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Saint Therese of Lisieux: A short life [Hardcover]

Kathryn Harrison
3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

13 Nov 2003
The spread of devotion to St. Therese of Lisieux is one of the impressive religious manifestations of our time. During her few years on earth this young French Carmelite was scarcely to be distinguished from many another devoted nun, but her death brought an almost immediate awareness of her unique gifts. Through her letters, and especially through the publication of "The Little Flower" she soon came to mean a great deal to numberless people. Within twenty-eight years after death, this simple young nun had been canonized; and in 1944, the pope declared her the secondary patroness of France. Born to a devout Catholic bourgeois family, Therese and her four surviving sisters all became nuns. Therese had long assumed she would die young and looked forward to it as her reunion with God and her lost loved ones. When her health began to fail in 1894 (she was 20 years old and the tuberculosis that was diagnosed would end her life aged 24) she suffered her first pulmonary haemorrage on a Good Friday and rejoiced in the fact that God had announced her imminent death to her on the anniversary of his own crucifixion. Her sainthood and the continuing attraction of her life and belief stems from self-sacrifice.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: W&N (13 Nov 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0297847287
  • ISBN-13: 978-0297847281
  • Product Dimensions: 20.4 x 13.4 x 2.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,754,610 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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'Harrison's psychological analysis is compelling. She locates many of Therese's ideas in the early death or her mother and the mental illness of her father...Harrison's account of the saint's childhood is well written, sympathetic and horrifying...[a] beautifully crafted book.' (Damien Thompson LITERARY REVIEW (November) )

'Kathryn Harrison has written a biography which is neither hagiography nor hatchet-job. In her reading St Therese is a damaged soul, but almost because of that, a truly great one.' (Caroline Moore SUNDAY TELEGRAPH (9.11.03) )

'...fascinating...the writing is powerful and will cause reflection.' (Talitha Stevenson OBSERVER (30.11.03) )

'Harrison knows her stuff and writes so well that the reader soaks it up.' (Christopher Howse TELEGRAPH (29.11.03) )

'Harrison offers a critical perspective of Therese, but whether praising or blaming, her style is always luxuriously poetic. Written with a passion that pervades the prose, this is a grippingly good read.' (Anita Sethi CITY LIFE (Manchester, 19.11.03) )

'insightful.' (Bess Twiston Davies CATHOLIC HERALD (5.12.03) )

'The account Harrison gives of the little nun's heroic and uncomplaining final journey cannoy fail to touch the heart.' (THE UNIVERSE (7.12.03) )

'The excellence of Kathryn Harrison's short book is that it is an honest and rigorous account.' (Roz Kaveney TIME OUT (17.12.03) )

'This is no holy, holy book. It's different from anything you've ever read before about the little French nun who became a Doctor of the Church. She would have loved it.' (IRISH NEWS (Belfast, 19.12.03) )

'[an] utterly fascinating read.' (GOOD BOOK GUIDE (1.1.04) )

'Kathryn Harrison's thoughtful, succinct and elegant study...helps us make new sense of Therese by stressing how her life was a story first of all told by her parents about their imagined object, and then with herself as dynamic subject.' (Michele Roberts NEW STATESMAN (12.1.04) )

'a comprehensive version of the saint's life...well-written account in a handy size.' (Tom Horwood CATHOLIC TIMES (18.1.04) )

'There is so much to say...that a new biography...has plenty of interest for devotees..Kathryn Harrison gives us a tougher portrait than most, stressing the courage, originality and heroism of her subject.' (Isabel Quigly TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT (6.2.04) )

'To my mind, and from the point of view of non-specialised readers, this is the most interesting biography since Virginia Sackville West's 'The Eage and the Dove', first published in 1943.' (NOTTINGHAM EVENING POST (3.4.04) )

'Kathryn Harrison's Saint Therese of Lisieux offers a biographical map that traces the life of Therese and her spiritual journey.' (Martin Warner CHURCH TIMES (14.5.04) )

