Sunday, 20 September 2009

Book Review: The Story of a Soul

I say book review, but I don't know if this isn't going to more preamble than review.

When I was living in Gordon Road in Exeter, a Catholic in a house full of people who went to Belmont Chapel*, "an independent, evangelical church with strong bible teaching", I found a textbook lying round from a course taken by (at least some of) their contact workers. This one was from a module on the history of the reformation, and I had a nosey because it never hurts to know how people with opinions other than yours see things.

One of the things it mentioned was the cult of the saints. It was some time ago so I can't recall the exact words, but the gist of it was that the Church's stress on the importance of venerating saints made people feel distant from God; it set up an image of impossibly perfect people who are better than us and closer to God than we are, whereas us grotty sinners need to beg them for salvation and do everything the Church tells us. Naughty Catholic Church.

Now, there's something in the first part of that, but only because any truth can be distorted: "[W]here sin increased, grace increased all the more[. ...] What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?" (Romans 5-6) The above is not what the Church tells us about the saints, though of course priests are quite capable of preaching error, or preaching badly. The Church's doctrine of the saints is a joyful things, but the devil is a dab-hand at making what is good appear evil, and what is evil appear good. There's a lot of joy on offer for a practising Catholic, and a lot of guilt for a lapsed Catholic - the same, in point of fact is true for any kind of Christian, although perhaps less explicitly.

For now, it suffices to say that the saints are our brothers in Christ, because they are as much part of the one body of Christ as we are, and "neither death nor life[...] will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8) which is inseparable from love for our brothers: "[I]f we love one another, God abides in us." (1 John 4) The Church singles out the saints for us as people who lived holy lives, so that we can follow their example, as they followed the example of Christ. (c.f. I Corinthians 11:1) I wrote a lot about the saints a while ago, here, here and here.

I should probably start talking about the book now shouldn't I? I already blogged saying that I wanted to read (or listen to) The Story of a Soul by St. Thérèse of Lisieux, because trying to follow the example of the saints without getting to know them doesn't make a lot more sense than trying to have a relationship with God without praying. The best way, I thought, to dispel this gloomy picture of perfect little plaster-saints that have nothing to do with us muggles is to find out about them.

Well, it wasn't quite what I expected. I liked the beginning a lot, reading about her family life, the trials and the graces, and somewhat predictably, her sweet demeanour. She's easy to like, and reading that part is like spending time in the company of a child - no bad thing, which is a part of St. Thérèse's message. James recently blogged about a writer at the Tablet (the Catholic Weekly we all love to hate, and which always seems to get airtime on R4's Sunday programme) who inexplicably described St. Thérèse's family as dysfunctional. I can't think of a more strange adjective to apply. Rather annoyingly, this seemed to me to be the picture of a perfect family, and where I was hoping to find the saint surprisingly similar to me, I found myself musing on whether I would be a saint too if I'd had that family (all self-delusion of course - and I'll just take a moment to thank my Mum and Dad for all that they've done for me in my life).

The middle section of the book, which is really the majority of it, describing her life in the Carmelite order, left me cold lots of times. It seemed that, far from escaping those plaster-saints, I'd found the perfect example of one; she enjoyed suffering, was filled with seemingly effortless love for God, was delighted to be forgotten and ignored - in short, the complete opposite of me, and the kind of person I feel the urge to slap around for making it all look so easy. The experiment definitely looked to be failing. Yeah, yeah, she suffered terribly - so what if she liked it so much?

What really redeemed the book for me was the final chapter. Until then it's all autobiography; the last chapter is supplied because she becomes unable to write. Now, I think it's worth saying at this point that I don't think many saints would want to be recognised as such - it stands to reason, you don't get to be a saint without a little bit of humility. I was reconciled to St. Thérèse by the witness of those who knew her. Especially towards the end, St. Thérèse talks about how she offers her sufferings to God for sinners, for missionaries, for priests. She talks about her love for mankind and her intention never to stop offering her life for her brothers even after death, never to rest until the end of the world and the beginning of eternity.

Love. Predictably enough, that's what sums it up, and whereas St. Thérèse's own words often didn't agree with me, the witness of the nuns to her tireless intercession and self-giving love for all the suffering and weary children of God did finally get through to me. It's very hard to describe - you'd have to read it you know. St. Thérèse of Lisieux was an apostle of God's love; That probably sounds very trite, and shallow, and very plaster saint, but you shall never appreciate what it means unless you get to know her, and that holds for all of the saints of God.

* Just because you can use Blogger to make a web-site, it doesn't mean you should. What happened to the nice hand-made site guys?
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