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Darkness and union in Thérèse of Lisieux's 'Story of a Soul'

This was first published on JOY IN TRUTH, and can be read HERE.



St. Thérèse of Lisieux was born as Marie Françoise-Thérèse Martin on January 2, 1873 in Alençon.[1] Much that we know about her is from the manuscripts which make up her autobiography, L’histoire d’une âme, her letters and poetry, and from her sisters (both blood and spiritual) who were in the Carmel of Lisieux with her. Despite her short life of 24 years, Thérèse has quickly become one of the most popular saints of modern times, and was canonised by Pope Pius XI only 28 years following her death. But her ‘shower of roses’[2] continued to fall, and Thérèse was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church in 1997.


The ‘story of the Little Flower gathered by Jesus’[3] is formed from three manuscripts, and the text was not written as one continuous piece. In fact, the writing of the manuscripts which make up Story of a Soul were acts of obedience to her superiors who requested the writing of autobiographies at various stages of Thérèse’s life.[4] Manuscript A, written in 1895 was requested by Mother Agnes of Jesus (Thérèse’s sister, Pauline). Upon reading them at a much later date, Mother Agnes described them as ‘heavenly pages’, and contributed to her seeing Thérèse as a saint.[5] Manuscript B was composed in 1896, for Marie, Thérèse’s eldest sister who was also in Carmel with her and Pauline. Manuscript C was written in the summer of 1897 for Mother Mary of Gonzaga. [6]


These texts were not intended to be widely read spiritual tracts. In fact, Thérèse says that she would not even be upset if the manuscripts were to be set on fire before her without even being read. Not only is this a sign of the intended readership, but also of her spirituality of littleness and being unknown. Yet, Story of a Soul has become widely popular among Catholic readers, perhaps as a result of its littleness and humility, as well as the wit and relatability of the young author.


 ‘The dark night of the soul’ is a term that is frequently associated with mysticism since St. John of the Cross’ poem.  It is unsurprising that as a disciple of St. John (both as a Carmelite, and as someone who found great wisdom in his writing) Thérèse would also explore this language of darkness. The way of imperfection is also in the spiritual aridity which Thérèse was to experience after entering Carmel, particularly in her final months. Her way was to be the way of ‘spiritual stumbling and groping’ as Nevin puts it, and it seems as though she was set apart within the darkness.[7] The first time we encounter darkness in Story of a Soul is when Thérèse is unable to attain approval to enter Carmel from her uncle. She describes it as a ‘three day martyrdom’ where she was lost in a ‘desert’;[8] apt language for a period of spiritual dryness, although in the times of the Desert Fathers, the desert was seen as a place to retreat from the world and to meet God. But the comparisons do not stop there, and she draws on the story of Matthew 8:23-27, where Jesus is asleep in a boat during a storm.

‘I knew that Jesus was there, asleep in my boat, but how could I see Him through a night of such darkness?’[9] It is not that periods of aridity cause unbelief for Thérèse. During her darkness, Thérèse is in fact aware of the presence of Jesus in the ‘dark night, utter desolation and death’,[10] despite not being able to see him, or feel consolation.

Her greatest period of spiritual darkness began in Holy Week, 1896. Instead of walking Teresa of Ávila’s way of perfection, Nevin argues that Thérèse was in fact compelled to walk the Via Dolorosa, ‘with her Beloved ever distant’.[11]This period in her life was one of great doubt of the existence of the afterlife, not of God – ‘it is impossible to discover within the sweet image of my fatherland’.[12] Instead of rejecting belief in God during her dark night, she clings to Jesus and yearns to be an object at his disposal. The way in which she is to be used is at the table of sinners where only bitter bread is consumed.


Here, Thérèse is identifying herself with those who have lost and rejected God. Finding purpose in the darkness in caring for her troubled sisters enabled her to understand the wider picture outside of herself; of the collective spiritual darkness of many, which is experienced in isolation.[13] In seeing it like this, Thérèse is able to put this mystical trope into the use of serving others. In fact, it is during this period of dryness that Thérèse exclaims that she has discovered her vocation of love in the heart of the Church.


Thérèse even goes so far as to find joy in her trial: ‘my joy consists in being deprived of all joy here on earth. Jesus does not guide me openly; I neither see nor hear Him’.[14] She is fully in the desert which she wished to go to as a child,[15] but the way Thérèse uses the desert in terms of her spiritual aridity turns the ascetic’s expectation of the desert on its head.


