The power of a hidden life
A,IUNDRED YEARS ago, on this very day of writing, a 2 4-year-old woman died in an obscure French monastery. When she died she was known only by her family and a small group of nuns, probably fewer than 100 people.
Moreover, during her relatively short life, this woman did not do anything which would suggest that her life might leave a mark and that she would one day be known, loved, and seen as a doctor of the soul, by millions of persons. She had no university degrees; in fact, her formal education ended with elementary school and she had trouble with spelling and grammar. Nor was she particularly well placed; her family was neither rich nor influential and she rarely travelled beyond the boundaries of her family's life. All of her short life, essentially, was lived within a radius of a couple of square mile in a secluded town in Northern France, within the confines of her own family and one small monastery.
In the year before she died, and already sick, her older sister asked her to write down some of her memories as a child. This she did. Later, another of her sisters asked her, during the course of a short retreat, to write a little sketch of what made her tick spiritually. This she also did and those two bits of writing both relatively short, unsophisticated, and full of spelling errors were her entire literary opus. Not the stuff of great artists, poets, novelists, or spiritual writers!
But as you have already probably guessed, the person of whom I am speaking is Therese Martin, Therese of Lisietnc, the little Flower, the French mystic who died in obscurity in 1897, but who has, since, spiritually inspired millions of people and drawn hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to visit Lisieux.
She is also a person who has captured the imagination of Christians around the world in a way that very few others ever have. But how does this compute? How does the hidden become so known? If she lived a life of near total obscurity and died known only to her own family and less than fifty nuns, how did she become so famous? If she left the world so little in terms of any tangible literary or artistic legacy, how did she, and how does she continue, to influence so many people? The answer to that question, in so far as it is indeed possible to answer it given that much of this is a mystery, contains a valuable insight.
A hidden life, correctly lived in faith, ultimately has the power deeply to influence others spiritually, bring the person living it into intimacy with millions of people around the world, and give something rich and lasting to the family of humanity. How is this possible? Partly this is mystery, no full phenomenology of explanation can be sketched, although Therese's case positively illustrates the point. What is hidden and obscure, and most unaggressive in seeking to establish and immortalise itself, can, paradoxically, become precisely that which is universal, known, and immortal.
It is not easy to explain how this works and it is even harder to trust that it will work when, precisely, we ourselves live in obscurity and long for ways to make ourselves significant and immortal. Yet it does work and it must be trusted. A metaphor might be helpful; The great Dominican theologian, Jan Walgrave, once pointed out that should one be able to harness all the energies of the oceans, rivers, and winds on the earth they would not, at the end of the day, create as much energy as could be created by splitting a single atom. Jesus, and other great religious leaders, have created great energy not by harnessing the winds, or by doing deeds that were so great that they publicly immortalised themselves. Rather, the energy they created, and in Jesus's case (given the power of the Resurrection) this was also a radical physical energy, came from splitting an inner atom, the atom of love.
Therese of Lisieux did much the same thing. Her hidden life took her inward where she split the atom of love. A powerful energy flowed out and touched every part of the earth, even though she herself never left her little monastery. We all ache for significance, for immortality, to know and to be known universally. This longing haunts us and gives us the sense that our lives are too small for us and that we need to be doing bigger things. Given those feelings, we might want to contemplate the case of Therese Martin, the young woman from Lisieux, who went everywhere by going nowhere.