Cover image for Saint Thérèse of Lisieux
Saint Thérèse of Lisieux
Harrison, Kathryn.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Lipper/Viking, [2003]

Physical Description:
227 pages ; 20 cm.

Format :


Call Number
Material Type
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Item Holds
BX4700.T5 H28 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, largely unknown when she died in a Carmelite convent at the age of twenty-four, became-through her posthumously published autobiography-one of the world's most influential religious figures. In Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, bestselling novelist and memoirist Kathryn Harrison, whose depictions of women have been called "powerful" (The New York Times Book Review) and "luminously intelligent" (The Boston Sunday Globe), brings to the saint's life her storytelling gift and deep insight as she reveals the hopes and fears of the young girl behind the religious icon. Saint Thérèse of Lisieuxshows us the pampered daughter of successful and deeply religious tradespeople who-through a personal appeal to the pope-entered a convent at the early age of fifteen. There, Thérèse embraced sacrifice and self-renunciation in a single-minded pursuit of the "nothingness" she felt would bring her closer to God. With feeling, Harrison shows us the sensitive four-year-old whose mother's death haunted her forever and contributed to the ascetic spirituality that strengthened her to embrace even the deadly throes of tuberculosis. Tellingly placed in the context of late-nineteenth-century French social and religious practices, this is a powerful story of a life lived with enormous passion and a searing, triumphant voyage of the spirit.

Author Notes

Kathryn Harrison lives in New York with her husband and their children.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

The latest entry in the excellent Penguin Life series is a reexamination of the life of Saint Therese of Lisieux. Canonized in 1925, only 28 years after her death in 1897 at the age of 24, Therese is one of only three women recognized by the Vatican as a Doctor of the Church. Though her life was brief, her influence was far-reaching, owing to her best-selling autobiographical legacy, Story of a Soul. Published after her death, this popular account of her spiritual life established the "Little Flower" as a bona fide religious icon. Best-selling novelist and memoirist Harrison places Therese's story firmly into historical, cultural, and psychological context. Although her portrayal of this complex and headstrong young woman is not always flattering, it never fails to be less than fascinating. Separating the flesh and blood Therese from the sentimentalized holy-card version, Harrison provides an intriguing, multifaceted portrait of a flawed human being destined for sainthood. --Margaret Flanagan Copyright 2003 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

Harrison pens an impressionistic biography of "the little flower," the beloved French saint Therese of Lisieux, who died of tuberculosis at the age of 24. Harrison suggests that a more accurate term might be "the little nettle," since the 19th-century saint's legacy is not just sentimental but also stinging. The much-petted youngest child in a close-knit, pious French family, Therese was just four and a half when she lost her mother to breast cancer, a void she filled with her four older sisters as well as visions of the Holy Mother. The precocious and sickly Therese received a special papal dispensation to enter the cloister at the tender age of 15. (Initially refused by both the Mother Superior and her local bishop, Therese overrode their authority and went straight to the pope.) This is no hagiography; Harrison can be quite critical of the cosseted and self-righteous young Th?r?se, whom she finds to be "at once girlishly na?ve and infuriatingly self-important." It also sometimes veers too far in the direction of psychobiography, with Harrison dwelling on what she calls Therese's repressed sexuality and the emotional nature of her early illnesses. Readers may disagree with Harrison's interpretations, but few could quibble with her writing style, which is simply gorgeous. Her prose sings like the novels she is known for (Thicker Than Water; Poison; Seeking Rapture), and the biography reads like a particularly juicy novella. (Sept. 29) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Who but the author of daring novels like Thicker Than Water-and daring memoirs like The Kiss-could hope to capture this remarkable 20th-century nun? (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



