Therese-Nietzsche dialogue

                    When I wage war against Christianity, the most serious
                    Christians have always been well-disposed to me.
                    - Nietzsche

                    If others were to realise the trials I am undergoing, what a
                    surprise it would be. 
                    - Thérèse of Lisieux

This imaginary conversation brings together two prophetic figures, who in totally different ways, entered agonised zones of silence and solitude. Saint Thérèse of Lisieux and Friedrich Nietzsche never heard of one another. But they were contemporaries, and in a strange sense companion spirits. Nietzsche was born nearly thirty years earlier than Thérèse, and as a philosopher became the symbol of a radical rejection of God - in a spirit of alarm rather than of triumph. When, in January 1889, he embraced a horse that was being whipped in Turin and then entered a mental illness that never left him until his death in 1900, Thérèse was in her first year as a Carmelite novice. Seven years later came the chapter in her life that makes her a possible dialogue partner for Nietzsche - her dramatic eighteen months of crisis of faith. Almost exact quotations from Nietzsche and Thérèse will be marked by italics in the text but - as is obvious - the dialogue takes many liberties and goes beyond anything we know of their explicit statements.

Clash of yes and no

N: You are exactly the kind of person I despise - a weak woman, cringing before a God in the hope of eternity, suppressing your human instincts, locking yourself up in this symbol of unreality, and pretending to do everything because of love.
T: My way of life can be cowardly, if it does not dare to go the whole way. I would love you to know me not just from the outside. I am no longer a silly child in search of comfort.
N: Just a sick young woman with illusions of sanctity, false to the point of innocence.
T: I'm not afraid of your contempt. At least not for myself. Perhaps I am afraid of it for you. What does it do to you, this constantly destructive passion of yours?
N: I am not destructive. My passion is to live a huge yes. But there is so much rubbish in the way. I hate cramped and small lives. My vocation is to disturb them.
T: I too have a mission. My small life wants to be a huge yes. And certainly, there is rubbish around, even in the spiritual piety of my convent.
N: A temple to an escapist "no" to life.
T: Even you have to say a small "no" - to make space for your bigger "yes". My mission is to awaken the world to the call of love.
N: And how will they hear the alarm clock? Are you writing explosive pages like I am?
T: Perhaps yes. I am writing about myself and about the littleness and the darkness of love, even the terrible darkness of God. You have not seen my pages any more than I have seen yours.
N: Perhaps you have visited some minor darkness. But you have chosen to cling to a grim trust in God. That's where we differ. I choose perilous strength. You choose infantile weakness. You sacrifice everything for the "salvation of your soul", mere spiritual egoism, making the world revolve around you. You are afraid to live.
T: I am not afraid to love. And to me to love is to live. My deepest fear is not to love - to waste this life, making everything revolve around me.
N: I too have a horror of waste and of not embracing the risk of depth. But that involves a rare and disturbing road.
T: Of course it does. All my life since the age of twelve, I have asked to be disturbed every day into greater space for love.
N: Who is there to ask? "God", I suppose. I have only my own will to live from. We have to invent our lives ourselves.
T: You sound too lonely in those depths. Is there no relationship? Is there only your power of will and your suspicion of all the old answers?
N: I deliberately cultivate a mixture of power and suspicion. To protect that road you need to be lonely - so as not to become one of the herd.

Risking the darkness

T: I know the sense of utter loneliness but it is never the total truth. Embracing the darkness in solitude is a form of love.
N: Love is just a word for a feeling we like to have. It masks our lust for self-comfort.
T: No, it is a flow that starts from another Person. I know, even in darkness, the presence of a Face.
N: For a moment I thought we had more in common. Now I hear the boring old fairy-tale about a friendly God secretly beside us. A fantasy children need to see them through the night! The source of mediocrity in adults who can't face reality!
T: But what if children were right? They trust naturally. You cannot trust, it seems.
N: I once wrote that the child is the climax of wisdom. We are not to be camels, carrying every burden, or lions, roaring in anger. But children who have the innocence to cry a Yes to life.
T: l know your camels and your lions too. There are so many burdens and so much to resent. The child does not banish the camel and the lion but embraces them.
N: That sounds too girlish, too unmanly. Can you embrace the insane dark?
T: When I can't see my lover and can't feel him, trusting becomes an agony, an absence, an emptiness. I am terrified by my own thoughts when that darkness lasts. I am plagued by doubts at least in the mind.
N: Only in the mind?
T: My heart tries to stay steady in spite of my imagination. I hear inner voices that mock me. They tell me that all is illusion, that there is no God, no heaven, that I am wasting my little life in this impossible fantasy of loving. Perhaps there is nobody to love. That is the most terrible thought.
N: I was about to join the mocking voices. I was about to attack your flight from reality. It seemed too serene to be real. But you got there ahead of me. We are twins in at least one thing: you also know something of agony and dark aloneness.
T: My worry is that you have embraced agony as an idol. Your anger about the smallness of God leaves your imagination with no space for a larger God. You seem an honest but terribly divided man.
N: And you are an honest but terribly innocent girl. Yours is a world I have left behind. I saw into a cultural earthquake that makes all those securities impossible. Yes, I am a divided man. That is my fate, which I live sometimes as tragedy and sometimes as joy.
T: Your atheism seems a kind of "piety". If you really followed the passion in you, faith need not mean going back to the damaged God but being found by the liberating One.
N: Too soft for me, my dear. I have seen through the snares of false desire. I have seen through the misuse of power in the name of religion. It is too sick to be believed by someone who has passed through my crucible of suspicion. I can only believe in my own urge to create. The religious urge, set free from the old forms of "god", can give birth to great art.
T: What you call the old forms of God are what killed Jesus.
N: Do not talk to me of him. His beauty haunts me in spite of my hatred of his followers.
T: His beauty was to go into the darkness out of love. And we both, with all our differences, try to echo his courage. We both know that the dark is terrible but the only way . You have dared to enter areas most people don't even imagine. Out of the depths you have cried, I am sure, in your writings.
N: Nobody has ever dared recognise me in those depths. Can a little nun like you grasp my agony and my aloneness?
T: I choose to share them. I have lost all feeling of faith. I have crossed lonely thresholds where nobody understands. Love alone survives.
N: Every great human explorer is more afraid of being understood than of being misunderstood. I will go mad because I cannot believe in love.
T: You might go mad if you cannot receive in love. Darkness without trust is a danger zone.
N: There is no protection, no trust.
T: I will be both for you, if you let me.
N: You are amazing but I fear incredible.
T: I am incredible because you see no power in littleness, in surrender, in a child's confidence. That is my secret which allows me to dare the dark.
N: And my fate is that I confront depths and darks naked, without shields, utterly alone, like a man. I have never surrendered.
T: You are too alone my friend. Terribly so.,

