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Is Holiness Sentimental Softness or
Strength of Soul?


Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira

The Church teaches that plenitude of sanctity is attained when virtue is practiced in a heroic degree. The honor of the altar is not granted to hypersensitive, weak souls who flee from profound thoughts, pungent suffering, the struggle, in short, the Cross of Christ. In keeping with the words of her Divine Founder, "The kingdom of heaven is taken by the violent" (Mat 11:12), the Church canonized only those who in life truly fought the good fight, cutting out their own eye or foot when they caused scandal, and sacrificing everything to follow only Our Lord Jesus Christ.

In fact, sanctification implies the greatest heroism because it supposes not only the firm and serious resolution to sacrifice one’s life if need be to remain faithful to Jesus Christ, but also to live a prolonged existence on this earth, if it so pleases God, renouncing at every moment what he loves most in order to attach himself only to the divine will.

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A certain iconography, unfortunately much in use today, presents the Saints in a very different way: as soft, sentimental creatures without personality or strength of character, incapable of serious, solid and coherent ideas, souls moved only by their emotions and, therefore, totally inadequate for the great battles that are always a part of this earthly life.

The figure of St. Therese of the Child Jesus was especially deformed by this bad iconography. Roses, smiles, an inconsistent sentimentality, the soft life, a carefree spirit, bones of sugar and blood of honey – this is the idea we receive of the great, the incomparable Little Saint.

How different this is from the spirit we meet when reading The History of a Soul, a soul as broad and deep as the firmament, as brilliant and ardent as the sun, and yet at the same time so humble and filial!

Our two pictures present, so to speak, two different and even opposite Thereses. The first has nothing of the heroic: it is the insignificant, superficial, perfumed Therese of the romantic and sentimental iconography.

The second is the authentic Therese, photographed on June 7, 1897, shortly before her death, which took place on September 30 of that same year. The face is marked by the deep peace of great and irrevocable renunciations. The features have a clarity, strength and harmony that only souls of iron logic possess. The gaze speaks of tremendous sufferings, experienced in the innermost part of the soul, but at the same time shows the fire and ardor of a heroic heart, resolved to go ahead whatever the cost.

Contemplating this strong, profound physiognomy, as only the grace of God can make the human soul, one thinks of another Face: that of the Holy Shroud of Turin, which no man could imagine or describe. Between that dead Face of Our Lord, which has a peace, strength, depth and suffering that human words cannot express, and the face of St. Therese, there is an imponderable resemblance that is nonetheless real. And why should we be surprised that the Holy Face would imprint something of itself on the face and soul of that one who in religion chose to be called Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face?

Translated from Catholicism n. 30 - June 1953
Posted September 30, 2011

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