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Little Big Hearts in France

October 1, 2012


St. Thérèse of Lisieux holds a particular fascination for girls in their early teens. My Catholic friends have told me of little altars they made in their rooms with pictures and statues of the The Little Flower.  As a latecomer to the Faith, I have tried to make up for lost time, finding my own plaster statue on eBay and putting it in a place of honor in my bedroom along with a small bouquet of paper roses.

When I was the same age as my friends, I was going through an obsession of my own.  I was working my way through the biography shelves of our town’s library.  I remember becoming quite enamored of Dorothy Parker, not the best role model for a young high-schooler.  My attempts at Parker style wit were not well received by my family, especially when practicing these skills at Sunday dinners to the mortification of my mother.  There’s been a bit of Parker that’s stayed with me, but I’ve toned it down and tried to keep it charitable.

My library strategy must have been purely alphabetical, since the next the biography I latched onto with vigor was that of Edith Piaf.  I did not realize at the time the connection between my new idol and the saint to whom my Catholic peers were simultaneously so dedicated.

Two French women who were so very different, yet with so much in common:  St. Thérèse of Lisieux, The Little Flower, co-patroness of France (with the St. Jean d’Arc, something of a ‘little’ warrior) and Edith Gassion, ‘la mome piaf’, the little sparrow who became the secular patroness of Paris and the French people.

Edith Gassion, born in 1915, narrowly escaping a birth literally on the street, had a childhood almost diametrically opposed to that of Thérèse Martin.  Whereas Thérèse was the coddled child in a pious and prosperous family, blessed with parents who have now themselves been beatified, Edith was the child of street performers whose care of her was erratic and lacking in nurturing. 

A brothel in Normandy, run by her father’s mother, was Edith’s eventual home.  While her grandmother may have not doted on her, the prostitutes in the house did.  “Les filles perdues”, despised by the townspeople (though also patronized by them) were the conduit of love for this child.  Some of them, in fact, had children who had been taken from them and little Edith was a welcome outlet for their maternal inclinations.

The almost in their “almost diametrically opposed” childhoods” is from the one great thing that Edith and Thérèse did have in common – the early childhood loss of a mother. One mother lost by death and another lost by the mother’s own pathetic choices. The abandoned Edith had the ladies of the brothel to mother her, while Thérèse was blessed with the loving ministrations of her older sisters

Edith had been quite unhealthy in her first years when she had bounced between parents as well as her maternal grandmother. Her health improved when she lived at the brothel, though she was still plagued with severe visual problems caused by an inflammation of the cornea. When the salves prescribed by the doctor did not help, Edith’s grandmother and the women in her employ arranged a pilgrimage to Lisieux to ask for St. Thérèse’s intercession. By some accounts, Edith’s vision was restored within days of this trip. There are other versions of the story which have the women visiting Lisieux in thanksgiving for prayers answered after a cure had been affected. Whichever version is true, the important thing is that this was the beginning of Edith’s lifelong devotion to St. Thérèse. 

Reading later about Piaf’s life I was touched by the amount of faith to be found in her life. If one is taken with a Saint (and Doctor of the Church!) as pure as Thérèse it could be easy to dismiss any interest in another Frenchwoman whose life was so different and scandalous. But what are we to think of someone who grew up chaotically and without the thorough catechesis, sincere piety and affection that characterized the Martin home? 

Zélie and Louis Martin did not make Thérèse a saint. There are many great, pious parents whose children fall far short of that ideal. But the Martin’s influence surely didn’t hurt. To see the depth of faith that Piaf developed in her circumstances is enlightening and encouraging. When Edith was 14 – about the same age that Thérèse was when she aspired to be admitted to Carmel – she was singing in the streets while her father, now back in her life, performed acrobatics. The busker’s life on the streets of Paris was harsher and much less romantic than we could envision it. This was no “vie en rose.”

Piaf’s life on the streets was rough and she, unknown to many of her acquaintances, would slip into churches to pray when not performing. Edith became a mother at age seventeen and was devastated by the loss of Marcelle (‘Cecelle’), her only child, two years later from meningitis. Fame and wealth were to come later, but there are wounds that stay with one forever.

Though poorly catechized and roughly parented there was a spark of divine love in her, as in all of God’s children. Although not nurtured by a family such as the one Thérèse had, this spark was also not extinguished nor left to burn out. She had an understanding of the immense meaning of life and eternity, especially when learned through a wounded mother’s heart.

Since my teenage infatuation with Piaf, I have learned more about a woman who may not have loved wisely, but did love—with a great devotion to another small soul of such significance to the people of France.  For those who would be interested, No Regrets: The Life of Edith Piafby Carolyn Burke   sheds more light on the life of this little sparrow with a large heart.  She elucidates generously the spiritual aspects of Piaf’s life, teaching more than I had culled from my teenage reading.   

Piaf died in 1963, worn and broken, having emptied herself for her art and her country. Denied a funeral Mass by the Archbishop of Paris because of “a public life in a state of sin”, there was a compromise made and a small funeral was held before the burial as well as graveside blessings and absolution.

I would say that I have to agree with the Archbishop. But I also agree with the people of Paris who had taken this little sparrow to their hearts. And I’ll let it rest here, where I must take into consideration the words of St. John of the Cross: “In the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone.” And that is love: real love, not “luv”, not syrupy emotion.

Thérèse of Lisieux lived, loved, suffered, and died in absolute obscurity. We do well to remember that her real life, too, was not the romanticized “vie en rose” of popular piety. Piaf lived and loved….she too suffered and died, but with an end that stopped traffic as more than 50,000 mourners brought the streets of Paris to a halt as they followed her body, still holding holy cards and her statue of St. Thérèse, in procession to Pere-Lachaise Cemetery.

The contrast between these two small souls with big hearts is great. Yet there is also a great connection that can be no little coincidence.