You can’t be sort of a saint,
you have to be a total saint
or not at all.
This quote comes from St. Thérèse’s letter to seminarian Maurice Bellière, written 21 June 1897. Thérèse had been corresponding with the seminarian since October 1896, and this particular letter is a reply to Bellière’s Pentecost Monday letter (7 June 1897), where he tells Thérèse that he will begin his novitiate with the Missionaries of Africa (Pères Blancs or White Fathers) on October 1.
Thérèse’s remark falls within the context of Bellière’s comments to the prioress in his initial letter of 15 October 1895 [Cf. the editorial notes to Prayer 8], where he stated that he had aspirations of sanctity as a seminarian, but in the awareness of his weakness, he requested that one of the nuns should pray for him.
Thérèse describes Bellière’s letter in Manuscript C and makes mention of that letter when she writes to him on 21 June:
Sometimes Jesus likes “to reveal his secrets to infants“; the proof is that after reading your first letter of 15 Oct. 95, I thought the same thing as your Director: you can’t be sort of a saint, you have to be a total saint or not at all.
Mother Agnès responded to Bellière’s initial letter of 15 October with words of encouragement for his spiritual life and tells him that she has assigned Thérèse to accompany him in prayer and sacrifice [Cf. editorial notes to Prayer 8 above].
On 23 October 1895, the young seminarian—bursting with hope and renewed spiritual energy—replied to Mother Agnès:
Now I am no longer afraid, and I feel a new ardor in my heart and it will prevail. I will be a saint, I want to be a saint—besides, I say priest, I say missionary above all, I say saint—and if I say saint, why not say martyr. What an ideal, Mother! Priest, apostle, and martyr!
To cast the words of Thérèse in our 21st-century context, the translator researches the use of the modifier à demi in the previous centuries. For example, how did French writers such as Georges Bernanos (author of Dialogues of the Carmelites) use the expression?
In the examples given in the University of Lorraine’s online masterpiece called the TLFi, which is based on the 16-volume dictionary Trésor de la Langue Française, the expression à demi means incomplete, partial, partly, and almost. The Trésor couldn’t be any clearer when it states that the antonym is tout à fait (which was the choice of Thérèse), i.e., completely or totally.
In the example cited from Georges Bernanos’ final novel, A Bad Dream (1948), Bernanos writes, “La tête minuscule (…) disparaît à demi sous les plis d’un cache-nez” (The tiny head (…) almost disappears under the folds of a muffler).
French is a precise language and the Trésor de la Langue Française indicates just how precise it can be concerning the expression à demi versus the word demi. If you ask what time it is in Paris and your hostess for the evening says, une heure et demie, you’ve had so much fun that you’ve stayed until 1:30 in the morning.
The Trésor explains that only in these cases—when referring to a half hour (demi-heure), half a loaf of bread (demi-baguette), or half of any substance—does the word demi indicate 50% of the total quantity. Without a substance to quantify, à demi has the less precise meaning: almost, incomplete, or partial.
But further, to be slavishly faithful to St. Thérèse’s thought, she addresses the seminarian Bellière in the future tense, speaking of the attitude that he must adopt as he begins his life as a missionary. “You won’t be able to be kind of holy, you’ll have to be completely holy.”
Our desire as a translator always is to preserve fidelity to the original text by thoroughly researching the context, the setting in life, and the historical record of the language. Today’s tools, such as the Tresor de la Langue Français website and the invaluable online Archives of the Carmel of Lisieux, offer many expanded options to achieve these goals.
We are grateful to our Discalced Carmelite predecessors, especially to Father John Clarke, O.C.D., who labored long and hard over the past century to bring the words of Thérèse to readers of American English. From time to time, we will continue to add our small contributions to their monumental work.
As St. Thérèse herself noted in her letter, “I sensed that you might have an energetic soul and that is why I was happy to become your sister.” Translators need energetic souls to undertake and persevere in their work, too.
Here is the original paragraph from LT 247, the letter from St. Thérèse to Abbé Bellière dated 21 June 1897, which also was the feast day of Mother Marie de Gonzague.
Quelquefois Jésus se plaît «à révéler ses secrets aux plus petits», la preuve, c’est qu’après avoir lu votre première lettre du 15 oct. 95, j’ai pensé la même chose que votre Directeur: Vous ne pourrez être un saint à demi, il vous faudra l’être tout à fait ou pas du tout. J’ai senti que vous deviez avoir une âme énergique et c’est pour cela que je fus heureuse de devenir votre soeur.
Sometimes Jesus likes to “reveal his secrets to infants”, the proof is that after reading your first letter of 15 Oct. 95, I thought the same thing as your Director: You can’t be sort of a saint, you have to be a total saint or not at all. I sensed that you might have an energetic soul and that is why I was happy to become your sister.
On the website of the Archives of the Carmel of Lisieux you can read both the complete text of Letter 247 in French and the complete text of its English translation by Fr. John Clarke, O.C.D. The Archives website also has the complete text in French of Abbé Bellière’s 23 October 1895 letter to Mother Agnès but they only have extracts available in English. Studies on the 15 October correspondence and the subsequent reply were published in the scholarly journal Vie Thérèsienne, nos. 12, 13, 14, October 1963 — April 1964; and nos. 66-69, October 1963 — April 1964.
Translation from the French text is the blogger’s own work product. This blog post is dedicated in honor of Père François-Marie Léthel, O.C.D. — sine qua non