Saturday, November 23, 2013

Dorothy Day's Therese

Until last week, I didn't know that Dorothy Day had written a book about St. Thérèse, much less that I
owned a copy. The fact that I came across it at all is a happy accident of the book-dusting marathon, although I didn't really notice what it was when I was dusting it and putting it on the shelf with the saint books. I don't even remember now what finally made me realize what it was.

Whatever it may have been, I thoroughly enjoyed Ms. Day's retelling of the life of St. Thérèse. She says in the preface that she first encountered the Little Flower shortly after her own conversion when her confessor, Fr. Zachary, gave her a copy of Story of a Soul saying it would do her good. Ms. Day was still working for the Communist Party and thought that it was "pious pap," and that Fr. Zachary and other priests were insulting to women. She says it took her a long time to realize the value of Thérèse, and sadly, she never tells us what changed her mind. It's too bad because I would really like to know.

Although Ms. Day's political views make a few brief appearances in the narrative, for the most part it is all the Little Flower's story, and a very straightforward story it is. There's none of the sentimentality that one finds in some works about St. Thérèse, but Ms. Day's admiration for and devotion to St. Thérèse is always quietly obvious. On the surface, these two--the sheltered, innocent virgin who died at 24, and the wordly-wise activist who lived to the age of 83--seem to be an odd pair, but on closer observation one sees that insistent, unswerving determination to follow God's call that characterizes them both. There's also that willingness to buck authority when they are sure they are doing the right thing.

Most of the story that Ms. Day tells was familiar to me, as it would be to anyone who has read Story of a Soul and Last Conversations; however, she fills out the better-known facts with information from other sources. I particularly appreciated her biographies of Thérèse's family, most notably those of her sisters. Before reading this book, her sisters were just a sort of amorphous mass to me, but now they are individual personalities, especially Marie and Leonie.

In the last chapter, Ms. Day comes back to her roots. She tells us, and this possibly explains part of the Little Flower's attraction for her, that St. Thérèse is a saint of the people, that it was the common man who spread the devotion to her "Little Way" and clamored for her canonization. She quotes Pope Pius XI's homily at the canonization Mass saying, "If the way of spiritual childhood became general, who does not see how easily would be realized the reformation of human society . . . ." How sadly this statement rings down through the years to us. We who live in a time when even children are too sophisticated for childhood. But the promise is still there. The narrow road of the "Little Way" still beckons.


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