Saint's Lives and Writing: September 2003 Archives

St Thomas More

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Ward-Thomas More-small.jpg

This picture encapsulates part of my fascination with St. Thomas More. While never for a moment turning from God, he managed to remain a man of the law (nearly unbelievable in itself--particularly given the time) and a devoted Father and Husband. The image above portrays St. Thomas More's farewell to his daughter. It was painted in the nineteenth century by Edward Matthew Ward. To my mind it captures perfectly the tenderness, deep regard, and concern that St. Thomas More lavished on his family until the day of his death.

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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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Here's a biography/study of St. Francis de Sales from 1639, approximately 17 years after the Sainted Bishop's death. It looks like a wonderful précis of his thought and spirituality.

An excerpt drawn quickly, at random:

from The Spirit of St. Francis de Sales
Jean Pierre Camus

Distrust of self and confidence in God are the two mystic wings of the dove; that is to say, of the soul which, having learnt to be simple, takes its flight and rests in God, the great and sovereign object of its love, of its flight, and of its repose.

The Spiritual Combat, which is an excellent epitome of the science of salvation and of heavenly teaching, makes these two things, distrust of self and confidence in God, to be, as it were, the introduction to true wisdom: they are, the author tells us, the two feet on which we walk towards it, the two arms with which we embrace it, and the two eyes with which we perceive it.

In proportion to the growth of one of these two in us is the increase of the other; the greater or the less the degree of our self-distrust, the greater or the less the degree of our confidence in God. But whence springs this salutary distrust of self? From the knowledge of our own misery and vileness, of our weakness and impotence, of our malice and levity. And whence proceeds confidence In God? From the knowledge which faith gives us of His infinite goodness, and from our assurance that He is rich in mercy to all those who call upon Him.

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Quiz Time

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Okay, let's be honest now--how many of you even knew there was Tertullian Project?

One. . . two. . . three. . .

Okay, how many actually cared?

Anyone? Anyone?

For those interested includes texts in English, Latin, Italina, Russian, French, Greek, and perhaps other languages. In some cases mutliple translations of a single work (for example Ad Martyres. If the Church Fathers are your thing (even if Tertullian did become a montanist) this is a site for you.

This is an index of other Church Fathers' writing as well as the writing of such luminaries as Gildas (one of the very early supposed sources of the Arthur Legend) and other delightful tidbits.

Go a browse--there's a wealth of wonderful and entertaining stuff at these locations.

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More on St. Thérèse

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Regarding the difficulties many have with reading the work of the Little Flower

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

If the first-time reader has to struggle with the mundane minutiae of sixth-century monastic life in Benedict, then in Thérèse he has to struggle with an even more difficult dose of "ordinariness." At least there is some historical interest in reading about the sleeping arrangements of sixth-century monks, but Thérèse takes us into the detailed life of the nineteenth century French bourgeoisie. Her writings are full of spiritual points made through the events of ordinary days. So we are plunged into the details of visits to relatives, a first train ride, trips to the seaside, and the traumas of a little girl's school days. We are told about playtime with her sisters, quarrels with the maid, and the joy of cuddle with Mommy and Daddy. Those who are looking for a lofty spiritual treatise will find in both Benedict and Thérèse a hefty does of ordinary life instead.

And doesn't this just make perfect, natural sense. Ordinary life is where our spirituality plays out. Even if are advanced contemplatives, we are not transported bodily from where we spend time sweeping the floors and caring for children. God speaks to us in the trauma of our children, in the difficulty of getting a stain out of the carpet, in the trials of cleaning baked-on cheese and who knows what-all off of the casserole. He speaks to us in the commute to work and in the trials of the day (getting enough paperclips--getting rid of too many paperclips, the copier is skipping pages--the copier is making two copies of every other page). Spirituality is not divorced from life, it is reinforced by life. Our reactions and our actions of each day are what come out of our hearts. They are where we are most real, where we have the least time to don a mask and put on the "company face." And so they are the best mirror of our spiritual life. Exalted states of prayer are, for most of us, the exception rather than the rule. As Longenecker says elsewhere in the book, "The divine is in the details." And the details are ordinary.

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To Our Canonists

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A blessed and wonderful feast day. I believe St. Robert Bellarmine is the patron, or at least one of the patrons of Canon Lawyers. I also think he is the one who said of the Bible, "God gave it to us not to tell us how the heavens go but how to go to heaven."

Later: I find it interesting, and perhaps indicative (of something), that this day I choose to celebrate St. Robert Bellarmine, and Erik (he of the Rants) chooses to extol Tomás de Torquemada.

This from an entry on Catholic Exchange:

Robert tried to take a moderate approach to the issues of the day; he upheld the Church's position and pointed out Protestant errors, but in a way which relied upon persuasion, not polemics. He argued against the "divine right of kings" the belief that royal authority comes directly from God. He thereby indirectly promoted the possibility of modern democratic thought, angering the kings of England and France in the process.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Saint's Lives and Writing category from September 2003.

Saint's Lives and Writing: August 2003 is the previous archive.

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