Colette and Therese

Colette at fifteen years old

I just finished reading Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette by Judith Thurman. I initially put off reading it because of reviews saying the author basically “didn’t like” her subject. But I realized I don’t need Colette to be likable. I need her to be a great writer and I loved Secrets of the Flesh. I don’t agree that Thurman did not like her subject. It’s hard to accept Colette’s collaboration during the occupation of Paris (to survive, to protect her Jewish husband, to continue writing) and difficult to face her affair with her step-son and her treatment of her own daughter. How does a writer celebrate a sense of the ultimate loving maternal in Sido (Colette’s sketches of her own extraordinary mother) but reject those qualities in oneself?

Colette fascinated me since childhood. I suppose it started with the musical “Gigi” and by high school I was reading her work. I especially loved Robert Phelps’ collection of Colette’s writing in Earthly Paradise which I’ve carried around for over 40 years.

You don’t walk away from Colette’s novels ennobled and loving humanity or embracing a higher purpose in life. She writes shallow amoral characters concerned with sex, living for themselves and in the moment. These men and women don’t bother themselves with politics, humanity, religion, larger questions of existence and love. Well, yes, they do concern themselves with love. Falling in love, betrayal, adultery, recovering from love. But not, say, mystical love, or progression in love-consciousness, or loving neighbor except with lusty carnality.

But you want her to write about other-worldly love! Francois Mauriac and others saw deep spirituality just in the way she writes. You want to say, “Just turn slightly, look in this direction for a moment! Regarde! See?” But she resists.

I turn to Colette when I need to refresh my senses, when I need to notice more deeply, engage with life around me more fully  – the scent of rain coming, the porous skin on a piece of fruit, admiring the precisioned stretch of a cat coming out of a traveling basket, the sound of a petal falling from a flower vase.

This past week I got slammed by what began as a simple allergy and erupted into bronchitis and sinus infection. And although my eyes and my brain weren’t functioning enough to read, I took two authors to bed with me anyway. Colette and Therese of Lisieux.

Therese at fifteen

These French writers were born the same month and year, Colette in Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, 120 miles southeast of Paris, and Therese in Alencon, 105 miles west (and slightly north) of Paris in January of 1873. Therese entered Carmel as a nun in Lisieux at the age of fifteen, having travelled as far as Rome to get permission (which was denied) although the local authorities finally relented.  The picture on the left shows her hair piled on her head grown-up style to impress the Bishop with her maturity.

Therese wrote three autobiographical sketches eventually published as The Story of a Soul. Her sisters suppressed the bests parts – Therese’s honest struggles with lack of faith, darkness, fear. Without these candid passages it is not possible to appreciate the young girl’s self-mastery, courage and surrender. The middle, shortest manuscript describes her “little way” which has become a liberating practice of prayer for millions of people. Therese herself was ambitious. Even on her death bed she complained that she couldn’t be ordained a priest, and made a remark to the effect that at least she’d die before the age she could have been ordained. She died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty four.

At the age of twenty-seven Colette’s first novel, published under the name of her libertine husband Willy, created a sensation in Paris. Claudine At School drew on autobiographical memories of her country childhood “spiced up” to be titillating. When Claudine was made into a play Willy had Colette cut her hair, dressed Colette and the actress that played Claudine as schoolgirls and paraded his “twins” through Paris.  Eventually, Colette was able to extract herself from that marriage and become a great writer on her own.

Therese wrote about love. Being in love. Loving others through the smallest sacrifices daily life offered her in an enclosed convent. “My vocation is love!” she said. The little way meant taking what limitations you have and using them, turning everything to love with utter confidence of being loved.

So here it is, the season of love challenged, love consummated in the dark night of abandonment. (Ascensiontide). I’m reading these Frenchwomen; one writes of sacred things mundanely, the other of profane things sacredly.

I keep re-discovering my vocation is love. And I’m still trying to find my voice. I know I have something to say. I don’t know how to say it. How I would love to write about love beautifully! Both these women succeeded so well, in spite of the limits of their lives.

That’s enough. Back to bed. To get better and to try to write …umm…  more lovingly?

4 Responses to “Colette and Therese”

  1. joan stone Says:

    Oh! you silly goose! Your whole life and being–and your writing!–express love. Love of life, of God, of us weary wee humans, of children and animals and the world, of art, literature, Scripture, music! …

    …and I would heal them.’ 16But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.”

    a gift from today’s lectionary…Rest. Get better. Then open your eyes, look in the mirror and see all that you describe. It is you. It is already beautiful, just keep writing, please.

    • ammaguthrie Says:

      Oh, you silly goose yourself. You’re an artist. You know JUST what I mean! love, suzanne

  2. claire Says:

    Yes, do keep writing 🙂
    Thank you also for talking so well of Colette and Therese. (I have read the first, but not the second…)

  3. Debra Says:

    When I read your writings it brings me a sense of calm and peace; it breathes out love and reverence for the sacred and those who seek it in their everyday activities. Your friend is correct; look in the mirror and continue to walk and write as your are doing. It is blessing us all.

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