Here's an interesting idea for you, posed by a friend of mine in conversation today: why not ask the Holy Father to declare one of the saints a patron saint of atheists and non believers? And to suggest that one of the best candidates for the job is none other that the sister herself, St Therese of the Child Jesus?
Now that struck me as interesting for a number of reasons, one of them being personal. Only last week I met a man who is a professed atheist, but yet shared a number of ideas in common with the Church. In my prayer I gave him into the hands of St Therese and asked her to look after him and guide him to the faith. My friend's suggestion seems like a confirmation of that act of entrustment.
For those who know St Therese's real life, as opposed to the sentimental image, such a proposition would make sense. If ever there was one who understood the darkness of non belief it was Therese. Yes, there have been saints who started out as atheists and then came to faith, but as you read Therese's writings you see very clearly that God was leading her through this dark night of unbelief for a reason. It was to prefect her love of course: if she was to be love at the heart of the Church, then she only had love - even her faith was to pass away - as it will for all of us, as St Paul teaches us: love remains.
Have a quick read of these extracts from Therese's writings. The first details that profound darkness into which her soul entered:
[Jesus] permitted my soul to be invaded by the thickest darkness, and that the thought of heaven, up until then so sweet to me, be no longer anything but the cause of struggle and torment. This trial was to last not a few days or a few weeks, it was not to be extinguished until the hour set by God Himself and this hour has not yet come. I would like to be able to express what I feel, but alas! I believe this is impossible. One would have to travel through this dark tunnel to understand this darkness.
Then suddenly the fog that surrounds me becomes more dense; it penetrates my soul and envelops it in such a way that it is impossible to discover within it the sweet image of my Fatherland; everything has disappeared! When I want to rest my heart fatigued by the darkness that surrounds it by the memory of the luminous country after which I aspire, my torment redoubles; it seems to me that the darkness, borrowing the voice of sinners, says mockingly to me: “You are dreaming about the light, about a fatherland embalmed in the sweetest perfumes; you are dreaming about the eternal possession of the Creator of all these marvels; you believe that one day you will walk out of this fog that surrounds you! Advance, advance; rejoice in death which will give you not what you hope for but a night still more profound, the night of nothingness.”
This third extract is more familiar, it brings to mind Therese's sitting at the table of unbelievers (she speaks of herself in the third person):
She is resigned to eat the bread of sorrow as long as You desire it; she does not wish to rise up from this table filled with bitterness at which poor sinners are eating until the day set by You. Can she not say in her name and in the name of her brothers, “Have pity on us, O Lord, for we are poor sinners!” Oh! Lord, send us away justified. May all those who were not enlightened by the bright flame of faith one day see it shine. O Jesus! if it is needful that the table soiled by them be purified by a soul who loves You, then I desire to eat this bread of trial at this table until it pleases You to bring me into Your bright Kingdom.
See also Michael Gallagher's article on her trial of faith here.
In these we are given a glimpse of her trial of faith, one which makes her truly a woman of the modern age, or to take Pope Pius XI's description of her, as the greatest saint of modern times. She endured what modern man and modern women endures even today - the reality of doubt, the absence of faith, the night of uncertainity - but in her love was her anchor and so her trial purified her love.
There is no official patron saint of atheists and non believers, St Otteran has been described as the patron, but that is based on a silly, untrue story about him. The granting of a patronage must be based on a reality, and St Therese's experience is reality enough for her to be proclaimed.
So, there's something for you to think about and comment on. If any Carmelites are reading this, especially Discalced, we might get our heads together and see if there is anything that could be done. I presume a few bishops will come in handy here.
Therese's "first child": Henri Pranzini, converted on the scaffold before his execution for murder, thanks to her prayers