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Book review: “The Last Years of Saint Therese: Doubt and Darkness, 1895-1897” by Thomas R. Nevin Previous item Book review: “Split... Next item Book review: “Bravura...

Book review: “The Last Years of Saint Therese: Doubt and Darkness, 1895-1897” by Thomas R. Nevin

At the center of Thomas R. Nevin’s revelatory, deeply felt and actively contemplative 2013 study The Last Years of Saint Therese: Doubt and Darkness, 1895-1897 are nearly two dozen sentences from early in her final autobiographical manuscript, identified as C.

To my mind — and, I think, in Nevin’s mind, as well — these sentences (quoted in full in an appendix) are the saint’s burningly personal testament of her theology and spirituality, akin, in its depth and focus but much different in tone and subject, to the Magnificat of Mary.

They are written as Therese is dying the slow death of tuberculosis.  They are written during the final 18 months of her life when she feels cut off from Jesus and swims in a deep darkness.  She feels no hope and feels no faith.  She is left with blind trust and love in Jesus, and she knows she is undergoing a great test.

At the very end of his book, Nevins writes:

It was not faith (or belief) and hope that were tested.  They were gone.  It was her absolutely blind love of God that was tested, rather like a memory someone has of a dead and departed beloved.  Would that memory last?

And, in the face of this test of love, Therese, from the depths of her darkness, responds over and over: Yes!

Indeed, late in her life, this little sister, deeply aware of her littleness, carved into the inside of her cell’s door: “Jesus is my sole love.”

Nevin adds, in an endnote, that he had been unable to determine what instrument — A scissors? Probably not. A kitchen utensil? — to carry out “this singular act.”  After all, sisters in the Carmel, under their vows, would be expected, at minimum, to avoid damaging or defacing convent property.  And Nevin goes on: “Rather more intriguing is the question, why did she make this carving?”

As a sister

Therese’s love, though, doesn’t stop with Jesus.  Like all true love, it must reach out.  And it does, not only to her natural sisters and to her vowed sisters in the Displaced Carmelite convent at Lisieux, not only to her two pen-pal priests in foreign missions and to other believers, but also — and even more — to those who have turned away from God.

And Therese doesn’t simply reach out to these non-Christians, anti-Christians, fallen-away Christians.  In her heart, she goes and joins them at their table.  These people whom are identified by many believers as enemies — these are the people she chooses, as she is dying, to sit with and to love.

She joins them as a sister. 

“Not confront nor preach”

Her choice is the antithesis of the do-gooder impulse behind myriad government programs, philanthropic initiatives and other help-the-needy endeavors which, in one way or another, are aimed at solving the problems of those “less fortunate.”  Therese comes to the table of sinners with the single goal of being with them in their suffering and exile. As Nevin writes:

…Therese arrives at the cavernous darkness where those hostile or indifferent to her Jesus dwell.  She does not confront them nor preach to convert them; she sits with them in compassion and solidarity.  That is how she brings to life Jesus’s injunction to be charitable toward those who revile or detest the life he would have his followers lead.

He writes that there is “no negative triumphalism at Therese’s table of sorrow, no spectacular quake or fire as presented to Elijah when he was standing on the mountain.”  Instead, like Elijah, Therese hears at the sinners table “something of a still small voice.” 

The darkness of doubt that has descended upon her, she is sure, has come from Jesus, and she embraces that belief in “her left-handed way of finding strength in his very testing of her.” 

And, armed with the strength as well as a deep insight of love and empathy, Therese is able to see how her own darkness is the same darkness that those at the table of sinners are lost in.  She is able to see her self in all its humanity — imperfect as all humans are, a sinner — and recognize her kinship with those at the table.

(A parallel to this would come more than three decades later when Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin established the Catholic Worker newspaper in New York and the first of what became dozens of hospitality houses where the workers shared their living space, food and lives with the sorts of people shunned by mainstream society — addicts and the addled, the homeless and the lost.  Later, in 1960, Day wrote a biography of Therese.  Parallels from the Gospels are the stories of Jesus dining with sinners.)

“The bread of sorrow”

As she explains in those core sentences from Manuscript C, Therese has been invaded “by the thickest shadows” which do not recognize Jesus as “the light of the world.”  But she has a memory of the light that is Jesus. And, from her deep dark, she prays:

“But Lord, your child has comprehended your divine light, she’s asking your forgiveness for her brothers, she agrees to eat for as long as you wish the bread of sorrow and she does not wish to rise, before the day you have indicated, from this table filled with bitterness where poor sinners are eating.

And she doesn’t stop there.  She asks in her name and in the name of “her brothers” for pity.  And she adds:

“O Jesus, if it is necessary that the table soiled by them be purified by a soul that loves you, I truly wish to eat alone the bread of testing till it please you to introduce me into your luminous realm.  The only grace I am asking of you is never to offend you.”

“The night of nothingness”

Believers who look up to saints generally like to think of them as people with answers.  They’ve found the sacred key to life.  But Therese’s words make it clear that sanctity has nothing to do with comfort or certainty or consolation.  In fact, she writes:

“…suddenly the fog surrounding me is becoming thicker, penetrating my soul and enveloping it in such a way that it is no longer possible to rediscover in it the sweet image of my Country [Jesus], all has disappeared.”

What follows are perhaps the most harrowing words that Therese ever wrote.  Nevin describes them as the “testing of her loving trust” and also as “like some furtive and agilely metamorphous virus placed in a pure field.” 