At her death, in 1897, it would seem that Thérèse Martin, twenty-four years old, had achieved all she'd set out to accomplish: nothingness, hiddenness, self denied to the point of invisibility. Many of the Carmelite nuns who had lived with her for nine years, sharing work and prayers and meals, reflected that they had hardly known her and, as one put it, "would never have suspected her sanctity." Two years later, in 1899, the town of Lisieux was so inundated by pilgrims seeking Thérèse's relics that her grave had to be put under guard. The official beatification process was under way by 1910, the notoriously slow-moving Roman Curia scrambling to avoid being "anticipated" by the "voice of the people." Poor grain of sand, counted for nothing. Poor thread, under the feet of all. Poor atom, for whom contempt, insults, and humiliation were too glorious : she was a celebrity with an international reputation for granting miracles. On May 17, 1925, Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face became Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, in the fastest canonization to date in the history of the Catholic Church. In 1997, to mark the centenary of her death, Pope John Paul II declared Thérèse a Doctor of the Church, a title bestowed on those few saints (only thirty-two thus far, of whom three are women) whose spiritual knowledge and teaching are deemed extraordinary. The subject of countless biographies, Thérèse is herself a best-seller, her own words translated into nearly fifty languages, her effigy smiling down from altars all over the world, a miracle of deceptive sentimentality. Although she is popularly known as the Little Flower, a better name might be the Little Nettle: those who look beyond the smile to the doctrine will find themselves stung and provoked, and the discomfort takes its time to fade. Much as she claimed to want to disappear among the unpublished, it was Saint Thérèse who did most of the work of turning herself into a readable and compelling text. Springtime Story of a Little White Flower , the title she gave to her autobiography, was written under obedience to her mother superior, who was also her elder sister Pauline. She wrote hurriedly during her one free hour each evening, an hour that came at the end of a long day of work and prayer and illness. A collection of "thoughts on the graces God deigned to grant" her, the book was conceived for an intimate audience, Thérèse's four biological sisters. Only after she had completed it did she imagine that what she'd written might be useful to others-that among homely anecdotes, the seemingly casual references to grammar lessons and beach trips and even hair ribbons, she had carefully and minutely revealed her path toward "nothingness." On September 30, 1898, exactly a year after her death, the 476-page account of her spiritual life was published. Edited, polished, and in some measure conventionalized and stripped of its spontaneity by Pauline, whom she named her literary executrix, it was sent to all the Carmel convents in France in lieu of a more standard obituary notice. The surplus of the run of two thousand copies sold for four francs apiece. Six months later, it was reprinted to satisfy demand; a subsequent edition included letters of praise from bishops and other members of the clergy. By 1915, nearly a million copies were in print; a separate publication anthologized the hundreds of thousands of letters (arriving at a rate of five hundred a day, one thousand a day by 1925) that bore witness to miracles granted by Thérèse's intercession. Story of a Soul , as it was eventually titled, was not a novel, but it shared a romantic sensibility and cherished plot elements with immensely popular nineteenth-century fiction, books such as Les Misérables , Little Women , and David Copperfield , whose characters had entered the culture at large. Marrying romance to classic elements of hagiography-apparitions of the Virgin, temptations by the devil, symbolic dreams, presentiments of glory, conversion-Thérèse wrote of the death of her self-sacrificing and affectionate mother, of the devotion of her father, of her striving to become a saint, and of the reversals she suffered. Her life on the page was dramatized by the irresistible alchemy of tuberculosis, the same literary disease that ennobled and transfigured the heroines of Victor Hugo, Louisa May Alcott, and Charles Dickens, and that acted as a powerful accelerant in Thérèse's own corporeal and spiritual life. Unconsciously, Thérèse created a perfect vehicle for conveying the teachings of the Church, because she made the rigors of mysticism incidental to human drama. Story of a Soul is a love story, a desperate and feverish one, involving tears and palpitations, wild hopes and bleak anguish, the audacity of a commoner who set her heart on a king, a child bride who, in her zeal for Christ, her beloved, defied one after another Church official until, at fourteen, she arrived in Rome to petition the pope to allow her premature entry into a convent. Consumers of more contemporary and conventional romance might find her narrative quaint and mannered, suffused with earnestness, lacking in irony. Reading Thérèse is akin to having a conversation with a disconcertingly precocious child; she has that quality of being awkward and artful at the same instant, forcing our abrupt awareness of both her depth and her vulnerability. She bares her soul, and to witness this is to realize how seldom humans do. "To me it seemed like the story of a 'steel bar,'" Albino Luciani (who would later become Pope John Paul I) commented on the book's original title, succinctly identifying the paradox of the Little Flower. Few personalities have been so obscured by sentiment, few wills so cloaked by feminine convention. The romantic formulas that Thérèse used to tell her story contributed not only to its vast popularity, but also to the profound misunderstanding of an ambitious and intelligent young woman, a shy neurotic who fashioned a martyr's death from circumstances that threatened to withhold all means toward the glorious sainthood she envisioned for herself. No one provides more stark an example of the radical nature of discipleship to Christ. "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself," Jesus admonished. "Leave the dead to bury their own dead," he told the would-be Christian, the one who wanted to first honor his biological father. Is it possible to have a moderate belief in God? Can we believe in God and continue to live a life of moderation? "They knew too well how to ally the joys of this earth to the service of God," Thérèse said of the good Catholics in her hometown, separating herself from those who didn't look for total and obliterating union with the divine, who didn't believe that to love Christ demanded a complete sacrifice of self. Indeed, to her father's pious friends, the God of Thérèse Martin might have appeared as violent as the devil, her heaven as annihilating as the atheist's last breath. Excerpted from Saint Therese of Lisieux: A Penguin Life by Kathryn Harrison All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.