Thérèse and the Friendship Creed
Some of my closest friends are dead. I don’t mean we became friends during their lifetimes. I mean they died before I was born—sometimes centuries before—yet somehow we bonded. One of them’s my BFF.
* * *
Whenever I think of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, warm tones come to mind: yellow tinged with gold, a deep brown—the colors of dandelions and dirt. Perhaps this is no coincidence. I have long loved the Catholic Church from afar, and that affection stems from how earthy it feels, an embrace of everything created, right down to the ordinary bits.
The first time Thérèse and I met, images of her were plastered all over the cathedral for the centenary of her death. At first I paid only scant attention, devoting myself instead to the statues and candles and the Pietà that kept me on my knees for a good half hour.
What finally caught my eye was the face in a photo every Thérèse fan knows. It’s a closeup, grainy, black and white, classic 1890s. Her habit covers the head that her voluminous hair once adorned. Though she didn’t yet have the tuberculosis that killed her at twenty-four, I see fatigue creeping into the shadows beneath her eyes. It doesn’t overcome her expression, though: the calm features and behind them something very, very deep. Alluring seems a funny word for a photo of a nun, but she allured me straight into buying her memoir and starting it on the train home.
* * *
My mother had her own idea of friendship and pursued it with rigorous care. She and her longtime friends would exchange newsy letters on card-store stationery, chat away on the black wall phones in their kitchens, argue over the check at lunch, visit one another’s homes, tolerate one another’s husbands. Reciprocating was law, which led to endless wondering who owed whom a letter or a call or a dinner.
Privately she would bitch about her friends, but the conflicts weren’t enough to ruin the friendships, not mostly. Constancy was part of her friendship creed: friends stayed friends, friends stayed in touch. Friends were also alive, of course. I was a child, I took everything literally, so without a conscious thought her creed became mine.
Thérèse and her family wrote letters too—two thick volumes’ worth—but she didn’t require them of anyone. This was good because I hardly wrote any.
* * *
My ambivalence with Thérèse began within the first few pages of her memoir. She’s nicknamed the Little Flower for good reasons, and one of them is how she expresses herself, which is floral on several levels. “The flower about to tell her story rejoices at having to publish the totally gratuitous gifts of Jesus…. It was He who had her born in a holy soil, impregnated with a virginal perfume.” Oh, brother, part of my brain says even now. It didn’t stop me, though. I paid good money for that book, and I’d be damned if virginal perfume was going to put me off.
But people don’t leap from introduction through annoyance to friendship on sheer determination alone. Something else draws them through, and it unfolded quietly in Thérèse’s book. The portrait of a family steeped in love, two older sisters who doted on her, a third from whom she was inseparable. The simplest of wisdom strewn here and there. “Our Lord’s love is revealed as perfectly in the most simple soul…as in the most excellent soul,” she wrote. “It is to their hearts that God deigns to lower Himself. These are the wild flowers whose simplicity attracts Him.”
When I encountered wisdom like this, something quietly encircled my heart and coddled it in place, refusing to let go, like a friend who knows you need a long, long hug.
* * *
Like many devotees of other faiths, I believed my mother’s creed, recited it from memory, but could not live it. I wrote maybe ten letters in forty-five years. Every incoming call goes to voicemail in my house, to be returned later or, perhaps, not. Alive friends don’t stay friends when treated like this, as the creed says.
My faithlessness cost me a fiancée once. We’d gotten engaged during spring break of my first year at college. I said something with particular ardor, she took it as a marriage proposal, and words like wait or no or I meant it differently never occurred to me. I don’t remember what absorbed me once I returned to school, but something did, because I went silent for weeks—long enough for her to call me from a pay phone in a panic. When I made the mistake of saying, “Stop bothering me,” she shattered the phone booth with one swift kick.
* * *
Friends have things in common, so it’s said, and the more Thérèse told me about her past, the more it sounded familiar. Even at two she was terrified of offending anyone. Her “scruples”—attacks of conscience that compelled her to confess the slightest fault—reflect my twenties, when I asked people to forgive me for offenses they never knew about and probably weren’t offenses anyway.
And she melted down as I do, like the time her cousin Marie visited her in the monastery. Thérèse slid open the door to the grille, through which nuns spoke to their visitors, and began by scolding Marie for a minor fault. When Marie called her heartless, Thérèse slammed the door shut. Of course she did, the thought came to mind. She was a teenage girl. Maybe with PMS. I’ve done my share of slamming inanimate objects, so it was natural for us, on some plane, to look each other in the eyes and say, I get you.
* * *
I never mastered the reciprocating thing either, and that cost me as well.
