The Holy Finitude

Taken up by saccharinely pious grandmothers across the globe, the legacy of Thérèse of Lisieux – the greatest saint of modern times – has been covered up, reducing her to, in the words of Thomas Merton, “a mute pious little doll.” While Thérèse herself is partly to blame for this, fond as she was of flowery language and typical bourgeois French Catholic sentiments, the saint has been done a great injustice. Thus, in order to help situate her back in her rightful place, it would be behovely for her life to be placed in conversation with one of the 20th centuries greatest philosophers, Martin Heidegger. It has pleased God to overthrow the wisdom of the world and reveal his mysteries to his little ones, and because of this, there’s no reason why the Little Flower can’t have something to teach us all – yes, even a man like Heidegger – on, specifically, how to know ‘the nothing.’

Heidegger, among other things, is notorious for his indictment of Western philosophy’s forgetfulness of being. On his reading, Western metaphysics fell from grace with the mortal sin of attempting to objectify things through the deployment of concepts. The formation of these conceptual categories – such as Descartes’ res cogitans and Thomas’ esse – acts as a restrictive imposition on things themselves, masking the revelation of Being within beings. This imposition finds its incarnation in the modern technocratic regime, which seeks to control and dominate beings, reducing them to objects of research, leading us to pass over the phenomenon of the world.

At this stage, Heidegger doesn’t simply go on and follow his mentor Husserl, for whom – drawing off the ancient Greek method of epoché – the way to arrive at the things-in-themselves was through a purely phenomenological perspective, purged of any metaphysical presuppositions. Heidegger saw the obvious mistake in this: the idea that one gets to the things-in-themselves by means of a phenomenological description is itself a metaphysical presupposition. Therefore, wanting to evade what he sees as the pitfalls of both Husserlian phenomenology and Western metaphysics, Heidegger devises an alternative way out: namely, the ‘concept’ of Being, of which one must stand before in wonder. Concept is placed in quotes for a reason, because, for Heidegger, he emphatically denied that Being was a concept at all; if it was, then he would be committing the very sin of which he chastised the whole of the Western metaphysical tradition. Thus, Heidegger’s project is to construct a language of which resists conceptualization, a language in which – through a sort of apophatic excess – undoes concepts in speaking them. By standing in wonder at Being, and refusing to try and conceptualize what Being actually is, Being will be able to, in a special event of self-disclosure – unveil its truth to Dasein, who, in the spirit of Gelassenheit, simply lets the world be itself.

The same apophatic spirit comes into play in Heidegger’s treatment of nothing. After showing that general logic renders the question of nothing impossible, Heidegger is prepared to make a crucial move: namely that of placing the nothing as ontologically prior to the act of negation. This radical inversion means that the act of negation (which is an act of the intellect) is dependent in some way on the nothing; and because of this, reason and logic have no decision-power over the nothing. This thus leaves Heidegger in a position where the nothing – just like Being – cannot be captured with concepts, but must be reached, in his own words, “only by way of a basic experience of the nothing.”

It is important to remember here that, for Heidegger, Dasein stands in wonder at Being only when Dasein is experiencing dread. For Heidegger, anxiety takes on a particular meaning that goes beyond a simplistic fear: namely that fear is always fear of something, while dread is a dread of – not this or thing – but precisely… nothing. Because of this, dread can be seen as fully experienced through authentically being-towards-death. This means that the more Dasein is able to come to a recognition of its own finitude (causing angst), the more the nothingness that lies at the heart of it’s being is able to be revealed. Death thus becomes the very revelation of Being, for only through death that we can see that, in fact, Being is actually there. This phenomenological insight allows Dasein to intuit, pace Lacan, the nothing of which Being is constituted. Dasein can now come to approach Being in a properly ontological manner, namely to approach Being precisely as nothing. Therefore, insofar as Dasein’s angst allows it to stand in wonder at Being, it must also allow Dasein, through the same very angst, to understand the nothing. So whereas in philosophical language Dasein endeavors to say it without touching it, this return to experience (angst) allows Dasein to understand the nothing by touching it without saying it. So, the question now is this: how does all this philosophical, and not to mention Heideggerian, jargon relate to the life of the Little Flower?

Born on the second of January in 1873, Thérèse entered into a loving family of devout Catholics. In fact ‘devout’ may be an understatement, being that all her siblings alive at the time of her birth, without exception, died as nuns, and her parents – Zélie and Louis – were, this very past October, canonized. Needless to say, as soon as Thérèse came out of the womb, the chain of reasoning was complete: there was a God, and he revealed himself through, you guessed it, the One Holy Roman Catholic Apostolic Church.

Anyways, it was only a little short of two weeks after her baptism that she was already sick. Diagnosed with enteritis, Thérèse was very sick for roughly the next two months, only to be saved at the last moment by the wet nurse on the eleventh of March. Although the next couple years were rather quiet with her health, things started to change on December 24th, 1876, when her mother was informed that she had a tumor on her breast. It would be only less than a year later before she joined the blessed. Meanwhile, Thérèse’s aunt – Sister Marie-Dosithée Guérin – had died as well, meaning that, before her fourth birthday, Thérèse had gone through the loss of two people: an aunt and her mother. Death was with her from the start. Or, to put it from a Heideggerian perspective, these deaths were the beginning of a long process by which Thérèse was to come to a realization – not only of others finitude – but through them, her own.

