St Thérèse of Lisieux had deep feelings of having a vocation to be a priest and how she dealt with this sense of calling in the light of its impossibility.
Catherine Broome OP examines St Thérèse‘ and her priestly ambitions
A long tradition was broken when, within a short period of time, three women were named Doctors of the Church. The first people to receive this particular title were Augustine, Ambrose, Gregory the Great and Jerome, who were seen in some respects as parallels to the four evangelists.
Women as spiritual authorities
They have been followed by many others. Throughout the years there have, of course, also been a small number of women theologians and prophets in whom the Church has recognised the voice of the Holy Spirit and who have been acknowledged as spiritual authorities. Before our century, however, it had not been conceivable that a woman too could be given such a specifically ‘male’ title as Doctor of the Church. In the 19th century it was still considered self-evident that titles such as preacher, priest, doctor of the church, were reserved for men. If anyone at that time had suggested giving the title of Doctor of the Church to a woman, there would certainly have been arguments found against it both in the Bible and from tradition!
Through the workings of the Holy Spirit, however, there are now four women Doctors of the Church.
A common characteristic of all four is a burning love for the Church and zeal for the salvation of souls. All have also experienced pain at not being able to fully realise their apostolic vocation. They make us consider the question of the actual nature of vocation. How can God give the same calling to both men and women in the Church but only allow one of the genders the right to fulfil that calling? There are today many women who feel called to the priesthood. They are sometimes scoffed at and made to look ridiculous. Hopefully that tendency can be counteracted through a closer study of our three women Doctors of the Church and what they have to say to us about their vocation.
Catherine and Thérèse
It is an interesting fact that two of these four women Doctors of the Church, Catherine of Siena and Thérèse of the Child Jesus, clearly stated their desire to become priests. As far as Teresa of Avila is concerned, we find no mention of this but here and there in her writings there are reflections which bear witness to a controlled sorrow over the fact that a woman does not have the same opportunity as a man to work for the Church. For example, in her first version of The Way of Perfection (ch 3) Teresa complains to the Lord about the way women are treated: “as if we couldn’t do anything worthwhile for you in public and not even be able to put a finger on the sensitive point that we wept over in secret”. It is always men who are the judges here on earth, she writes, and they have little faith in women’s capabilities and virtues. She finishes by saying: “… when I see what the times are like, I feel it is not right to repel spirits which are virtuous and brave, even though they be the spirits of women.”( 1)
With regard to Catherine of Siena, her confessor, the Blessed Raymond of Capua, relates in his biography of his penitent who was also his friend and teacher – how Catherine’s apostolic vocation expressed itself in her desire to join the Order of Preachers (Dominicans, an order of priests). She did not have a vocation to be a nun, but seriously considered dressing as a man, so that she could fulfil her vocation and be accepted as one of the brothers, but she came to realise that such an attempt would never succeed. It should be noted that Raymond, who was an educated theologian and trained in the study of the Bible, has nothing to say against Catherine’s desire to be a priest but has complete understanding for it and finds it inspiring. Besides, God made her to be a preacher, teacher and director of souls in other ways.
Thérèse’s priestly vocation
Thérèse of Lisieux, on the other hand, is the one who most often and clearly spoke of her priestly vocation. It remained with her until the end of her life and it was, at the end, in this vocation that she found the deepest explanation for her early death. In contrast to her great predecessor Teresa of Avila, Thérèse of Lisieux does not complain of being born a woman; her vocation is what it is regardless. It is her ‘littleness’ and nothing else that causes her to choose another way. When she speaks about her littleness and her limitations, it has nothing to do with the fact that she is a woman. On the contrary, she sees her “little way” in faith and confidence as a way for every Christian. (2)
Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila and Thérèse of Lisieux were in one respect “uneducated”. They had not received any higher education (but neither had any parish priest during the Middle Ages). But as far as their religious education went it was different. One should not get the impression that they wrote their works purely from intuition, as it were. All three had a burning interest in the Scriptures and religious writings and they were all thoroughly knowledgeable in matters of faith. For example, when one reads Catherine’s The Book of Divine Providence (also known as The Dialogue) it is clear, as a member of the third order of Dominicans, she had received basic teaching in Thomistic theology. She was acquainted with highly educated men, her closest friend being Raymond of Capua, later to become Master of the Dominican Order. She had had the opportunity to listen to their lectures, and it must have been a joy for them to have the chance to teach this gifted woman.
Thérèse’s love of the Bible
In the same way, through books, conversations and lectures the two Carmelites developed their theological competence. Their knowledge of the scriptures was by no means superficial. Ida Friederike Gorres, one of the first to do a systematic in-depth study of Thérèse’s life and spirituality, dwelt especially on Thérèse’s love of the Bible before all other books. She knew the gospels almost completely by heart. In her letters and other writings she also quoted constantly from other books of the Old and New Testaments, made notes, compared, marked concordance passages, and so on. “She did not know Latin and had to be satisfied with the French translation,” writes Gorres, “and she longed to be a priest and read the Bible in its original language ‘to understand the divine thought just as God himself wanted to express it in our human language'”(3).
