- The Plays of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux: “Pious Recreations.”
This interesting volume is a pleasant addition to the existing works of St. Thérèse of Lisieux in English translation. During the final years of her life, Thérèse composed and presented eight dramatic presentations (called “pious recreations”) for the members of her community. These plays were commonly used to mark some special feast or anniversary. Although a contemporary reader might find it unusual that cloistered nuns should entertain themselves with plays or stage productions, we know of Flemish Carmelites who composed their own religious dramas as early as the late-fifteenth century, following the medieval traditions of morality and Nativity plays.
But Thérèse was not frivolous or superficial in her compositions. She took her playwright’s task seriously and communicated several of her primary themes to the members of her community. Her “little way” of simplicity and humble joy comes through constantly, supporting her childlike faith. Three of the eight plays highlight aspects of the Nativity narrative; two more focus on St. Joan of Arc. It is interesting to see the political background of the times reflected in the drama, as well as the personal struggles and concerns of the young author. Although at this time Joan of Arc was not yet canonized, she was already the favorite saint of the French monarchists. Thérèse makes good use of young saints like Joan and Stanislaus Kostka, who gave their lives and everything else at a young age, despite their own uncertainty. Thérèse was already keenly aware of her own approaching death. [End Page 381]
The harsh Jansenism of the late-nineteenth century is quite evident in her second play, The Angels at Jesus’ Manger. She poses a thought-provoking discussion among five angels about what this child will become. The Angel of the Last Judgment seems perplexed that God’s love and mercy might allow too much compassion to sinners who ought to get punishment instead. In her fifth play, The Divine Little Beggar of Christmas, Therese has devised a charming paraliturgy in which each sister in the community is asked to come forward to adore the newborn savior. Each in turn selects a sealed note by which the Christ Child asks for symbolic alms, such as a smile, roses, bread, a mirror, or honey—something that symbolizes a gift of virtue or prayer that the sister is then able to use in her own reflection.
The fourth play, Jesus at Bethany, was presented on the feast of St. Martha to honor the laysisters who did the cooking and physical labor of the convent. On that day, the novices took over the kitchen, and the laysisters could not set foot in it. In her play, Thérèse honors Martha and the working sisters for their great love, rather than placing them in a secondary rank because “contemplation is greater than action.” She might have been reflecting Pope Leo XIII’s recent words on the dignity of human labor in Rerum Novarum (1891).
Those who are already familiar with Thérèse and her writings will find an appealing twist in this book. She is sometimes a bit “arty” in her expression, but still remarkably candid with her values. There is a useful general introduction to the plays by Bishop Guy Gaucher, who has made the life and works of Thérèse into one of his life’s passions. Short introductions to each play supply context and historical background that a contemporary reader might not know.