The écritoire (writing desk) of St. Therese of Lisieux has been making a quiet and brief pilgrimage to a smattering of parishes across the country. While the humble little desk might not be cause for much excitement for those devoted to St. Therese, devotees of the Little Flower who are also writers will find much to ponder and pray over in contemplating this literary relic.
Long before she became the saint we know and love today, Therese was both a writer and a painter. Known the world over for her spiritual autobiography, The Story of a Soul, Therese’s other writings are virtually unknown; yet she was a talented writer who dabbled in many forms. According to the Lisieux Carmel Archives, Therese wrote eight theater plays, 62 poems, 95 letters, and 21 prayers, in addition to the three manuscripts that comprise her spiritual autobiography. Her plays were produced in the Lisieux Carmel for the entertainment of the sisters and novices – there are even photographs of Therese in the leading role of her heroine, Joan of Arc. Her poetry is deeply moving and introspective, its style reminiscent of the consummate poet and Carmelite, St. John of the Cross, whose works inspired and influenced Therese. And a majority of her written works were composed on this little desk, making it a uniquely literary spiritual relic.
Sadly, I learned the desk visited a parish in my diocese, just 8 miles away, the day after it departed. But as Therese says, “Everything is grace,” and simply knowing the relic existed and had been near held some special gift for me. As I pondered what I know of Therese and her life as a writer, I realized there are graces to be gained from contemplating the relic, whether or not I was privileged to see it. The desk is is a reminder that Therese’s little way of spiritual childhood is not only appropriate for living our daily lives, but for living our writing lives as well. Following are some things I reflected on while contemplating the desk which serve as a reminder that there can be no separation between daily living and my writing life.
Therese’s desk is a reminder that God is pleased with my effort. She always said that since she is such a little child, she could never be expected to do great things; rather, it was enough for her to trust in God and allow Him to work greatness through her, if He desired. Just as a parent is pleased when she sees her daughter make the great effort to take her first steps before falling down, so God is pleased when I take the gifts He has given me and do my best to practice my craft and bring ideas and inspirations to fruition. But without God’s help, my effort won’t come to much. The desk reminds me to do the best I am able, trusting God to handle the rest and to make up for everything I lack.
Therese suffered greatly—physically, emotionally, and spiritually—during much of the time she spent writing her autobiography, poems, plays, prayers, and letters. Her simple desk reminds me that the practice of my art will be paved with crosses. Sometimes these will take the form of simple irritations—my son may need my attention during my scheduled writing time, or perhaps my writing time is fraught with paralyzing “writer’s block.” Other crosses will be more humiliating and challenging—perhaps my work will not be well-received or will be misunderstood or mocked, perhaps the birth of a particular piece of writing will bring with it great pain, perhaps in spite of my “effort,” all of my work will come to nothing. The life of the artist in any field is fraught with struggles, uncertainty, and often pain. But the desk reminds me that my art is a key part of my pathway to sanctity and holiness. I can expect nothing less than to meet the cross of Christ; Therese reminds me to ask for the grace to embrace it.
This charming watercolor from the Lisieux archive shows Therese writing, overshadowed by the
Holy Spirit, with the statue of Our Lady of the Smile looking on from the doorway. The little écritoire is a reminder that the practice of my literary art must come from an attitude of entrustment (especially to Mary) and prayer. In his book My Vocation Is Love, Jean Lafrance points out that for Therese writing was an act of prayer:
“She did not merely write for the sake of writing or to be read, but to pray . . . The book of Therese’s writings brings home to us in a particular way how writing can help us to pray . . . Therese does not write to look at herself but to contemplate Jesus’ privileges in her soul.”
I may not be called to write a spiritual memoir, but as a Catholic writer I am obligated to reflect the workings of grace on the human soul through the characters I realize in my work. Contemplating the desk reminds me of the need to entrust the right exercise of my literary gifts to the One from whom they come, so that my work might reflect His work and presence in the world.
Therese approaches her writing with a childlike simplicity that leaves no room for anxiety, stress, or doubt. She writes: “I am not breaking my head over the writing of my little life. It’s like fishing with a line: I write whatever comes to the end of my pen.” (Last Conversations 63) In his beautiful book Journey With Therese of Lisieux: Celebrating the Artist in Us All, Michael McGrath suggests the importance of modeling Therese’s attitude in our own work and posits that Therese was only able to create her masterpiece because she did not have “the distraction of perfectionism lurking over her shoulder.” Little children do not worry about being perfect—little children give themselves over totally to the experience of creating art. They revel in paint, they babble unselfconsciously, excited by the new sounds and words coming from their mouths. The desk reminds me that God has blessed me with the talent to write and that part of showing my gratitude for this gift is to share it unselfconsciously with others. Pride of perfectionism has no place in the right exercise of my gift. The desk reminds me to approach the practice of my art with the enthusiasm of a child at play.
Therese, in her simplicity of faith, knew the truth of J.R.R. Tolkien’s principle of “euchatastrophe” (or the joy of a good ending) before he ever explored it in his essay “On Fairy Stories.” The principle is present in the Word of God itself and so is a foundational principle of faith. Therese knew that, if done in the proper spirit of love for others and devotion to God, her words had the power to help lead souls to Christ. There are many stories of conversions and healing via one individual’s experience of another’s written work. One has only to recall Edith Stein’s powerful encounter reading the life of Teresa of Avila. More recently, as efforts are underway to open a cause for his canonization, we are hearing stories of people moved to conversion by the works of G. K. Chesterton. John Keats, who lost his Christian faith, still never lost his belief in poetry’s power to heal a weary soul. As a Catholic writer, I need to be conscious of the power my words have to effect change in each person who encounters my work. Therese’s desk—and her works—remind me of the truth of the joy of the happy ending and inspire me to follow Tolkien’s principle of eucatastrophe in my own writing.
It is an intensely intimate and inspiring gift to observe and contemplate the tools and products of another writer’s commitment to the craft, to witness and study the fruits of their dedication to their gift. Therese’s writing desk reminds us all that the path to holiness and the practice of one’s art go hand-in-hand. Each rightly-ordered effort at practicing our given artistic gifts can become one more opportunity, one more moment of grace, in which God can work to baptize our imaginations.
For thorough and continuously updated information about the tour of Therese’s writing desk, the cause for canonization for her parents Louis and Zelie Martin, and everything related to St. Therese, her spirituality, and the Carmelite heritage, please visit Maureen O’Riordan’s excellent site St Therese of Lisieux: A Gateway.