It was never the right day to invite Alyssa and Mike for dinner. Our children had grown up together: we’d exchanged rides and play dates and talked about work and kids and the challenges that suffused it all. Alyssa possessed the easy grace of picking up the phone and inviting us over spontaneously, the invitation gliding off her tongue as easily as discussing the weather. I wanted to be just like her.
But we keep a messy house, and the effort to clean it—to render it spotless, my OCD insisted—made inviting anyone impossible. I was afraid what they’d think of us, even though I knew what they thought of us, and it involved affection.
Alyssa and Mike stuck with us maybe ten years, and then it was too much. My wife thinks something else happened: a new friend, a growing apart. I couldn’t see it that way. I had broken the reciprocating law, and this was the punishment.
* * *
Thérèse and I are not invite-each-other-over pals. Aside from her memoir, we get together irregularly, the way childhood friends don’t see each other for years and then pick up where they left off.
Another trip to New York, several years later, found me circumambulating St. Patrick’s again. At one point, just to the right of the altar, I turned a corner and there she was, with her own statue this time, in her own nook with candles and a placard with a summary of her life. In an instant I did what I always do when elated: I babbled at her. Details of my life, thoughts about God, how wonderful it was to see her.
She took it all in, I know she did. Why wouldn’t she? Shortly before her death she pledged to spend her heaven doing good on earth, and that must include listening patiently as I babbled at her, the smile of a friend on her lips.
* * *
Nothing about Zoom told me it would shatter my mother’s friendship creed like so many dogmas gone rigid. I’d used Zoom for years—so long that, even before COVID, talking squares on a screen had become a default setting. Then the pandemic broke over us, and the law of reciprocation, in particular, got lost in the backwash.
It was during yet another Zoom meeting that the questions began to arise. When the pandemic’s over, can I live like this? Can the squares on the screen be my friends? If so, who else might qualify? The person I’ve seen once in thirty years but who chats with me on Facebook, can she be my friend? What about people who trade emails with me once, needing my help through a crisis, and then disappear? Or people I have never seen in the flesh but emailed with for half my life?
And then, over time: Yes, yes, yes. Never mind what Mother thought friendship means. I declare all these people my friends. After all, if my friends can be dead, what can’t they be?
* * *
You might call our trip to France a pilgrimage if Thérèse were my matron saint. But she’s my BFF instead, so it was more like a visit to an old friend in which she shows me where she grew up.
Lisieux knows how to make the most of its hometown saint. The basilica for Thérèse towers above everything in its part of town: massive outside, seas of blue tile and marble and granite inside, mosaics from her life, her parents’ reliquary, a bone from Thérèse in a glass box (another standard Catholic practice). I only found her in glimpses there, and I think I know why. The basilica is many things, but it is not little, and Thérèse is little, and so am I, the Little part of the Little Flower.
Which explains why, as soon as we arrived in Lisieux, I hastened to her childhood home: a small square house on a side street, a belvedere atop its roof, hand-lettered sign out front (Les Buissonnets, or little bushes), the backyard covered in gardens, intimate rooms inside. While wandering from room to room I turned a corner and there she was—or her hair was, cascading to waist length in a mounted glass case. I reserve the word luxuriant for the densest, waviest, silkiest hair imaginable. This was luxuriant and then some.
You can know someone forever and still they surprise you, even when they’re dead. Until then, I had thought Thérèse’s hair was dark, like the darkness that enveloped her spirit in her last days. Now I knew better: gold, strands of brown, the earthy color of so many things, like dandelions and dirt but also like leaves at the end of fall, when the tourists have gone and just the fading yellow beeches and copper-colored oaks are left, in all their glorious decaying beauty. Dead has its ways of warming the heart.
* * *
The giftshop in Les Buissonnets sold me the photo of Thérèse I’d seen in the cathedral. Now, from the wall of our “chapel”—a tiny sitting room we set aside for prayer—she turns that deep tired gaze on me. I know deep, and especially tired, and perhaps that’s another reason we’re friends.
I have wondered what people would say if I told them about Thérèse and me. Don’t be ridiculous comes to mind. So does you need some real relationships. Or there is no substitute for live, in-the-flesh friends. Or even my aunt’s been dead ten years and I talk to her every day.
It’s possible that all of these are true, or that none of them are. I wonder if it matters. Perhaps it’s enough that I open her memoir or happen upon her statue and pour out my heart and even hear a response. Perhaps friendship is not what happens between us but what happens within us, each of us transformed because the other is there, wherever there might be.
A spiritual director, bigender person, and quasi-hermit, John Backman has had personal essays published in Catapult, Amethyst Review, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Tiferet Journal, and Sufi Journal, among other places. For the past two years John has been named a top 10 creative nonfiction finalist in the Wild Atlantic Writing Awards.