The Desert as a Place of Encounter

The theme of the desert as the place of encounter with God has been present throughout the history of Christian mysticism, and in the Carmelite tradition in particular with the prophet Elijah as an example of such an encounter.[16] The late 12th century in which the Carmelites were founded saw a focus on the interior desert as the place for meeting God.[17] However, Thérèse’s interior desert is one where she is unable to meet God. And yet, she is still able to find joy in this. This joy is her ability to identify with unbelievers, and thus love them. This was not the first time that Thérèse had tried to save unbelievers, as her prayers for the criminal Pranzini in her youth show.[18] Yet again, her experience is put into action, but this time she is able to more fully understand and identify with unbelievers.


This aridity even transcends the purificative outline for dark nights of the soul which St. John of the Cross puts forth.[19] So, it seems to Thérèse that there is an element of mission in this dark night: to identify with unbelievers, to love them, and to bring them to God: ‘if He will deign to open [Heaven] for eternity to poor unbelievers, I am content to sacrifice during my life all joyous thoughts of the Home which awaits me’.[20] In fact, suffering like this not only further united her to her divine Spouse, but it was also the surest way to save souls.[21] Thérèse truly believed in the loving mercy of God here, turning away from the view of a judgemental God prevalent in France at the time. Her ‘insatiable thirst for souls’[22] was present throughout her life, but it truly comes to a head in her dark night. In fact, some of her last words recorded a few hours before her death talk of the ‘ardent desires’ she had to save souls.[23]


Union With God Through Prayer and Communion


Union is an extremely important theme in mysticism.[24] It is typically understood as ‘the intuitive contact with that ultimate reality which theologians mean by the Godhead ‘.[25] So far, we have been able to see how Thérèse found union with God through loving others, which is certainly important. Thérèse, however, does not set out an itinerarium for mystical union with God in the way her Carmelite predecessors and mystics throughout the ages have. This is not to say that Thérèse did not experience profound union with God, and in times where she did not experience aridity, this seems to have come through both prayer and communion.


‘For me, prayer is an uplifting of the heart, a glance towards heaven, a cry of gratitude and love in times of sorrow as well as joy. It is something noble, something supernatural, which expands the soul and unites it to God’.[26] This is perhaps one of the most famous quotations from Story of a Soul. Thérèse does not give us a programme for prayer, like Teresa’s fourfold way, or Bonaventure’s Itinerarium mentis in deum. She even admits to us that she has struggled with systematic prayers like the rosary.


Instead, Thérèse chooses to approach God in prayer in the simple manner of a child. ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these’[27] indeed. Although the heart looks upward towards heaven, Thérèse recognises her inability to initiate union with Jesus. Instead, ‘because I was small and frail, He deigned to stoop down to me and instruct me gently in the secrets of his love’.[28] Although prayer is a cry of the heart for union, it is Jesus who comes down. There is no movement of the soul upwards towards God. Rather, it is only Jesus who can lift the soul upwards like this towards heaven, as illustrated in Thérèse’s elevator metaphor.


From a young age, Thérèse showed a strong understanding of the union which takes place at the table of Communion.  She sought to prepare for it years before she made her own First Communion, making little sacrifices before she had even had the realisation of their importance in loving others.[29] These were, however to transform into ‘many flowers’.[30]  How Thérèse writes of her First Communion is very reminiscent of the Song of Songs, an important text in the Carmelite tradition, and in the mystical one also. Her description of the first embrace of Jesus is an ‘embrace of love,’[31] and it is evocative of the bride in the Biblical text: ‘let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth’.[32] Like the bride and bridegroom of the Song of Songs, Jesus and Thérèse had known each other, but in Communion, they found ‘perfect union’. ‘Thérèse had disappeared like a drop of water lost in the immensity of the ocean; Jesus alone remained.’[33]


Bernard of Clairvaux famously wrote commentaries on the Song of Songs regarding the union of the mystic with God in a state of ecstasy. Thérèse does not explicitly use imagery of bridal mysticism here like Bernard, nor any erotic imagery so commonly associated with it, but it is very much here. That is not to say that it is not present in other parts of her autobiography, for as a nun, she saw herself as a ‘spouse of Christ’.[34] Like a bride and bridegroom on their wedding night, they have joined and become one, but the power and love of Jesus is so much that he has completely and utterly subsumed her.


Tears of Happiness


The experience, although not described in terms of the rapture expected of mystics, is so intense, that Thérèse experiences ‘tears of happiness’ as the ‘joy of heaven had come down into one heart’.[35] Once again, it is heaven that comes down to earth, rather than the upward movement of the mystic towards God. Moreover, the gift of tears is an extremely important theme throughout mysticism. This is perhaps as it is a sign of a heart which is open to God’s love. St. John of the Ladder wrote that ‘thirst and vigil render the heart contrite, and a contrite heart produces tears’.[36] Tears have also been described as being ‘produced by the intensity of the inner life’.[37] Thérèse had thirsted for her First Communion, and prepared her heart and interior self to be open to it. It is unsurprising, then, that such tears of joy should be produced.


