A BOOK NEVER INTENDED TO BE A BOOK
Bro. Francis Mary F.I.
If Saint Therese’s “Little Way of Spiritual Childhood” is known throughout the world, it is due in no small measure to the worldwide circulation of her autobiography, Story of a Soul. John Beevers, in the introduction to his translation of Saint Therese’s autobiography, claims with good reason, that this book is “the great best seller of this century.”
“When we pick up Story of a Soul, we are handling something akin to a miracle. We have a book which was never written as a book. It was scribbled very quickly and produced in three parts, each addressed to a different person. Much of it was written when its author knew she was dying and was suffering all the pain and distress of a fatal illness. Now, it is the most widely read book of spirituality in the world and is acclaimed by popes for the sureness of its teaching... As Saint Therese sat in her cell and wrote, her companion was the Holy Spirit. Her book was divinely inspired, not, it must be understood, as Holy Scripture was inspired, but inspired as perhaps no other book has been.” Though not by an accomplished writer, of its style, which is more the product of that particular time in France, Beevers points out: “There burns a fierce, exultant flame of holy passion, and it is this passion which grips the reader - sometimes at once, but nearly always after a second or third reading.”
This fire has inflame many famous personages. One of these was the famous Chinese scholar, Doctor John C. H. Wu. He wrote after his conversion to the Catholic faith: “Dante was my guide to the threshold of the Church, but the ones who made me cross it were the most holy Virgin and her little daughter, Saint Therese of Lisieux. “Dr. Wu, a former Methodist, read Story of a Soul and found that it expressed perfectly the more profound convictions he had about Christianity. He exclaimed: “If this saint represents Catholicism, I do not see any reason why I should not be a Catholic.”
He goes on to say, “For I found in it a living synthesis of joy and suffering, duty and love, strength and tenderness, grace and nature, wisdom and folly, wealth and poverty, community and individualism. The Saint seemed to combine within herself the compassion of Buddha, the virtues of Confucious and the philosophical detachment of Lao Tze. Here is a young nun who died at 24 and still managed to attain such perfection! What was her secret? Could she have achieved such plenitude if she had not been a part of the Mystical Body of Christ?”
Another great scholar and Catholic writer, Jean Guitton, writes: “The strange thing about Therese, young and uneducated as she is, is the authority with which she teaches her way. It is this radical authority which, in spite of all her inexperience, has reminded some people of Joan of Arc. She is a child without childhood and outside childhood.”
A most unusual reader of the Autobiography and follower of the “Little Way” was a criminal who was eventually guillotined. Twenty-seven-year-old Jacques Fesch through his inspiring spiritual diaries, written after his conversion, is considered another Saint Dismas and may be beatified some day. He writes: “Like little Saint Therese of the Child Jesus, I would like to renew with every beat of my heart, the offering of myself as a holocaust victim to God’s merciful love... I wait in darkness and in peace... I am waiting for love! In five hours, I will be with Jesus!”
One of the greatest “conquests” of Saint Therese and her autobiography was the late Msgr. Vernon Johnson, who caused a great stir in the Church of England when he became a Catholic and then later was ordained a Catholic priest. He wrote possibly the most popular book available on her spirituality, titled, “Spiritual Childhood”. He organized priest pilgrimages to Lisieux, for he was well aware of the fact that this saintly Carmelite is perhaps the priests’ best friend, after Our Lord and Our Lady. He published the magazine “Sicut Parvuli”, a quarterly review of the Association of Priests of Saint Therese of the Child Jesus. He was its editor and publisher for twenty years until his death in 1969.
An amusing conversion story is that of the American reporter, Eddie Doherty. While on the staff of the old “Liberty” magazine, he had to cover a story about the famous radio priest of the thirties, Fr. Charles Coughlin. Though Eddie was a fallen away Catholic, he figured he had to get some background material on the patron saint of Fr Coughlin’s church. At first, he confused Saint Rita with the “Little Flower”. It took a good deal of convincing on the part of the sales woman at the book store to get him to accept the Autobiography of Saint Therese. “No book has ever stirred me as did that simple, beautiful story, written by a girl in her 20s, a nun shivering in her cold little cell as she wrote,” commented the hard-nose reporter, not given to sentimentalities.
Fr Coughlin proved to be just as hard-nose in resisting an interview by the reporter. So Eddie told the saint he admired: “All right lady! If you really are all you’re supposed to be, get me this story!” The very next morning he “accidentally” met an old friend who was also a good friend of Fr. Coughlin. A meeting was arranged. Eddie chided Fr. Coughlin for not showing greater consideration to a black sheep, who had not practiced his faith for years. Fr Coughlin retaliated by refusing to give him the story until he came back to the sacraments. He did, as best he could at the time, and eventually completely reconciled with God. He went on to become a dedicated lay apostle, and co-founder of Madonna House with his wife Baroness Catherine de Hueck, and was eventually ordained a priest.
Another journalist who had lost his health and his faith read Story of a Soul. “Over its pages,” says Michael Williams, “it did what no other book caused me to do in all my life before - I wept. Again and again a blinding rush of tears blurred my sight and stopped my reading.” When he experienced a sweet fragrance, he presumed the book had been lying near a bottle of perfume. But later, as he entered his apartment, “instantaneously, the breath from Heaven breathed once more upon me. I remembered that the accounts of Sister Therese’s manifestations are full of such instances of psychic odors.” He came back to the Church and for several decades thereafter he was dean of American Catholic Journalists.
These are but a few examples of the great impact this Autobiography of Saint Therese has had on many thousands of souls, and will have on future generations; for like all true spiritual classics, this book will endure until time is no more.