It is worth noting that the title Doctor of the Church is in fact an acknowledgement of a person’s familiarity with the Holy Scriptures as well as the teachings and traditions of the Church. One cannot put Thérèse’s expressed priestly vocation down to the fact that she was ignorant of what is said in the Bible on this issue or of what tradition has to say, or that it was a childish pious wish. Thérèse’s language can give an impression of childishness and sentimentality, but appearances are deceptive. All studies of her writings – and there are hundreds of them – have shown the theological strength of her thinking.
The vocation of Thérèse of the Child Jesus
As we have seen Thérèse of Lisieux has spoken clearly of her calling to the priesthood, and so we shall remain with her and look more closely at some of her texts. This is not indeed to be a systematic discussion of all that she has written, but only evidence of how important her vocation was to her.
The heart of the autobiography of Thérèse of the Child Jesus, that which gives us the key to her spirituality, is where she describes her vocation (manuscript B). “To be Your Spouse, to be a Carmelite, and by my union with You to be the Mother of souls, should not this suffice me? And yet it is not so. No doubt, these three privileges sum up my true vocation: Carmelite, Spouse, Mother, and yet I feel within me other vocations. I feel the vocation of the warrior, the priest, the apostle, the doctor, the martyr. Finally, I feel the need and the desire of carrying out the most heroic deeds for You, O Jesus. I feel within my soul the courage of the Crusader, the Papal Guard, and I would want to die on the field of battle in defense of the Church.”
“I feel in me the vocation of the priest” (4) – Thérèse realises, of course, that she cannot be all this. The reason is that she is “too little”. “Is there a soul more little, more powerless than mine?” “Jesus, I am too little to perform great actions”(ibid).
Desiring to be a priest
In spite of all this she does not relinquish the thought of her vocation. It lives forcefully within her. To her sister Marie of the Sacred Heart she writes: “I feel in me the vocation of the priest. With what love, O Jesus, I would carry You in my hands when, at my voice, You would come down from heaven. And with what love would I give You to souls! But alas! While desiring to be a Priest, I admire and envy the humility of St Francis of Assisi and I feel the vocation of imitating him in refusing the sublime dignity of the Priesthood.”
Thérèse was a realist. She had to give up the idea of becoming a priest even though she so deeply desired it. She chose to abstain from the priesthood willingly. This was always her way. She was a very free person and instead of suffering under compulsion she freely chose to accept that which she could not change (5). In her attitude she was like her Master who laid down his life. “No one takes it from me; I lay down of my own free will, and as I have power to lay it down, so I have power to take it up again; and this is the command I have received from my Father” (Jn 10:18).
Thérèse ‘abstained’ from becoming a priest but chose at the same time a path that would allow her to fulfil the vocation that was impossible to her by other means. The Church was made up of many different limbs, each with its own function. The most central organ in the body is the heart, the seat of love. Thérèse decided to be the heart, to take up Love as her appointed work. “Charity gave me the key to my vocation. …I understood that love comprised all vocations, that love was everything.” With this liberating discovery Thérèse found not only her own path but also a way for all Christians, for all “little souls” who like herself burn with a longing to do that which is beyond their powers, their possibilities and strengths. Thérèse’s discovery made her an innovator and spiritual guide of great stature.
1. These four have been recognised as ‘Doctors of the Church’ since the 8th century. Boniface VIII wanted to make this precise and liturgical in 1295. Since the 9th century there has been an equivalent rank in the Eastern Church where a feast is celebrated on January 30th in honour ‘of the three hierarchs’ and ecumenical Doctors’ Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus and John Chrysostomos.
2. This sentence is crossed out in the manuscript. It is given in a footnote in critical editions. It is included in the text as given here in the English translation of E. Allison Peers, Doubleday (Image Book) 1964.
3. Ida Friederike Görres, Das verborgene Antlitz. Eine Studie über Therese von Lisieux. (Aufl. Freiburg 1947 S.314)
4. The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux. Manuscript B, September 8, 1896 trans. John Clarke, O.C.D. ICS Publications, Washington, D.C 1996 (p 190-200)
In spite of all this she does
5. During the evening meditation she had her place in front of a sister who had the habit of making a strange and irritating noise. Instead of being annoyed and trying not to hear the noise Therese decided to listen to it ‘as though it were a delightful concern,’ and she offered the ‘concern’ to Jesus as her prayer (ibid., pp 249-250). There are several examples of Therese’s way of transforming annoyances and irritations into a freely chosen pleasure.
This article first appeared in Spirituality (May-June 2000), a publication of the Irish Dominicans.