Catholic Culture Podcasts
Catholic Culture Podcasts

Teresa of Lisieux -- No Plaster Saint

by Hilda Graef

Descriptive Title

Teresa of Lisieux- No Plaster Saint


A discussion of Fr. Etienne Robo's 1955 book, Two Portraits of St. Teresa, his subjection of St. Therese to psychoanalytical methods and his conclusion that she was a neuropath.

Larger Work

The Catholic World

Publisher & Date

The Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle, February 1957

It seems hard to believe that St. Teresa of Lisieux, most beloved and most popular of modern Saints, should suddenly have become a center of violent controversy. Two events are mainly responsible for this. Late in 1955 Father Etienne Robo, a parish priest living in the south of England, wrote his much discussed book Two Portraits of St. Teresa and, more recently still, the large facsimile edition of her autobiography was published in France. Now suddenly, after almost half a century of ever-growing reputation, her picture is in the melting pot, and so is that of her much admired elder sister Pauline, in religion Mother Agnes.

What did actually happen in this last year is that a modern Saint has been subjected in public to the critical methods of our age. The great question is: has she come out of the ordeal unscathed? In a short article we can do no more than indicate the main issues of the controversy and attempt an evaluation.

The most important fact is that St. Teresa's autobiography, The Story of a Soul, as we have known it for many years, is not the original manuscript such as Teresa wrote it in the last three years of her short life. It has been "edited" by her elder sister, and edited somewhat drastically. Teresa herself had left school early, and neither her style nor her spelling were above criticism. No one would quarrel with Pauline that she corrected both where necessary. But style is, after all, the authentic expression of an author's personality, and to tamper with it more than is required for an easy understanding of his or her meaning is surely to falsify, however slightly, the impression this personality makes on the reader. Pauline, however, did more than that. She rigorously erased from the manuscript—sometimes so thoroughly that the original text could not be restored with certainty —all incidents or expressions that did not fit in with her own conception of what a Saint ought to say or write. Here are a few examples.

The very touching and childlike end of her act of self-offering at her profession is left out completely: "Jesus, make that I may save many souls, and that today there may not be a single one damned, and that all the souls in purgatory may be saved . . . Jesus, forgive me if I say things I ought not to say; I only want to give you joy and to console you."

She could not only be touching, she could also be very amusing, indeed almost sarcastic, as in her vivid description of the nuns who constantly interrupted her writing by their well-meant fuss: "As soon as I start taking up my pen, there is a good sister who passes by, a hayfork on her shoulder. She thinks she is entertaining me a little when she starts chatting: hay, ducks, chickens, doctor's visits, all come up for discussion. Truth to tell, this does not last long; but there is not only one charitable good sister, but suddenly another haymaker deposits some flowers on my knees, thinking perhaps that they will inspire poetic thoughts. But as I am not looking for those at the moment, I had rather the flowers were still waving to and fro on their stems."

How charmingly human, we think—but Mother Agnes considered it unedifying, and out came the blue pencil. One last instance, which may console those of us who find it difficult to recite the rosary with full attention: "I am ashamed to confess it, but the recitation of the rosary costs me more than to use an instrument of penance. I feel I am saying it so badly. Try as I may to make myself meditate on the mysteries, I never manage to fix my thoughts on them."

It will be clear from these examples that the revisions mercilessly suppressed just those traits which might detract from the ideal of plaster saint perfection that Pauline had in mind. She did for Teresa's writings what her other sister, Celine, had done for her portrait, when she "improved" the photographs with her paintbrush until she had transformed the round, energetic and highly individual face of the Saint into the oval, insipid, "celestial countenance" that was to adorn so many of our churches.

The two sisters and the Carmel of Lisieux as a whole come in for severe criticism in Father Robo's book for withholding for so long both the original autobiography and the true likeness of Teresa. He does not, however, stop there. He also subjects the Saint herself to a searching psychological examination, though, as the photostat edition of her autobiography had not been published when he wrote his book, he had to base himself on the Story of a Soul as emended by Pauline.

His work has been violently attacked in some quarters, especially in Ireland, but also in a Carmelite publication in the States, though it has elsewhere been highly praised as presenting a more truthful picture of the Saint than the more conventional biographies.

