15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Dorothy Day read the autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux in 1928 as a thirty-year old convert to Catholicism. Fresh from the radical movements of the day, she found the story of the young saint from the world of the French bourgeoisic colorless, monotonous, and "too small" for her notice. She wondered what this saint who wrote like a schoolgirl had to offer a world in revolution, a world in need of immediate remedies for the hunger and injustice that abounded in it. Her answer came gradually, as over the years she continued to study St Therese and to reflect on the meaning of her life. The fruit of those years of reflection is Therese.
Here is a personal appraisal of the saint that reveals her to us in a way that more ambitious works have failed to do. Therese herself is allowed to speak to us directly through generous quotations from her letters and writings. Perhaps the greatest advantage this life of St. Therese has is to be written by a woman deeply concerned to bring the message of the saint to those most in need of it today. The poor, the lonely, the oppressed, the hopeless - all the "little people" whose number is so great in these times when bigness and unifomity are burying the individual person - these are the ones that Dorothy Day is especially concerned to reach with her book.
Dorothy Day is, as Time Magazine says, "the widely acclaimed spiritual herione who feeds the poor and campaigns feircely for a better world...The philosopher-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, she says that 'the best thing to do with the best things in life is to give them up.' " -- from book's back cover.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on March 8, 2013
For several years, Dorothy Day struggled to write a biography of one of her favorite saints, Therese of Lisieux. Then she struggled to find a publisher: The book was rejected by Harper, brought out by a smaller publisher in 1960, and reprinted in 1979. Now devotees of St. Therese may struggle to read it.
In a letter, Day confided her difficulty in writing this book: "It is 4:30 in the morning and I have been awake since 3,--one of those sleepless times. So I decided to get up and work. Every time I sit down to write that book on the Little Flower I am blocked. I just can't seem to get anywhere with it. . . . I am just not a biographer. What I write is dull, undistinguished, and I am faced with the humiliating fact that I can write only about myself, a damning fact" ("All the Way to Heaven," 2010, pp. 215-216). But Day found a way. Therese's story serves as a vehicle for Day's social views.
Robert Ellsberg, editor of Day's "Selected Writings" (1983) makes the following assessment: "[Dorothy Day] notes her concern that the 'social implications' of the saint's teachings have yet to be studied.... Dorothy's book, 'Therese,' was finally published by Fides Publishers of Notre Dame in 1960.... As a life of 'the Little Flower,' her book is perhaps unexceptional. But as a discourse on the 'spiritual implications' of her own social activism, it is ... of great interest." (p. 187) Paul Elie has a similar view of "Therese" and writes that "as a work of piety, it would call attention to the [Catholic Worker] movement's roots in traditional Catholicism at a time when, more than ever, they were held in doubt"; but the book "is wobbly and prosaic, and Day's asides, despite her best efforts, disrupt the story" ("The Life You Save May Be Your Own," 2003, p. 281).
Day wrote to St. Therese's sister Celine, now a Carmelite in Lisieux, to request copies of Therese's letters, and added: "The story I am writing is a very simple one, not one of great research or originality. What there is distinctive about it is my personal reaction to the story of Therese, the message of Therese in my own very active life as a Catholic, a journalist, and in a way a social worker. Also I am writing it most specially to reach the non-Catholic" ("Selected Letters," 2010, pp. 237-238).
When Day wrote "Therese," many writings by or about Therese were unavailable or difficult to obtain. That is no longer the case, and readers would do better to read the originals and Fr. Stephane-Joseph Piat's "The Story of a Family" (1948, 1994 reprint). Day relied heavily on Fr. Piat's book as she did research, but Day's biography gives information about Therese with a strange slant.
Day incorrectly states that Sister Therese "certainly had little time to dream. According to the Benedictine rule, the Opus Dei--the work of God--which must come before all other work is that of offering up the holy Sacrifice of the Mass and reciting the Divine Office" ("Therese," 1960, 1979 reprint, p. 144; "Selected Writings," p. 197).
The Carmelite charism is prayer and penance, not the Benedictines' "pray and work" (ora et labora). The Carmelites never followed the Rule of St. Benedict, but the Rule of St. Albert of Jerusalem. St. Teresa of Avila, Therese's "Holy Mother," attempted to return to this "primitive rule," revised by Pope Innocent IV in 1247. Stephen Payne, OCD, in "The Carmelite Tradition" (2011, p. 4) states, "in the 'Way of Perfection' St. Teresa writes that 'our primitive rule states that we must pray without ceasing. If we do this with all the care possible--for unceasing prayer is the most important aspect of the rule--the fasts, the disciplines, and the silence that the order commands will not be wanting' (Way 4.2)."
