One in 1887, the guestbook of a hotel in Paris recorded two surprising names: St. Thérèse of Lisieux and Friedrich Nietzsche. We do not know if these two figures met, but we do know that they may very well have. How a conversation between these two personalities who have shaped Europe would have gone has tantalised my imagination since I first heard of this remarkable coincidence.
Perhaps no one has been as influential on the post-Christian culture that has emerged in the secular West as Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-100). For this eighteenth-century German philosopher, a world of atheism is a world of freedom, as it allows the Christian values to be transcended by a new morality which relies on the strength of the human will alone. The Übermensch, or super-man, is capable of forming destiny under the power of his own decisions alone. This secular vision has marked the emergence of a new style of public, political, and religious life across the West. Europe, which was conceived of as an entity whose lungs breathed in Catholicism and breathed out a profound social conscience, is now steeped in what Pope Benedict XVI has called the “dictatorship of relativism.” This tyrannical belief that the subjective human will is the only authority is now so engrained across Europe that it is difficult to imagine another way of life.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897) is perhaps the greatest paradigmatic antonym to Nietzsche. Whilst she died in the prime of her life from tuberculosis and in terrible suffering, she did not succumb to nihilism, despite the fact that certain periods of her life in the convent were marked by feelings of emptiness, isolation, and guilt. In her weakness, she was given the title Doctor of the Church a century after her death. In bestowing this rare honour, Pope St. John Paul II claimed her spirituality as a medicine for the whole of European culture and the universal Church.
Portrait of St. Thérèse of Lisieux (2016) by Henry Wingate.
Nietzsche’s death from syphilis did not follow the same pattern. Despite claims to bring a new way forward for the Übermensch, his writings do not contain the possibility of true hope, and he died in an abandonment to despair. He entirely rejected the belief that Europe was a civilisation of faith, and one that would only find the fullness of its flourishing in God alone.
St. Thérèse, conversely, advocates for a Europe whose destiny is rooted in the abandonment to the Divine Will, not human will. This is perhaps best expressed in the sheer scale of correspondence asking for her help during the First World War. Only a few decades after her death, European soldiers in the trenches inundated the Carmelite Monastery of Lisieux asking for her heavenly assistance and experienced extraordinarily tangible consolation. For example, Corporal Charles Gérard in February 1916 wrote:
Drawn from the depths of the abyss of disbelief, I’m slowly journeying towards faith. Intensely aware of my own indigence, I one day came across Story of a Soul [St. Thérèse’s spiritual memoir], which the chaplain at our camp lent to me. And there I read that there is one road, and one joy, which is called holy joy, and that even simple souls can follow it and won’t go astray. Sister Thérèse, the humble wildflower, emboldened me.
This story, however, is not something St. Thérèse invented whole cloth. Instead, she inherited it from her spiritual mother in the Faith, St. Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582), the Spanish Carmelite nun, mystic, and author of the spiritual classic The Interior Castle. St. Thérèse of Lisieux, though, was not the only holy woman in recent centuries to be inspired by St. Teresa of Ávila. It is impossible to forget St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (sometimes better known by her birth name, Edith Stein). She, who died at Auschwitz for her Jewish heritage, was a Carmelite nun and doctoral student of philosophy whose writings have deeply informed much of the last century’s theology. St. Teresa of Ávila holds these two saints together as their common spiritual foundation. St. Thérèse of Lisieux took her name from this Spanish mystic and so too Edith Stein after reading St. Teresa’s hagiography and converting, quite astoundingly, from agnostic Judaism. As we begin the month of October, which sees both Saints Thérèse of Lisieux and Teresa Benedicta celebrated in the Western liturgical calendar, we contemplate the mystery of Europe’s future as a civilisation of hope and rooted in a transcendent vision.
Man has an instinct about reading the omens to find our way. It is, in my view, no coincidence that Nietzsche slept under the same hotel roof and on the same night as a spiritual titan of gentle love. This omen perhaps provides us with a road map for restoring Europe’s soul, as without the welcoming of hope, life is but a brief stay in a room that is not your own and that is all. For the Theresian mystic, life is an outpouring of love that channels the Divine and makes Him present even in the seemingly nihilistic void and hell of life. This great feat can be achieved in a hotel room where a heart beats in the heart of God. This October it is a challenge to encounter these saints, a challenge to see the depth of their vision against the precipice and void of darkness. But we would do well to embark on this great task—a task that helps us, like them, to face reality and God in full freedom. For this is ultimately the battle for Europe’s soul and destiny.
Challenging the void
The void is fast approaching. Douglas Murray has called it the “strange death of Europe,” strange because it has crept silently and has been unexpected by many. European civilisation has garnered excellence across every aspect of social life from politics to the arts and sciences. This delicate balance has produced some of the most beautiful achievements of the human soul—imagine a world without the drama of Caravaggio or the wild exuberance of the Catholic priest Vivaldi.
But this latent soil of richness has grown tired, Europe has grown weary and lost its self-assurance. What was once a confident project of moral refinement and spiritual destiny has now collapsed into a horizontal project whose highest goals are defined in economic and geopolitical aspiration. But Europe’s roots attest to a deeper Divine Economy, without which life loses all sense of purpose and stagnated ultimately in a Nietzschean cynicism.
