St. Thérèse – the greatest phenomenologist in Church history

The author shows how simple, childlike souls, like that of Thérèse, bring superior intelligence to bear on the truths of faith.

The Life of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Forward to the New Edition by Susan Muto, August Pierre Laveille

I have been devoted to St. Thérèse of Lisieux for the past thirty-seven years. While attending catechetical classes prior to joining the Catholic Church in nineteen eighty-four, I had an epiphany confirming the truth of the Church’s claims on her Feast Day (new calendar), October 1. Later, my wife Josey and I were shopping at a Catholic bookstore in Amarillo TX. I was looking for highly intellectual spiritual reading like Augustine or Church history. While browsing I came across a small, simple book with a picture of a young nun holding roses on the cover. It was not what I originally set out to purchase, 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 St. 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 in the field of phenomenology over the past thirteen years finally opened my eyes as to why I received her work with precisely that statement.  That I knew what she was saying was 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 post-impressionist 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. Her way was that of spiritual childhood, trust, and complete abandonment to divine love. Her grace-filled life was in its totality a phenomenological reduction in childlike simplicity to an eidetically pure understanding of who she was in the mind of God. With her understanding and spirituality as my guide, 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.