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Author Sarah Law on St. Thérèse, Literature, and the Sacred

April 30, 2024


Great Catholic fiction is not just a thing of the past. There is a grassroots effort of small presses and literary journals creating platforms for emerging Catholic authors to share their unique voices and stories. 

Sarah Law is a lecturer at Open University, a poet, and the editor of the online journal Amethyst Review. She is also the author of Sketches from a Sunlit Heaven (Wipf and Stock, 2022), her debut novel, which chronicles the life and times of St. Thérèse of Lisieux from the perspectives of her siblings and other close associates.

Sarah graciously answered a few questions about how her remarkable novel came to be, her own devotion to St. Thérèse, and her passion for “literature and the sacred.”

Thomas Salerno: In the novel, you describe Thérèse as a “lightning rod of grace” both during her life and after her death. What’s the story of your personal devotion to St. Thérèse? Has she been a lightning rod for your own spiritual life?

Sarah Law: She has, often in quite particular and unusual ways! Although I wasn’t brought up in a religious family, I did meet Thérèse when I was quite young, when there was a special TV documentary about her. I was fascinated by the whole context and trajectory of her life, and how someone could be filled with the strength of their vocation to such an all-consuming degree. Some years later, at my secondary school, I found a very early edition of Histoire d’une Ame (Story of a Soul), Thérèse’s autobiography, in French with yellowing, uncut pages that seemed to have sat there unnoticed for decades. 

In general, Thérèse’s story and presence has rather run alongside mine as I studied, wrote, and worked as a lecturer and academic. I have visited Lisieux once, and long to visit again (the pandemic put paid to a planned trip as I was finishing my novel). But in my experience, Thérèse is often happy to come and visit you! When least expected, I have found statues and portraits of Thérèse: for example, in the cloister walk of the Anglican shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, and (even less likely) on the wall of a humble Norfolk Anglican church (from the 1930s Anglo-Catholic revival) alongside the Blessed Virgin Mary and Dame Julian of Norwich. These serendipitous encounters offer more of a ‘touchstone’ experience, prompting delight and the joy of what feels like a friendship. 

For me, reading, writing, and prayer are all aspects of a contemplative awareness of the sacred, present in all life.

What are some of the unique joys and challenges of writing historical fiction about the life of such a beloved saint?

Thérèse died young, at only twenty-four, but in terms of historical research, one might say her life is hyper-documented. There is no shortage of interesting biographical studies of her, and there is much primary material and scholarly and theological interpretation to absorb. Alongside these, there are the photographs of Thérèse and her family members and contemporaries in Carmel, and the letters that they exchanged with each other over many years. I would spend hours some nights clicking through old photos of the monastery to get a sense of its layout, and then more hours reading the letters and notes Thérèse received and wrote. If you have an affinity with your subject, this research is immersive rather than an exhausting task, so I would class it all as joyful, and not at all like the sort of research and study one can feel forced to do. 

It was true, however, that my increasing awareness of historical context could be uncomfortable. For example, Thérèse’s sister Pauline was attracted to an extreme manifestation of French nationalism in the early twentieth century. More uncomfortable still, when I was researching the cultural life of late nineteenth-century France, I discovered that the Paris Expositions, grand national festivals, were hideously marred by components known as ‘human zoos’; native-born men and women from France’s colonies on display in humiliating pseudo-captivity, enslaved in all but name.

My novel wasn’t conceived to rail against such ghastly practices, but at the same time, I couldn’t simply ignore them. I had to make a decision as to how far I would acknowledge, challenge, or ignore these elements. There is a difficult balance, sometimes, between sympathy and judgment when writing in the voice of historical characters to whom one feels close. I have to wonder, in relation to this, how future writers will view our own failures to empathize with and reach out to the disadvantaged, abused, and marginalized people of today.

What was the most surprising thing you learned in the course of writing Sketches from a Sunlit Heaven?

