header icons

Dorothy Day and St. Therese of Lisieux respond to the Despair of our Time

Saint Therese by Ade Bethune

Dorothy Day’s book, Therese: A Life of Therese of Lisieux (Springfield, Illinois: Temple-gate Publishers, 1960, 1991), the fruit of much research and study on Dorothy’s part, captures the heart of the message of Saint Therese of Lisieux and reveals also the depth of Dorothy’s own spirituality. At the time when Dorothy wrote about her, she was already known to the world as the Saint of the Little Way; in the April 1952 CW Dorothy also called her “the saint of the responsible.” Dorothy reflected in her book that while Therese’s popularity was great, the “social implications of her teachings are yet to be written.” Since the time that Dorothy wrote about her, St. Therese has become even better known and is now a Doctor of the Church.

Dorothy drew out the social implications of Therese’s Little Way of love in a creative way, writing especially for those who might be tempted to be overcome by the nihilism and hopelessness of a world in which they feel powerless.

After years of studying great philosophers and literature, economics and liturgy, after so many years of living the Gospel among the poor, Dorothy finally found many answers to the great questions in the life and spirituality of this young woman.

Dorothy shared with readers that her book was written very much from her own point of view, emphasizing aspects that interested her particularly, explaining that while several other books had been written about the Little Flower (for children, travelogues for following her footsteps, and “lives for the extrovert, for the introvert, the contemplative, the activist, the scholar and the theologian”), it was the common person, the worker, the masses who had proclaimed her a saint, and it was for them that she had written the book. Therese had given her message to the world at a time, Dorothy said, when holiness was not the “ordinary thing in this day of post-war materialism, delinquency and all those other words which indicate how dissatisfied the world of the West is with its economy of abundance while the world of the East [today we would say the South] sits like Lazarus at the gate of Dives.”

Therese had insisted that her message was for everyone, that everyone could be a saint, that it was through saints that the world could be saved and transformed-a theme Dorothy herself had promoted for many years.

In her explanation of why she wrote Therese, Dorothy emphasized, as she had so often done, the problem of “governments becoming stronger and more centralized,” and “the whole world given over to preparations for war and the show of force,” causing a feeling of “ineffectiveness” in the common person. Dorothy presented Therese’s message as a powerful, explosive alternative force, one of the spiritual weapons Dorothy had always spoken of, a way of love that “can transform our lives and the life of the world, once put into effect.” As early as the October 1949 CW Dorothy had written of Therese: “On the frail battleground of her flesh was fought the wars of today.”

Dorothy said she wrote to “reach some of the 65,000 subscribers to The Catholic Worker, many of whom are not Catholic and not even ‘believers,’ to introduce them to a saint of our day…” She emphasized that it was to overcome the “sense of futility in Catholics, men, women, and youth, married and single, who feel hopeless and useless, less than the dust, ineffectual, wasted, powerless.” Reflecting on tragedies and suffering in the world and in daily life recorded in the newspapers, Dorothy that most people feel they can do nothing about these tragedies, that their role is already written for them:

“We have a fatalistic sense of taking part in a gigantic tragedy, a fearful adventure. Our life is charged with drama about which we can do nothing….

“We are at war because of our sins. All the suffering, the misery of the needy and the groaning is part of the world suffering which makes up the sufferings of Christ.

“Most of us try to forget and get what joy we can: “Eat, drink and be merry…,” philosophers become existentialist and nurse their noble despair.”

Dorothy declared that she was writing a life of the Little Flower because Therese was determined to do something about this, “even though she was imprisoned to all intents and purposes, in a small French convent in Normandy, unknown to all the world.”

Therese’s Little Way would “blow the dynamite,” of the Catholic Church, as Peter Maurin had said was so necessary. Dorothy described the impact of Therese’s life and spirituality in those terms:

“She speaks to our condition. Is the atom a small thing? And yet what havoc it has wrought. Is her little way a small contribution to the life of the spirit? It has all the power of the spirit of Christianity behind it….