But Europe, and the world, need not grow tired! The abyss is not the only choice! The Theresian impulse runs on a different wavelength. It begins with the premise that those who possess God need of nothing else. This monastic impulse runs back as early as St. Benedict of Nursia, who singlehandedly saved the European culture as the Fall of Rome changed the course of History. St. Teresa Benedicta chose her second name accordingly. Douglas Murray was indeed so touched by St. Benedict that in an interview with the Hoover Institute, he expressed his foundational view that monasticism was the only hope for Europe’s future. As an “atheist-Christian,” in his self-coined term, Douglas recognizes that the spiritual still takes precedence in the determination of Europe’s survival. Moreover, then, for St. Teresa of Ávila, who roots authentic civilisation in the absolute primacy of transcendence in God, as we read:
Nada te turbe
nada te espante
Todo se pasa
Dios nose muda.
La paciencia todo alcanza.
Quien a Dios tiene
nada le falta
Solo Dios basta.”
Let nothing disturb you,
nothing frighten you,
All things are passing.
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
Whoever has God
God is enough.
This, when applied beyond the realm of the individual believer, is a call for a radical restructuring of society to the absolute essential. This is the way the monastic impulse and witness attests to the reorganisation and reorder of all desire to its infinite goal and destiny. This movement coincides with an outpouring of life for all those who turn to the source of life. In fact, it could be maintained that Europe’s lungs are refreshed by the monastic impulse. Stripped back to its core, Europe is most individuated and accomplished when it is at prayer, for it is through prayer that all its public life is enacted in its purest form.
Imagine a Europe without prayer, take out all its achievements that were rooted in prayer. If the Sagrada Familia did not scream so exuberantly into the Heavens under the red sun of Barcelona, would not the fibres of our being ache its absence? The ache of glory is born of the ache of prayer—without the root of prayer, Europe is like a drowning museum and a place of cynical intrigue, but at prayer Europe is in the fight of her life—where darkness and collapse beckon the annihilation of identity. In such times, civilisations require saints, those who, not despite the darkness but rather provoked by it, turn their life to the Ultimate Provocation of the Divine Mystery. It is these saints to whom we now turn. For their life attests to a different order of power, one where the Übermensch seems as weak and the heart of Love is seen as unfailing and strong. That is a shocking claim. In order to understand it, we should first make an examination of Europe’s conscience.
Three Saints of Europe’s soul in the Flame of Love
St. Teresa of Ávila shook the establishment to bring back the urgency of Christianity. St. Thérèse kept her faith despite her experiences of profound desolation. St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross did not allow the shameless brutality and absurdity of the death camps to annihilate her spirit, but rather she sacrificed herself amongst her Jewish nation. In the centre of Europe, her heart beat to a Divine flame.
Indeed, the path of Europe’s restoration can only lie in the ignition of myriad hearts of flames of Love. Was it not the Messiah who, with pyromaniacal glee, exclaimed “I have come to ignite a fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (Luke 12:49). Only a Flame of Love can rekindle the fertility of Europe’s soil. For soil that has become arid requires the richness of ashes to raise it back to lusciousness. There is a need for the purgative fire to blaze across the hearts of Europe to reinstall a perfect gaze of love between all as neighbours. Each of us is called to be a Saint of God, that is a universal call to holiness to all people of good will. If Europeans become Saints, Europe’s delicate grace and ferocious charity will survive, and there will be a renewal of an authentic civilisation of truth and love.
Icon of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
Even Nietzsche in 1882 did not realise how right he was to exclaim “God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him!” This is the secret of Europe! God has died of Love! God’s death is a definitively flippant and foolish final word against egregious evil and its subsequent terror and abyss. In that abyss, three women shaped Europe’s destiny by joining their God in filling that abyss with a seed of Love. Gathering these seeds of Love and planting them in a soil rich from the ashes of the purgation of the heart, our hearts can sing once more to the wild freedom of the Holy Spirit and through Him find our future a landscape of hope, promise and true happiness. No one could express better this vision of Hope for Europe than Pope Saint John Paul II. When granting the title of Patroness of Europe to Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross), he gave an astounding proclamation, which must be read in full to understand the sheer gravity of its clarion call to seize Europe’s destiny through faith, hope and Love. However, I shall content myself with quoting a few morsels:
The Christian faith has shaped the culture of the Continent [of Europe] and is inextricably bound up with its history, to the extent that Europe’s history would be incomprehensible without reference to [the Faith]….
Christians have a duty to make a specific contribution…. In this way they will carry forward that long history of holiness which has traversed the various regions of Europe in the course of these two millennia, in which the officially recognized Saints are but the towering peaks held up as a model for all…
The Church has no doubt that this wealth of holiness is itself the secret of her past and the hope of her future….
Thus may Europe grow! May it grow as a Europe of the spirit, in continuity with the best of its history, of which holiness is the highest expression….
In order to build the new Europe on solid foundations it is certainly not enough to appeal to economic interests alone; for these, while sometimes bringing people together, are at other times a cause of division. Rather there is a need to act on the basis of authentic values, which are founded on the universal moral law written on the heart of every person.
Glory be to the Holy Trinity, whose radiant splendour shines uniquely in their lives and in the lives of all the Saints. Peace to men and women of good will, in Europe and throughout the world.
Facing the sheer scale of the task ahead to rebuild the culture of a hopeful, dynamically flourishing, and life-giving Europe, it may well be easier to throw away any last shreds of hope and walk away from the weight of glory in slow, disenchanted steps towards a meaningless future. But for the saints, for those whose hearts burn for the soul of Europe to be both paradoxically rediscovered and reimagined, this weight of glory is an invitation into the radical gift of self. It takes just one generous person conformed to the heart of God to inspire a tidal wave of transformation in grace for all those who they encounter. Like the three Theresas show, Europe needs you. Needs you to be that one person.