When the Little Flower Trumps the Father of Nihilism
By Stefanus Hendrianto, S.J.
A Greek philosopher named Plato once said that beauty is the greatest among the triad of truth, goodness and beauty. Plato described beauty as the eternal splendor of the One showing through the Many. As the Church celebrates the feast of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, let us pause and reflect on how the beauty of a saint has been showing through the Many. Saint Pope Pius X proclaimed St. Thérèse of Lisieux as the greatest Saint of modern times. Indeed, she is the greatest Saint of modern times, because the beauty of her spiritual childhood was a testament on how a saint can change the world.
Marie-Françoise-Thérèse Martin, later known as St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, was born January 2, 1873. A year before Thérèse was born, a German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche published his first book entitled The Birth of Tragedy. Nietzsche stands as a true son of Enlightenment era, who used the masks of rationality and Godless philosophy in his nihilistic approach to life. Meanwhile, Pope Pius XI declared that St. Therese is the “word of God descended from heaven to reveal to us the way of spiritual childhood, and she has traced for us a sure way of salvation.” Indeed, the birth of St. Thérèse was a divine plan to counter the darkness of Nietzschean world of nihilism.
There is a legend that a young Thérèse and Neitzsche did meet when they stayed at the same hotel in Paris in 1887. At that time, St. Thérèse was with her father and her sister on a diocesan pilgrimage to Rome for the priestly jubilee of Pope Leo XIII. It was the year when Nietzsche published his work Beyond Good and Evil. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche wrote, “Perhaps the day will come when…the concepts of ‘God’ and ‘sin’ will seem no more important to us that a child’s toy and a child’s pain seem to an old man – and perhaps ‘the old man’ will then be in need of another toy and another pain—still child enough, an eternal child!”
St. Thérèse would agree with Nietzsche, but she would give her own version of an “eternal child.” An eternal child is one who lives with humility, because a little child is naturally weak. Then, there is poverty in an eternal child because he owns nothing. There is also confidence in an eternal child because he knows that parents are always there to help him, and give him all he needs. Next, there is love in an eternal child, who loves his mother and father. Finally, an eternal child is simple in his thoughts, words and actions. He is only capable of little things. St. Thérèse then would say to Nietzsche that an “eternal child” is not a sign that God is no longer important, but rather a way for us to build a union with God.
In 1888, Nietzsche published one of his final and most notorious writings, in which he proclaimed that “God is dead.” In the same year, Thérèse entered Carmelite Monastery and became a Carmelite postulant. St. Thérèse proclaimed by her life that God was not dead. Moreover, she lived the words of Jesus to his disciple, “Because I live, you also shall live.” Not long after he declared that God is dead, Nietzsche suffered a mental breakdown and his life went awry from that point. Nietzsche lived for another decade, but he died after two strokes partially paralyzed him and left him unable to speak or walk. St. Thérèse also died in 1897 after her long suffering from tuberculosis, but even in her weakest moments she gave glory to God.
As the true son of the Enlightenment era, Nietzsche attempted to find an alternative way in which modern man could try to save humanity from death. Perhaps St. Thérèse would laugh at Nietzsche because he should know that the philosopher Socrates once postulated that philosophy is basically preparation for death! Again, St. Thérèse trumps Nietzsche because she knew the greatest philosopher, Jesus Christ, who transforms the meaning of a good death into the meaning of a good life through his death on the Cross.
Nietzsche’s legacy was the world of nihilism and despair. Nonetheless, the beauty of St. Thérèse’s spiritual childhood rescued the world from Nietzschean despair and nihilism, for there is always hope in the spiritual childhood of St. Thérèse. G.K. Chesterton once pointed out that children always say, “Do it again!” God, too, tells the sun, “Do it again!” every morning. There is always hope in our God who has this eternal appetite of infancy. Although we grow old in our sins, God is always younger than us – he tells us to try again.
Stefanus Hendrianto, SJ is a second year regent at Santa Clara University where he teaches both at the School of Law and Political Science Department.