“At a time when there are such grave fears because of the radioactive particles that are sprinkled over the world by the hydrogen bomb tests and the question is asked, what effect they are going to have on the physical life of the universe, one can state that this saint, of this day, is releasing a force, a spiritual force, upon the world to counteract that fear and that disaster. We know that one impulse of grace is of infinitely more power than a cobalt bomb.”
Like Therese, Dorothy emphasized the use of the spiritual weapons outlined in the Epistles of St. Paul in combating evil instead of employing violence. She was able to focus on concerns and events in Therese’s family life and her spirituality which may have been overlooked by other biographers. In what other book on St. Therese, for example, could one find Dorothy’s description of Therese’s mother’s discomfort with the violence and destruction of the Franco-Prussian war, during which so many men of the village lost a limb and her commentary on St. Thomas’ conditions for a just war?

Therese’s engagement with the world came through her receptivity to God’s love, her willing acceptance to be just a “little grain of sand” while the power of God’s love worked within her. Dorothy quoted Therese on this theme:

“It is the way of spiritual childhood,” she said in response to a question about her “Little Way.” It is the path of total abandonment and confidence. I would show them the little method I have found so perfectly successful and tell them there is but one thing to do on earth; to cast before Jesus the flowers of little sacrifices.

Dorothy clarified further in Therese’s words the meaning of the emphasis on “little”:
“There has been so much discussion of the diminutive ‘little’ which Therese used constantly that it is good to remember her words of explanation…. ‘To be little … is … not to attribute to ourselves the virtues we practice, nor to believe ourselves capable of practicing virtue at all. It is rather to recognize the fact that God puts treasures of virtue into the hands of his little children to make use of them in time of need, but they remain always treasures of the good God. Finally, to be little means that we must never be discouraged over our faults, for children often fall but they are too small to harm themselves very much.’

“The total unimportance of anything in this world except God’s love for us-this was the burden of her teaching. And how little He is loved in return.”

For Dorothy the meaning of the Little Way included both good deeds and acts of love, but also sins of omission: “The significance of our smallest acts! The significance of the little things we leave undone! The protests we do not make, the stands we do not take, we who are living in the world!” Dorothy linked the Little Way with Catholic Worker protests and attempts to respond to suffering in the world. Even though St. Therese could not leave her cloister to actually do these things, she used spiritual ways to participate in engaging the world. While Dorothy knew that Therese’s way seemed to the world totally different from her own, in her articles and her book she made it clear that the Little Way was also the way for the Catholic Worker movement, although in a different environment. In Dorothy’s April 1952 article she related how the Little Flower, so different from the Catholic Worker employed the spiritual weapons of which Dorothy so often spoke:

“I’m not trying to say that the Little Flower would have gone out on picket lines and spoken on Communist platforms or embraced her Protestant neighbors, if there were any in the town of Alencon. She was a product of her environment, bourgeois, middle class, the daughter of skilled workers, comfortable, frugal people who lived apart from the world with their eyes on God, and yet were very much a part of the world at that time, with the Franco Prussian war, its aftermath of fear and hysteria and visions and prophecies. She wanted everything, every apostolate, she said, both when she was a child and later as a young woman, and she used the means at her disposal to participate in everything, to increase the sum total of the love of God in the world by every minute act, every suffering, every movement of her body and soul, done for the love of God and the love of souls. She used the spiritual weapons every one of us has at our disposal.”

Therese had chosen the cloistered life at age fifteen, at a convent where two sisters had already entered. Dorothy understood that although she was raised in what would have been considered a working- or middle-class family with one servant (her father was a watchmaker and her mother made fine lace) and later lived in the Carmel, Therese’s spirituality was not individualistic; she was not unaware of poverty and suffering in the world. As a child she had often been designated by her family as the one to help the poor, giving them things with her own hands or inviting poor families to the Martin family table. The Martins had “taught their children that it was a privilege to serve the unfortunate with their own hands and do the Works of Mercy directly instead of doling out advice and pious admonitions.”

