Lent, Day 26, Digression on St. Therese of Lisieux

I just finished watching Therese: the Story of St. Therese of Lisieux (2004), dir. by Leonardo Defilipis.  It was an OK film, though I very much miss the austere beauty of the minimalist treatment of this story done in 1986 by Alan Cavalier.  That French version is quite beautiful in its simplicity, and that austere simplicity resonates with the story of Therese herself.  Therese Martin entered the Carmelite monastery at age 15, having obtained special permission to do so.  All of her sisters became nuns as well.  She died of tuberculosis at the age of 24.  She is associated with the “little way,” a path to the holy through small matters, and small disciplines, and small favors done for others.  If Therese has one virtue that might be considered her cardinal virtue, it would be humility, which I find quite appealing.

I found myself most moved by this more recent film by the austere simplicity of the rooms in which the convent scenes were shot.  There was a Spartan plainness that I found quite appealing.  As I watched the film, I did find myself thinking of what Therese’s path seems especially aimed at — union with the divine.  We know the world, to a large extent, because our senses and the narrative into which we have grown up, presents the world beyond as an object for study.  We can even look at ourselves from the outside, or seem able to do so.  And science presents that way of approaching the world as the way of knowing.  But that way tends to wear one down.  There is another urging in our souls to become one with the world beyond, to let divisions slip away.  In my Catholic background, this is the way of mysticism.  But those moments of insight into union don’t last.  We are pulled back into thinking about our separateness, one from another, and one from the world.  And for those believing in a deity, they feel a profound separateness from the deity, and that feeling leads to a great sadness and even terror.  In this film, that feeling of separateness occurs a few time, and the actress, Lindsay Younce, did a fine job of showing the terror and crippling doubt in the young novice.

I don’t recall that feeling in the earlier film.  What I mainly recall is that Therese in the 1986 film looked on her relationship with Christ as that of a young girl and her beloved.  And I recall a scene in which she confides to another sister that, when she senses something like absence, she reflects on  how she might again attract the attention of her beloved.  That scene in the 1986 film had a sweetness about it that moves me even now, almost 30 years later (I only saw the film the one time).  I guess what moved me about that is the sense of reciprocal relation between Therese and God, or what I might see as a reciprocal relation with the world.  I am part of the world and so I affect it as it affects me.  At the same time, I find myself sometimes caught up in my own reveries and thoughts, caught up in my head, and aware only of separation (sometimes even yearning for loneliness).  But when I am in my best place, I find myself hearing the music around me, or seeing the wonder of things, and rejoicing in them;  and when things are not so rosy (times of pain or sorrow), at my best, I find myself hearing a different kind of music and taking on that pain and sorrow, as if in a dance, a slow and mournful dance, indeed.  It may be this idea of humbling taking up one’s place in the world, not looking to greatness (egoism writ large) but rather doing good for its own sake, and working together with the world.

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