What do St Benedict and St Therese have to do with one another? The link was keyed when I was reading the last chapter of the Rule of St Benedict where he says, “I have written a little rule for beginners” Ah! the light bulb lit up! The Little Rule and the Little Way. So I began to research both saints and found that they complement each other beautifully. Here is an excerpt from my book, St Benedict and St Therese–the Little Rule and the Little Way:
To study two saints together is to perceive three things: their unique personalities, their similarity to one another and the way their lives and teachings complement each other. When Saint Benedict and Saint Thérèse of Lisieux are studied together the contrast between their personalities is striking. One is an Italian patriarch of the sixth century, the other a bourgeois French girl at the end of the nineteenth. Benedict writes from the edge of the middle age. Thérèse writes from the edge of the modern age. Benedict writes a monastic rule, founds monasteries, rules as an abbot, is visited by royalty and dies an old man. Like a French Emily Dickinson, Thérèse hardly moves beyond her provincial family circle. She has a pious father, lives an enclosed life, writes poetry and a quaint biography, and dies a painful death at the age of twenty four. Like Aquinas and Francis, Benedict and Thérèse are radically different personalities; also like Aquinas and Francis, they complement one another in surprising and profound ways. Augustine wrote about the Scriptures that ‘the New Testament is hidden in the Old and the Old made manifest in the New.’
So it is with the writings of Thérèse and Benedict; the remarkable insights of Thérèse are hidden within Benedict’s simple monastic rule, and the universal wisdom of Benedict is made fully manifest in the writings of Thérèse. In the two of them Thérèse’s picture of the saints in heaven comes true, for in Thérèse and Benedict ‘a simple little child becomes the intimate friend of a patriarch.’
In ‘studying’ a saint one is never drawn only to their writings. The first attraction to any saint is to their unusual life. The saint’s teachings are nothing without their life because their writings and their life are one. As Gregory the Great said of Benedict, ‘he could not have written what he did not live’ and Hans Urs Von Balthasar says ‘Thérèse protected herself from ever writing any statement that she herself had not tested and that she was not translating into deeds as she was writing.’
Hagiograpny and biography are not the same thing. We do not study the life of a saint as we might read the story of a dead celebrity. We can’t study the story of a dead saint because there’s no such thing. The saint’s life is dynamic because in Christ the saint is still alive. Thérèse is famous for anticipating the great work she would do after her death, ‘I will spend my heaven doing good on earth,’
she said. We venerate the saints and ask for their intercession not because they have written fine words, nor because we think them especially powerful in heaven. Neither do we venerate the saints and ask for their intercession simply because they are holy and good. We venerate saints and ask for their help because they have become our friends. They may be friends, but they are exalted friends. We relate to the saints as we might to a member of the royal family who has come to call. We are fascinated by them because they are greater than us, but we’re more fascinated because they’re not greater than us. They might wear satin breeches, but they step into them one leg at a time. Because the saints are like us and unlike us they not only show us what we are but what we could be. Studying a saint therefore, is a work of devotion not diligence. It is a relationship, not a report. We study a saint not for the love of knowledge but for the knowledge of love.
Certainly Benedict and Thérèse are attractive personalities. Benedict stands as a regal patriarch, calling his followers to a spiritual path of simple moderation. He offers them a civilised and liberating balance of prayer, work and study. The monasteries that followed his rule kept the memory of learning alive during a dark age and laid the foundations for modern Western culture. Benedict is a true gentleman of the spirit. He is realistic about human nature, but always optimistic about the chances for progress. His personality is cautious and modest, yet fervent with brotherly love. Most of all, he is exhilarated by the spiritual life. Disciples of Benedict have been drawn from every corner of the world for over one thousand, five hundred years. Men and women, religious and laity have heard his youthful call to run with him…’in the path of God’s commandments with hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.’
Thérèse of Lisieux also draws multitudes with her blend of innocence and unrelenting love. She may be the ‘little flower’, but Southerners in the United States would call her a steel magnolia, for her fragrance and purity is undergirded with a determination and resilience like no other. As time turned into the darkest century of human history, Thérèse offered her life and writings as a testimony to the universal values of innocence, faith and child-like trust. Anyone who perseveres with her writings finds an astounding spiritual depth communicated by a witty and delightful personality. She is tough and tender. She soars with a rhapsody of emotion yet has no time for shallow sentimentality. Anyone who blames her for promoting sugary religion has not read her book to the end.