Moreover, as the youngest child in the family, she was treated as such, being constantly referred to by her sisters as a “little Thérésita” or “Jesus’ little toy.” This clearly played a part in forming how Thérèse viewed herself, as even she referred to herself as a little flower and signed her letters as “Little Thérèse.” In addition, she recited this daily: “My God, here I am before You, poor, little, destitute of everything. I am nothing. I have nothing. I can do nothing. I am here at Your feet plunged into my nothingness…. I love my humiliation, my nothingness…. Reduce me to nothing more and more…I want to be reduced to nothing for love of You.” This, taken in combination with the two close family deaths at an early age, makes it more than fair to say that finitude – and a sense of being-towards-death – was drilled into Thérèse psyche on a regular basis as a child.

It was the end of Lent in 1897 when Thérèse was to have contracted tuberculosis. At that time only two-percent of people survived tuberculosis, meaning that Thérèse – and with her, the rest of her Sisters in the convent – was fully expecting herself to die. We can be sure of this, for, among others things, her Sisters began to write down what is now known as her “Last Conversations.” It was during this time that Thérèse’s talk of her own finitude became especially frequent.

As mentioned before, when one is confronted with their finitude and begin to be-towards-death (which Thérèse clearly was doing at the time), they are – per Heidegger – supposed to feel angst that leads a realization of ‘the nothing.’ But what one begins to see is that the difference between Thérèse and Heidegger here is that, although Thérèse still sees the nothingness through her finitude (in-line with Heidegger), she goes on to flip Heidegger’s thought on its head, and offers her nothingness as a sacrifice to God, a victim of Divine Love. So although she still initially feels the Heideggerian ‘angst’ about it (“I am afraid I have feared death”), she offers this angst up as a sacrifice to Jesus, and thus is able to invert Heidegger’s philosophy by being able to desire her nothingness – and even love it – as it’s a sacrifice to her Beloved. Through this, she is allowed to enter more deeply into nothingness than Heidegger could have ever imagined.

In a poem she wrote a couple months after she had contracted tuberculosis, she makes explicit how she desires to be an unpetalled withered rose that is “disposed of artlessly” to adorn the feast of Jesus. In her own words:

“The rose in its splendor can adorn your feast
Loveable Child,
But the unpetalled rose is just flung out
To blow away.
An unpetalled rose gives itself unaffectedly
To be no more.
Like it, with joy I abandon myself to you,
Little Jesus.
One walks on rose petals with no regrets,
And this debris
Is a simple ornament that one disposes of artlessly,
That I’ve understood.
Jesus, for your love I have squandered my life,
My future.
In the eyes of men, a rose forever withered,
I must die!…”

As such, Thérèse fully embraces the nothing that she knew all to well about. By this point, the tuberculosis had literally rendered her to nothing, to the point where she was unable to move without excruciating pain. She desired death (hence the ‘I must die!’) insofar as it would be the point at which her nothingness would reach its apotheosis: where she would most be a little child before her Spouse. But the motivation behind this wasn’t anything like what a shallow reading of her life may tend to, wrongly, assume: namely that she desired to be an unpetalled rose because it would increase her beatitude in heaven. In fact, Thérèse explicitly rejected this view when Mother Henriette confronted her about the poem, saying that she didn’t understand why it was missing that “one last verse explaining how at death God would gather together the discarded petals to form a beautiful rose that would shine for all eternity.” Thérèse was quick to reply, saying: “I wish to be unpetalled forever, to make God happy. Period. That is all!” Moreover, Thérèse wrote this poem during her ‘night of faith,’ when she didn’t even believe in the existence of heaven, saying that: “Ah! I’m not pretending, it’s very true that I don’t see a thing [heaven].”

As for Heidegger, he leaves one in quite the nihilistic position. One realizes their finitude as being a being-towards-death. They then experience a bout of dread because of this, which allows them access to grasp ‘the nothing.’ And that’s it. Nothing else. So just as how Lacan grounds sense in non-sense, Derrida, the Text in the Nothing, and on and on, Heidegger follows suit, grounding Being in ‘the nothing.’ But for Thérèse, the being of which she was constituted (although shot through with nothingness), is also, in the Platonic sense, participating in the overflowing love shared between the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit: the relations of the Blessed Trinity. Therefore, by a recognition of her own finitude and nothingness (a Heideggerian point), Thérèse is thus allowed to flourish beyond the nihilism latent in Heidegger’s thought, precisely because her nothingness is not just there, stagnant, but is rather, most beautifully, caught up in a love affair with the one and only Triune God, her Beloved.

“For long on earth would I remain
If Thou, O Lord, didst will
Or join at once Thy heavenly train
Thy pleasure to fulfill
Jesu, my love, that heavenly fire,
Consuming joyfully,
Joins life and death as if the same—
Thy love is all I see”

Joseph Catalfamo is a student at Clemson University.

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