10/09/2013 11:57 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Thérèse of Lisieux on the Government Shutdown

The day the government shut down was the Memorial of Thérèse of Lisieux. That might have been a coincidence. Or perhaps it was not.

This crisis is taking up too much of my time. My Facebook feed keeps spitting up snide memes, attacks on hypocrisy, angry rants, and righteous denunciations, none of which I can resist reading. And when I can't get enough on Facebook, I go back to my favorite online newspaper and refresh the page over and over in the crazy hope that maybe a crack, an opening, a possible resolution, will suddenly light up the headlines. And when that doesn't happen, I go back to Facebook, repeating the cycle until I get sick of it, and the whole day gets wasted on anxiety and anger.

Clearly, this can't be good for my soul. Which is why I keep thinking about Thérèse.

Thérèse is arguably the most popular saint of the last century. She was born in Alençon, France, in 1873, the youngest of nine children. Four of her siblings had died before she was even born. Her parents, Louis Martin and Zélie Guérin, were intensely Catholic, and the five children, all girls, who lived into adulthood entered cloistered convents.

I've had a very ambivalent relationship with Thérèse, one that goes back to my own childhood. She is the patron of the parish in which I grew up, and she was always presented to me as a marzipan figure, too saccharine sweet for my spiritual temperament. It got to the point where I dreaded and despised the very mention of her name.

Strangely enough, despite the fact that I was educated in a parish school dedicated to her, I never actually read her autobiography, Story of a Soul. It was only years later, in a course I taught on Catholic saints and their cults, that I actually sat down with the book and succumbed to her charms. I think what won me over was the way she tells the story of going to Rome with other pilgrims from her parish, and proceeding to scandalize the whole group by throwing her arms around the knees of Leo XIII and refusing to let go until the Swiss Guard finally dragged her away -- all because she wanted a dispensation to enter the convent a year earlier than the rule permitted. She was fifteen.

About a year before this, she had a religious experience that she later described as charity so intense that it became "a thirst for souls." In order to satisfy that thirst, she began to pray for something unspeakable -- the conversion of Henri Pranzini, a man convicted of a savage triple murder in Paris. The case made news even in the United States, and inspired something almost unthinkable today -- a passionate defense of the death penalty in The New York Times.

She tells her readers that on her own, she felt powerless to save Pranzini's soul. All she had was confidence in the mercy of Jesus, a confidence that would not be shaken even if Pranzini's conversion were completely interior, "even if he went to his death without any signs of repentance or without having gone to confession." As it turned out, she had the consolation of reading in the newspaper that, before placing his head in the guillotine, Pranzini suddenly "took the crucifix the priest was holding out to him and kissed the sacred wounds three times!"*

Of course to obtain the confirmation of this miracle, she had to disobey her father's express command not to read the newspaper. But this seems like a small bit of pious defiance compared to getting kicked out of a papal audience.

I can come up with all sorts of objections to this story. There is no proof, no demonstrable chain of cause and effect, to show that her prayer had anything to do with Pranzini. The whole "miracle" amounted to adolescent fantasy, fed by a little gossip and a newspaper. What could be expected from someone who wanted to spend the rest of her life locked up in a convent?

And yet, I have to say, there is an honesty in her cloistered life that is utterly lacking in my own. I'd like to pretend that I know what is going on in Washington and in all those states, red and blue, and that I know what all those voters out there are really thinking. After all, I read all about it online. I can almost ignore the fact that my understanding of what is going on is completely mediated by others and that my echo-chamber, and yours perhaps, is really not much larger than Thérèse's cloister.

And that's when the praying starts. It can start in isolation, sitting in front of the computer. It can find talk online of others who are praying, though it wants to imitate the love that inspired Thérèse, and is sickened by the things that some people pretend is prayer. But even that judgment has to be made with love. After all, behind the worst prayers is sometimes the greatest need -- think of Pranzini. I've been at small, intimate masses, where the priest has invited individual congregants to say out loud what they'd like us to pray for, and I have caught myself thinking, "You want me to pray for that?" Even the Prayers of the Faithful at the main mass on Sunday, diplomatic petitions carefully composed by a liturgical committee, can sometimes leave me queasy.

But that's just part of the spiritual exercise -- the realization that the thing I'm praying for is the thing my brothers and sisters might be praying against. For some people that realization might stand between them and faith. For me, it's just an invitation to try to imagine God, who hears even the quietest prayers, all of them, confused, contradictory, bruised and angry. And that image, feeble as it is compared to the reality of God, is infinitely more love-inspiring than staring at my computer screen.

* Thérèse's account of her prayers for Pranzini can be found in Story of a Soul, translated by John Clarke, OCD, ICS Publications, 1996, 99-100.