success stories

Posted January 4, 2002
From the Washington Theological Union Lecture Series

Thérèse of Lisieux and Joan of Arc?

Dr. Mary Frohlich, RSCJ
November 1, 2002
Article by Michael Goggin

Dr. Mary Frohlich, associate professor of spirituality at Catholic Theological Union, spoke on All Saints Day connecting the life stories of two seemingly incongruous French saints before a large crowd in the Union's CE Room.

Frohlich, a Religious of the Sacred Heart, used the occasion of the 2002 Carmelite Lecture to discuss the influence that Joan of Arc had on Thérèse of Lisieux. Frohlich believes that despite their many differences - Joan's heroic activism vis a vis Thérèse's contemplative "little way" - these two saints were soul sisters.

Joan of Arc was central to Thérèse of Lisieux's spirituality. Thérèse's admiration of Joan becomes apparent when one considers the fact that Joan is the title character in two small dramas that Thérèse staged in her religious community during the last four years of her life. The additional fact that Thérèse chose to appear in the title role convinced Frohlich that Joan was a long-standing role model for this future Doctor of the Church.

Frohlich structured her lecture to consider the influence of Joan of Arc on Thérèse at four distinct stages of life. During childhood, Thérèse had a great desire to imitate Joan of Arc and the other saints. Admiration of Joan was not unusual among young French girls at the time. France had recently been defeated in the Franco-Prussian War and was licking its wounds from the loss of Alsace-Lorraine. Secularism and anti-clericalism had ruined the image of France as a favorite daughter of the Catholic Church. Gallican pride looked romantically upon the heroic exploits of Joan as Warrior Woman and savior of France. The story of Joan of Arc reassured the French that they were a chosen nation that God would not abandon. The memory of Joan gave the French the confidence that their country would one day return to glory. From Paris to Normandy and Nice to Bourdeaux, young French women clamored to pick up where Joan left off.

Marie-Francoise Thérèse Martin thought that she, like Joan, had been born for glory. But at an early age she realized that she was not destined for earthly glory. She resolved to become a great saint. Like two of her sisters, she entered Carmel. As a young adult, she was given great responsibilities within her community. Her sister Agnes was prioress of the community for a time, and Thérèse became her de facto novice director at the tender age of twenty. About the same time, Thérèse inherited the job of community playwright. Joan of Arc became her literary inspiration.

Although Warrior Woman is our most readily identifiable connection with Joan of Arc due to the fact that she believed she was called by God as a teenager to dress as a soldier and fight to put King Charles on the throne, a far different image of Joan emerged in Thérèse's first play on the life of the saint, "Joan of Arc Receives Her Mission." Frohlich identifies this play as transparently autobiographical. Joan is depicted as the Ideal Peasant Child. She is innocent, rustic and embodied the ideals of the Romantic Movement of the day. Thérèse pictures Joan as being overwhelmed by the call of God. In the play, Joan is called to remain a virgin and be childlike. Thérèse answered the same call herself, taking the name Thérèse of the Child Jesus because of the innocence personified by the God-Man as a baby.

Thérèse's health went into steep decline after 1895. She was diagnosed with an advanced case of tuberculosis and she lost all sense of God's consoling presence on Easter Sunday 1896, ushering in a Dark Night of Faith that would accompany her until her death the following year. Only the story of an American woman, Diana Vaughan, inspired Thérèse to fight her illness and sense of despair. Vaughan told a most convincing story of her conversion from devil worship to Catholicism by praying in front of a statue of Joan of Arc. Her spiritual combat inspired Thérèse to author another play, "The Triumph of Humility." The plot finds the humility of the Carmelite community of religious sisters triumphing over the demons who are harassing them. In the play, Diana Vaughan is declared by Thérèse to be the new Joan of Arc.

Six months before Thérèse's death, Diana Vaughan's conversion was declared to be a hoax. Leo Taxil intended to defraud all those who believed in faith. Thérèse and the sisters of Carmel quite literally became the public face of the deception as Taxil made his announcement of the hoax in front of a picture of Thérèse dressed as Joan of Arc. It was a huge embarrassment to the community that led to another shift in Thérèse's emulation of Joan of Arc. No longer the Warrior Woman nor the Idealized Peasant Child, Joan becomes the Betrayed Christian Martyr in Thérèse's eyes - allowing her to face her own death with the same dignity as Christ. Like Joan, Thérèse came to believe that her mission was just beginning as she entered into eternal rest. That mission would lead to Pope John Paul II's declaration of Thérèse of Lisieux as a Doctor of the Church in 1997 - the only person so honored during a pontificate that has spanned a quarter century.

Frohlich ended her talk by asking some questions about the modern implications of the interplay between Thérèse of Lisieux and Joan of Arc. Joan of Arc functioned as a heroic role model for a young Thérèse and scores of other young women in France. Little children today also have a right to heroic figures in their lives. Who are they? Who is passing on their stories to the next generation? The Solemnity of All Saints might give us pause to consider those in the history of our Church who can be offered today as examples of hero and heroine.