act of naughtiness. Thérèse and her sisters were victims of a fanatical world view. When Zélie Martin died the role of mother passed to Thérèse’s much older sister Pauline. She and the next sister entered the enclosed Carmelite convent in Lisieux. This was another loss for Thérèse who had already lost her mother. She was frantic to follow them to the convent. On a pilgrimage to Rome with her father and sister Céline she threw a hissy fit during a papal audience while attempting to get the Pope to intervene with the Bishop of Bayeux to allow her to enter at the age of fifteen. She had to be forcibly removed by the papal guards. The teenage Thérèse had never been given any other outlet for her intense feelings other than religion. Were she a spirited teenager in a modern family she might be a groupie for Justin Bieber or One Direction. She would be better off as these obsessions normally run their course and the teenager is none the worse.
Thérèse’s education had been paltry. It had given her no interest in art, literature, music or science. She had been treated as a doll. She was incapable of even dressing herself. She DID nothing. The resulting self obsession and vanity took on a religious dimension. Religion in the narrow sense of an emotionally charged relationship between the self and Jesus.The hothouse atmosphere of Carmel, which she entered at sixteen, was even worse than her home. Furlong documents appalling petty jealousies and major cruelty amongst the nuns. The dying Thérèse is denied the pain relief suggested by the local doctor and suffers a longdrawn out and excruciating death from tuberculosis at the age of twenty-four. Furlong lays the blame for much of this at the door of the sadistic Prioress and indirectly on Thérèse’s own three sisters, also in the convent. Aware of the extraordinary stoicism and the programme of self sacrifice which she called ‘The Little Way’ they set out to push for her canonisation even as she lay dying. They simply would not leave her alone. She had already written her autobiography at their behest. They became caught up in being the family of a saint, their mother’s dream realised. Thérèse Martin was an abused child in the sense that she did not know how to be a child. She even found it difficult to make friends. She was spoiled as the youngest but spoiled in a different way from what we normally think of as spoiled. She was dehumanised. Monica Furlong’s dissection of the psychology of the family and the mood of the time is excellent.
It is time to shout stop to the cult of Thérèse of Lisieux. They dug her up prior to her canonisation in 1925 . Why do they always do this? Poor old John Henry Newman suffered the same fate recently. The scramble for relics is nothing short of obscene. It’s time to bury the bodies. Even Zélie and Louis Martin were dug up and reinterred in the basilica of Lisieux and , wait for it folks, they were declared venerable by the church. Being made ‘venerable’ is the first step to sainthood. Things have come to a pretty pass when these two unstable individuals are held up as role models for the rest of us. A sentimentalised religion based on sheer lack of knowledge does none of us any favours. I am reminded of the neighbour who called her child Patricia after ‘Padraig’Pio. It’s time to get back to the scriptures.
Thérèse of Lisieux by Monica Furlong is a fascinating read. In the last analysis the author retains her admiration of Thérèse. She sees an independent spirit who was given no choices –
‘She took the scrap of life allowed to her and transformed it’.