Moments of breakthrough

N: To me you still represent all that I despise in Christianity - its ascetical ideal, its disgust with life, its slave mentality, its hatred of the senses, its escape into eternity. Religion is sickness, born out of fear and need. Do you not see that you killed your humanity when you entered the convent?
T: I know the dangers you are talking about. They were real for me in earlier years. My family, like yours, was "ascetical" in its faith. It seemed right to flee from life, thinking that I was seeking God. But experiences have made me move on. I left behind that older language when I found myself invited into frightening depths. I needed to be pruned of my safer pieties.
N: What kind of turning points could you have found, remaining within this terrible structure of your nunnery?
T: I had several turning points but perhaps two main ones. The first was before I entered Carmel. It happened at Christmas, a week before my fourteenth birthday. A small epis ode provoked a major change. I overheard my father comment that it was just as well this was the last time for the childhood custom of Christmas stockings. My first reaction was typical of me: I nearly burst into tears. But then I crossed a threshold in myself. I went downstairs as an adult, playing the old tradition with a new lightness. My father was delighted. In that night of light, I rediscovered a strength of spirit that I had lost at four and a half when my mother died. I had taken my life into my own hands. I became strong. I stopped being a sensitive victim.
N: To my surprise I like what you say. The adult child, who emerges from childishness into power - to live a difficult "yes". And the second turning point?
T: I mentioned it already. It is what most brings us together. It also happened at a feast, at Easter ten years later. I had lived with eyes on eternity and those eyes went blind. And that blindness forced me to embrace a darker companionship, dare I say, with you and people like you who cannot believe the old story in the old way. Of course I struggled against the terrible thoughts but they continued to plague me. I heard voices making fun of all my hopes: "Go ahead, rejoice in a death that will give you .. only a darker night, the night of nothingness".
N: But it was only a pious game for you. You were playing with danger but safe in the "hands of God".

Companions on the edge

T: You of all people should understand me: I was both in danger and desperate in my trusting. It was not a game. It was an agony. I once imagined suicide. I held on to hope with no help from my feelings. It was like a madness I had to hide from others, but which gave me a whole new mission.
N: Yes, I should understand you. You echo my many moments of living out on the edge, even though my depth journeys were so different.
T: Tell me something of your turning points.
N: I had so many. But there was one revelation that I never could fully express, because it shook all my previous foundations. Like yours it happened at a definite time and place, in my beloved mountains at Sils Maria in August 1881. I sensed myself caught up into an eternal becoming, an eternal return, and knew myself fated to proclaim a sacred Yes to all of humanity. It was mysticism without God, except that I was put, terribly, in the place of God. That was the moment in which I brought to birth my new vision and only my love for that moment allowed me to endure the isolation of all these years.
T: Why are you sure it was "without God"?
N: Because for me the only God I knew was impossible, a tyrant, a power, an insult.
T: And yet you speak so tenderly of Jesus.
N: I could never connect those two words together: Jesus and God.
T: Unless they meet, neither word makes sense. Jesus transformed God! He tore away those masks of tyranny that made you suffer for so long.
N: I cannot, simply cannot, trust that simplicity.
T: Because you cling to your shield of suspicion. Would you hope to destroy my faith?
N: Not any more. I thought it was the usual weak and demeaning thing but it is not. It is real for you, deep and costly. Such genuine faith does not deceive. It fulfils whatever the believer expects. You have come from poverty into power.
T: But not on my own, only with Jesus.
N: There we part company, as you know.
T: Not completely, because I want to share your road too.
N: Earlier I would have spat at that remark as condescending. Now I do not reject you. When we are gone people will discover us through our words.
T: Yes, I feel many will read my words.
N: What will they find?
t childhood is wisdom. That God is tenderness rather than power, and yet rupture rather than repose. That daily life is the place of our love adventure. That there is light at first and then terrible darkness. That our solitude and our silence are spaces of encounter, sources of flourishing. That beneath all the suspicion lies an ocean of trust without shadows.
N: Your confidence rings foreign to me, but in our different light and our different dark, you are a strange companion.
T: So we can be com-panions, sharing the same bread.
N: You believe. I seek. But, I now see, you also seek - like a real saint, like a real artist.
T: I also want to be a priest and poet of yes - like you!
N: You are different. You are like - a divine comedy.

This dialogue is part of a book entitled Dive Deeper: the human poetry of faith, pub lished by Darton Longman and Todd, London, in June 2001.