Great Lovers Who Never Met
Maurice and Thérèse: The Story of a Love by Bishop Patrick Ahern (Doubleday, 1998, 284 pp., $19.95)
The value of the correspondence tracked in Maurice & Thérèse, The Story of a Love is immense; herein lies a great treasure of the Church, of the Carmelite Order, of the theological community — and a treasure which each Christian really ought to claim authoritatively for himself. St. Thérèse of Lisieux, proclaimed Doctor of the Church by Pope John Paul II in 1997, is singularly revealed, principally in those pages which her letters grace.
The reader will be perhaps surprised to discover so easy a demeanor matched to so illustrious a figure, and maybe uncover, even, an incipient new friendship. This is the treasure of which the truly humble can glean: that this one correspondence is but the template, awaiting an ever-expansive succession of sequels, according to the one variable — N. (poor sinner) & Thérèse, The Story of a Love.
St. Thérèse wrote to, prayed for, and loved a young seminarian — one, incidentally, whom she never saw in this life. Maurice Belliere called on the prioress of Thérèse's community, imploring that “a nun devote herself particularly to the salvation of my soul, and obtain for me the grace to be faithful to the vocation God has given me.” Just as the work of salvation is elapsed in the midst of the quotidian run, Thérèse was elected for this grand enterprise as she was doing the week's wash, in the convent laundry. Thus began a match — yes, made in heaven! — of souls destined never to meet in the world's space and time. The shared love of Maurice and Thérèse, the spirituality and the sacrifice, transformed their dayto-day lives in a new affective purpose, lifted two lives higher aloft into the sweeping vortex of Divine Love, and promises to bear us up in its wake.
The letters exchanged between the two are framed by the supporting explanatory text of retired Auxiliary Bishop Patrick Ahern of the Archdiocese of New York. His introduction serves to place St. Thérèse of Lisieux in the full depth of her relevance to modern society, while the final chapters, together with the epilogue, graciously supply the story of Maurice subsequent to the death of St. Thérèse. Bishop Ahern examines each letter, providing the social and historical cues to have it all make sense, with an emphasis decidedly pastoral. The religious truths which underpin Thérèse's message are recapitulated and then expressed formulaically, addressed positively to the reader. Bishop Ahern's regard for the spiritual welfare of persons is manifest; this is his first call as a pastor of souls, and for this we are grateful.
The saint's candor, laid open in the letters, guards her real person from the persona constructed of long years of “devotion.” If the reader does not expect to find a genuine humanity in our “greatest Saint of modern times,” let him be here forewarned. Bishop Ahern works to dispel notions bred of a false piety, which would liberate the saints from all experience of temptation, from the marks of original sin, from a necessarily “inchoate” nature awaiting the perfection of grace — to dispel notions which obscure reality in a miasma of the nice.
The shared love of Maurice and Thérèse, the spirituality and the sacrifice, transformed their dayto-day lives in a new affective purpose, lifted two lives higher aloft into the sweeping vortex of Divine Love, and promises to bear us up in its wake.
It would seem, however, that sometimes this endeavor tends to imbalance. The author, for example, says of St. Thérèse that “in the last desperate moments of a long illness, she was tempted to suicide,” not making explicit the distinction that such thoughts can be had, without being entertained. Again, in describing Thérèse's “excessive sensitivity,” a neurosis which “can, for instance, focus on sexual images which obsess the imagination against one's will,” is postulated as “almost certainly the form of scruples experienced by Thérèse.” Yet such an analysis, which involves annexing sexual disorder to the person of a sheltered preadolescent of the 19th century French bourgeoisie, might be somewhat anachronistic, or too eager to forge a greater sympathy between Thérèse and the woes of our day. One would not see Thérèse and her contemporaries assaulted with lascivious beckoning at every turn, nor a single Mademoiselle at the local newsstand.
When gazing upon so bright a luminary, it is possible to get caught up in a kind of glare which obtrudes. St. Thérèse of Lisieux is a dazzling personage, no doubt; she is one of the greatest saints, after all. The true splendor of holiness imparts an ennobling clarity, and Maurice must be viewed in this light — even more, Father Maurice as he went on to become, must be viewed in an exceedingly charitable light: He's a man with a tough act to follow. St. Catherine of Siena, Jacinta the Fatima seer, and many of the saints admonish the faithful to speak of priests with the utmost respect, as befits so exalted an office. As for Maurice personally, one called to such intimacy of mind, heart, and soul with the greatest saint of his time could hardly but reflect this glow.
But there is more; Thérèse writes: “In your letter of the 14th you made my heart tremble with joy. I understand better than ever how much your soul is the sister of my own, since it is called to lift itself up to God by the ELEVATOR of love and not to climb the hard stairway of fear” (emphasis as per original). Or again: “When my dear little brother leaves for Africa, I shall follow him not only in thought and in prayer; my soul will be with him forever. …” If Maurice were but a high-minded mediocrity, a spiritual “charity case,” then Thérèse would stand convicted of the very emotionality and perfervid prose which false pieties so surely breed.
Father Maurice Belliere was no failure, though ridden out of the missions by illness, and called to meet death in disgrace. Rather, he was one who explicity claimed the cross which Thérèse had left behind on earth, as their last letters show, and bore it to the end, misunderstood and reviled by all. In this light, the author's dismissal of Maurice as “weak and needful” and “not a great man” — to say nothing of some protracted speculation as to the matter of a serious and secret sin which Father Maurice calls his “worst blunder of all” — appears misguided. One wonders what would St. Catherine recommend regarding the literary criticism of a prelate?
But the letters themselves eclipse all. To read, is to be lifted up in mind, heart, and soul. St. Thérèse prophesied to Maurice that they would speak a conversation to “charm the angels.” One can be assured that the gentle compassion of these two will permit us to eavesdrop, and so to be charmed, no matter how short we fall of her description.
V.J. Tarantino writes from New Haven, Connecticut.
- December 06-12, 1998