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Story of a Photo

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St Therese June 1897?

I have had this photo of St. Therese on my desk the last few months while I have worked from home.  It has become my favorite picture of her. There is something about the look, a certain resolve, expression of concern, etc. that I find compelling.  I usually take a break a few times a day just to stare at it a little while.  This is strange, because I have my doubts whether the photo is even authentic. Perhaps you can solve the mystery for me?

It is a close up of photo that I first saw in the book The Hidden Face: A Study of St. Therese of Lisieux, by Ida Friederike Gorres, which I purchased and read in March. It is hard to categorize the book. It is a study of the Saint’s time on earth, her spirituality, her canonization process, and the public reaction. It was originally published in 1959, and resissued in English by Ignatius Press in 2003. The book was a deliberate response to earlier biographies or portrayals of the Saint that the author believed were shallow or not a true representation of her life. I am not an expert on the Saint, so its possible that some of her findings have been eclipsed by more recent scholarship..

The author says the book was prompted in part, by a colleague sharing the above photo with her and a group of colleagues:

During a meeting at Burg Rothenfels, then the centre of the Catholic Youth Movement in Germany, a student showed me a small picture, like a passport photograph. “This is the true appearance of Little Thérèse”, he said. “Dom Willibrord Verkade, the monk-painter of Beuron, discovered and published it.

The Carmel at Lisieux, and a French bishop as well, protested vehemently against its publication.” A small group of young people gathered around him; the picture passed from hand to hand. In stunned silence we gazed at the familiar and yet so alien features, and someone said: “Almost like the face of a female Christ.” From that August morning on I was determined to pursue the riddle of her look and her smile—so different from the honeyed insipidity of the usual representations of her. Who was Thérèse of the Child Jesus in reality?

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We have photographs of St. Therese as a nun because her birth sister, Celine Martin, brought a camera with her when she joined the Lisieux convent.  As Sister Genevieve of the Holy Face (her name in religion), she took 40 + photos that included St. Therese.  These photos may all be viewed at the online Lisieux archive at this website.

This photo corresponds to none of the photos in the Archive. It is well documented that St. Therese sat for photo session on June 7, 1897, and the Archive includes three photos. But she is facing the other direction in all three.

I have not found any records of any other photographer being granted admission to the Carmel in June of 1897.  I checked two autobiographies by Dom Willbrord Verkade, but he makes no mention of the Saint or any visit to Lisieux. Nor can I find any other source of information on his publication of the photo, how he came to have it, and the alleged controversy it produced.

It is well documented that Therese’s blood sisters were careful custodians of her writings and images for many years after her death. They were very reluctant to release unedited correspondence and photographs of her.  I believe I read that Sister Genevieve was sometimes disappointed at her photos not capturing her true likeness, perhaps due to the Saint’s illness or fatigue.   She separately made a number of paintings that she felt were a more true representation of how she appeared to her, perhaps before she got sick.   She also retouched a number of the photos, which are also available at the Archive.  One theory of mine is that Sister Genevieve flipped on the horizontal one of the three photos from June 7, 1897, and then retouched it.  However, I do not even know if this was technically possible in 1897, and none of the other retouched photos shows that level of alteration.  The closest match would be the photo below, which I have flipped (please note that this photo was found on the internet, and not taken from the Archive website. Those versions are copyrighted). But the photo in the book shows St. Therese against a completely gray background, which appears almost artificial, as opposed to the foliage in the picture below.

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A horizontal flipped version of one of Sister Genevieve’s photos of Therese from June 7, 1897

 

Other possibilities:

  • This was a genuine photo taken by Sister Genevieve that was stolen from the Carmel, which might explain the alleged controversy and why it does not appear in the Archive.
  • Someone much later in time copied and altered one of Sister Genevieve’s photos, when it was technically possible to do so.
  • There was another, unknown (at least to me) photographer who was given access to the Carmel and took the photo that appears in The Hidden Face.

If  you know the answer, please share your comments. I may do another post about The Hidden Face in the near future, and how its discussion of Saint Therese might guide us in these difficult times.

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Marie-Antoinette De Geuser: Her Life and Letters (English language pdf)

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At age 12 or 13

I have to return Consummata to the library soon, and I will not have time to write the posts I want to about her for a little while yet. So I had the book scanned and am making it available here as a downloadable pdf. It works in iBooks and Kindle.

The English translation from 1931 is out of print and I can’t find news of anyone planning to reissue it. I am no expert on copyright law, but the book contains no U.S. copyright markings that I can recognize. MA has been dead over 100 years, and my understanding is that for created written works it’s typically life of the author plus 70 years.   It’s also a translation of a foreign work, which makes things even murkier. But if someone does have a copyright claim, leave a comment explaining your rights and I will take it down.