Therese wanted to be a missionary to foreign lands and through her prayer actually became one. She had wanted to go to the Carmelite convent in Hanoi, but was unable to because of her health. She is now the patroness of the missions. Reference is made to Therese’s writing about Fr. Theophane Venard in Vietnam, about whom Dorothy also wrote in her columns in The Catholic Worker, and whose insights into the situation in Vietnam gave her an early understanding of the Vietnam War.

Dorothy’s earliest acquain-tance with the Little Flower had come in the hospital when her daughter, Tamar Teresa, was born, Dorothy had decided to name her Teresa for Saint Teresa of Avila. Another woman in the hospital asked if the Teresa were for St. Therese of Lisieux and wanted to give her a medal of Therese. Dorothy was not comfortable with the idea, but after the other woman pressed her, she did accept the medal and a role for the ‘other’ St. Therese for her baby: “I decided that although I would name my child after the older saint, the new one would be my own Teresa’s novice mistress, to train her in the spiritual life. I knew that I wanted to have the child baptized a Catholic and I wanted both saints to be taking care of her. One was not enough.”

When one of her first confessors gave Dorothy Therese’s The Story of a Soul, her response was that she was not looking for anything so simple and she “felt slightly aggrieved at Father Zachary,” thinking that the priest might be insulting her intelligence because she was a woman. She said that it took her years to appreciate the Little Flower: “I much preferred then to read about spectacular saints who were impossible to imitate. The message of Therese was too obviously meant for each one of us, confronting us with daily duties, simple and small, but constant.

After reading her explanations, one still wonders why Dorothy would have become so interested in Therese after her early rejection of her that she would research and write a book about her. There are apparently a number of profound reasons, in addition to the very practical one of surviving life in the Houses of Hospitality of the Catholic Worker where Dorothy faced so much suffering and needed strength and spirituality to respond in love to each person, to those whom many had rejected as unlovable.

Dorothy had always been interested in better hagiography, in writing about the saints which was more realistic, and she achieved this task herself in writing about Therese, applying her teaching to the most challenging issues. As Peter Casarella pointed out in his article inCommunio (XXIV, No. 3, Fall 1997):

“Dorothy wanted to lift the veil of desiccated piety from the familiar image of the Catholic saints. Moreover, she was convinced that responding to the call to sanctity at the very center of one’s daily life was the only way to confront widespread global injustices without exacerbating the cycle of violence and despair in the world.”

Dorothy discovered that the sweet book about St. Therese that she had rejected had been doctored and adapted, that some of the strongest expressions had been removed, and even the photographs had been touched up to make Therese look less haggard upon her death. Scholars had eventually objected and gradually the real pictures and writing of Therese became more available.

Father Martindale, the British Jesuit, spoke out with indignation about this tampering with the pictures. In view of the gigantic role she was to play in the life of the Church, one can understand this wrath. Even her writing, her autobiography, her Story of a Soul was worked over, her strong expressions toned down, and it is only recently that we have had an authentic translation of her manuscript.

Dorothy’s own faith had also matured with years of reading and prayer and through her participation in the famous Retreat. It is logical that references to themes from the Retreat would appear in Therese, because Therese read Scripture and St. John of the Cross so much and the retreat has so much basis in the Bible and the spirituality of John of the Cross. Dorothy quoted Therese’s words from St. John of the Cross: “Love was the measure by which she wished to be judged.” Jim Forest has written a whole book on the CW movement called Love is the Measure, showing how this phrase was the basis of the spirituality of the Catholic Worker movement: Therese, like Dorothy, read John of the Cross as a teenager, although perhaps more exclusively:

“It was later, during her convent life, that she read all of St. John of the Cross and the works of St. Teresa of Avila. She was still in her teens when she read these great masterpieces of the spiritual life, the work of two of the greatest mystics the world has known….”

