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  • St. Thèrése of Lisieux, Feminism, and EternityIn Conversation with Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ
  • OP Albert Marie Surmanski Sr. (bio)

St. Thèrèse of Lisieux, a middle-class, French cloistered Carmelite nun, is in no way a typical feminist icon. She is, though, a feminine icon, whose image is found hanging in countless Catholic Churches throughout the world. On the faces of Thèrése so venerated are found attributes that have earned her notice by feminist writers: Thèrése the bold, who accomplished her intention of entering Carmel at merely fifteen years of age; Thèrése the ardent, who longed to do great things despite her "littleness," even mentioning an aspiration to the priesthood; Thèrése the much loved, declared a doctor of the Church in 1997.1

Thèrése was not openly a feminist. Her background and training made this impossible. The basic philosophical stances of much feminist thought were alien to her. Thèrése did not read history as a pattern of male domination that she desired to subvert. She did not question the hierarchical structure of the Church. Neither did she reject the formulation of doctrine that she received through her family, school, and parish.2 Thèrése's theological thought and spiritual experience situate her squarely within the classic Catholic theological tradition.3 Yet some of the concerns and attitudes found patterned [End Page 81] by feminist writers, and in particular Sr. Elizabeth Johnson CSJ, do surface in Thèrése's work.

Several of the places where Thèrése's thought converges with what Johnson identifies as feminist concerns are: 1) her attentiveness to the embodied reality of daily life, 2) her ability to push back against oppressive rules and structures, 3) the way in which she tested theological language by her lived experience, and 4) her self-acceptance despite failing to attain cultural standards of perfection.

One important crossroads in Thèrése's thought is her attitude toward God's eternity. Here, Thèrése both embodies the women's sensibilities noted by Johnson and disagrees sharply with certain particular theological judgments made by Johnson. While a longing for God as eternal is an essential element in Thèrése's spirituality, Johnson understands a transcendent, eternal God to be a "reflection of patriarchal imagination,"4 from which theology must be purified.5 This article will examine the way in which Thèrése's life and thought both exemplify and contradict the theological ideas of Johnson, with the hope of identifying several women's concerns that are genuinely important to consider in theological work.

I. Feminine Ways of Being and Thinking

Johnson begins her work, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Discourse, with a selection from Adrienne Rich's long poem, "Transcendental Etude":

Vision begins to happen in such a lifeas if a woman quietly walked awayfrom the argument and jargon in a roomand sitting down in the kitchen, began turning in her lapbits of yarn, calico and velvet scraps,laying them out absently on the scrubbed boardsin the lamplight, with small rainbow-colored shells …Such a composition has nothing to do with eternity,The striving for greatness, brilliance— [End Page 82] only with the musing of a mindone with her body, experienced fingers quietly pushingdark against bright, silk against roughness,pulling the tenets of a life togetherwith no mere will to mastery,only care …6

These lines, chosen by Johnson to highlight the essential orientation of feminist theology, fit Thèrése very well, until the rejection of eternity. They will serve to title the first section of this inquiry, which will examine four ways in which Thèrése embodies a woman's perspective as described by Johnson. Johnson's work is too large to be fully treated here. Rather, I will, myself, be selecting various "bits" to "turn over" and "lay out" in the lamplight of my own reasoning.

A. "Yarn, Calico and Velvet Scraps"

Attentiveness to the individual, relational, personal, and physical emerge as valued elements of feminine experience...


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