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Censoring St. Thérèse

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Joe Sparks - published on 08/31/14

5 things you didn't know about the Little Flower.

Once a story is told wrongly, it is hard to set right. In the case of the life of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, it is not so much that her story was wrongly told, as much as partially told.

When, in 1898, her edited autobiography was published, it became an instant classic, captivating the imaginations of millions. Yet, the portrayal of St. Thérèse in that original publication was deceptively limited. It contributed to an understanding that lauded her sanctity but ultimately glossed over some of the struggles that brought her to that sanctity. Through the selectively published memoirs and the lack of further information about the saint, a sort of inadvertent censorship developed around the presentation of the saint’s life.

As a result, despite the fact that her name is so often on the lips of Catholics, she is one of the most misunderstood saints in the Church today.

Many Catholics find they cannot relate to St. Thérèse due in large part to the sentimentality assumed to be inseparably woven into her life’s narrative. Some think her “little way” is just an “easy way” that their own difficult lives seem to disprove. The often saccharine presentation of her story sometimes gives the impression Thérèse merely coasted to God, without passing through the dark passages of earthly pain and suffering. (Even St. Faustina fell to this assumption. When St. Thérèse appeared to Faustina to console her in her sufferings, Faustina responded to St. Thérèse, with characteristic bluntness, that it seemed to her that St. Thérèse never really suffered much.) In short, there is a common understanding that St. Thérèse is a saint mostly for the simple souls, the delicate souls, the souls who are not burdened with life’s more trying crosses.

And yet, Pope St. Pius X—a man none would call sentimental—dubbed St. Thérèse the “greatest saint of modern times”. Pope Benedict XV, the pontiff that saw the Church through the unprecedented horrors of the First World War, emphatically presented the saint and her doctrine as a certain model for all Christians. In fact, every pope since St. Pius X has spoken of her in superlatives. The constant insistence of the popes shows us that those who assume she is only for the simple have it entirely backwards. She is God’s herald in an age of atheism and rationalism to lead all of us, even those farthest from the simplicity of the Christian spirit, to the radical simplicity of the Gospel. If we haven’t found that yet, St. Thérèse is the providential guide to take us there.

As a way of perhaps reigniting interest in the saint and her doctrine, here are five facts that are often missed in summaries of the story of St. Thérèse. Thanks to the publication of her original writings, along with accounts that have emerged from those who knew her, we now have a far more complete image of the saint. Some of these facts highlight her humanity and her struggles. This is done not in order to garishly find fault, but to highlight the saint’s triumphs. When one ignores such struggles, one diminishes the victories.

It is hoped that these considerations may deepen the appreciation one has for God’s “Little Flower.”

1. Most editions of her autobiography are heavily modified.

A priest, writing in a 1958 issue of the Catholic Herald, recounts the surprising history behind St. Thérèse’s autobiography, Story of a Soul. It is well-known that St. Thérèse asked her religious superior to make whatever changes and editorial corrections she thought necessary to her autobiography. While her sister, Mother Agnes, certainly had the noblest of intentions in her editorial work (and her stylistic revisions likely contributed to the widespread success of the book), many have found that these revisions concealed many important facets of the saint’s life through omission and simplification. According to the Catholic Herald piece:

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