Between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, Therese wrote, she read no one but St. John of the Cross, and over and over again in her autobiography she quotes from him, especially from his poetry.

While Dorothy does not mention the Retreat in this book, her understanding of Therese is unmistakably expressed in its language. When Dorothy read in Therese’s writings that all are called to holiness, this was not new to her. It had been emphasized in every retreat she made.
Therese’s theme that Dorothy emphasized, “All is grace,” is a phrase that Dorothy had written many times already herself, so much so that William Miller wrote a book about her called All Is Grace. When Dorothy read of pruning, of stripping oneself to put off the old man and put on the new person in Christ, she recognized the teaching. She had been reading about this in St. Paul in the Scriptures for many years and hearing it in the Retreat. She repeats the idea here: “All natural love is pruned in order that a supernatural love may grow.” Dorothy wrote of Therese: “She knew that she had ‘to die in order to live’ and that every wound meant a killing of the ego.” She was aiming for that perfection in which she would say with St. Paul, “It is now no longer I that live, but Christ lives in me.”

While she believed that she had a special vocation, that her vocation was “to be a saint-and a special kind of saint for our times,” Therese emphasized that her way really was for everyone, “a most ordinary way.” Dorothy wrote:

“She herself says that it was her destiny to show the world of today that holiness is accessible to all, that all are called, and that it is a ‘little way,’ a simply way for all to follow. And never once does she say that these transports, these joys are not for all. As well as the Cross, there are the joys of the spiritual life. Little attention has been paid to these joys in the life of Therese.”

Dorothy recounts that when Therese made her First Communion at around age eleven, she “prayed that the Lord would turn all sweet things bitter for her, so that she would not be counting on things of this earth but would be turning to heaven.” Dorothy interprets this to mean that already there was growth in her soul, that “God was already stripping her of a little child’s greediness, the greediness that we seldom get over in this life….” Dorothy referred to this later in the book in describing Therese’s dark night of the soul late in her life:

“She had asked for this early in life, that God would turn all things sweet into bitterness for her so that she will not be attracted to things of earth, or even to things of heaven, since it is her Beloved alone that she wants.

“I wish for no other knowledge,” she cries, “and like the Spouse in the Canticle of Canticles, “having given up all the substance of my house for love, I reckon it as nothing.”

The retreat had taught Dorothy that human nature is transfigured once the choice is made to respond with the Fiat (“Be it done to me according to your Word”) and follow Jesus. It is a choice that must be remade each day in order to respond to grace, to grow into the new person described in the Scriptures. Dorothy describes Therese’s teaching on this, which allowed her to be quite “daring”:

“As I understand her, St. Therese is teaching the necessity of loving God first, and then ‘all these things shall be added unto you.’ All these happy loves of earth, family, friends, husband, children. ‘Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you.’ This is blind faith, a naked faith in love….

“Therese takes no credit to herself. It is all God’s doing. ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to Thy word.’ . . . The emphasis is on God, and His grace. She, of course, responds to this grace, and grace, which is defined as ‘participation in the divine life,’ grows in her, so she can say, ‘now not I, but Christ in me.’ It made her infinitely daring in her desire to be a saint. ‘God would not give us these desires if he did not wish to satisfy them,’ she writes.” Dorothy’s October 1949 CW article pointed out that those who might see in Therese a sentimental piety, perhaps were not well enough acquainted with her and her spirituality:

“Either the Little Flower is looked upon (perhaps because of her nickname) with sentimentality, or, as one gets to know her better, with dread. On that frail battleground of her flesh was fought the wars of today. When she died her bones were piercing her body and she died in an agony of both flesh and spirit. She was tempted against faith and said that for the last years of her life she forced herself to believe with her indomitable will while a mocking voice cried in her ears that there was neither heaven nor hell, and she was flinging away her life for nothing. To ‘It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God,’ St. Peter said with exultation. We have to pay a great and terrible price but “underneath are the everlasting arms.” Thank God for the saints whose feast days come around and remind us that we too are called to be saints.”