The most surprising thing about the novel was how compelled I felt to write it in the first place! I wanted to create a fictional world that brought not only Thérèse into focus as a mysterious yet familiar presence but also explored the perspectives of her close family and other significant contacts, as well as their inner journeys. The idea simply wouldn’t let me go, although as a poet I didn’t feel qualified to write it. It really was a case of answering the writerly vocation so well put by Toni Morrison: “If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” 

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I also had many serendipitous finds in the archived letters from and between the nuns. Learning more about how the nuns fled their monastery during the Normandy bombings of the Second World War, and how extraordinary that must have been for those who had been enclosed for decades, was perhaps the most surprising element, and I suspect is still not well known, even among Thérèse’s devotees. 

What made you decide to structure your novel as a series of sketches, as a mosaic of perspectives, from different members of Thérèse’s family circle?

I started with the intention to write in the voices of six of Thérèse’s contemporaries, and definitely from those of her blood sisters. I am predominantly a poet, so writing and polishing short sections of character voice perhaps doesn’t stray too far from my poetic practice. I wasn’t initially sure I’d adopt a mosaic of these six voices, but I admire Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves, with its experimental six-voice structure spread over a long span of years, so I had that model in the back of my mind. As I revised and further developed my own novel, I became aware of its structural echoing of the many letters, sketches, and even mosaic pieces that featured in the text itself—that felt like a good sign. 

The term ‘sketches’ was partly inspired by Thérèse’s sister Céline’s artistic practice of sketching: in my novel, Céline often thinks in terms of an artistic sketch of a scene, character, or object. The rest of the title is taken from when Sister Lucie sees the hot-air balloon floating over the monastery’s cloister, she imagines herself in the balloon with Thérèse, who had died some years previously, “looking down with pleasure from a sunlit heaven.”

Do you have a favorite among the viewpoint characters? Were there any whose voices particularly spoke to your own experiences in some way?

That’s possibly a bit like asking a parent who their favorite child is—impossible to answer, as they are all favorites in their own way. While polishing the final drafts, I realized these characters all contain aspects of me, even when the connections are less obvious. If pushed, I will admit to most easily identifying with Céline; at once watchful, romantic, hesitant, sometimes bad-tempered, and deeply sensitive to both the beauty of the world and the spiritual beauty of her beloved Thérèse, to whom she is the closest in age of the siblings. It’s thanks to Céline that we have so many extant photographs of Thérèse in the Lisieux Carmel, and Céline was also responsible for the rather sugary images of her sister which first introduced Thérèse to the wider world. I can only hope that, like Céline, I continue in faith-filled creativity as a lifelong endeavor.

. . . Even in illness, tiredness, or desolation, Thérèse herself would still have had that great gift of golden light.

It’s been wonderful to hear from some of the novel’s readers that they also have a favorite among the characters. Léonie has been a surprise winner here. I’d be delighted to hear whether further readers like or identify with a particular character from my novel. 

Light is a recurring motif at key moments in the novel. Is there a special significance to that?

Yes: although it wasn’t deliberate, the presence of light is quite persistent through the novel. Light is a common—well, fundamental—image of spiritual insight and consolation, especially among Christians; witness the start of St. John’s Gospel. Light gained an extra relevance in Sketches partly because of Céline’s interest in both art (painting) and photography. When she is allowed to bring her camera into Carmel and sets up a makeshift darkroom underneath the sacristy, I have her musing on the whole process of photography as a process of painting in time and light. 

Thanks to some short recent videos taken in the Lisieux Carmel and freely available online, I’ve seen how the sunlight floods into each nun’s individual cell during the course of the day, and realized how moving that experience of heavenly luminosity must be for the Carmelite who spends so many hours in solitary prayer. It is poignant to think of simple sunshine as such a blessing, and to consider how, even in illness, tiredness, or desolation, Thérèse herself would still have had that great gift of golden light. 

