The Gnosis of St Thérèse de Lisieux
For October 1 2008
Summary: One can view St Thérèse de Lisieux as a gnostic — and, in a manner of speaking, an ‘alchemist’. A true alchemist seeks not gold, but happiness, and love is the key to true happiness.
Today the Roman Catholic Church is privileged to commemorate the life and example of St. Thérèse de Lisieux. God has providentially supplied for our benefit many saints. Each expresses and manifests certain of God’s attributes. As our soul contains the image of God, the imago Dei, we possess latently those divine virtues and potentialities manifest by the saints. Each saint reveals some dimension of our own soul. Studying their lives and writings assists us in the gradual restoration of the imago Dei, in our self-realization.
In few cases is the saint’s role of exemplar more evident than with St. Therese, the “Little Flower” and the saint of love.
Let us recall some of her more famous quotations:
“Each prayer is more beautiful than the others. I cannot recite them all and not knowing which to choose, I do like children who do not know how to read, I say very simply to God what I wish to say, without composing beautiful sentences, and He always understands me. For me, prayer is an aspiration of the heart, it is a simple glance directed to heaven, it is something great, supernatural, which expands my soul and unites me to Jesus.”
“Sufferings gladly borne for others convert more people than sermons.”
“The splendor of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not rob the little violet of it’s scent nor the daisy of its simple charm. If every tiny flower wanted to be a rose, spring would lose its lovliness.”
Her saintliness is obvious, but why do we call St. Thérèse a gnostic? Would even she herself not have denied this?
That St. Therese is to be counted high among gnostic Christians is readily seen. It is true, she professed simplicity and adopted no pretense of great learning. Yet this same humble soul is reckoned, by virtue of her insightful writings and exemplary life, as a Doctor of the Roman Catholic Church, sharing this title with the likes of Augustine, Ambrose, and Aquinas. In in her grasp of Scripture, her ability to sense the deep meanings and subtle nuances of passages, great wisdom is evident. Most of all the illuminated nature of her thinking is demonstrated by its habitual content: Love — its reality, immanence, and greatness. If she is not readily recognized as a gnostic that is only because we ourselves so easily fall from the state of wisdom, and begin to imagine there is some greater thing than Love.
We are too accustomed to seeing simplicity and wisdom as opposites, when in fact they go together. The Lord said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes (Matt 11:25). And as St Paul wrote: the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men (1 Cor 1:25). We know that, as Socrates taught, true wisdom comes with recognition of ones ignorance. Thus we should not hesitate to consent to the classification of St. Therese as a gnostic.
There is here, moreover, an important general point: too often those who wish to be gnostics are overly attached to scholarship, books, and the external trappings of philosophy. It must be admitted, in short, that pride often or usually accompanies an interest in gnostic matters. Many who see themselves as gnostics look consdecendingly on “non-gnostic” practitioners of religion. This was carred to extremes in some heretical gnostic sects, which claimed that only special individuals, that is, those with arcane knowledge reserved for a select few, will be saved.
Al Ghazali on Alchemy
We may easily demonstrate the falseness of a view that equates saving gnosis with special, arcane knowledge. Suppose that great gnosis or wisdom, such as that sought by ancient gnostics, alchemists, and magi, of the sort that would give one the ability to perform miracles or accomplish anything, is indeed attainable. Suppose, further, that some master alchemist, after years of difficult labor and study, finally succeeded in creating the fabulous philosopher’s stone, which gives the possessor the ability to have or do anything wished for.
What, then, would such an alchemist do?
Would he turn lead into gold to gain great wealth? Perhaps; but if so, what after that? Of what use would gold alone be? Simply to have gold, unless it procures for one something better, is insufficient.
One might reply that he would make gold and then buy things with the gold, expecting these things to bring enjoyment and happines. But what this means is that what the alchemist actually seeks is not the gold, but happiness. At best, the gold would be only instrumental in gaining happiness.
But what brings happiness? Plainly, nothing for a human being brings so much happiness as love. It follows that the perfect alchemist would seek perfect love. Gold or wealth might possibly be helpful for this, but, so too it might be a hindrance. For all we know the perfectly attained alchemist might choose the life of a beggar!
As novel as this idea might seem, it is not new. The same principle was expressed in a dazzling spiritual treatise by the Islamic cleric and philospher Al Ghazali in the 11th century, called, fittingly, The Alchemy of Happiness.
Al Ghazali keenly discerned that the idea of turning lead into gold is merely a metaphor for the far more important process of transforming our base personality into something pure and beautiful. This form of alchemy seeks not gold or material wealth, but virtue and love. It is the gaining of virtue that is is the topic of this masterful written work of Al Ghazali.
Considering all this, we may say confidently that St. Therese was a great alchemist and a great gnostic. She found the secret, the formula for happiness — and so completely that she was able to dispense with showy displays of erudition and false knowledge.
I was pleased, or perhaps reassurred, to notice for the first time, only after writing this note, the Apostolic Letter in which Pope John Paul II in 1997 declared St Therese a Doctor of the Church, namely Divini Amoris Scientia (The Science of Divine Love). Some passages from the Letter follow:
1….During her life Thérèse discovered “new lights, hidden and mysterious meanings” (Ms A, 83v) and received from the divine Teacher that “science of love” which she then expressed with particular originality in her writings (cf. Ms B, 1r). This science is the luminous expression of her knowledge of the mystery of the kingdom and of her personal experience of grace. It can be considered a special charism of Gospel wisdom which Thérèse, like other saints and teachers of faith, attained in prayer (cf. Ms C, 36r·)….
7. From careful study of the writings of St Thérèse of the Child Jesus and from the resonance they have had in the Church, salient aspects can be noted of her “eminent doctrine”, which is the fundamental element for conferring the title of Doctor of the Church.
First of all, we find a special charism of wisdom. This young Carmelite, without any particular theological training, but illumined by the light of the Gospel, feels she is being taught by the divine Teacher…
Thérèse offers a mature synthesis of Christian spirituality: she combines theology and the spiritual life; she expresses herself with strength and authority, with a great ability to persuade and communicate, as is shown by the reception and dissemination of her message among the People of God.
The last point is important: Thérèse’s pursuit of gnosis was not motivated by selfish aims, as is so often true with those who merely call themselves “gnostics”, but by a great love and intense desire to share the good news of the mystery of God’s salvation with others. Such compassionate yearning for others to know the meaning of God’s love is deep, innate, and immensely powerful. This sense of compassion is a powerful and perhaps essential motive force promoting the attainment of true gnosis.
Thérèse’s teaching expresses with coherence and harmonious unity the dogmas of the Christian faith as a doctrine of truth and an experience of life. In this regard it should not be forgotten that the understanding of the deposit of faith transmitted by the Apostles, as the Second Vatican Council teaches, makes progress in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit: “There is growth in insight into the realities and words that are passed on… through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts (cf. Lk 2:19 and 51). It comes from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience.
Again, a broader point here is to remind those of us who who pursue scholarship, research, and philosophy that these constitute neither the only nor, arguably, the most important path to wisdom or gnosis. The gnostic should never feel superior to or denigrate the accomplishments of a devout and pure “simple soul”, whose attainments in love — which is the ultimate standard of gnosis — may far exceed our own.
In seeking gnosis let us never overvalue our books, translations, history, and metaphysical speculations. Such things constitute philosophical scholarship, which is potentially important, but is not to be confused with philosophy itself, which, as its very name suggests, is an activity of love.