by Rosie Gertie
A book review of The Hidden Face: a study of St. Therese of Lisieux by Ida Friederike Görres, Ignatius Press, 1959.
The best summary I can give to this book is “WOW!—but not the kind of “wow” that would indicate something extraordinary was revealed about St. Therese in this book. On the contrary, she is more ordinary than her statues and all the hype and all the “sweetness” that drips off her writings at times. (By the way, the “sweet” quality of her writings was not actually from her…but more on that later).
Not only that, but she was less than ordinary as a young girl when she experienced a type of suffering that these days would possibly have counted against her entrance to the convent, namely, what had all the signs of a mental illness, which afflicted her around the age of 10.
Yes, you have probably heard of her becoming ill as a girl, especially how she was thoroughly healed by the smile of the Virgin Mary statue. (Or maybe that detail is all that you ever heard about?) I was admittedly very astounded to read details which are understandably often “hidden” when speaking of that dark time of her life—such as how at times she “contorted her face, rolled her eyes” and “saw monstrous and nightmarish figures everywhere.”
At least once she “had to be forcibly restrained” and “could not be left alone” (page 79). Ironically, the more I read of her extreme condition at that time, the more hopeful I became that any of us can become a saint.
Other misconceptions of her were also broken down. For instance, as I mentioned above, the “sweetness” of her writings was not so much from her. Rather, a lot of it came from the hands of her sisters, who found her writings to be too simple and not “like” a saint’s writings. So they just added some sweetness to what she had penned before it became public.
This book not only made St. Therese seem more real, but also made me see why she stands out as someone to be venerated, even in her convent. The author states that “if we assemble and consider the evidence scattered through many sources on the nuns inhabiting the convent at that time, the picture is on the whole not very glowing…” (page 197).
You may have heard, for instance, that one of the superiors, Mother Marie de Gonzague, was a very difficult character. Yet St. Therese loved even her and would not join in when other sisters engaged in critical talk about her .
Therese also tried not to just “go with the flow” in the convent, as she kept to the rule when others were violating it. Her sisters, holy and good examples in many ways, still did not match Therese in these points.
If you love St. Therese and want to know more about her—or if you are repulsed by her, as some are, because of how “perfect” she seems to be, you will find this book eye-opening, refreshing, hope-inspiring, and challenging.
I could have done without the lengthy commentary on the part of the author at times, but the book is worth “watching”—giving you a unique glimpse into the life of a saint who is not as well-known as you may think.
Photo of the Chapel of St. Therese in Belgium taken by Jmh2o on Wikimedia Commons