Like the bride of the Song of Songs, Thérèse rests in the peace of her union: ‘no exterior thing could interfere with the inward peace of my soul’.[38] As in Bernard of Clairvaux’s commentary, she is ‘guarded by the care and zeal of God lest she be roused from her sleep by anyone till she wakes of her own accord’.[39] Once it had passed, she waited for his return, just like the bride: ‘I longed only for the blissful moment when I should receive him again’.[40]


Thérèse places great importance on receiving Communion throughout her writings. During Thérèse’s lifetime, Communion was not a daily sacrament[41] in the way it is today, but Thérèse did not think that this should be so: ‘I am quite certain that a soul ought to make known to her spiritual guide the longing she has to receive God. It is not to remain in a golden ciborium that He comes down from Heaven each day, but to seek another Heaven – the Heaven of our souls wherein He takes such delight’.[42] For Thérèse, there is not just a longing on behalf of the soul, but that God also longs to be united with the soul. It is a two-way street, in which both parties wish to be joined, and where both find joy. Sadly, Thérèse was unable to receive Holy Communion during her final illness,[43] and this was perhaps her greatest trial.



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[1] Mary Frohlich, “Desolation and doctrine in Therese of Lisieux,” Theological Studies 61 (2000): 261.

[2] Ernest E. Larkin, The Little Way of St Thérèse of Lisieux, accessed November 5th 2016, https://www.scribd.com/document/216909604/The-Little-Way-of-St-Therese-of-Lisieux.

[3] Thérèse of Lisieux, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux: an Autobiography, trans. Thomas Naylor (London: Burns Oates and Washbourne, 1935), 31.

[4] Thérèse of Lisieux, Autobiography, 23-25.

[5] John Clarke, St. Thérèse of Lisieux: her last conversations (Washington DC: ICS Publications, 1977), 18.

[6] Thérèse of Lisieux, Autobiography, 25.

[7] Thomas Nevin, The Last Years of Saint Therese: Doubt and Darkness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 80.

[8] Thérèse of Lisieux, Autobiography, 96.

[9] Thérèse of Lisieux, Autobiography, 96.

[10] Thérèse of Lisieux, Autobiography, 96.

[11] Nevin, Doubt and Darkness, 84.

[12] Thérèse of Lisieux, Autobiography, 407.

[13] Nevin, Doubt and Darkness, 80.

[14] Thérèse of Lisieux, Autobiography, 196.

[15] Thérèse of Lisieux, Autobiography, 59.

[16] Bernard McGinn, “The role of the Carmelites in the history of western mysticism,” in Carmel and contemplation: transforming human consciousness, ed. Kevin Culligan (Washington DC: ICS Publications, 2000), 25.

[17] McGinn, “Role of the Carmelites,” 26.

[18] Thérèse of Lisieux, Autobiography, 88-89.

[19] Arnella Francis Clamor, “Mystical life without mystical phenomena: religious experience in Saint Thérèse of Lisieux,” in Encountering transcendence: contributions to a theology of Christian religious experience, ed. L. Boeve at al (Leuven: Peeters, 2005), 408.

[20] Thérèse of Lisieux, Autobiography, 72.

[21] Ermatinger, Spouse and Victim, 42.

[22] Therese of Lisieux, Autobiography, 88.

[23] Clarke, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, 31.

[24] F. C. Happold, Mysticism: A Study and an Anthology (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963), 45-6.

[25] Evelyn Underhill, The Essentials of Mysticism, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/underhill/essentials.iii.html.

[26] Thérèse of Lisieux, Autobiography, 180.

[27] Matthew 19:14

[28] Thérèse of Lisieux, Autobiography, 92.

[29] Thérèse of Lisieux, Autobiography, 72.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Thérèse of Lisieux, Autobiography, 74.

[32] Song of Songs 1:2.

[33] Thérèse of Lisieux, Autobiography, 74.

[34] Thérèse of Lisieux, Autobiography, 137.

[35] Thérèse of Lisieux, Autobiography, 75.

[36] “Orthodox Mysticism: Teachings of the Desert Fathers,” accessed November 17 2016, http://www.orthodox.cn/patristics/apostolicfathers/mystic.htm.

[37] Anonymous, Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism (Shaftesbury: Element Books 1991), 391.

[38] Thérèse of Lisieux, Autobiography, 75.

[39] Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs, accessed November 6th 2016, http://people.bu.edu/dklepper/RN413/bernard_sermons.html.

[40] Thérèse of Lisieux, Autobiography, 76.

[41] Nevin, God’s gentle warrior, 125.

[42] Thérèse of Lisieux, Autobiography, 92.

[43] Clarke, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, 31.

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