An admirably even-tempered biography of Thérèse Martin, canonized as Saint Thérèse of Lisieux a scant 28 years after her early death.
Thérèse was not a winning child, writes novelist/essayist Harrison (Seeking Rapture, p. 361, etc.); she was “priggish, humorless,” and by the age of seven had made and lost the only friend she was to have. Raised in a family of utmost piety—all five daughters entered the convent—she considered games a form of penance and “occupied herself with funerals for dead birds.” Her mother held the sentiment that “only fools look for comfort in the present,” and Thérèse concurred. Harsh separations marked her early years—her mother died when Thérèse was a child, and her much-loved oldest sister entered the convent. Thérèse became weepy and relentlessly emotional, viewing every pleasure as a possible corruption. She experiences an apparition of the Virgin Mary (Harrison notes that visions were popular at the time), but she’s able to look the miraculous event in the eye and keep it distanced. “Whether this means it issued from or was delivered to her psyche is a question without a single answer,” she writes, though she credits it as a leap of creativity. She is a bit more suspicious of the swiftness of Thérèse’s transformation from scourge to vessel of substitutive suffering, between mortal and divine, living and dying: “Grace, alchemy, masochism: through whatever lens we view her transport, Thérèse’s night of illumination presented both its power and its danger.” Harrison detects a whiff of pride, and later the exploitation of “invalidism.” Pursuing an obliterating union with Jesus, Thérèse intended herself to be unknown and counted as nothing—though she did produce a three-volume work of autobiography, pensées, and poesy that became a bestseller and generated a cult following after her death from tuberculosis, in 1897, at 24.
“Saints don’t become saints by choosing paths of moderation and tolerance,” Harrison writes in this bright, sharp essay on the ever-difficult Thérèse.