St. Therese’s Manly Virtues

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Let me offer a caveat at the outset: I will be offering what is a characteristically masculine appreciation of St. Therese of Lisieux, not an exclusively masculine appreciation. I’m sure many women admire the virtues commented on here.

Speaking of feminist eco-theology, an English Dominican once remarked, “There’s not much in that for a man.” Should we say the same about the theology of St. Therese? We might think her approach to God is fine for women, especially cloistered women, but certainly not for the average man of the 21st century. Her preferred images are generally of flowers, Jesus the Husband of her soul, and smallness. These images tend to be repugnant to men. So how, among great men of the 20th century like Pius XI, Padre Pio, or John Paul II, might we account for all the devotion to her?

Effectiveness. She didn’t waste time on the way to holiness. Her teaching was short and lucid. She was reliable both before and after death.

St. Therese died at 24. She understood that God’s grace makes giant saints. Neither terrible suffering nor spiritual brilliance guarantee sanctity, but only God’s action in us. She fulfilled the American maxim well: “Live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse.” But she needed neither guns nor Porsches to accomplish this.

She kept it simple. When Therese’s sister Celine complained about “how much [virtue] she had to acquire,” Therese retorted that “she didn’t have much to acquire, but rather she had much to lose.” Therese had stripped off self-love, emotional fragility, and pride. Like David leaving Saul’s armor in the creek bed, she realized she didn’t need all that weight. She took no gear with her into the war for souls.

St. Therese succeeded as an intercessor. Her vocation as a Carmelite was to pray for the sinners in the world and for priests. She took a special interest in hard cases, e.g., Pranzini the murderer, who repented on the scaffold. Men respect someone who comes through in a tight situation. She promised that she would continue this after her death: “I want to spend my eternity doing good on earth.” Her help was especially implored in the trenches of the Great War seventeen years after her death.

On 4th June, while on reconnaissance between French and German lines, we came under rather heavy fire, and there I had proof that I benefit from a limitless protection. A bullet from a revolver pierced my jacket, squadron diary and wallet, and also my vest, over my heart. But the bullet deviated from its path without reaching my shirt thanks to Sister Therese’s little medallion, which was there like a shield. It was only the next morning, in daylight, that I realized. On this occasion I simply made a very deep bow to my little Therese. And I thank her with all my heart, and remain confident that she will always be my support in times of trouble (Henri Bellois, Corporal).

It seems that many male French atheists on their way to war begrudgingly accepted holy cards and medals from their worried wives and mothers, only to come back devout Catholics. They prayed to her during Ypres and the Somme, and she came through. Not to mention all the little miracles she is known for in daily Catholic life, like the tell-tale roses given to young people deciding whether or not to marry, or enter an order.

And now a word to the unconvinced, or those who can’t stand nineteenth-century French writing. I tried to read Story of a Soul in college, but was disgusted by what I thought was sugary piety. It took a two year wait and some secondary literature to convince me to approach the book again. A tough Irish priest gave me Everything is Grace by Joseph F. Schmidt, F.S.C. That provided a decryption key for some of her more saccharine turns of phrase. I recommend Story of a Life by Fr. Guy Gaucher for the same reason.

The truth is, we all could use her intercession. Even us Catholic males today. She deserves to be loved, although of course she doesn’t need it, as she’s now enjoying the Beatific Vision. Even on earth, she valued the good of those under her charge, over any concern for her own popularity:

If I’m not loved, that’s just too bad!  I tell the whole truth, and if anyone doesn’t wish to know the truth, let her not come looking for me. We should never allow kindness to degenerate into weakness. When we have scolded someone with just reason, we must leave the matter there, without allowing ourselves to be touched to the point of tormenting ourselves for having caused pain or at seeing one suffer and cry. To run after the afflicted one, to console her, does more harm than good.  Leaving her to herself forces her to have recourse to God, in order to see her faults and humble herself.

A more virile sentiment, one can hardly find anywhere.

Image: PhotosNormandie, Saint Jacques de Montebourg (Normandy, 1944) (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By | 2017-03-10T11:16:20+00:00 October 1, 2014|Discipleship, Saints|

About this Brother:

Br. Edmund McCullough, O.P.
Br. Edmund McCullough is a native of Baltimore, Maryland. He graduated with a B.A. is Spanish and International Studies from Mount Saint Mary's University in 2009. He worked in campus ministry for two years before joining the Order of Preachers in 2011. On DominicanFriars.org