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Feature Article: An Unlikely Existentialist. Part I (of II)


Every so often, spiritual lightning sears across a culture's landscape. The example of St. Francis of Assisi immediately comes to mind. So does St. Antony. Their intense holiness was bright and powerful, and left an indelible mark on the earth.

We can't know for certain why God sends these religious jolts when he does, but we can assume he has some purpose. St. Francis, for instance, came at a time when Europe was emerging from the Dark Ages. European wealth and power and prosperity surged in the twelfth century, and with it came temptations to greed and vice. St. Francis cut against the wealth and power by opting for no property and no control. His was absolute poverty at a time when poverty was becoming a dirty word. He, with St. Dominic (his spiritual twin brother), spawned new religious orders of poverty-embracing friars, and paved the way for the thirteenth century, a time when the Catholic Church produced some of its greatest cultural contributions. It is no coincidence that the century's greatest thinkers, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure, belonged to the Dominican and Franciscan Orders, respectively.


St. Antony, too, appears to have come at a particular time for a particular reason. He went to the desert shortly before Christianity became the institutionalized religion of the Roman Empire. Before its ascendancy, persecution and martyrdom were never far away, and the possibility of a violent death hung over the heads of the faithful, pressing them to a life of virtue. But after Christianity was implanted as the official religion, martyrdom was no longer available. A new form of heroism was needed, and tens of thousands found it in the desert struggles that Antony showed them. The martyrdom that gave a strong backbone to early Christianity was replaced by the asceticism of the desert, and Christianity's backbone was strengthened further.

In the late nineteenth century, another spiritual lightning bolt hit Western culture. St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower. Like Francis and Antony, I think she came for a reason: To show the modern era a path to holiness.


Therese's Little Way
The Little Flower was born in 1873, the youngest of nine children, into a very holy, but otherwise conventional, French middle class family. She enjoyed holidays at the seashore, shrimping, donkey rides, and her pets (rabbits, doves, silkworms, goldfish, magpie, dog). She liked to entertain her family and make them laugh by doing imitations. All in all, she was a normal little girl. Though she knew holiness beckoned and knew she wanted to follow its lure, she never stopped enjoying the offerings of her bourgeois upbringing.

At the age of 15, she entered the Carmelite convent of Lisieux in Normandy and remained there for nine years until her death at age 24 in 1897. Her life in the convent was ordinary and drab, marked by nothing noticeable.

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About two and a half years before she died, when the tuberculosis that would kill her was taxing her health, the convent's prioress, Pauline (Therese's older sister), ordered her to write her autobiography. She wrote, simply, like a half-educated school girl. She told about her youth and her years in the convent. Although she told nothing of apparent importance, The Story of a Soul came to life in its authenticity and in the details of the spiritual life she had devised for herself. When the world read her pages, it knew it had a potent new path to holiness on its hands. She called it, “the little way of spiritual childhood.” Today we simply call it the “Little Way” or the “Little Way of St. Therese.”

The Little Way is a method of living that undertakes every task–especially the smallest and least noticed–with no thought to oneself. A person traveling The Little Way anonymously addresses whatever comes up during the day, but without ever thinking about the rewards of addressing such things. This is how Clare Booth Luce explained it: “Are not the lives of almost all of us made up of little things? But for most people a dozen annoyances, bothers, anxieties, frustrations, harassments a day add up to aspirins or martinis, to ulcers or neuroses or breakdowns–even to suicide. Therese made them add up to sainthood. Stooping a dozen times a day quietly–indeed furtively–she picked up and carried the splinters of the cross that strewed her path as they strew ours. And when she gathered them all up, she had the material of a cross of no inconsiderable weight.” She did the little things in life without thinking about them–serving and praying, but never thinking about her service and prayer, and never pausing to think about her good works. Just doing.

Existentialist Ways
St. Therese's Little Way has a heavy existentialist bent, and I believe it is this heavy existentialist bent that has made her the most popular saint in modern times. Before explaining my reasons for asserting this, however, it is helpful to explain the term “existentialism.” Everyone has heard the term, but I suspect many have, at best, an amorphous understanding of it. I will explain it by describing the existentialist ideas of three of the most well-known sources of existentialism in the twentieth century: Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Zen Buddhism. (Those with a thorough understanding of existentialism may want to skip to the next section.)


First, Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre denied that we have any natural essences (i.e., traits, characteristics). Instead of such essences, Sartre said, we have existence, and that's it; essences don't really exist. At best, they have a secondary reality because we first exist, then select our essences. This is how he bluntly put it in Existentialism and Humanism: “[M]an first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world–and defines himself afterwards.”

