Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation on St. Thérèse of Lisieux, C’est la confiance (“It is confidence”), discusses at length an aspect of Theresian spirituality that is widely known but not widely examined. Thérèse is an enormously appealing saint, with there being no one “type” of Theresian devotee. Readers of midcentury literature might remember the Thérèse-devotee hobo from Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, and Thomas Merton specifically cultivated a devotion to her because of what he perceived as her dissimilarity from herself, to name two examples. Part of the incredibly wide appeal of her cultus is probably her just plain pleasant personality and image; I own a statuette of her that, when I bought it at an antique shop in Albany, was simply labeled “NICE NUN, $28.” But I think there’s an element of understanding that extends especially to people seemingly unlike herself, people who are not polite, kind, middle-class young women from prosperous small cities in Western Europe.

Pope Francis brings up two examples, one better-known than the other; both appear in Alain Cavalier’s excellent 1986 movie Thérèse, which I highly recommend, although it’s somewhat difficult to find with English subtitles. The first concerns Thérèse’s prayer relationship with the sensational murderer Henri Pranzini, subject of one of the most widely publicized true crime cases in 1880s France. As Pope Francis puts it in paragraph 28 of his exhortation (emphasis in the original):

Before entering the Carmel, Therese had felt a remarkable spiritual closeness to one of the most unfortunate of men, the criminal Henri Pranzini, sentenced to death for a triple murder for which he was unrepentant.By having Masses offered for him and praying with complete confidence for his salvation, she was convinced that she was drawing him ever closer to the blood of Jesus, and she told God that she was sure that at the last moment he would pardon him “even if he went to his death without any signs of repentance”. As the reason for her certainty, she stated: “I was absolutely confident in the mercy of Jesus”. How great was her emotion when she learned that Pranzini, after mounting the scaffold, “suddenly, seized by an inspiration, turned, took hold of the crucifix the priest was holding out to him and kissed the sacred wounds three times!”This intense experience of hoping against all hope proved fundamental for her: “After this unique grace, my desire to save souls grows each day”.

Cavalier’s movie opens with this; Thérèse is sitting at the breakfast table with one of her sisters years before her entry into the Carmel, rapturously reading a newspaper article discussing Pranzini’s last moments. Thérèse seems to have sought out Pranzini for much the same reason that Merton, intellectual bohemian with a checkered personal background, later sought out Thérèse. His precise otherness, the cold-blooded killer’s extreme dissimilarity from the sweet teenage daughter of a well-off family, provided her an opportunity for true charity, not merely natural sympathy.

Pope Francis’s second example, which seems not to be common knowledge even among people committed to Theresian spirituality, concerns the last few months of her short life. The Cavalier movie has a sequence towards the end in which Thérèse, in the throes of the tuberculosis that killed her at the age of twenty-four, repeatedly shouts “Je souffre! Je souffre!” at another nun: “I’m suffering! I’m suffering!” She can’t keep down food (even the Eucharist), she zones out at prayer, there are some frankly disgusting shots of her throwing up, and the only thing that gives her some consolation before the end of the movie is another nun bringing in a tiny frog, a sort of French answer to North America’s familiar spring peepers, to perch on Thérèse’s finger. (Cavalier’s movie takes place entirely indoors, with the outside world existing only through implication in moments like this one.) We don’t tend to associate Thérèse with the dark night of the soul, but this is an oversight; it is intensely present in accounts of her last illness, and Francis’s exhortation discusses it at length.

Francis is remarkably forthright about Thérèse being strongly tempted, in fact, towards atheism. The title of the exhortation, from a quote that in full reads “[i]t is confidence and nothing but confidence that must lead us to Love,” is not coming from someone who finds what she is recommending easy. The Thérèse of Lisieux mindset does involve kindness, politeness, and middlebrow good manners, but it also involves fear, frustration, embarrassing medical appointments, intense pain, and genuine nagging worry in one’s worst and most troubled moments that one has dedicated one’s life to an illusion. In paragraph 42 of the exhortation Francis describes what seems to have been the most persistent of those worries:

After centuries in which countless saints expressed with great fervour and eloquence their desire to “go to heaven”, Saint Therese could acknowledge, with utter sincerity: “At the time I was having great interior trials of all kinds, even to the point of asking myself whether heaven really existed”. At another time, she said: “When I sing of the happiness of heaven and of the eternal possession of God, I feel no joy in this, for I sing simply what I want to believe”. What had happened? Therese was hearing God’s call to put fire into the heart of the Church more than to think of her own personal happiness.

I’ve experienced something of the kind myself. In the past I have written for Where Peter Is about my devotion to the souls in purgatory and love for the Octave of All Souls. What I have touched on but not stated outright is that, for some reason, I find purgatory straightforwardly easier to believe in than heaven or hell. (Why would purgatory exist if heaven didn’t? I don’t know. This isn’t a particularly rational series of feelings.) Yet rather than giving in to the despair that these feelings could have induced, Thérèse doubled down. “I want to spend my heaven in doing good on earth,” she famously said towards the end. Her confidence was in God, not in herself, so it was not restricted to what she personally found practicable or even convincing. From that confidence, and from her own difficulties, she engaged in a remarkable closeness with the vulnerable, outcast, lost, and even depraved. Let us all pray for that kind of confidence.

Image: The author’s “NICE NUN” statuette, discussed above. Photo by the author.

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Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.

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