About the Author

Kathryn Harrison is the author of the novels Thicker Than Water, Exposure, and Poison. She has also written a memoir, The Kiss, in which she confessed why at the age of 20 she had a sexual relationship with her father. Her personal essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, and other publications. Born in 1961, she lives in New York with her husband, the novelist Colin Harrison, and their children.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Serious and Convincing 9 Nov 2007
This book is a secular biography of a religious figure - rather than trying to hold up Therese as an example for all ages, Kathryn Harrison draws a picture of how her life was experienced at the time. It is serious in tone, but appealing to read - the story is much better than most novels.
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3.0 out of 5 stars A Puzzling Saint 25 Jan 2008
By James Gallen TOP 1000 REVIEWER
"Saint Therese of Lisieux" is a short story of a short life. Drawn largely from Therese's own writings and the recollections and testimony of acquaintances, it provides an up close view of a holy life.

Therese is a saint who pursued sanctity by seeking "nothingness" within the Carmel of Lisieux and yet became the patroness of missionaries and one of the most popular saints of the past century.

This book provides an introduction to the spiritual life of late 19th Century France, in which religious life was at its greatest popularity, and the particular environment of her convent. It also gives an insight into the attraction of Therese to the world since her death. I find the popularity of Therese and St. Francis of Assisi to be puzzling. Our world generally esteems those who give their lives in service to others, not in those who seek self mortification as their road to salvation, but in their cases, this is the model which the world embraces. The book alludes to Therese's writings, but really does not, in my estimation, make the case for her immense popularity. This book is a good introduction to her life, but I am left searching for her charism.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.2 out of 5 stars  19 reviews
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars misses the point 28 Mar 2004
By Michel bettigole - Published on
This is a beautifully writtten book and it certainly uses modern knowledge of psychology and historical and literary research to shed light on Therese and her times. The author's focus on Therese's ascetical practices (masochistic to the author) presents the saint as a very unattractive woman. Reading this book one is left in awe of Therese's self-discipline and love of suffering but one cannot fint her attractive or open one's heart to her. Nowhere in the book does one find the compassion of this saint for all "sinners"; nowhere does one find her words of solace to those who suffer from guilt and problems with faith;nowhere does one find her as a "little sister" who acts as an intercessor to God for those who tremble to approach Him.
A recent video highlights the tour of Therese's relics to churches in the United States. Everywhere the relics were presented tens of thousands of people caame merely to be able to see or to touch the glass cannister that contained her bones. Reader's of Bishop Ahern's, The story of a Love, would understand this outpouring of emotion. Readers of Ms. Harrison's biography would not.
Brother Michel Bettigole -
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Insightful & Realistic Bio About Therese Martin, The Person 28 Dec 2003
By Renee McElwee - Published on
Although Therese Martin may be loved by millions and revered as a saint by many, the fact is she was a human being and subject to nature and nurture in her formative years as all human being are. In this exceptional biography, Harrison explores many facets of Therese's entire life and history and, in my opinion, gives a very compelling, fair and realistic presentation of who Therese was, what shaped her into the woman - and later saint - she became, and what motivated her personal sense of passion and purpose in life that is viewed by many as a model of religious piety, perfection and purity to this day. I emphasize though that the focus is on Therese Martin, not so much the "St. Therese" she would later become after death and upon canonization.
It is for this reason that I can see why some who wish to transcend Therese's humanity and see her only as an untouchable and iconic saint would be disappointed in this book. Harrison makes Therese very real to the reader and focuses on her humanity and the possibilities of what may have made her tick based on insightful and grounded interpretations of the numerous family letters, documented testimony given at Therese's beatification after her death by her sisters and surviving family members as well as others who knew her, and clues given as revelation to support Harrison's biographical portrayal of the inner person with the use of Therese's own words.
And yes, Harrison does view Therese's life through the lens of modern day research, logic, fact and psychology rather than the more superstitious or supernatural perception that contemporaries in Therese's day might have viewed similar - but I think that's what makes this biography so wonderful. I came away feeling I "knew" Therese in a way that I highly doubt I ever could just viewing her as a archetypal image of "Saint" - and I think that's the point. Therese didn't start out as a Saint. It was who she was and what she did in her 24 incarnate years that gave rise to the desire and official act of canonizing her as such.