As a corollary, Sartre said there are no immutable rules of behavior that a man ought to follow because rules of behavior stem from our natural traits. It's a highly-radical assertion. Even intellectuals who reject God or disregard Him in their theories usually posit some immutable characteristics and pull rules of behavior from them. For example: “Man is a social animal, and therefore he should act civilly toward others, and not injure, murder, or steal from others.” Sartre, on the other hand, rejected any immutable characteristics, and therefore rejected the idea that there are any truths that emanate from those characteristics. There is only one truth: The stark naked fact of existence.


A logical reaction to this type of reasoning is despair. If there is no truth, there is no reason to act whatsoever. All actions–and potential actions, plans, aspirations, and dreams–become pointless, along with one's entire life. But Sartre didn't stop with despair. He used his existentialism to teach a new form of radical freedom: If there is no way you should act, he said, then act however you want. Make your own essences.

This is the point of his play, The Flies, which dramatizes the Greek legend of Orestes, a man who murders his mother and her husband. Normally, a person in Orestes' situation would quake as he awaited divine punishment, but not Orestes. Instead, he rises above such fear, shouting at Jupiter: “I am neither master nor slave. I am my own freedom! Hardly hadst though created me when I already ceased to be thy own!” Sartre was saying that Orestes knows that he merely exists, with no immutable laws implanted in, or divine rulers overseeing, him. He can accordingly do whatever he wants. Intense freedom is his. He merely needs to choose. Any reminders of the moral laws that he might experience, those pricks of conscience, are nothing more than annoying flies. Swat the flies, Sartre says, and one gains total freedom.

Sartre's one-time disciple, Albert Camus, centered his existentialism around the problem of the absurd. The absurd, Camus said, is the state of existence that is every person's lot because nothing corresponds to our highest yearnings. In order to understand what Camus is saying, consider how ridiculous it would be if there was no such thing as food, but we had an appetite for it. At some point someone would become aware of the odd juxtaposition of appetite and no food, and say, “What's going on here? Why do we have an appetite if there is nothing to satisfy it?” That's the same thing Camus said about man's desires and dreams. Man hopes, but there is nothing to satisfy his hopes. Man naturally harbors desires, but there is nothing to respond to them. That, Camus said, is absurd.

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At the end of The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus meditates on the absurd hero from Greek mythology, Sisyphus. Sisyphus was a crafty man who repeatedly betrayed and disobeyed the gods. As punishment, he was sentenced to an eviternity of rolling a huge rock to the top of a hill. Every time he got the rock near the top, it would roll back down, and Sisyphus would have to walk back down the hill and start pushing the rock up again.

Camus' meditation centers on Sisyphus' mindset at the times he walks down the hill to get the rock after it rolls down. During those relatively leisurely moments, Sisyphus can reflect on his condition: “That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness.”

This, Camus muses, is when Sisyphus can think about his horrible state of existence. It's in the reprieve that Sisyphus can become aware of the acuteness of his quintessentially absurd existence: The aspiration to get the rock to the top and its predestined frustration. The myth is tragic, Camus explains, because its hero, Sisyphus, is conscious of the absurdity of it all.

But Camus also says that Sisyphus is happy because he is aware of his tragic situation. He understands his fate and understands he can't avoid it, so he ceases to expect that he'll ever succeed in getting the rock over the top. In other words, he negates all hope. It's frustrated hope that makes the punishment hard, Camus says, so if hope is negated, the torture ceases. And then Sisyphus can roll the rock up the hill, concentrating all his effort on it, resigned to the fate of it rolling back down, but happy because he stands above fate by recognizing it for what it is: absurd. Just accept, said Camus. That is the answer to the problem of the absurd.

Perhaps the most significant existentialist thinking, at least from the standpoint of St. Therese's Little Way, is Zen.


Zen is a branch of Buddhism. Like all Buddhism, its ontology (i.e., its theory of what constitutes fundamental reality) is steeped in pantheistic monism. This means that the Buddhist believes all things are one. The same spirit (“Brahman”) occupies everything; there are no separate spirits or souls. You are Brahman, I am Brahman, that tree is Brahman, this page is Brahman. If anything is viewed as distinct from another thing, the viewer is caught in an illusion (maya). Zen enlightenment consists of seeing through, eliminating, the distinction among things, including the distinction between oneself and the universe. Zen wants, in the words of Thomas Merton, to attain to an “awareness of pure being beyond subject and object”; it relentlessly seeks to “destroy all figments of the mind or imagination that pretend to convey its meaning,” This is the rationale behind the famous Zen exhortation: “If you meet the Buddha, kill him!” In other words, if you see a separate thing, especially a separate thing that pretends to convey meaning like the image of the Buddha, you're experiencing a mistake.

