Damian Thomspon

A Beatific Beauty

Saint Thérèse of Lisieux

By

Weidenfeld & Nicolson 210pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

THIS SHORT BIOGRAPHY of Thérèse of Lisieux is one of the creepiest books I have read in years. But that is not really the saint’s fault. The nineteenth-century French Catholicism that produced her was itselfcreepy: paranoid, death-obsessed, puritanical and decadent. Some priests refused to give Communion to any young woman who had been known to take part in a waltz, a dance in which they detected impure overtones; yet the mass piety of the era reeked of sublimated sexuality and violence. The spirituality of St Thérèse (1873-97) represents the apotheosis of this tradition.Thérèse imagined herself as a ‘victim of holocaust’, falling headlong into the flaming heart of Christ, or as a weak little bird waiting to become the prey of Jesus the divine eagle. These florid metaphors held enormous appeal for Catholics, who felt threatened by secularism; add to this the image of a pretty young nun wasting away from consumption like a romantic heroine, and we can begin to understand why her cult became the most powerfid of the early twentieth century.

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