Tiptoe......................peeking through the gate

The Story of a Soul



Nun : Praying nuns isolated on white and black

     The Story of a Soul is probably not a book for general consumption. This short autobiography of an intensely mystical French nun who lived in the late 19th century is full of passion and mystery. Therese of Lisieux died at 24 of tuberculosis and became a saint only a few years later. She is particularly beloved in the Catholic church, being known as The Little Flower. I read the story long ago, when I was just coming into my own spiritually, and found it deeply moving.

   The book itself came to me in a strange way. My future husband, who even then knew me better than I knew myself, spotted it in a Goodwill store, bought it for me and slipped it into my suitcase on the way to the airport as I flew off to California for the summer. When I found it upon unpacking, I promptly threw it under the bed. A lifelong Protestant, I knew nothing about Catholic saints and cared even less.

     I was 24 that summer, and about to have an epiphany experience in Phoenix that would alter my life ever after. But that is a different story,  one I may tell somewhere else. The book played a part in that pivotal summer, and here is why: I found it under the bed after my union with Christ and then discovered in Therese a kindred spirit. Absolutely everything in Therese's life, from sundown to sundown, was about God. She craved him, sought him, agonized over him and adored him. At 24, so did I.

     Therese was slow and inefficient. She could not sew; people irritated her. Her nerves were not good; she felt very ordinary. And yet, those around her noticed the connection with God, the infilling of His presence.

     There are strange moments in the book. At one point, a statue of Mary comes to life and releases Therese from a terrible physical and emotional affliction. Therese works at asceticism, mixing her food on the plate to make it unpalatable, holding her back very erect to afflict the flesh and kneeling for long periods on stone floors. She applies to a convent in a Far Eastern country hoping to disappear.

     I certainly prefer the Anglican view that all of creation is God's good gift. And the Protestant focus on Jesus having paid the price. But, who am I to judge how Therese should draw closer to her God? And of what stuff does the Lord carve out a saint, if not the mysterious?

     Therese was unsentimental, a quality I found endearing. She disliked the church's fanciful stories about Jesus as a child, preferring unadorned truth from scripture. She felt somewhat injured that, as a woman, she was denied the holy privilege of administering the sacraments. When she traveled to Rome with a group of priests and observed their disappointing behavior, she determined to pray for them rather than despise them. A visitor at her sickbed told her how pretty she was, and she wrote that such sentiments meant less than nothing to her.

     In her final illness, God seemed to withdraw, and Therese was left to walk through the shadow of death feeling quite alone. Doubt proved to be the most formidable enemy of her life. As she lay dying, God did not seem real or there. The convent forbade the use of pain-relieving drugs, so her spiritual agony was heightened by physical pain.. Still, there are ecstatic outbursts of her love for God. Many of them.

     This Joan of Arc in a different century of French history pursued her Love relentlessly. She traveled to Rome and pleaded with the Pope for permission to enter the convent at 15, having been thwarted in her efforts by lesser authorities. In the end, she and God prevailed. Therese's sister, the head of the convent in which Therese died just nine years later, requested that Therese write out her spiritual secrets before her life ended. The Story of a Soul is the result. I recommend it to those who are interested in the deeply complex workings of a soul devoted to union with God.