In short, Zen just wants you to look: Look out and experience, to see, to enjoy, without thinking about yourself. Do not think about your reputation, your knowledge, your wisdom. Do not even think about the progress you're making on the Zen path to enlightenment. To borrow again from Thomas Merton, the Zen insight “consists in a direct grasp of 'mind' or one's 'original face.' And this direct grasp implies rejection of all conceptual media or methods, so that one arrives at mind by 'having no mind.'” This is why Zen is referred to as an existentialist religion. It is a religion that tells us, “just exist” or “just look”–a parallel attitude to Camus' “just accept,” which is related to Sartre's attitude to “just choose,” and highly similar to St. Therese's way of “just doing.”

The Little Way's Existentialism
St. Therese's Little Way is an existentialist way. In the words of Hans Urs von Balthasar in his study, Two Sisters in the Spirit:“The term existential theology affords the best description of the truth that Therese is realizing in her own life and being.”

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The Little Way revolves around what George MacDonald called “the holy Present.” Her life was lived without looking backward or forward. She solely wanted to carry out God's will as it was revealed to her from second to second. With this remarkable narrowness of temporal concerns, she intertwined a thorough self-forgetfulness that undertook the tasks of the immediate present with absolutely no self-regard. She did not step back to look at herself at all, never separated herself from the concrete reality that she found in the here and now. It is an existentialist approach because it eliminates mental concerns about oneself, the concerns that cause us to think about ourselves and the essences that define us and distinguish us from other things. In Therese's case, these essences fell off like shackles from a freed prisoner, and she found herself totally absorbed in the heart of Jesus.

To understand the existentialist-like nature of The Little Way, it is helpful to look at two remarkable parallels between it and Zen.

First, with neither The Little Way nor Zen is a person concerned about his spiritual life. According to Canon Paul Travert, late chaplain of the Carmel of Lisieux: “For St. Therese there are no barriers before God: At whatever stage of the spiritual life the soul may be, whether still struggling against sin or advancing in the practice of virtue, there is but one thing to do: 'to surrender oneself more and more like a child to God's affectionate embrace.'” Similarly, von Balthasar said St. Therese had a “deep distrust of making surveys and standing back to take her bearings. . .”. Likewise, in Zen, there is no goal. The Zen adept becomes enlightened by understanding that he must simply exist with no thought of enlightenment or spiritual advancement. In the words of modern Zen master Shunryu Suzuki in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind: “The points we emphasize are not the stage we attain . . . You may attain some particular stage, of course, but the spirit of your practice should not be based on an egoistic idea.”

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Second, neither The Little Way nor Zen attach much importance to surroundings. All places are good for the pursuit of The Little Way or zazen (Buddhist meditation). Consider these two unrelated quotes from Thomas Merton (the first is from his 1967 book, Mystics and Zen Masters, the second from his 1948 book, Seven Storey Mountain):

What is required [by the Zen master] is not the ability to repeat some esoteric formula from a book . . . but actually to respond in a full and living manner to any 'thing,' a tree, a flower, a bird, or even an inanimate object, perhaps a very lowly one. Zen masters frequently took their examples from the monastery latrine, just to make sure the student should know how to 'accept' every aspect of ordinary life and not be blocked by the mania of dividing things into holy and unholy, noble and ignoble, valuable and valueless. When one attains to pure consciousness, everything has infinite value.

She became a saint, not by running away from the middle class, not by abjuring and despising and cursing the middle class, or the environment in which she had grown up: on the contrary, she clung to it in so far as one could cling to such a thing and be a good Carmelite. She kept everything that was bourgeois about her and was still not incompatible with her vocation . . . To her, it would have been incomprehensible that anyone should think these things were ugly or strange, and it never even occurred to her that she might be expected to give them up, or hate them, or curse them, or bury them under a pile of anathemas.

This “all places are good” idea is common to many existentialist thinkers. Sören Kierkegaard, for instance, discusses at length the ideal “knight of faith” in Fear and Trembling (the pioneer work of existentialism). Kierkegaard's knight of faith is a man who fits in everywhere, among everyone: “This man takes pleasure, takes part, in everything, and whenever one catches him occupied with something his engagement has the persistence of the worldly person whose soul is wrapped up in the such things.” He later talks about the knight of faith coming home to a special meal prepared by his wife and devouring it with an enormous appetite. But, Kierkegaard observes, if “his wife doesn't have the dish, curiously enough he is exactly the same.” Everything is enjoyable to the knight of faith, as he just looks out, without looking at his looking out, taking it all in and enjoying it.

Part II will run tomorrow.