St. Thérèse and Martin Heidegger
Thérèse opened for us a spirituality of mysticism that is ordinary.
St. Thérèse unknowingly mastered phenomenology, which is the reason her simple childlike way is so compelling. She approaches us from the standpoint of enchanting experience and mesmerizing hermeneutics in her everyday life rather than academic erudition. The dry path of deductive reasoning through the painstaking rigors of medieval metaphysics, while necessary for our faith, does not readily imbue us with a comprehension of the meaning of our individual lived experience. Metaphysics confirm us in the faith but rarely, if ever, open us to unravel the mystery of our own being, which is what phenomenology helps accomplish in us. Thérèse perceived the phenomenon of her life as a process-of-being that evokes a sense of mystery – a sense that something is there but hidden – what is it?
…but generally I preferred to sit on the grass some distance away. Then my reflections became really deep, and, without knowing what meditation meant, my soul was absorbed in prayer. Far-off sounds reached me, the murmuring of the wind, sometimes a few uncertain notes of music from a military band in the town a long way off; all this imparted a touch of melancholy to my thoughts. Earth seemed a place of exile, and I dreamed of Heaven.1
A key figure in phenomenology, Martin Heidegger was instrumental in influencing modern philosophy to ask the same question. He developed a single concept that summed up his philosophy – presence is not Being. There is always something hidden in Being – what is it? Like Thérèse he knew that the dry path of deductive metaphysics would never reveal the meaning of Being which could only be discovered phenomenologically. To understand the true meaning of our Being, he posited, we need to look anew beyond metaphysics - to their foundation - through the lens of interpretative phenomenology. We need to let Being speak to us out of its obscurity in ‘original experience.’
…then the decisive question, and the place where an answer to the crisis is to be found, is in bringing the subject matters under investigation to an original experience, before their concealment by a particular scientific inquiry.2
The more we measure, weigh, and otherwise analyze Being as an object to be studied, the more Being withdraws from our view because “presence is not Being.” We might say the presentation of a particular being is not the full manifestation of Being. The more we analyze presence, the more the true essence of a thing is hidden - “Earth seemed a place of exile,” Thérèse recalled as she became aware that the essence of earthly life remains hidden. In a Thérèsian sense, Heidegger was on the right track; he urged us in the right direction. To comprehend the enchanting ‘hidden,’ we must approach its meaning phenomenologically.
This amounts to saying that the manner of research is neither historiological nor systematic, but instead phenomenological.3
Heidegger’s approach was descriptive and hermeneutical. He was not a metaphysician. That left him pointing in the right direction and asking the right questions but with a dearth of metaphysical framework that could lead nowhere but to the angst and fear of death.
What if we ask the right questions and approach the meaning of Being with full, Catholic metaphysics? This is what Thérèse does for us. For Thérèse God not only is the first cause (necessary but dry scholastic knowledge – an analysis of presence), God is the ‘hidden’ phenomenon of lived experience that appears in our day-to-day existential reality - “the murmuring of the wind, sometimes a few uncertain notes of music.” God is the concealed ‘original experience’ Heidegger seeks. He is Being itself. He is “I AM.” Our Little Flower frames her autobiography from the outset with a stunning display of phenomenological insight imbued with Catholic metaphysics.
Our Lord has deigned to explain this mystery to me. He showed me the book of nature, and I understood that every flower created by Him is beautiful, that the brilliance of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not lessen the perfume of the violet or the sweet simplicity of the daisy. I understood that if all the lowly flowers wished to be roses, nature would lose its springtide beauty, and the fields would no longer be enameled with lovely hues. And so it is in the world of souls, Our Lord’s living garden. He has been pleased to create great Saints who may be compared to the lily and the rose, but He has also created lesser ones, who must be content to be daisies or simple violets flowering at His Feet, and whose mission it is to gladden His Divine Eyes when He deigns to look down on them. And the more gladly they do His Will the greater is their perfection… As the sun shines both on the cedar and on the floweret, so the Divine Sun illumines every soul, great and small, and all correspond to His care–just as in nature the seasons are so disposed that on the appointed day the humblest daisy shall unfold its petals.4
Heidegger posited that every great philosopher has one idea he spends his entire life developing. With her metaphor of the “book of nature”, Thérèse presents us with her one idea that she developed both intellectually and through lived experience into a towering model of spirituality – her “little way” of childlike trust in God. She revealed to us a heavenly form - metaphysics - for the perfection of souls through phenomenological discovery. She ‘understood’ not only the metaphysics of what Jesus was telling her but its meaning. To reveal the form and then explain it, she first had to contemplate “an original experience, before their (the subject matters) concealment by a particular scientific inquiry” and develop a manner of correlative insight that was “neither historiological nor systematic, but instead phenomenological.”
Thérèse opened for us a spirituality of mysticism that is ordinary. She unlocked for us the “little way,” the pathway of childlike trust in God that is imbued with the “ordinary” mysticism of phenomenology. Not everyone is St. Francis, St. Teresa of Jesus, St. John of the Cross, or St. Padre Pio with special signal graces that create new spring times for the universal Church. However, everyone can live the unremarkable way of Thérèse, a way of ‘original experience’ and phenomenological purity through that experience guided and protected by Catholic metaphysics. The “little way” is the way of ordinary mysticism for any Catholic. We can all participate in ordinary Catholic mysticism.
Martin Heidegger could see what was needed to understand the true meaning of our Being. He profoundly changed the world through a simple concept that “presence is not Being.” The result was that we must seek the meaning of our hidden Being through original experience, through a phenomenology of everyday living. St. Thérèse might agree within context. Four days after Heidegger’s eight birthday, St. Thérèse of Lisieux died in the loving embrace of Jesus, who is the source of all life-giving phenomenological experience and, importantly, the source of true metaphysics that guide the experience to its proper fulfillment in Heaven.
Thérèse, St. The Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. London: Burns, Oates, & Washbourne, LD, 1912., p. 37-38.
Heidegger, Martin. History of the Concept of Time, n.d., pp. 4-5.
Ibid. p. 7.
Thérèse, The Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. p. 22.