She writes that the shadows afflicting her “borrow the voice of sinners” and mock her:

“ ‘You’re dreaming of the light, of a country made fragrant by the sweetest perfumes, you’re dreaming of the everlasting possession of the Creator of all these marvels, you believe that one day you will part from the fog around you, go on, go on, rejoice in the death that will give you not what you’re hoping but a night even more profound, the night of nothingness.’ ”

With astonishment and tender compassion, Nevin writes simply: “That is what she heard inside herself.”

“Afraid of blaspheming”

Therese has chosen to continue to trust and love Jesus even though she no longer feels his presence.  She has chosen to recognize in her own shadows the shadows of those at the table of sinners.  And she has chosen to join them at their table as a companion, as a sister, as another human being.

And, after all that, she experiences these voices — her own voice, in some way — of great doubt.

Nevin notes that some may find it difficult to believe that a pious, cloistered nun could “carry such devilish venom within her.”  But he goes on: “Because she was truth-seeking, Therese was also truth-telling, and in this instance she became a candid amanuensis for the despotism of evil within.”

Having written of these shadows and of the table and of devilish voices, Therese finishes this section, telling the prioress:

“I don’t want to write about it any longer, I’d be afraid of blaspheming….I’m even afraid of having said too much about it.”

Her fear of committing blasphemy here is a flashing billboard of how strong her doubts were and how dark her shadows were — and, ultimately, how strong her trust and love of Jesus was.

“Left only with love”

Thérèse in costume as St. Joan of Arc for a play she wrote and performed for the nuns in her convent.

The Last Years of Saint Therese: Doubt and Darkness, 1895-1897 is the second book by Nevin about Therese.  In 2006, he published Therese of Lisieux: God’s Gentle Warrior, a book that examined the fullness of her life. 

Neither is a hagiography although it’s clear Nevin has profound respect for Therese’s spiritual depth and rich spirituality.  As he states at the start of the first book, Nevin is writing for “the widest possible audience” — those who love her, those who are Christians and those who are skeptics and scoffers of religion, the people at the table of sinners.

The core insight of that earlier book, for me, was from a conversation that the young sister — she died at 24 a few months later — had with another nun: 

Sister Therese Saint-Augustin, in what she may have thought was a message of consolation, told the dying woman that she’d had a dream in which Therese was in a very dark room, getting herself ready to join her magnificently dressed late father and go through “an extremely black” door to a world of only light.

But, in “a dumbfounding response,” Thérèse replied:

“I don’t believe in eternal life.  It seems to me that after this mortal life there’s nothing more. I can’t tell you of the shadows in which I’m plunged.  What you are telling me is precisely the state of my soul.  The preparation I’m supposed to make and especially the dark door is the very image of what’s happening in my soul.”

The door, which the dreamer had imagined was a way into heaven, was, for Thérèse, “grim” and a sign that

“everything has disappeared for me and I’m left with only love.”

“Grievous and wrenching plea”

The second book focuses on Therese’s last three years and on the final two sections of her spiritual memoir The Story of a Soul.  The first section, known as A, was written in 1895 at the request of Mother Agnes of Jesus, Thérèse’s sister Pauline and prioress at the time, and it focused on her childhood and her efforts as a teen to enter the Lisieux Carmel at a younger age than permitted.

The other two sections, B and C, were written after Good Friday, 1896, when, during the night, Therese coughed up blood, the first indication that she was suffering from the death sentence of tuberculosis or some other grievous respiratory ailment.

Manuscript B was written later in 1896 as a letter to Marie, Therese’s eldest sister and also a nun at the convent, and Manuscript C was done in the summer of 1897 at the request of Mother Mary of Gonzaga, who was then prioress.

Nevin calls Manuscript B “fretful” for Therese’s high ambitions of love and her recognition of her own littleness.  She wants to be like Jesus and she wants to love like Jesus, but she is honest enough with herself to recognize that such great dreams could be simply foolishness.

Therese has these desires of love greatly, and she asks Jesus, if she has overstepped her place, to take away these desires because, Nevin writes, “unavailing, [they] are her greatest martyrdom.”  But then, he writes, she abandons caution completely:

“Yet the true rashness, a moist poignant one, comes when she adds that ‘after having aspired to the highest regions of Love, if I must not attain them one day, I shall have tasted more sweetness in my martyrdom, in my lunacy, than I would taste in the bosom of celestial joys.’

“Here she carries her audacity to the outermost limit, telling Jesus that if there is no heaven, then he should let her go on savoring the sweet bitterness of her unrealizable desires.  It would be difficult to imagine a more grievous and wrenching plea, as from an addict hugging her narcosis.”

“Asked God to loan her the love”

Manuscript C, which includes the two dozen sentences about joining the table of sinners despite the taunts of the devils, is, writes Nevin, the culmination of Therese’s life journey as a Christian:

“Wholly without intent and contrivance, she descended and took on the semblance of a slave to sin, identifying herself with the most wretched, those who have lost God and those who have rejected God and all sense of God.”

She was not, he writes, feeling as lost or rejected as those non-believers, but she did feel “the acute sorrow hidden within these privations.”

And Nevin ends his profoundly moving and compassionate book — and brings to a conclusion his two-book examination of and meditation on Therese’s spirituality and life — with these words:

“Therese experienced that negation within her soul and asked God to loan her the love she knew she did not have for him so that she could give it back.  She gives it back at the table of sorrow.  In the most exemplary charity imaginable, she draws with her through prayer a lost and suffering humanity.

“That is the definitive fact about Therese of the Child Jesus of the Holy Face.  Everything else is froth on the surface.”

Patrick T. Reardon

7.20.21

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