On Miracles and Simplicity

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In this passage, Mr. Longenecker makes some incisive and interesting points:

from St. Benedict and St. Thérèse: The Little Rule and the Little Way
Dwight Longenecker

To speak plainly, the main problem for sophisticated people is not that miracles are incredible, but that they are an error in taste. To profess belief in miracles takes one perilously close to faith healers, the souvenir stalls of Lourdes, and lurid pictures of Jesus with googly eyes. There is a breed of spiritually minded people who reduce Christianity to the highest form of aesthetics. Beauty us to Truth, but beauty without truth is false, and that which is false and beautiful does not remain beautiful for very long. If the faith is no more than a pretty face, then the aesthetes are also atheists. Since miracles are an error in taste, it is far more subversive and therefore far more Christian to accept the miracles. It's also much more fun--rather like wearing a hideous hat on purpose.

If Benedict's biography gives the sophisticated soul miracles to stumble over, Thérèse's story gives tasteful grown-ups an even bigger obstacle. To find Thérèse, the modern soul has to climb over the stumbling block of her style. We modern-day pilgrims are presented with a nineteenth-century teenage nun with a pretty smile and schoolgirl enthusiasms. She speaks in language that seems archaic and sickly sweet. Among other sentimental touches she calls herself a little flower of Jesus and a little ball for the child Jesus to play with. She thinks God is her "Papa" and likens herself to a bowl of milk that kittens come to drink from. It's easy to turn away such greeting-card spirituality in distaste, but this is precisely the first test. Thérèse swamps tasteful people with sentimentality and sweetness, and only when they survive the taste test can they begin to appreciate her wisdom. She is one of the best examples of the secret Catholic truth that says the tasteful cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. (p. 46-47)

There is so much more profound and interesting insight on these pages that I must encourage you all to get the book if you can. This passage continues and says many wonderful and remarkable things about the style and what Thérèse was and what she was trying to do.

I think style is the biggest complaint I hear about Thérèse; how people can't push themselves through the sticky images and the sweetness and light. And I sympathize--greatly. Up until the magisterial translation offered by the ICS, I had similar feelings. The Beevers translation and earlier works were just dreadful and incredibly off-putting. I couldn't find any spirituality for all the treacle. When the Carmelite Group proposed reading this piece of school-girl drivel I just about went mad (although, truth to tell, I was instrumental in proposing it.) But when I read it, and really searched it to find out what the Church saw here, I was truly astonished at the depths that opened up before me. What was school-girl drivel suddenly became something else entirely. I can't explain it. All I can say is that this person who prizes above much else elegance of language and expression, sophistication of writing and idea suddenly discovered the elegance of saying precisely what was right for the person who was writing. It opened a door to riches beyond imagination. From saccharine schoolgirl, my image of Thérèse transmuted into Great Saint, perhaps one of the very greatest of Saints--a true Doctor in the sense of conveying in language anyone who wished to could understand profound truths about prayer and our relationship with God.

And in fact, I think Longenecker has hit upon a key point. Entry to Thérèse means submitting with great humility to the fact that a teenaged "silly" schoolgirl has something profound and life-altering to teach those of us who have been in the world approaching twice as long. Surely this babe in the woods could not know anything we have not already learned. And the barrier that demonstrates approach with proper humility is the ability to get past the language and the image. Until then, you are not really permitted a glance at the profound wisdom and truth that is offered through the writings of this unlikely nun.

Thérèse presents more than anything else a challenge to our sensibilities and our aesthetics, a challenge that offers a small taste of the meaning of detachment. We must detach from our own preferences, our own sense of style, our own love of the high language and great art of many of the other saints, and accept a story-book saint--flat, wooden, and girlish. And as in some fairy-tale story, when we do so, she comes alive and tells us truths that will change our lives and our relationship with God.

(Oh--one additional tip for the hopelessly stymied--for whatever reason, all of this that is so off-putting in English, is greatly subdued if you read it in French--this discipline is finally what allowed me to enter the door and sit for a while at this great teacher's feet. Praise God!)

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I shall add this book to my list to read. You should write a review! Oh, but you have, and a splendid one to boot.

bonne journée

I'm guessing it's true it's important to note the "real St. Therese" isn't somehow beneath or above or beyond the treacle, but that the treacle itself is inseparable from the saint. Maybe not to early 20th Century English translation levels, but at least to Hallmark dish-of-milk levels. Does that sound right?

A slight discord at the words "it is far more subversive and therefore far more Christian...." Not that Christianity isn't subversive in its way -- nor that it isn't as fun to believe in miracles as to wear an ugly tie (I happen to *like* my hats, striking as they may be when sprung on a chap with a morning head) -- but that subversion simply does not imply Christianity.

Dear Tom,

If I read the first paragraph correctly, I think I agree with what you are implying. St. Therese is authentically humble because she is authentically herself in her writing and in her life and what we read is a part of her--a "stumblingblock" to the pround and aesthetic.

As to subversion. I note and agree with your caveat; however, I am overwhelmed and overjoyed at the notion of Love being subversive. I believe that it is the subversive element of Christianity that I find such a draw. Were it more conformable (as certain of our Christian Brethren would have it be) it would be much less interesting. Christianity does not "cut its skirts to suit this season's fashions." And thereby hangs the subversion.

But no, subversion and Christianity are not synonymous--I just like the notion of being subversive.



If one can't read the french, another way to begin might be to read her "Last Conversations" first? I did not do that, but the reason I suggest it is that I think it may present an image of her mature spirituality better to some readers (initially, I mean). Maybe because I am an emotional type, and a female to boot, I was never stopped by her style. But I know that many are; especially men, I have found.
Longenecker's book is definitely beginning to sound like a must read.



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on September 26, 2003 8:04 AM.

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