Thomas NEVIN. The Last Years of Saint Thérèse: Doubt and Darkness. 1895-1897. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. pp. 289. $35.00 hb. ISBN 978-0-19-998766-5. Reviewed by Keith J. EGAN, Notre Dame University (Adjunct), Saint Mary’s College (Emeritus), South Bend, IN 46637
Nevin’s two books on Thérèse are the work of a consummate scholar who eschews old fashioned hagiography. These books are not in intent biographical; rather they are collections of studies of various aspects of Thérèse’s life and teachings. But, anyone who aspires to write a biography or, in fact, wants from now on to explore Theresian themes will have to consult Nevin’s studies. This author does not merely pass on data that he has unearthed from a wide array of sources; rather he expresses forcefully his interpretations of the data. These interpretations are often daring and new leaving room for opposing views, but these interpretations deserve careful scrutiny. This is a book that makes the reader think.
Now to comment specifically on Nevin’s latest Theresian book. For too long Thérèse’s Carmelite identity has, by and large, been neglected. Nevin’s first chapter, “Her Spanish Masters in Darkness: Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross” helps, to some extent, to remedy this lack; yet, more needs to be done to fully understand Thérèse as a Carmelite. Nevin’s next chapter, “Seeking Light in the Bible,” reveals the extent to which the bible especially the Gospels and the Song of Songs shaped Thérèse’s biblical imagination. Her reliance on the scriptures anticipated the recognition on the part of Catholics to pay greater attention to the importance of biblical literacy and to the appropriation of biblical wisdom. The third chapter, “Bearing the Cross of Community,” investigates how the nine years that Thérèse spent in the Carmel of Lisieux were “a laboratory of human frailties, failings, and faults” (80) that had a significant impact on a young woman whose last eighteen months were a “night of nothingness.” The exploration of this laboratory must keep in tandem, however, with the blessings of community life that Thérèse truly appreciated. Chapter four, “Her Spiritual Brothers Guide Her Down: Père Hyacinthe Loyson and Léo Taxil,” fills in a gap many readers have been be puzzled by. Nevin sees the Loyson and Taxil events as part of the dark world that Thérèse inhabited in the year and a half before she died. Nevin’s designation of Loyson and Taxil as “Her Spiritual Brothers,” will surprise readers who would have expected by these words to learn more about Adolphe Roulland and Maurice Bellière the two seminarians who became the recipients of spiritual guidance in letters written to them by Thérèse.
The fifth and last chapter, “Final Charity: The Last Autobiography,” is an exploration of the profound darkness endured by Thérèse from Good Friday, 1896, until her death on September 30, 1897. This was a time when, according to Nevin, love grew despite the absence of faith and hope. Is it not truer to say that love indeed was emphasized but hardly to the exclusion of faith and hope? The author calls these months a time of doubt, but it would have helped had he shown that this “doubt” was a process of purification and liberation, a darkness and dryness akin to the dark night encounters described by her mentor John of the Cross. It is interesting to note that the French noun le dout and the verb douter do not appear in Ms B or Ms C which were composed from April 1896 until near her death. Nor does “doubt” appear as a failure of belief in her other writings of that period of time. Is not her assertion on July 17, 1897, from her infirmary bed that “Yes, I want to spend my heaven in doing good on earth,” an expression of faith and hope like so many other statements during the “night of nothingness” when she ate at the table of sorrow and sinners (Last Conversations, 102).
Lately there has been an emphasis on Ms B, written for Thérèse’s sister Marie, but Nevin studiously argues for the importance of Ms C, and he has found Mother Marie de Gonzague, to whom Ms C is dedicated, and who often goes unappreciated, to have had a profoundly beneficial influence on Thérèse. The author makes a good case for the need of biographies of Mother Agnes/Pauline and Marie de Gonzague (168).