Magazine article The Christian Century

Saints and Doubters

Magazine article The Christian Century

Saints and Doubters

Article excerpt

LESLIE STEPHEN famously gave up his priestly orders--and with them, his academic appointment at the University of Cambridge--when he realized that he could no longer accept the story of Noah as sacred truth. His essays on agnosticism drew his future wife, Julia, to him. She had lost her beloved first husband to an early death, and her Christian faith along with him. Stephen's essays were a balm to her, an assurance that morality did not depend upon religious belief.

Their daughter, Virginia Woolf, raised without a faith to lose, sought new forms of the sacred in her writing, new expressions of religious experience focused around what she called "moments of being"--moments when the pattern through which we are all connected is briefly illuminated.

Therese of Lisieux was born eight years after Leslie Stephen resigned his post and nine years before Virginia was born. At first glance, Therese's life was completely different from theirs. The Stephen family descended from evangelical Protestants; Therese's family, from pious Roman Catholics. At the age of 15, Therese entered a Carmelite monastery. Nine years later she died of tuberculosis. She became famous through her autobiography and her letters for her "little way" to God.

Therese's "little way" was a modest approach to the great task of cultivating holiness. In her ordinary interactions with family and community, she tried to find opportunities to cultivate love. When her tired and cranky father scolded her on Christmas Eve, she resisted the impulse to cry and felt charity enter her soul. When she heard that a criminal was to be executed, she devoted herself to praying that he would turn to God in the end. When she was bent over the laundry trough in the convent and the nun next to her kept splashing her with dirty water, she offered up her aggravation in love to Jesus. "My dear Mother," she wrote to her prioress about this episode, "you can see that I am a very little soul and that I can offer God only very little things."

Was Therese's way too little? Some have thought so. She has been described as sentimental, mawkish and even saccharine. With all that is going on in this suffering world, did she really think God would notice how she responded to being splashed in the laundry room?

But Therese's small attempts to live a vocation of love in ordinary exchanges with others prepared her to love in the most difficult of circumstances. On the night before Good Friday in 1896, Therese had a coughing fit. …

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