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Thérèse or NietzscheIn the musical Oklahoma! Ado Annie and Will Parker sing, “With Me It’s All or Nuthin’ is it All or Nuthin’ With You?” I like to imagine the duet being sung by Thérèse of Lisieux and Friedrich Nietzsche. I can just see the sweet little French girl and the skinny German with his big moustache, the first crying out in girlish enthusiasm, “I will have all!” and the second in sickly sadness crying, “I will have nothing.”

The Doctor of the Church and the Philosopher of the Anti-Church were contemporaries. Nietzsche was born in 1844 and died in 1900. Thérèse was born in 1873 and died three years before Nietzsche in 1897. In one of those quirks of history, the two of them stayed in the same hotel in Paris while Thérèse and her father were on pilgrimage to Rome.

Nietzsche was the son of a small-town Lutheran pastor and teacher. He went to conventional middle-class Christian boarding schools. He was the product of German, small-town Protestantism, and it was this background that he rejected. What kind of a God, therefore, did Nietzsche consider to have died? It was the god he learned about within small-town bourgeois Protestantism–a God who expected dull conformity of belief and behavior–a God who didn’t like smart boys asking too many questions. If this was the God that the boy Nietzsche was introduced to in his childhood, then not only was that God dead. He was never alive.

Thérèse, on the other hand, is the product of small-town, bourgeois French Catholicism. Her life and her philosophy are almost the exact opposite of Nietzsche. She never rejected the religion she was given as a child, and yet she questioned the same expectations of dull conformity and challenged them not by rejecting her religion, but by living it out in a radical way that turned the dull piety of the French bourgeois Catholics upside-down.

If Friedrich Nietzsche were to meet Thérèse Martin how would the conversation go? He might explain the death of God and the inexorable rise of nihilism. Therese would say “the good God” was not dead, but only man’s false ideas of God had died. When he explained how morality was discovered by each person, Thérèse would reply that each person did indeed have to discover morality–but in a radically personal way. When Nietzsche explained how the great ones had to give up fitting into dull society, had to give up attachment to all material things, Thérèse would point out that this is precisely what she aimed to do by becoming a Carmelite.

When Nietzsche explained that this process of negation and discovery of true values was the process by which  the “superman” came to be, Thérèse would point out that the “superman” is what Catholics call a “saint.” When she cries, “Sanctity! It must be won at the point of a sword!” or “You cannot be half a saint. You must be a whole saint or no saint at all!” she gives the world her own version of the “superman”–one who has overcome the dull conventional beliefs and behaviors and risen to another dimension of humanity altogether.

This is one of God’s great jokes: that the world throws out a Nietzsche–a proud, self-dramatizing, Byronic philosopher–the atheist of the grand flourish and the tragic gesture, and God answers with a little girl who likes to sit on Papa’s lap and see her initials in the stars. See how it all ends: Nietzsche descends into madness and dies penniless in his domineering sister’s house. His legacy was one of nihilism and despair, and his greatest ignominy is that his thought inspired the Nazis to plunge Europe into war and murder millions.

Thérèse also dies surrounded by sisters. She shares with Friedrich an obscure and tragic death–suffering from tuberculosis and dying after a long, drawn-out agony. But within months of her death the little girl’s book is re-printed by the tens of thousands. She is hailed as the “greatest modern saint” by Pope Pius XI. Putting her in the intellectual big-league with Nietzsch, a hundred years after her death this little girl is named as a Doctor of the Church by Pope John Paul II. Her star continues to rise, and wherever her relics are taken on pilgrimage, incredible crowds to venerate the memory of this little girl who counters the übermensch spirit of our age.

Nietzsche’s use of poetry and paradox would not have been lost on Thérèse, and this is where she trumps Nietzsche–she would say that the way to become that “superman” is by being precisely the thing that Nietzsche despised: a little girl. She would say that her “little Way” is a great way, and that simplicity is the most difficult way of all.

Using paradoxical poetry, she could have explained her little way by quoting T.S.Eliot, who summarized her brother Carmelite, John of the Cross:

In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

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4 replies to this post
  1. As a devotee of Saint Thérèse, I have head the text with entusiasm. Thank´s mr. Longenecker.

  2. I enjoy the imaginative conservative, and appreciate your article, and have in fact since downloaded and started reading Therese’s autobiography and own works. Thank you for the introduction. However, I do take issue with a couple of points you made in your article; one for being a bit misleading, and the second for an unnecessary slight. To the first, while correct that N’s father was a Protestant Pastor, he was not raised by him as N was 4 when his father died. Your brief (born of necessity I am sure) bio gives the impression that he was also raised by him. This is especially brought out by the “slight” that “this” small-town Protestantism in which he was raised portrayed God as one expecting dull conformity of belief and behavior, and that his father in this respect had a negative influence on N.

    He was in fact raised almost exclusively by family females (as I’m sure you know), and whether or not the Protestantism in his town was as you described I do not know (you offer no proof). Be that as it may, such a comment is in the least ad hominem and unnecessary, especially with no evidence, anecdotal or otherwise. I absolutely adore Chesterton and am none too sensitive to critical analysis of my protestant faith (especially as a Calvinist). No doubt my tradition has not always portrayed God in the best light, but I know also that my protestant tradition has no monopoly on this.

    Augustine said in The City of God that we should not be shy in offering reproach when necessary (that in his opinion we may not be counted with the heathen in earthly punishment, or at least being a reason why we often suffer the same fate at times, like the fall of Rome). As I said, I appreciated your article very much, especially that you have introduced me to a fellow saint (too soon?) that I think may be an inspiration to my own girls once I vet her material and thereby introduce it to them. Thank you.

  3. The ideas contained in this little essay remind me of a late Medieval poem called “The Granum Sinapsis”. Here is an excerpt:
    “The threefold clasp is deep and fearful
    The circle’s span cannot be comprehended
    Here is a bottomless depth.
    Check and mate to time, forms, and place!
    The wondrous ring is gushing forth,
    Its central point is immovable…
    Become like a child,
    Become deaf, become blind!
    Your own something
    Must become nothing…
    Leave place,
    Leave time
    Avoid images too!

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