Abramin and his two confederates are bandits. Although they’re not exactly Robin Hoods, they live by burglary, not by violence.
Abramin and his wife Susanna have a beautiful baby son Dismas. But Dismas is a leper.
He sings, and the boy goes to sleep.
These are some of the characters in the short play “The Flight into Egypt,” one of eight edifying theatricals (or “pious recreations,” as the Carmelites called them) that were written and produced by the young Therese of Lisieux.
Lively and inventive
With a handful of other young sisters, Therese acted in seven of the plays, taking such central roles as Joan of Arc and Mary the mother of Jesus. For the eighth, she had to watch with the audience since she was already weakened by the tuberculosis that would kill her six months later at the age of 24.
These pious recreations, performed between January, 1894, and February, 1897 for the Carmelite sisters in Lisieux, have been described as paraliturgies and mystery plays. They were lively, inventive ways to teach Christian lessons, and they were presented on — and had some relation to — particular feast days with much singing and occasional humor.
While pious recreations had been a tradition in Carmelite convents, these eight rise to a higher level — not of dramaturgy but of spirituality. Therese, who became known to the world as the Little Flower, found her approach to God through humility and self-abnegation.
Her theological understanding and practices are developed and described in her autobiographical writings and poetry. The eight pious recreations, approaching the same subjects through the vehicle of drama, also provide important insights into her faith. (Yet, it wasn’t until 1956 that a facsimile edition of the plays was published, and not until 1985 that an annotated French edition was completed. This English translation became available just four years ago.)
Humility is truth
As one of the characters in her final play says, humility “is nothing more than truth.” To Therese’s mind, women and men needed to follow the example of Jesus who “lowered himself” to become flesh, to die and to rise from the dead.
Nothing could be more humble than for God to be a totally vulnerable baby. “The Word Made Child,” as another character in another of her plays puts it.
Yet, Therese did not equate humility with moroseness as these playlets make clear. They are musical, playful, uplifting, whimsical, heroic and always joyous. Everyone — in the audience and on the stage — had a lot of fun.
Therese and her actresses had access to a wide array of costumes in the convent as well as from friends in the outside world. As photographs show, Therese wore a long dress festooned with fleurs de lis and a dark wig in portraying Joan of Arc in one of the two dramas she wrote about that French saint.
“The sweets of Carmel”
One of the plays, “The Divine Little Beggar of Christmas,” was much more of a liturgy than a drama. Indeed, each of the 26 sisters in the convent took part.
Therese wrote 26 short poems to well-known songs. Each was put on a small piece of paper, and the papers were put together in a basket that, at the start of the play, an angel gives to the prioress in front of the crib of the infant Jesus.
The prioress and then, in turn, each of the other sisters takes one of pieces of paper and sings the poem, meditating on how the ideas in the poem resonate in her own life.
So, for instance, one of the nuns selected a paper with the poem “Candy” on it which includes the lines:
The sweets of Carmel
Which charm the King of Heaven
Are all your sacrifices.
My sister, your austerity
And your great poverty
Are Jesus’ delight.
A toy, a cluster of grapes
The idea of self-sacrifice doesn’t resonate very well with the 21st century’s emphasis on self-fulfillment. Yet, it’s a charming image and a charming way of understanding humility to see personal sacrifices as candy for God.
Another sister selected a paper that asked, “Do you want to be the Toy/Of the Divine Child on earth?”
Therese was happy when, at random, she chose the poem “A Cluster of Grapes” which begins:
I would like a tasty fruit,
A Cluster of grapes all golden
To refresh the King of Heaven,
The adored little mouth.
“A real revolution”
In 1949, one writer, Marcel More, commented that Therese’s writings, such as these, about the weak Jesus, the hidden Jesus, the humble Jesus “represent a real revolution at the very heart of the Church, which situates us in the center of a new spirituality, and completely turns our backs on the piety of the nineteenth century.”
Rather than God as Judge and God as Threat, More notes that Therese focuses on the decision of Jesus to renounce his divine nature “stripping himself completely,” as More writes, “in order to descend into the night of our souls, as he took the form of a slave to descend into the darkness of history.”
For Therese, Jesus at Christmas is a challenge. And a model. And, also, as an infant, deeply attractive and loveable.
In 2012, some Catholic prelates in the United States promulgate God as Judge and God as Threat — and themselves as his instruments of chastisement.
More than a century earlier, however, Therese, in these plays and her other writings, looked at the rest of the world with a humble, loving gaze. She wasn’t looking to castigate but to lovingly indicate a better way.
“Sweat and dust”
Hence, the thief Abramin, his henchmen, Susanna and Dismas.
In her script “The Flight into Egypt,” Abramin, Susanna and Dismas are a loving family. Abramin and his sidekicks are a band of friends. They thieve, but they have good hearts.
And into their lives comes the infant Jesus, his mother and father.
Susanna weepingly tells Mary about her infant’s leprosy, and Mary says, “I promise you I shall pray for your child, and all I ask in return is a little water with which to wash Jesus. See how His little face is covered with sweat and dust.”
Here is the core of Therese’s story and faith — much more important than the healing of Dismas when Susanna bathes him in the same water that Mary has used for Jesus.
If God can be so humble
The baby covered in sweat and dust is an idea that transfixes Therese. If God can be so humble — can accept such humility — mustn’t she? Mustn’t we?
In fact, Jesus has “lowered himself” to an extent that is totally beyond what any human can do.
From that perspective, all people — saints and sinners alike, Joan of Arc and Abramin, each of the sisters in the convent, every man, woman and child — are called to a similar humility.
A humility toward God. Just as important, a humility toward each other.
Although her plays are designed to teach, Therese never uses them to badger or berate. Like Mary with Susanna, she is earnest and encouraging and hopeful and faithful.
She understands that she and everyone else are called to a closeness to God through humility.
Where happiness is
It is a humble Therese who sees Abramin, Susanna and Dismas as fellow humans, searching for happiness and rightness. It is a humble Therese who calls her Carmelite sisters to be candy for the baby Jesus, to be a toy, to be a cluster of grapes.
If this sounds out of step with the modern world, it is. And it isn’t.
I don’t have to bury myself in a monastery in order to treat people in a humble way — which is to say, to treat people as equals, striving like me to find my path.
If humility is truth — and I believe it is — any effort I make to live in a true way, an honest way, a direct and clear way is to be humble and to draw closer to God.
Therese says that’s where happiness is. I think she’s right.
Patrick T. Reardon