In addition, Day gives a distorted picture of the Martin family. She describes Louis Martin as a watchmaker, and does not mention that he owned and ran a jewelry store, even though Fr. Piat (p. 28) makes note of it. While Day writes that Louis Martin, Celine, and Therese stayed at the best hotels on their pilgrimage to Rome (p. 121), she minimizes the family's financial success, probably to avoid having to label her heroine with the dreaded and hated term "bourgeois." While the Martins focused on heaven and performed acts of charity, they dressed and ate and surrounded themselves with the furnishings of a successful upper-middle-class family. One wonders why Day fails to describe Zelie, Therese's mother, as a "boss" who had several women working for her. This is a strange omission of Day's usual views.
Day's description of the young Therese as "one of 'the people'" (p. 83) also seems off-target and an attempt to fit Therese into Day's mold. Therese did not lead a working-class (or "proletariat") life. She was solidly middle-class--one of the bourgeois with the accompanying leisure, artistic pursuits, and material comforts. She did not dress or eat like a peasant or a worker. After declaring Therese "one of 'the people,'" Day describes how "she had been taken on holidays to country homes and to the seashore, where she enjoyed bathing and shrimping and donkey rides and other childish sports" (p. 83). Therese's clothes and her elaborate toys--which can be seen in Lisieux today--also reveal her bourgeois status. Also jarring is Day's insistence that "it was the 'worker,' the common man ... the masses who first proclaimed her a saint. It was the 'people' " (p. 173). This claim is at odds with Day's statement in the September 1946 "Catholic Worker" that the "people" were no longer in the Church: "The workers of the world are lost to the church."
Day reverts to form when she questions why Louis, as a young man in Paris, avoided joining what Fr. Piat described as a "club that was in reality a secret society." Fr. Piat also wrote: "He cared only for what was open and aboveboard. Evil works seek for darkness. He firmly refused the acquaintanceship and preserved his freedom" ("Therese," p. 7; Piat, pp. 26-27). Such secret societies aimed to undermine the social order and the Catholic Church. But Day states: "I wish Fr. Piat had told us more of this 'club.' Who were these 'strangers'? Why are radicals more dangerous than the lukewarm, like Martin's friend Aime Mathey? 'I had rather you were hot or cold,' Christ said. 'The lukewarm I will spew out of my mouth'" (p. 7).
With her awareness that Louis avoided such circles, how can Day speculate that he was engaged in considerations "of the condition of the working classes [because] he lived in the days of the beginnings of revolutionary thought, of Kropotkin ... Marxism and anarchism ... Proudhon" (p. 6). As a devout Catholic and the son of a military man, Louis's interests were elsewhere. Fr. Piat tells us more about Louis Martin and secret societies:
[W]e have seen the part which M. Martin had taken in founding the Albert de Mun Catholic Club. Already, for all that, Catholics were moving in a militant atmosphere. Polemics were in full swing; around Church and school could be heard the muttering of the storm; secret societies were preparing an offensive which in half a century, would laicise the whole of public life, and drive God from the public conscience. The only counter measure then possible was the witness of a profound, loyal, earnest conviction, inspiring a delicate and disinterested charity or ... an integral faith." (p. 153)
After quoting Therese's description of her First Communion at age 11, Day states her belief that "sexual language" from the Canticle of Canticles is applicable to the prepubescent Therese:
[T]he only way to describe the love of God is in terms of the most intense human love, that between man and woman. One does not have to experience it to know what it means. [Really?] Nicholas Berdyaev states that the keenest and most intense love between man and woman is not dependent on sexual intercourse. [What does Berdyaev have to do with Therese?] This love which makes all seem new is already described in the Old Testament as a wedding, and there has never been a greater song of love written than the Canticle of Canticles." (p. 85)
Elsewhere Day presents a very different portrayal of how children reacted with "shock" when they learned "how men and women mated" and found it "even revolting to suddenly realize that our parents shared the habits of dogs ... in seeking after and practicing sex" ("Duty of Delight," 2011, p. 590). But Day sees Therese as a special case, who at age 11 is aware of and understands sexual love! Perhaps this view is not surprising, given Day's frequent reminders that "there is no time with God." That is true, but we as His creatures are situated in a specific time and space as we go through our earthly pilgrimage.
Day views Therese from peculiar sexual and Marxist angles. Avoid the struggle and read a better book, such as "The Story of a Soul," in which the saint speaks for herself.