Winter 1982, Vol. 34, No. 4, pp. 303-311.

Joann Wolski Conn Walter E. Conn:
      Conversion as Self-Transcendence Exemplified in the Life of St. Thérèse of Lisieux

Christian spiritual life entails neither unqualified self-denial nor unrestricted self-fulfillment, but self-transcendence leading to authentic self-realization.

Joann Wolski Conn is associate professor of religious studies at Neumann College, Aston, Pennsylvania. Walter E. Conn is professor of religious studies at Villanova University, Villanova, Pennsylvania.

AFTER much too long a period of neglect, the fundamental spiritual reality of conversion is enjoying something of a mini-fad. A constant flow of writing about it comes forth -- from popular journalistic accounts of cults to scholarly theological analyses of Christian faith. Much of this writing is valuable.(1) Too much of it, however, is lost in the confused dichotomy commonly made between self-sacrifice and self-fulfillment. From the one side we are called to deny our selves, from the other we are urged to realize our full selves. While the gospel call to follow Jesus is often misunderstood as requiring the sacrifice or denial of the self's authentic realization, "pop psychology" has created a self that is essentially a bag of desires, whose realization means fulfilling as many of these desires as possible: "You can never do enough for yourself."(2)

We believe that an authentic Christian interpretation of conversion must be rooted not in self-sacrifice or self-fulfillment but in an understanding of the dynamic reality of self-transcendence as normative for the spiritual life. As an image suggestive of the authentic dynamism of the Christian spiritual life, self-transcendence stands in total opposition to any notion of self-sacrifice as a denial, renunciation, abnegation, or other negation of the self. Without a self, there is no self-transcendence. At the same time, the dynamic image of self-transcendence stands firmly against any idea of self-fulfillment which understands the self as a collection of desires to be fulfilled -- essentially a passive receptacle whose happiness lies in being filled. In contrast to both self-sacrifice and self-fulfillment, self-transcendence proposes the paradoxical claim that authentic self-realization consists, not in the self-centered and illusory attempts either to deny the self or to meet its desires, but in a dynamic movement beyond oneself toward the good of others. After a brief further consideration of self-transcendence, we will look to the life of Thérèse of Lisieux to see how a concrete instance of conversion can be interpreted in terms of self-transcendence.

One of the most profound and precise interpretations of self-transcendence has been presented by Bernard Lonergan.(3) According to his analysis, self-transcendence occurs whenever we respond to the radical, questioning drive of the human spirit for meaning, truth, value, and love. As dynamic components in this exigence for reality, questions for understanding seek meaning. But we are not satisfied with just any meaning, for once attained, we critically search for verifying evidence through reflective questioning heading for true judgments. Further, when understanding and judgment are not just speculative but oriented toward action, there follows the moral question of responsibility: Given my best value judgment of what the situation requires, what am I going to do? And last, since actions never occur in isolation but within the total cognitive and affective context of one's character, there remains the fundamental question of one's radical personal orientation: To what, finally, am I going to commit myself in love?

Among the seemingly endless possible realizations of human potential, such cognitive, moral, and affective self-transcendence is the criterion of authentic self-realization. The gospel's call to intelligent, responsible, loving service of the neighbor demands precisely the fulfillment of the radical personal drive for self-transcendence. Faithful response to this interior law of the human spirit is fidelity to the demand of the Christian life because it is response to the divine presence within us.

While self-transcendence occurs in every instance of intelligent, responsible loving, the crucial instances of self-transcendence are those special, life-transforming events we call conversions.(4) In simplest terms, a conversion is an about-face, a reorientation of one's life. We will consider the possibility of conversions as key instances of self-transcendence in the cognitive, moral, affective, and religious dimensions of life. None of these conversions introduces the reality of self-transcendence to a person's life. Rather, they bring the drive for self-transcendence to center stage and give it a starring role. They turn the possible and sporadic into the probable and regular.


