When I mentioned recently I was visiting the relics of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, a friend asked if I was going to see a finger bone or something equally macabre. The mortal remains of this Carmelite nun have, in fact, previously traveled the United States, but these were true artifacts: her pen, inkwell and writing case.
Thérèse lived a short but full 24 years during which she wrote her spiritual masterwork and autobiography, Story of a Soul, before dying from tuberculosis in 1897. My church had the good fortune of hosting her writing relics on their recent tour—the first time these items have left her Carmelite convent in Lisieux, France. Thérèse used the writing case, or écritoire, as it is called, nearly every day from 1894 until her death. She crafted upon it countless plays, poems, letters and prayers, as well as her book. You could say an écritoire was the first laptop. It’s a wooden box that you place atop your legs. A drawer for paper, ink and other essentials pulls out from the side. (My essential would be dark chocolate—a hint at how well I’d survive in a 19th-century convent.)
Apparently this was not Therese’s first lap desk. She gave that one to her sister, Céline, when Céline became a novitiate at the convent. Instead, such was Therese’s humility, modesty and devotion that she dug out of an attic the heaviest, ugliest writing case she could find for herself. It was stained, cracked and warped, its surface entirely inhospitable to paper and pen. Yet she wrote on it every day without fail: in prayer, in meditation, on days when maybe when she wasn’t so thrilled with God’s plan for her, and certainly on her death bed as she suffered.
As I sit here typing these words on an Apple wireless keyboard, sitting in an adjustable TempurPedic chair, sipping a café latte with a leaf pattern worked into the foam, I am beyond humbled. I’ll admit it: I am shamed. As I stood at the altar of my church last month looking over her entirely inadequate tools, I was forced to think deeply about how I face my task each day, particularly the spirit and dedication with which I approach my writing.
So many times we as writers lament that we don’t have a better desk or a private office or a prettier journal. We complain about our kids or the laundry piling up or a general lack of inspiration. (Guilty. Guilty. Guilty.) Thérèse was known as “The Little Flower” because of the smallness with which she presented herself before God. There’s clearly something to be learned from a more monastic approach to our art, and Thérèse is inspiring me to make myself smaller and humbler than ever before the task.
My contact with Thérèse’s relics moved me on many levels, personally and professionally. While I’ve never participated in NaNoWriMo, my vow this month is to write 1,667 words each day and finish the first draft of my novel. To keep that pace, I’m hoping to embrace a more ascetic lifestyle in semi-seclusion and largely away from social media. I might even try sitting on the floor or a bench, balancing a heavy box on my knees while writing in longhand.
Though you’ll have to pry my coffee cup from my bare, withered finger bones. If I do this right, maybe one day someone will want to visit them.
Photo credit: Sandy Dawes