What Thérèse Learned from John of the Cross

John and Thérèse: Flames of Love by Guy Gaucher, auxiliary bishop of Bayeux and Lisieux (Alba House, 1999 172 pages, $12.95)

On Oct. 19, 1997, Pope John Paul II proclaimed St. Thérèse of Lisieux a Doctor of the Church. Momentum for such a declaration had been building since the early '30s, in conjunction with the increase of devotion to the Little Flower, the Carmelite saint who died in Lisieux in 1897.

Among those who had sought this designation “Doctor” was Auxiliary Bishop Guy Gaucher of Bayeux and Lisieux, a biographer and authority on the saint. In his most recent volume, John and Thérèse: Flames of Love, Bishop Gaucher does not so much defend the proposition that Thérèse deserves the title Doctor, as he demonstrates the central influence which St. John of the Cross had on this 19th-century Frenchwoman.

The bishop makes his case through a close reading of Thérèse and her own absorption in the thought of John of the Cross: her cribbed pencil marks on file cards, notations crowding the margins of works of St. John that collected on her bed stand in the infirmary, and also the varied commentaries of those who had known Thérèse in life and testified to her constant and fervent devotion to her 16th-century brother Carmelite.

Fray Juan de la Cruz was not an unknown spiritual personage in Thérèse's family. Her two older sisters had entered the Carmel, and along with her sister Céline, Thérèse was reading Dom Gueranger's Liturgical Year, which contained material on the life and thought of St. John of the Cross. The two girls would sit in the parlor and discuss extracts from St. John.

Céline would later comment about Thérèse: “Since her adolescence, how often she would enthusiastically repeat these words of St. John of the Cross: ‘Lord, to suffer and be despised for you!’ That was the theme of our aspirations, when at the belvedere window we would talk together about eternal life.”

At the Benedictine Abbey school of Notre Dame du Pré, as a schoolgirl of 13 she would pen this same theme during a handwriting exercise. The manuscript disappeared in a fire at the school in 1940, but recently reappeared in the form of a photocopy at the Carmel in Lisieux.

By 1890, at age 17, she had made her solemn profession holding on her heart a note addressed to Jesus: “May I never seek nor find anything but yourself alone. May creatures be nothing for me and may I be nothing for them, but may you, Jesus, be everything!” Bishop Gaucher observes, “The dialectic of St. John of the Cross, of nothing and everything, was already so very present to her.”

When Thérèse was 23, in the year 1896, in the midst of a desolation, encountering the sufferings born of a desire that accompanied her every prayer, she broke through with a remarkable discovery: “Oh Jesus, my Love—my vocation, at last I have found it.—MY VOCATION IS LOVE! Yes, I have found my place in the Church and it is You, O my God, who have given me this place. In the heart of the Church, my Mother, I shall be Love.” And we are hardly surprised to encounter, at this same place in her manuscript, 10 quotes that she had copied out from St. John of the Cross.

The world seeks the Love toward whom the suffering servant-woman of Lisieux points.

Thérèse's appropriation of John of the Cross was not in itself a scholarly enterprise. Indeed, the author admits “it is very difficult to say whether she truly read the works of St. John of the Cross.” It was more a matter of mining nuggets, of finding an aphorism so charged with content that her eager heart would discover endless variations on the theme. “Thérèse's readings were not systematic, and scrupulously critical thinking did not encumber her respect for the text.—When she copied a passage she didn't hesitate to change a punctuation mark or a word (conforming to the usage of the time). She had great freedom and took whatever liberties she needed.”

In the same year that she announced her vocation as one of Love, she penned the words of St. John of the Cross in her own handwritten Consecration to the Holy Face: “The smallest movement of pure Love is more useful to the Church than all other works put together.” This phrase appears in Spiritual Canticle B of the Spanish mystic. However, the first time she copied it she left out the phrase “put together.” One wonders if the spiritual daughter is inclined to soften, with the flame of love, the rigor of her spiritual father's words. Bishop Gaucher suggests in a few places within this study that Thérèse may indeed be complementing—that is, enhancing—the commentary of St. John of the Cross.

Thérèse desired to be consumed by Love; she sought to die for Love so that she might be taken up to see the Holy Face and in return begin to do good for others on earth. Bishop Gaucher tells us that for Thérèse service to the Church was not a matter of “duration” but rather of “intensity.”

The world seeks the Love toward whom the suffering servant-woman of Lisieux points. The world seeks this specifically Thérèsian wisdom. One catches suggestions of it in Wycherly's restoration play All for Love and in the early Graham Greene novel, The End of the Affair. I believe Puccini also puts it on the lips of Caliph when he reveals the final riddle—amore—in the opera Turandot.

Mysticism is not so much a question of spiritual athleticism. Nor, by extension, is it theological erudition. It is more a matter of being enflamed by the Divine Bridegroom. Doctors of the Church may indeed begin where theologians leave off. This book makes the case for Thérèse's importance in the Church, and by implication makes us understand the Church's decision to include her in the list of Doctors.

James Sullivan is based in Fairfield, Connecticut.