Why am I doing this? Marie-Antoinette was a mystic. De Lubac said in his book Paradoxes: “Potential mystics, or mystics in a primitive state, are scattered in the world. These, above all, are the ones who must be reached.” Saints and mystics are the Old Testament prophets for the times of the Church. Because they listen to and obey the Lord they prompt reforms, elucidate elements of the Truth that have not yet come into focus, and provide new models of holiness. Consummata is particularly relevant in these times when the Laity need to pursue even greater holiness and draw closer to the Lord.

Marie-Antoinette de Geuser pdf

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Marie-Antoinette De Geuser: Consummata

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This post and any that follow about this subject is for anyone who might be interested in Consummata, and are looking for more information than is available in Wikipedia. Perhaps you came across references to her in one of Von Balthasar or Adrienne’s books, like I did. Its hard to find much about her in English.

Marie-Antoinette De Geuser (1889-1918) was a French Catholic woman who wanted to become a Discalced Carmelite but could not due to family obligations and health problems. Yet, so moved by her were the nuns at a Carmel that she was apparently allowed to become first a Postulant, and then a Novice, though she lived out her vocation in her family home. She left a number of letters or diary entries that were collected and published in several volumes in France in the 1920s and 1930s. The only volume ever translated into English was a 1931 edition translated by George Baker: Consummata: Marie-Antoinette De Geuser, her Life and Letters, by Raoul Plus, SJ.

The book is in two parts. The first is a partial biography, more spiritual in focus than on the events of her life. The second part is a selection of diary entries and letters to relatives and other correspondents. The book is out of print but I was able to obtain it through an inter-library loan, and thus this blog post or posts is possible.  Religious and scholars at the time were very impressed with what she shared, and Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross was among those who read and studied her letters.

Marie-Antoinette had two religious names. “Marie of the Trinity” was the religious name she chose as a Carmelite, and what she often signed her letters with. “Consummata” was a nickname she chose for herself.  This is Latin and can be translated as “complete”, “lacking nothing” or “perfect.”  This was not a commentary on her own perception of her value. She was fond of describing herself as “God’s little nobody” in her letters. Rather it was probably a reference to how she perceived the effect or result of God’s grace on her.

Consummata was born to a respected, devout and financially secure family in Le Havre, in the Normandy region of France. She was the eldest of twelve children. She had three uncles in religious vocation, and one, a Jesuit, was her spiritual director later in life and the recipient of many of the letters collected and published. She had another cousin who was a Carmelite nun. At least two of her brothers became priests or religious. World War I was very hard on the family, and two brothers died and one was crippled.

She seemed to be troubled with poor health her entire life. But I could not find a specific reference to what her trouble was in the book. There is a mention of attack of rheumatism of the joints as a child. She had a bad case of appendicitis as a teenager. It seems she spent the last 3-4 years of her life confined to home in great fatigue and often in bed.  Her health problems caused her to be denied entrance to the Carmel at Le Havre in 1909.  There is no mention of any course of treatment. Perhaps they could not diagnose it. Was it an autoimmune disorder?

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Near the end

She had another opportunity a few years later to enter Carmel, at Pontoise, but her mother became very sick (and remained sort of an invalid at least through the time of Consummata’s death in 1918). She felt that she needed to stay home to care for her siblings and help manage the house. She perceived her vocation would be to suffer in a quiet and anonymous way in a domestic setting for the salvation of souls and increase in vocations.

She was very intelligent and learned Latin. She corresponded frequently with her relatives who had vocations, and with nuns at different convents. She seemed particularly interested in the writings and spirituality of Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity.

I will include an episode from the 1909 visit to the Le Havre Carmel that shows how they passed in the night, like two ships:

Within two or three days of that time I went to the Carmel here that I might know definitely what their decision was. Chatting, the Prioress told me among other things that she had just received photographs of a young sister who had died in the odour of sanctity at Dijon a couple of years previously. She offered me one of these. Though I took it, I scarcely glanced at it: only one thing interested me then – was I, or was I not accepted?

The photo was of Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity. Presumably Marie-Antoinette later realized who this photo was of. She started using the religious name of Marie of the Trinity in her correspondence in 1911.

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Last photo of Elizabeth of the Trinity

A common point of discussion in her letters was the unity of the Trinity, and of the soul joining with that unity, and being transformed into it. She described the difference between her and Elizabeth’s focus of contemplation of the Holy Trinity as follows:

The difference between the way of Sister Elizabeth of the Trinity and my own is, as I perceive from her book, roughly this: for, as she herself says, the fascination of that greatest of mysteries lies in converse with “her Three Persons.” For me, it is their Unity that has the great appeal. Her master is S. Paul, while I am a pupil of S. John.

I think it is generally accepted that St. Paul’s letters were of great influence on St. Elizabeth, and I do perceive, in my own layperson’s way, a Johannine feel to Marie-Antoinette’s writings.

I think the way she lived her vocation may have a particular message to or appeal for Catholics in Third Orders, particularly Secular Carmelites or Lay Carmelites. She lived in the world, in a demanding domestic setting.