Mortality is an integral theme of Sketches from a Sunlit Heaven. What message does Thérèse’s brief yet powerful earthly life convey to us in the twenty-first century?

I hadn’t set out to have mortality as a prominent theme of the novel, but writing Sketches did reinforce the fact that all life is temporary here on earth, and death was more explicitly a part of life in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries than it has been for us in more recent times. Our 2020 pandemic has perhaps shaken the Western world out of complacency somewhat. It certainly made me realize that Thérèse and her Carmelite sisters lived amidst constant threats to their earthly lives, not least through deadly waves of influenza, and sometimes in the face of military incursion. In Carmel at that time, much emphasis was placed on a ‘good death.’ Suffering, especially end-of-life suffering, was imbued with a spiritual value that can seem alien, if not abhorrent, to us.

During her brief life on earth and in Carmel, Thérèse was attracted to love and to the gifts and battles of the day at hand: small acts of attention and love to those in her care and her community; sustained creative attention, when writing her memoir, under the obedience of her superiors; outreach and encouragement to her correspondents; an ambitious and daring prayer life that demonstrated her trust in a merciful, rather than a judgmental, God. In her own ‘little’ way, Thérèse was a reformer, and many of her insights for and beyond religious life are as relevant today as ever. Her final months, as she was dying from tuberculosis and beset by spiritual darkness, really proved the mettle of her unique soul. Thérèse was endearingly human about her religious practices too, admitting that she sometimes fell asleep when she was supposed to be at prayer. Accepting her own failures without fuss or anxiety is another lesson she can offer us. 

It might well be your responsibility to write a book that you know should be written . . .

You have a keen interest in “literature and the sacred.” What are your thoughts on the current state and future of Catholic literature? 

I think it’s quite promising! I established my online literary journal, Amethyst Review, for new writing engaging with the sacred (of all faiths, or no faith). In the US, there are many exciting-sounding university courses on the Catholic imagination, as well as some wonderful journals such as Presence: A Journal of Catholic Poetry and Dappled Things. In terms of books, Wiseblood Books have published some remarkable novels, and Paraclete Press continues to publish fiction and poetry alongside nonfiction Christian/Catholic titles. And these are just some examples of which I’m aware. One of the great benefits of online networking is simply becoming cognizant of such projects, platforms, and voices and feeling encouraged by them. For me, reading, writing, and prayer are all aspects of a contemplative awareness of the sacred, present in all life. 

How can Catholic writers bring goodness, truth, and beauty to the craft of writing fiction? 

In brief, I would say: definitely from cultivating a prayerful heart, and an informed faith and cultural life if that’s possible. I think we shouldn’t be afraid of confronting ambiguities, conflicts, and mysteries—perhaps especially mysteries, as these make readers read and compel writers to write in the first place. Issue-driven fiction doesn’t always make for the best sort of writing, but consciously looking for goodness and asking in what ways love is present in any story can only be a fruitful strategy. Importantly, we can’t neglect the craft of writing itself, paying attention to style, structure, voice, pace, setting, symbol, and so on will help a work of fiction realize itself to a high and hopefully lasting standard. Writing can be akin to prayer in many ways, and one of them is in attentive practice and commitment, and within that discipline, your own vocation can flourish. 

You currently mentor creative writing students. What other guidance would you offer to aspiring authors?

The more one reads and practices as a writer, the wider the range of literary skills and approaches one can draw on. In the end, one learns to write by writing. There is sometimes a glorious sense of taking off into the heights of imagination and eloquence. Other times, one just has to keep going. Keeping to some sort of narrative pathway or plan is helpful, as long as it’s not too restrictive. There’s always the hope that you are writing something that will make a difference, at least to some readers. If you’re deeply engaged in your subject matter, that will shine through as long as your level of skill can do it justice. And remember Morrison’s quote I referred to above. It might well be your responsibility to write a book that you know should be written—if so, it will be hugely rewarding on at least some level too.