AHA! A Story About St Therese that You’ve Never Heard Before!1
October 3, 2013 by lucieromarin
I’m serious! Today, in the old calendar, is the Feast of St Therese (and the chant for tonight’s Mass is so dire that it almost makes me wish I’d kept the feast of the new calendar) which means that I can, at last, tell the story I’ve been saving for months in an agony of self-control. And the title of the post isn’t joking – I’ve got a bottle of golden syrup here that says you’ve probably never heard this story before. If I’m wrong, you can quote your non-internet source in the combox and I’ll send you the golden syrup with a recipe for Anzac biscuits.
This is what happened: A Frenchman, under the pen-name Leo Taxil, published a number of hoax autobiographies (starting with his own) featuring conversions from Freemasonry to Catholicism. The most popular work was an ‘autobiography’ of one wholly fictitious ‘Diana Vaughan,’ whose conversion allegedly came about through the influence of Joan of Arc. French Catholics not only believed it, but loved it. This included the Carmelite nuns of St Therese’s Carmel. This included St Therese herself. Her Mother Superior asked her to write a poem for Diana Vaughan; she found herself inexplicably unable to do so (she usually had no trouble writing poetry). However, Therese sent to Ms Vaughan a photograph of herself – and her sister Celine – costumed for a play about Joan of Arc – a play which Therese wrote, in part, because of her enthusiasm for the book.
On April 19, 1897, Leo Taxil called a press conference, at which he revealed to a crowd of around 400 that he himself was Diana Vaughan, and that the whole thing was a trick. It wasn’t a confessional revelation; it was public gloating. And, for his backdrop that evening, as a symbol of the gullibility of Catholics everywhere, before the crowd, the priests, and the press, he used the photograph of Therese, dressed up for her play.
So, St Therese was not only widely and publicly humiliated, she was thus humiliated right in the middle of her trial of faith and the increasing grip of tuberculosis.
Lalich and Tobias, in ‘Take Back Your Life,’ enumerate the sufferings of ex-cult members, one of which is the humiliation of betrayed trust, the humiliation of being made to feel gullible. (Don’t. Panic. I’m not saying anyone here is in a cult. But I think anyone who has ever felt ill-used by anything or anyone they trusted can relate to this!). How did it feel for St Therese to be held up to the French media as an example of a fool? How did it feel to remember the prayers of thanksgiving that she offered to God for this conversion, only to find out, not only that it never happened, but that the convert herself never even existed? How did it feel for her to think that the image she posted in love and trust was received by someone who merely laughed at her love?
So, here’s yet another reason why she’s a saint, and saint for everyone. Somehow, she knew the difference between the proverbial baby and bathwater; she knew what to renounce and what to keep. The hoax got her where she was most vulnerable; it got her in her love. But it didn’t kill her love for Joan, and it didn’t kill her desire to save souls. She represents every religious person who has, in any way, been ill-treated either by false religion, or mockery of religion, or betrayed hope, or apparently-misplaced love.
And she won! St Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face is comparable in popularity only to St Francis of Assisi. Two million pilgrims visit her shrine every year. Her relics have been on continual pilgrimage since her death. Her writings have never gone out of print, and have inspired volumes of meditation. Saints turn to her for help. Meanwhile, who the heck knows who Mr Taxil is these days?
I know, I know; we’re not meant to pursue holiness in a spirit of vengeance! But I don’t think it hurts to be reminded that ill-use is not the end of any story. No matter what anyone has done to you, you could still end up with the basilica, while the character who defrauded you is reduced to a incomplete wikipedia page that nobody reads.
“Meanwhile, who the heck knows who Mr Taxil is these days?”
Well, there was this one French Internet atheist who traveled the same forums I did, who knew who he was, and liked to think of Catholicism as a threat to Western Civilization and Its Progress. So at least a few professional anticlericals in the Francophone world.
Course, that’s practically the only non-academic source of knowledge of the man.