In addition, historic context is given so that the reader can get a better sense of what cultural factors went into shaping her into the person she was. I found this exceptionally fascinating because, nowadays, I'm of the opinion that many teenage girls who exhibit similar behavior and attitudes Therese demonstrated to be unrealistically perfectionistic and whom would be deemed likely candidates for such behaviors such as cutting, anorexia, bipolar disorder, intimacy issues, extreme acting out, etc. and who wish to stay little girls forever for fear of embracing their own maturity, sexuality and autonomy. But in Therese's day and in Therese's view via her own words - as well as those around her who served to both influence and support her mentally, emotionally and spiritually - martyrdom and masochistic suffering was seen as supremely beautiful and holy and her purposeful intent on remaining childlike in so many respects seems to lend itself to the perception that she was and remained innocent, pure and virtuous. I'm not implying that Therese was anorexic or that she cut herself - nor does Harrison even remotely suggest this - but Therese did view physical self-mortification and self-injury in a psychic sense as proof and example of holiness and beauty and a way to demonstrate willing self-sacrifice to her beloved, Christ: did despise her own flesh; did take supreme joy in her own suffering and the illness that would eventually take her life; did push herself to embrace what she reviled, recoiled from and initially resisted; did expect a lot from herself and was merciless in her own self-expectations and self-criticism when she fell short in her own eyes; and did exhibit attitudes that, for a young woman in her 20's, were amazingly infantile, immature and the stuff of fluffy romance novels or fairy tales with an emphasis on courtly - but unrealistic - love with a religious flair. Also, I found Therese to be a bit of a paradox (but what person isn't?) and found myself wondering how conscious she was about much of what she did. Supposedly her aim was to be "nothing" but her focus on becoming nothing is exactly what drew attention to her and made her "something." It makes one wonder if this might have been her unconscious desire that, based on her values, she could not allow herself to acknowledge even to herself.
Some could view these as examples as exemplary religious behavior while others may see them as extreme, strange a perhaps a bit on the twisted side - but I feel Harrison lets the judgment of beauty or lack thereof remain in the eye of the beholder - the reader - without unduly attempting to bias or influence with opinions of her own slanted one way or another.
And while some may view Harrison's treatment of Therese to be too psychoanalytic and perhaps not reverent enough, it was this very reason that I gravitated to this book and found the biography thoroughly interesting. I do not think Harrison's analysis went overboard though, nor do I feel the approach detracts at all from the notion that there was something unique about Therese to warrant many to feel she had qualities in accordance with what I gather Catholics view to be saintly. However, not being a Catholic myself, yet fascinated by notable people in general - especially those who demonstrate or are revered as spiritual exceptionals no matter the religious or spiritual path they follow - I was very pleased to learn more about Therese in a way that made her real, tangible and human rather than viewing her at a idealistic distance atop an unreachable shelf of a pedestal. As I said, I came away feeling I "knew" Therese in a way that I would best be able to relate to her - human to human. And I suspect this is why I found the biography to be exceptional. I have no idea how to relate to St. Therese, but I can say that the reality of Therese Martin as a human being, based on what I gained from reading this book, is fascinating and thought provoking.
12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Like a bio of mountaneer written by someone who doesnt think mountains exist 28 Mar 2006
By P. Elliot - Published on
Unfortunately this was the only biography of Therese in my local public library. All biographies are to some extent seeing the subject thru a lens, but this lens filters out much of what is of the most value in Therese's writings in my opinion. This biographer seems unable to dive into or convey much of Therese's spirituality, due to a lack of understanding or excessive skepticism of spiritual experience. Biographer doesn't seem to be convinced that spiritual experiences are real. She continuously suggests that Therese's spirituality may be just neuroses and offers up superficial pop-psychological comments for every spiritual experience. Its like a biography of a mountaineer but the biographer is not at all sure that mountains really even exist at all, and they may be a figment of the fevered imagination. Biographer thinks this point of view is attuned to what "contemporary readers" expect but it just ends up missing most of whats there spiritually.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A flowering of faith 21 April 2010
By Linda Bulger - Published on
Author Kathryn Harrison's biography, Saint Therese of Lisieux (Penguin Lives), explores the life and times of this young icon of the Catholic Church for the Penguin Lives series. "The Little Flower" is one of the most revered of the Church's saints.

