The Dove and Rose

St. Thérèse – the greatest phenomenologist in the history of the Church

I would like to do a tribute to St. Thérèse of Lisieux on her birthday, January 2. I have been devoted to her for the past thirty-seven years. When I started attending classes for the Catholic Church, my epiphany confirming the truth of the Church’s claims occurred on her Feast Day (new calendar), October 1, 1984. Later, Josey and I were shopping at a Catholic bookstore in Amarillo. I was looking for high-testosterone spiritual reading like Augustine and Church history. I came across a small book with a picture of a young nun on the cover. Not high-testosterone. But I felt compelled to pick it up.

Reading the book back home was a humbling experience. At one point I put it down and thought, “What she is saying is true. I have no idea what she is saying, but I know that it is true.” The truth and deeply profound nature of her writings were confirmed years later when Pope John Paul II declared her a Doctor of the universal Church, one of only a few dozen in Church history.

My studies and personal experience with the field of phenomenology over the past thirteen years have finally opened my eyes as to why I received her work with precisely that statement.  That I knew what she was saying is true but did not understand what she was saying was, in retrospect, my first phenomenological statement, my point of entry into phenomenology. The balance of my adult life would be a lived  experience in phenomenology as I attempted to understand her. 

I now regard her autobiography to be the greatest display of phenomenology the world has seen. Of course, she had no idea what phenomenology was as she died just before it was formalized in the early twentieth century. She no more knew what phenomenology was than did the artist Cézanne; yet, both are shining examples of its power.

Thérèse beat the philosophers at their own game. She expressed ‘eidetic purity’ more convincingly than Husserl; the nature of ‘being’ more clearly than Heidegger; and possibilities of discovery and demonstrable, repeatable expression more powerfully than Merleau-Ponty. Thérèse demonstrated that the Christian Faith is *the* wellspring and fount of all true phenomenological expression. Even Cézanne is said to have become closer to his Catholic faith in his final years. The philosophers, as brilliant as they were, simply groped in the dark.

I enjoy studying the groping philosophers, as I see their progress to be but pale images of that which Thérèse already knew. I used to think that I could see ‘their’ phenomenology in Thérèse. Now I know that it is her phenomenology I see dimly in them.

I still cannot say that I know what she is saying, but I can say that I know the method by which she says it. With that understanding, I have come a long, long way from my beginning thirty-seven years ago. GK Chesterton once stated that Joan of Arc beat Nietzsche at his own game. I now can see that Thérèse beat Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty at theirs.

The title of Doctor of the Church is well-deserved. Thérèse is the greatest phenomenologist in Church history.

2 thoughts on “St. Thérèse – the greatest phenomenologist in the history of the Church”

  1. Thank you so much for this interesting post, on the birthday of St. Therese – she is the saint who brought me into the Church, and I cannot honour her too highly. Her title of Doctor of the Church is well deserved, for her simply writing style conceals great and subtle truths which philosophers struggle to articulate even half so well.

    Liked by 1 person

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