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Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality 4.1 (2004) 24-43

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Facing Each Other:

Saint Thérèse of Lisieux and Emmanuel Levinas

Emmanuel Levinas, the great Jewish philosopher and Talmudic commentator, whom Philippe Nemo calls "the sole moralist of contemporary thought," died in 1995.1 Two years later, in 1997, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897) was named a Doctor of the Church. What, if anything, do the spiritual paths of the renowned ethicist and the young Carmelite have in common? At first sight, Levinas's proclamation of Judaism as a "religion for adults" seems far removed from the "little way" of Theresian spiritual childhood.2 Indeed, Levinas pointedly challenges the naiveté of a blindly generous faith, asking, "Can childhood answer to the Tempter [that is, modern Western philosophy and science] with confidence in the long run?"3

Levinas's philosophy differs from that of the Tempter, however, even as St. Thérèse represents a different sort of childhood, one that is far from unreflective, irresponsible, or immature. Levinas's philosophy consciously locates itself at the threshold of Jewish spirituality and mysticism, but it also stands, I argue, at a Theresian threshold. An extraordinary confluence of themes draws the writings of Levinas and the young saint of Lisieux into close proximity. Following the lead of Edith Wyschogrod, who has shown the general usefulness of a Levinasian approach to saints' lives, I want to bring Levinas's philosophical commentary on a series of topics—the "there is" (Il y a), hypostasis, insomnia, sleep, paternity/maternity, the face of the Other—into conversation with St. Thérèse's autobiography, The Story of a Soul.4 My hope is that by putting their distinctive voices into dialogue a powerful interaction between their writings as narratives of spiritual formation can emerge. This interaction may, in turn, illuminate a more complex and surprisingly similar understanding of spirituality in both writers.

Both the Jewish thinker and the Catholic saint present us with essentially biblical and prophetic ways of spirituality that emphasize the parent-child relationship as an avenue toward holiness. I argue that whereas Levinas emphasizes the transcendent responsibility of the parent for the child, Thérèse stresses the opposite pole of the same asymmetrical relationship: the child's infinite responsibility to her Mother, Father, and God. For both Levinas and Therese, the notion of the parent-child relationship as a way to relate to God encompasses the Other, the stranger, the one whose face cannot be clearly seen. In her childhood, her maturing vocation, and her final agony, the life and [End Page 24] prayer of Thérèse addressed this Other, declaring, "Your face is my only homeland [Ta face est ma seule Patrie]."5 For Thérèse, this Other is interpreted as a divine and human parent, whereas for Levinas, the Other is the needy stranger, in whom one encounters the Infinite, and for whom one bears a parent-like responsibility. For both Thérèse and Levinas, however, holiness reveals itself finally in a relationship of extreme inter-dependence and receptivity, and in ultimately finding the Other of the parent or child in one's self.

The Journey of Levinas and The "Little Way" of Thérese

Remarking on the need for a Jewish spiritual revival, Levinas declares, "We need a Saint Teresa of our own! . . . Let us rest assured that one cannot be a Jew without having saints."6 Indeed, as Annette Aronowicz observes, Levinas composed his "most beautiful essays" concerning "the necessity . . . of a revival of Jewish spirituality" during the same decades when he was composing his "great philosophical works."7 Levinas's four philosophical masterpieces—Existence and Existents (1947), Time and the Other (1948), Totality and Infinity (1961), and Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence (1974)—are characterized by what Richard A. Cohen terms a "striking continuity" of themes. Reading them in chronological order, one understands Levinas's writings to be a protracted, contemplative journey through time, life, and language that begins with...


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