(Reprinted with permission from the Jesuit weekly America, written by Patrick H. Samway.)
A hidden gem—of a spiritual nature—that fortunately now has been made public is the correspondence between St. Thérèse of Lisieux and the Reverend Maurice Barthelemy-Bellière, who eventually became a missionary in Africa before his tragic death in a sanitarium in Normandy in 1907. Maurice and Thérèse: The Story of a Love contains the ten letters Thérèse wrote to Maurice between October 1896 and August 1897, plus his replies. The running commentary by the Most Reverend Patrick Ahern, auxiliary bishop of New York, gives the necessary background to appreciate the theology—especially Thérèse’s “Little Way”—that infuses these letters with such dynamic strength. As a seminarian, Maurice had initiated this correspondence, mainly to assist him in making important decisions about his life as a cleric, though he could hardly have guessed that the person assigned to give him spiritual direction would be one of the greatest saints of all time, recently proclaimed a doctor of the church.
Perhaps the most poignant letters are those that Thérèse wrote—four in less than a month—as she suffered the final, devastating effects of tuberculosis, which culminated in her death on September 30, 1897.
As Ahern notes, Thérèse did nothing to conceal the closeness she felt toward Maurice (“My dear little brother”), someone she never met. Treating him as the beloved brother he had become, she confided details about her family that she would not have shared with a stranger. “I am not your little sister for nothing,” she wrote from her deathbed, “and I promise you that after my departure for eternal life I will give you a taste of happiness that can be found from feeling a friendly soul close by.” This love story is made all the more poignant because it was between two vowed celibates dedicated totally to God and his kingdom.
Her life indeed seemed uneventful. She had never traveled beyond Alençon, where she was born in 1873, or Lisieux, where she grew up, save for one brief journey to Rome when she was fourteen. At the age of fifteen she entered the Carmelite cloister, a short walk across town from her home, and there she died nine years later. Nobody knew her but her family, a few friends and schoolmates, and two dozen nuns who shared her life at the convent. Today she is known all over the world. She is the only western saint besides St. Francis of Assisi who was popularly revered in Russia during the heyday of communism. Not even the iron curtain could shut her out of a country avowedly atheistic. People of all races and cultures, of every religion and none, those with little education and scholars of renown, have been fascinated by her. She has been the subject of 900 biographies, almost one a month on average, in the hundred years since her death.
—Maurice and Thérèse