Friday, 21 February 2014

The Hidden Face of Ste Therese by Ida Gorres

first published in German in 1944, revised for 1959 edition

translated by Richard and Clara Winston





The most eloquent document of this period, it seems to us, and one which vividly sums up the saint’s brief remarks as well as her studied silence, is the photograph of her Clothing day. Thérèse stands upon the pedestal of the big cross in the yard, wearing the heavy, clumsy habit in which as yet she scarcely knows how to move. Her right arm is placed stiffly around the shaft of the cross, her left arm held forward, in an equally stiff and artificial manner, with two fingers protruding out of the long sleeve—a pose apparently chosen carefully by the photographer, a visiting priest, as appropriate for the occasion. 

Above this body in its strange and obviously uncomfortable pose the face of the sixteen-year-old girl looks out at us, straightforward and compelling. Her eyes, slightly closed because of the harsh winter sunlight, are smiling with a friendly roguishness, but the heavy shadows in the eye sockets speak of tears and sorrows endured. Her mouth too is smiling amiably, obviously in compliance with a request, but without constraint. But how hard is the line of the mouth between the round, full child’s cheeks, how mute, reserved and uncompromising. How much resistance and independence there is in the whole face. It is full of gentleness, contains a measure of humour, and much patient, unwavering self-command. How much firm readiness for what is to come, for unforeseeable and unavoidable trials, there is here, and at the same time how much composure, patience, lack of strain. 

It is a great pity that this picture has been rejected by the convent as a poor likeness (“infidèle”), because it deviates from the usual stylized sweetness. For this reason the photograph was retouched and made into one of the well-known representations. The retouching gives regularity to the features, but erases the unusually alive expression of solitude suffered with childlike courage.



observations: After last week's fictional nuns on the blog and at the Guardian, here's a real-life one.

St Therese of Lisieux, The Little Flower, is the strangest of saints: because there are photos of her, because one of her sisters was still alive in 1959, and because she lived her 24 years in a small area of France without any particular deeds to mark her life. Of course there are recent saints and potential saints – Mother Theresa and Pope John Paul II – but they are modern figures, each of whom died after a long and scrutinized life of great achievement. St Therese seems to belong to an older tradition.

It is also true that you rather fear for any young girl now who acted as Therese Martin did: she was brought up in a very devout family, and outdid her parents and sisters in her piety – she knew from an early age she wanted to be a nun, and petitioned the Pope of the time for special permission to break the rules and enter a Carmelite convent at the age of 15. Her story is fascinating: she wrote her own ‘Story of a Soul’ – outlining her Little Way to God, it has been a massive bestseller ever since. The biography above is long (especially considering how short Therese’s life was), but does an excellent job of giving context to the church of the time, the convent she was in, and the people she was with. It also honestly assesses the points where the reader can’t help feeling Therese must have been a difficult and painful companion at times.

A much more recent book – Shirt of Flame: A year with St Therese of Lisieux, by Heather King – looks at her relevance to modern-day life, as the author tries to learn useful lessons from the Saint.

The whole phenomenon of St Therese is very hard to look at clearly. In 2009 her relics (some of her bones) were brought to the UK – that’s the kind of event that outsiders find hard to understand about the RC church, but the numbers of people who turned out to see the casket were truly staggering.

11 comments:

  1. At the risk of being ex-communicated, are you sure the photo isn't of a young Robbie Coltrane, rehearsing for a role in later life?

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    1. I'm not sure you're taking this seriously enough Col. Be sure to check out the blog tomorrow - there might be something more to your liking. (Heavy-handed clue: it's another Saint).

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    2. Moira, you can't tell me this isn't a young RC in that photo? Well it's defo a young RC! Nuns on the Run was a classic film, that I need to re-visit soon.
      I think I know where you're coming from on the Saint front, hmm should I be nervous? I'll be a day late checking in - we're Uni scouting tomorrow.

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    3. He's right though - the resemblance is extraordinary...

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    4. You may both be right, I can't possibly comment.

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  2. This is one I can pass on. Although the story here of her short life is fascinating.

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    1. It is, but a summary might well be enough for you...

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  3. Moira - It is interesting to get a perspective on what makes a person decide to enter a convent, as St. Therese actually did (as opposed to being sent there). And it sounds as though her life is an interesting bridge between the 'old style' saints and, as you say, the more modern ones. And I have to say, that habit really does look uncomfortable!

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    1. I think we're left a bit helpless before the lives of all the nuns (not just the saints) and their clothes. Modern women find it all difficult to imagine. And as I pointed out in an entry once before, nuns clothes started out being just simpler versions of what everyone else was wearing - but then never changed. So they weren't meant to make them stand out so much from secular people...

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  4. Moira: I am a Roman Catholic who does not seek out relics.

    I sometimes wonder at the dramatic thoughts conjured up from a photo. To me she looks like a young nun at ease with herself and her habit. She lived at a time when such habits were worn by almost all nuns. She was wearing it by choice. I would be surprised if she was uncomfortable in it.


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    1. I guess it's part of the current mode of thinking that we try to work things out from photos, that we're busy with our psychology and body language - but you're probably right. She always implies that though she had occasional difficulties with her faith, she never wanted to do anything but be a nun and devote her life to God.

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