Father Robo's main contention is that Teresa was a "neuropath." Her illness, when she was a child of ten, was caused by a nervous breakdown after Pauline had entered Carmel; the supposedly miraculous cure when she saw our Lady's statue smile at her had a natural psychological cause. She was a very willful young woman, and her insistence, against the contrary advice of authority, to enter Carmel at the age of fifteen, was due to her natural obstinacy. She continued to suffer from her nervous condition throughout her life. Even the years of intense aridity and spiritual desolation before her death were no supernaturally caused "nights of the soul," but merely the outcome of her "nervous temperament." Though Father Robo describes with great feeling her heroic death, he is nevertheless certain that the torments of doubt that assailed her during the last months of her life were pathological.

This new picture of St. Teresa has naturally shocked a great many Catholics, several reviewers among them, who immediately accused Father Robo of rationalism and practically refused him the right to make an independent psychological study of Teresa for no other reason save that she had been canonized. Others thought that Father Robo had done a great service to the Saint and to truth by giving us a far more faithful picture of her than the sugary presentations of other writers.

Do we really have to choose between the "two portraits" of Teresa as a perfect Saint from the cradle to the grave, and Teresa as a permanent victim of nerves as outlined by Father Robo? And does the original text of the autobiography favor one view more than the other?

It seems to us that, as so often, truth lies midway between the two extremes. There can be little doubt that Teresa was not the "angelic child" which her sisters, and many of her biographers, represented her to be. In an extract from a letter of her mother that was sent to Rome during the process of her beatification we find the words: "I have to slap this poor baby who gets into frightening furies when she cannot have her own way. She rolls about on the ground in despair as if all were lost. She is a very nervy child." This is certainly revealing; but many small children are nervy and get into fits of fury when they cannot get their own way without being actually neurotics.

A more difficult point is Teresa's illness after Pauline had entered Carmel. This may well have been caused by the nervous shock of losing her beloved sister, and have been healed by an imagined smile of the statue of our Lady—though there is no reason why God should not use such natural causes for His own ends; and in Teresa's case this experience certainly affected her inner life.

A very difficult point is Father Robo's statement that Teresa's insistence on entering Carmel at the age of fifteen had no supernatural motives but was mainly due to her natural obstinacy. The reason why she wanted so much to enter Carmel at once was, according to Father Robo, that "she wanted her freedom to be taken from her . . . and the convent appeared to her as a place of refuge and of safety." He finds a proof of this view in "the perfect obedience she showed from the first day of her arrival in Carmel until the end."

It is certainly an ingenious suggestion. Nevertheless, we believe that in the case of the Saints, indeed of all Christians trying to live a supernatural life, the divine influence cannot be ruled out so easily. If we believe, as we must, in the guidance of the Holy Ghost, it would be dangerous to assert simply that Teresa's so intense desire to enter Carmel was due merely to her self-will. And it is surely a paradox hard to swallow that she, so obstinate by nature, was obstinate for the last time when she wanted to be under a rule and, once in Carmel, her obstinacy turned into perfect obedience.

In Father Robo's opinion, though she had now become a model of obedience, her neurotic condition remained, though neurosis and perfect obedience do not normally go together. Passing over the other evidence he gives of this continued "neuropathic state" which does not seem very convincing, we would only discuss his contention that the sufferings of her last years, during which she was in an almost permanent state of spiritual dryness and often desolation, were also no supernatural trials but merely the outcome of this nervous condition.

St. John of the Cross, the mystical doctor of the Church, has described in detail such states from which he himself suffered intensely. If Teresa's sufferings were merely due to her nervous disability, it is hard to see why those states the mystics describe should be caused by anything else. We would not deny that God often makes use of natural conditions to intensify the trials by which He purifies His Saints; but if these trials themselves were nothing but nervous diseases mystics would best be handed over to psychiatrists.

A biographer of a Saint is certainly justified in making ample use of the natural conditions of his subject. But he must not lose sight of the divine grace that works within these conditions. Does the original Story of a Soul perhaps help us to find a middle way between the plaster Saint view and Father Robo's interpretation?

