The woman staring out from the painting looked serious to me, as if she was saying that she’s not taking any nonsense from the likes of you. She looked, in my reading of the painting, like someone who spoke with authority about matters of life and death, who would speak gently, invitingly more than imperatively, but who expected you to listen and respond. That surprised me, even after two decades in the Church, because the woman in the painting was St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
The artist, Ann Schmalstieg Barrett, unveiled The Vocation of St. Thérèse at an event sponsored by the Assisi Arts Community in Pittsburgh. The Franciscan friary in the Lawrenceville neighborhood hosted it as part of their evangelization work called The Port. Ann told me she painted it for a retreat-center chapel to encourage people into a prayerful relation to the saint. I went mostly because Ann is a friend, but even knowing the artist, I didn’t expect the picture I saw.
I didn’t know St. Thérèse’s story and missed all the symbolism, though I did guess that the handkerchief meant she had tuberculosis. The saint’s face stood out, her expression serious and inscrutable. She wants you to take the flower she’s offering, and knows you should, but does she expect you to? The painting is almost all brown—including the halo—making it feel sober and serious, but the roses suggested that the sobriety and seriousness were beautiful, as if they were the soil from which the roses grew.
I don’t think my feeling of surprise was entirely my fault. What I knew of the Little Flower came from the pious way some Catholics spoke about her and portrayed her. Their saint was classically feminine: sweet, soft, sacrificial, submissive. She suffered continuously and died young. She was one of the saints I thought of as the pastel saints, all (in spirit) soft pink and robin-egg blue, like some of the statues of Mary I saw in churches. A friend who had the same experience wrote of St. Thérèse’s “goody gumdrop nonsense” and said that, in response, she’d hated her for a very long time.
C. S. Lewis saw this kind of heightened piety in the low-church Anglicanism of his childhood. There, Christianity “was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical” and came with “stained-glass and Sunday School associations.”
He noted that “An obligation to feel can freeze feelings.” I’d add that someone’s attempt to make you feel nice, warm feelings can make you feel cold feelings. The pseudo-reverent piety of his childhood didn’t work for him, and the pious Catholic devotional style didn’t work for me. As Flannery O’Connor wrote, in a passage I read with a yelp of happiness at hearing it from a major Catholic figure, “I have never cared to read about little boys who build altars and play they are priests, or about little girls who dress up as nuns, or about those pious Protestant children who lack this equipment but brighten the corners where they are.” Or, as Ann said to me when speaking about researching the subjects of future paintings, they are “commonly presented in a way that has made it a real struggle to research without getting a toothache. I thought we were past the days of sentimental hagiography, but that is apparently not the case.”
When you enter the Church, Catholics share with you the saints and devotions they love, assuming you’ll love them too. They can do this prescriptively. You appreciate that, but you don’t love all the saints and devotions they love because these people are often very different from you. I’d learned from Friedrich von Hügel that as a new Catholic you try on saints and devotions to see if they fit, and moved on to others if they didn’t. I didn’t try on St. Thérèse, because I knew the St. Thérèse I saw wouldn’t fit.
What I didn’t know then was that the saint I saw and the saint her devotees knew were somewhat different people. They may have loved the soft pink and robin-egg blue image, but they had gone beyond that image to the sharp, substantive, challenging reality. I could only go on what I saw, and what I saw did not appeal.
Better art would have helped. As someone who entered the Church from a Protestant tradition known for its taste, I found most Catholic art much too soft, some of it sentimental to the point of drippiness. It didn’t seem serious to me. As I recently told a journalist, I felt like I’d ordered steak and the waiter had just handed me a slice of cheesecake topped with ice cream and sprinkles and buried in powdered sugar. When I first saw Ann’s painting of St. Thérèse, I saw someone who was completely serious—not unjoyful, by any means, but aware that deep joy was to be found through love, and that love was often, and maybe nearly always, a struggle.
The painting led me to start reading Dorothy Day’s book Thérèse, which I had bought entirely for the author rather than the subject, and was not planning to read. Day had a similar experience when she first read Thérèse’s Story of a Soul at the instruction of her confessor. She did not like the saint at all, though in the next few years the Little Flower became a great influence on her, including forming her social and political thinking.
I think the Thérèse in Ann’s painting was the one Day eventually came to meet. She’s someone you’d listen to and follow, someone who could be astringent as well as sweet, and who speaks with authority. Tastes vary, of course, but I prefer the astringent. My friend’s painting gave me another saint to love and learn from.