While Therese always emphasized the importance of love of family, she also spoke of detachment and renunciation and its role in growth in the spiritual life:
“She was ready to stake her life in this renunciation of love. We must be ready to give up everything. We must have already given it up, before God can give it back transfigured, supernaturalized. ‘He who does not hate father, mother, sister, brother, for my name’s sake, is not worthy to be my disciple.’ He is indeed a jealous lover. He wants all.”

In describing Therese’s life and spirituality Dorothy wrote, “Prayer and penance! These are indeed spiritual works, spiritual weapons to save souls, penance for luxury when the destitute suffer, a work to increase the sum total of love and peace in the world.” Dorothy, who had suffered so much during World War II because of her pacifism and had also been accused of being romantic, tried always to explain that using spiritual weapons could be more powerful than any material weapons of war.

An example of Therese’s use of the spiritual weapons comes from her childhood. Therese had come to know that a man named Pranzini, who had murdered three people, was to be put to death by guillotine in France. Therese determined to try to save him through prayer:
“I heard talk of a great criminal just condemned to death for some horrible crimes; everything pointed to the fact that he would die impenitent…. I felt in the depths of my heart certain that our desires would be granted, but to obtain courage to pray for sinners I told God I was sure He would pardon the poor, unfortunate Pranzini; that I’d believe this even if he went to his death without any signs of repentance or without having gone to confession. I was absolutely confident in the mercy of Jesus. But I was begging Him for a “sign” of repentance only for my own simple consolation.

“My prayer was answered to the letter! In spite of Papa’s prohibition that we read no papers, I didn’t think I was disobeying when reading passages pertaining to Pranzini. The day after the execution I found the newspaper “La Croix.” I opened it quickly and what did I see? Ah! my tears betrayed my emotion and I was obliged to hide. Pranzini had not gone to confession. He had mounted the scaffold and was preparing to place his head in the formidable opening, when suddenly, seized by an inspiration, he turned, took hold of the crucifix the priest was holding out to him and kissed the sacred wounds three times! Then his soul went to receive the merciful sentence of Him who declares that in heaven there will be more joy over one sinner who does penance than over ninety-nine just who have no need of repentance.
“I had obtained the sign I requested.”

Dorothy’s commentary on this story from her life emphasizes the supernatural weapons:
“She knew the dangers of the world and she knew what was in man, but always her faith in her supernatural weapons was so great that she saw him as saved. Hers was not the vision of ‘sinners falling into hell like snow flakes,’ but of men at death seizing hold of a crucified Christ and embracing Him.”

In the Oct.-Nov. 1972 CW, Dorothy mentioned Therese as she spoke of the work in Catholic Worker houses and in the efforts to make a personalist response to the problems of the social order. In the context of what she referred to as the always more extreme power of the State–which inhibited Christian freedom–, she advocated the Little Way and the folly of the Cross (another retreat theme) as the best methods:

“The work is hard. The struggle against the ‘all-encroaching State’ is harder. But if God is with us who can be against us? In Him we can do all things. We do know that God has chosen the foolish of this world to confound the wise. So please help us to continue in our folly, in the ‘Little Way’ of St. Therese which attracts so many to participate in our work.”

William Miller remarked that it had not been easy for Dorothy to adopt her ultimate understanding, so like Therese’s, that love is the answer to everything:

“It is remarkable that Dorothy, in whose natural disposition were strong elements of self-assertiveness, contentiousness, and even combativeness, should be recognized as one of the eloquent voices of this era to speak for love as the ultimate reality in which all of the world’s turbulence, pain, and hate could forever be resolved.”
Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXI, No. 6, November 2001.