I will try to do a few more posts with excerpts from her letter and diary entries, and try to expand on some of the themes she discussed.

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Carmelites on Film

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If you are interested in the Carmelite charism there are two short films currently available for free viewing for subscribers to Amazon Prime.

The first is a documentary about the Carmelites of the Divine Heart of Jesus, and follows a short period in the lives of several of them at a convent in the Midwestern U.S.  It was made in 2001 by director Diane Frank, and is titled “Convent.”

The documentary focuses on a postulant and a novice as they decide whether the life is for them, and features segments of multiple interviews with about a half a dozen of the nuns. The two main subjects are very natural, open and likable. You never hear Ms. Frank ask any questions, as she is unobtrusive and lets the Carmelites speak for themselves.

These Carmelites are affiliated with the Discalced Carmelites, but have a slightly different charism/observance. They are not purely contemplative, and while cloistered, run some schools, elder care facilities and other centers in the U.S. and Europe.

It is a very fair and transparent portrait of their life in my opinion. I think it would be particularly valuable viewing for any young woman considering a vocation to religious life, whether it be with a Carmelite community or another cloistered order.

“Convent” Trailer

“Convent” at Amazon Prime

The other film is a theatrical adaptation of St. Therese of Lisieux’s “A Story of a Soul,” and goes by that name. It is performed by a single actress playing multiple roles and apparently was filmed in a room at the Lisieux Carmel where St. Therese lived and died.  The actress addresses the audience directly and acts out various scenes from St. Therese’s life, or things recorded in her own words or conversations others took down. It is in French with English subtitles, and directed by Michel Pascal. Strangely, Amazon lists the rating as “R”, but there is nothing R rated about it. An unfortunate typo I guess.

I am not a student of the theatre, and I have to admit my mind wandered at times. But I liked the performance and the actress bears a passing resemblance to the saint. I think it captured the spirit of Carmelite life and was a good representation of St. Therese’s writings.

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Story of a Soul at Amazon Prime

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Seeds of Renewal: The Fairfield Carmelites

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From the Fairfield Carmelite website

In follow up to last week’s post, this post highlights the other new Carmelite community in the Diocese of Harrisburg.

In 2007, a group of Discalced Carmelites moved into a vacated monastery in Elysburg, Pennsylvania. Its formal name is the Carmel Of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Due to a significant increase in vocations, the Carmel requested permission to branch out, which was granted by Bishop Gainer. Land was purchased in Fairfield, Pennsylvania, which is located in Adams County near Gettysburg.

The community is constructing a new monastery using traditional methods that relies on heavy stones and wood timbers.  It is intended to be self-sustaining community  that will last many years.

They broke ground earlier this summer, and Bishop Gainer presided over a special mass and ceremony of enclosure in July.  Nine nuns are on site now, living in trailers. It has been a very hot and rainy summer in these parts, so I am sure it has not been very comfortable.  The Hermits referenced in my prior post are located nearby and offer Mass for the nuns and hear their confessions, I believe.

Like the Hermits in the prior post, this community embraces the traditional rule and charism of the Carmelites. The nuns are enclosed, wear the habit, pray and fast regularly, and perform manual labor. They do not run any profit-making business, and are dependent on donations.

They have a very nice website here, and there are opportunities to donate time, money or skilled or (unskilled) labor.

Here is a link to another website where you can donate your time or supplies to help the nuns or the hermits.

 

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First walls going up. From the Fairfield Carmelite website.

 

 

 

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Seeds of Renewal: The Hermits of Our Lady Of Mt Carmel

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From the gofundme site of The Hermits

Pennsylvania is now at the center of the scandal of clerical child abuse in the Catholic Church. A grand jury recently released a report on credible abuse allegations going back as far as 1947.  More information has also come to light about abuse in other regions, including the sexual abuse of seminarians, and the unchaste behavior of bishops and cardinals.

In these times of trial it is worth remembering that there are healthy, growing branches of the Church. And they need our help. In the Diocese of Harrisburg, we are blessed to have two relatively new Carmelite communities near Gettysburg, Pa. Carmelites, in brief, are members of a religious order who live apart from the world and devote their lives to prayer.  It is a very simple life.  No luxuries, no idleness. They wear the habit, fast regularly, and take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

This post spotlights The Hermits of Our Lady of Mt Carmel, which was recognized by the local Bishop earlier this year. This is a community of men who apparently observe the original Carmelite tradition, which is usually referred to as The Ancient Order of Mt. Carmel. They follow the Rule of St. Albert, which means a heavily structured day of prayer, worship, fasting and manual labor. Unlike some monasteries, they do not run any businesses, and are dependent on alms or donations. They will be praying and fasting in reparation for the many sins of the clergy.

Their website is here. You can donate there.

The order is young and growing, and has also started a gofund me campaign for the seminary studies of its new members at this link.

Thanks for any help you can give them.

 

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