Therese Martin, born in 1873, was the youngest of five surviving daughters of Louis and Zelie Martin, successful lacemakers at Alencon. Zelie died when Therese was four years old; though the child was indulged by her father and sisters, she held herself from a very young age to the highest standards of piety and religious devotion. Religious fervor ran deeply in the Martin family, as it did in so many Catholic families in late 19th century France. All five Martin daughters eventually went to the convent, five as cloistered Carmelites. Therese was so sure of her vocation that she applied to enter the Carmelite monastery at Lisieux at the age of 15. When she was turned away because of her age, she petitioned the bishop (her uncle Isidore) and eventually the Pope for permission.

Therese distinguished herself by her self-denial, suffering and mortification, notable even in that cloistered world. In her writings she repeatedly referred to herself as the "Bride of Christ," the "toy of Jesus." Her letters, poems and plays from this period reflect her belief that deep spirituality can be found in an ordinary life, "the little way," and do not require great achievements. When she contracted tuberculosis, Therese glorified her illness as a "burning away of her corporeal being." She died in 1873 at age 24, after suffering horribly from her disease.

Her sister Pauline, a Carmelite nun, urged Therese to write her spiritual memoir before her death. The resulting manuscript, heavily edited by Pauline, was published posthumously as "Story of a Soul." This memoir and Therese's letters, prayers, poems and plays found a rapt audience among Catholics. Therese's sister Celeste, who was allowed to continue her photography in the convent, documented her life with pictures and also was her literary executor. Therese's convent brought in huge revenues selling Therese's writings, pictures, and relics, little squares of her bedsheets and splinters from her windowsills.

While Kathryn Harrison's book is respectful of Therese and of the groundswell of devotion that grew in her memory, she does reference the convent's role as the engine that brought Therese to the world's attention and built the momentum for her sainthood. She was beatified very quickly, and became a saint in the Church's canon just 24 years after her death. In 1997 she was named as a Doctor of the Catholic Church, the 33rd saint (and third woman) so honored.

Readers looking for a devotional treatise on St. Therese of Lisieux have plenty of material to choose from; this book takes a different and more distanced approach. Harrison, to the chagrin of some readers, threads a psychoanalytic thread through the text. For example, when Therese was an infant her mother could not feed her and sent her away to be wet-nursed; Harrison suggests that this early "abandonment," along with Zelie's early death, fostered Therese's desire to experience perfect, eternal love as a "Bride of Christ."

There is a fascinating story here--the story of a girl whose spiritual path took her beyond her sisters, beyond her contemporaries, to an articulation of faith that made her beloved by Catholics worldwide. Her own "Story of a Soul" may be all the explanation needed by many who love her for her spirituality, but she lived for a time in the world and was of the world too. Harrison provides a cultural context for behavior, attitudes and verbal expressions that can't be adequately explained in 21st century terms; in doing so, she brings "the Little Flower" into focus in a way that's complementary to the devotional writings honoring her.

Linda Bulger, 2010
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well written biography of a powerful soul 2 May 2006
By C. Stephans - Published on
Kathryn Harrison writes triumphantly about Therese Martin the Saint of Lisieux. Her biography captures the historical character from childhood to her death at age 24 years. Harrison portrays the life of Therese amidst the context of the late 19th Century. The focus of the book is on the family life and the convent life of Therese and her seemingly constant struggle to rest in perfect devotion to God to whom she had sacrificed her life.

Harrison writes exquisitely of Therese, but she writes at times from a freudian, humanistic point of view, somehow missing or misunderstanding the mysticism of Therese's life that is the one characteristic that makes her life remarkable. I think this comes from the writer discounting the reality of Therese's constant communion with God.

I recommend this book because it illustrates the power of a quiet life lived in the love and service of God. Harrison successfully shows the effect of one life lived fully for God unselfishly and sacrificially. The final pages offer a brief glimpse of the enormous impact Therese has had on people since the time immediately following her death.

Craig Stephans, author of Shakespeare On Spirituality: Life-Changing Wisdom from Shakespeare's Plays
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