Father Robo lays special stress on Teresa's scruples and anxieties which, he says, were quite unfounded. When she once opened her mind to a confessor, Father Pichon, he solemnly declared that she had never committed a mortal sin. Teresa herself, Father Robo thinks, "seems to have taken it simply as a tribute to her exceptional perfection." The edition of the original manuscript shows that this interpretation was wrong. For the confessor, after reassuring her troubled conscience, continued: "Thank God for what He has done for you; for if He would abandon you, instead of being a little angel you would become a little devil." And Teresa comments: "I did not find it difficult to believe it; I realized how weak and imperfect I was."

The confessor no doubt saw that there were possibilities in Teresa's character—as there are in nearly all the great Saints—which, if grace had not turned them into the right channels, might have carried her into the depths of sin. The obstinacy, if it may thus be called, that rushed her into Carmel, might also have caused her to set her heart on a life of material enjoyment that would have appealed to her sensitive nature which she so rigorously mortified in Carmel.

For, while the new edition of her autobiography does not change her picture in its essential features, it brings out far more clearly the difficulties with which she had to contend in her own character as well as the great sense of humor and love of fun that were hers.

Her difficulties, which were real ones, explain her frequent fears, which Father Robo puts down to her neurotic scrupulosity. Many nuns of her community as well as their ecclesiastical superior doubted whether it was wise to admit this child of fifteen; the anxiety this caused her is plainly expressed in one of the suppressed passages of her act of consecration at her profession, where she writes: "Make me understand what Your spouse ought to be. Give that I may never be a burden to the community." After all, she often went to sleep during prayer; she could not fix her mind on the mysteries of the rosary: for a Carmelite these weaknesses seemed to be very real imperfections.

The original manuscript of Teresa's autobiography brings out much more strongly these defects, which seemed so unedifying to Pauline that she thought fit to suppress them, whereas they are part and parcel of her vocation, which was to show ordinary souls the way to sanctity. It is just these small faults as well as the underlying certainty that, but for the grace of God, Teresa might have become a great sinner instead of a great Saint, which make her a far more inspiring example to our own weakness than the "angelic child" which she has so often been presented as being.

In this struggle against her imperfections she was helped by a sense of humor which was far less evident in Pauline's edition of her Life than in the original. The passage about the haymaking nuns cited at the beginning of this article, which dates from the very last weeks of her life, shows her amused observation of the particular weaknesses of her sisters in religion. It also proves that she was not in the least "nunnish" herself, but endured the well-meant attentions and chatter of her fellow-nuns with patience, but by no means uncritically, since she herself was by then far above this small world of feminine preoccupations.

It is just these new lights on the character and humanity of St. Teresa that will endear her to many who were at times irritated by the too "pious," too "angelic" popular picture of her. Her holiness was far more human, far nearer to us than appeared from Pauline's edition of her work. Father Robo has hard words for Mother Agnes, whereas his opponents sometimes extol her work as fully justified, even an improvement on the original. We cannot subscribe to the latter view.

A Saint—and no one was more convinced that her youngest sister was a Saint than Mother Agnes herself—should surely be allowed to present her own life to the world as she herself sees it, and not through the filter of another mind, however holy and understanding it may be. For the fact of the matter is that Pauline was a saintly woman, but very conventional in her outlook. She did for the autobiographical picture of her sister what Celine had done for the photographs: she touched it up until it resembled as much as possible her own idea of what a young Carmelite Saint should be.

These editorial activities certainly did not harm the popularity of the book; in fact they may well have helped it, for Pauline's mind, far less original than that of Teresa, was attuned to the taste of the general Catholic public of her day which might even have been offended by Teresa's occasional ruggedness. Thus her work had its merits; after all, she was a child of the lower strata of the French nineteenth century bourgeoisie who had entered her convent as a young girl and really could not be expected to be familiar with modern scientific methods of editing manuscripts. But her work is now definitely superseded, and with it the all too "perfect" picture of Teresa it presented. She was neither the angelic Saint from the cradle to the grave of the popular biographies nor the equally permanent neurotic of Father Robo's interpretation. She now appears to us as a very human young woman, who may certainly have had to contend with some nervous difficulties as a child and a young girl, but whose strong character was increasingly purified by divine grace, helped by common sense and a great sense of humor that did not stop short at the weaknesses of her own sisters in religion. We think her picture has come out of the twofold ordeal of a psychological examination and the publication of her unedited autobiography not only unscathed, but greatly improved. Both her humanity and her sanctity have gained in stature, for she was indeed no plaster Saint.

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