Most broadly, cognitive conversion consists of an insight into one's knowing which allows one to take clearer possession of it and thereby transform one's life. Thérèse of Lisieux, for example, manifests a cognitive conversion insofar as she gradually came to the judgment that her own experience and understanding were a truly valid basis for interpreting her own spirituality as authentic. Her locus of cognitive authority shifts from others to herself and her own interpretation of Scripture and spiritual masters. In the nineteenth-century French Carmelite milieu which perpetuated social conformity and adherence to external religious authority, Thérèse shows, in her letters and autobiography, a gentle but firm trust in her own judgments despite the fact that these convictions were misunderstood or not shared by those around her.

Putting in summary form what is a very complex process in Thérèse's life, her cognitive conversion can be seen by noting the remarkable difference in the locus of authority for Thérèse's thinking at three points in her life. Her autobiography recalls how she thought in 1884, four years before entering Carmel:

All my teachers looked upon me as a very intelligent student, but it wasn't like that at Uncle's house .... [Uncle and Aunt] often spoke highly of the intelligence of others in my presence, but of mine they never said a word, and so I concluded I didn't have any and was resigned to see myself deprived of it.(5)
What Thérèse judges to be true is only what others say or imply. Later, in 1891, during her third year in Carmel, she demonstrates some beginning of trust in insights she developed on her own. It is a meager beginning, still dependent on a confessor's reassurance, but very understandably meager, if we remember that the insights were theological and Thérèse, with no more than a ninth grade education, was an eighteen year old novice thinking about God in a way that differed from every sister in her community. When Thérèse told her prioress that the retreat confessor for that year understood her and explicitly confirmed her attraction to a God who could completely accept a person full of faults, the prioress was shocked at this uncommon view of God and forbade Thérèse to return to speak with that priest. Obediently, Thérèse never spoke to him again, yet she firmly retained this image of God (173-74).(6)

Still later she demonstrates a pattern of consistently trusting he own insights and experience. She becomes a kind of "explorer" into Scripture, for example. "I am constantly discovering in [the Gospels] new lights, hidden and mysterious meanings. I understand and I know from experience that 'the kingdom of God is within you'" (179). When she shared her insights with those dearest to her, they consistently misunderstood or disagreed with her. Thérèse made a basic effort to clarify her views; but when misunderstanding continued, she peacefully persevered in her own vision, for example, of spiritual development as spiritual liberty, not as counting acts of virtue or searching for the more difficult act. (207).(7)

Secure in her judgment that her insight into her experience o the "little way" of trusting love was true, she was faithful to this way even in the darkest trial of faith and eventually became source of strength for many others.


In its most fundamental form, moral conversion is the choice, based on a realization of the difference between "value" and "what's good for me," of value over satisfaction, as the criterion for decision. The one event in her life which Thérèse explicitly designated as a "conversion" fulfills the criteria of a moral conversion. Many years after the event, Thérèse recalled that on returning from Midnight Mass on Christmas, 1886, she overheard her father express annoyance that at age thirteen Thérèse was still planning to be the center of Christmas customs typical of small children. Thérèse's sister, aware of how unusually sensitive Thérèse was and knowing Thérèse heard their father's remarks, was amazed to see Thérèse joyfully carry on as though she had heard nothing (98).

Thérèse calls this "my complete conversion" because a dramatic change happened, she says, "in an instant." The permanent change in direction is from being a girl who "was really unbearable because of [her] extreme touchiness" to a "strong and courageous" young woman whose "source of tears was dried up and has since reopened rarely and with great difficulty." She who "wasn't accustomed to doing things for [herself)" now experienced "the need to forget [herself] and to please others." She now had a great desire to work for "the conversion of sinners" (97, 99).

Thérèse gives this conversion a religious interpretation, but it is more accurately understood as a moral conversion. This is not to deny genuine religious aspects and implications to the event. Rather, it is to affirm that the basic change of direction Thérèse describes corresponds more closely, in three ways, to that of a moral conversion.

The primary characteristic of moral conversion is the shift from concern for self-satisfaction to a desire for a life devoted to value. Thérèse speaks principally of this event as marking a change in her criterion of decision from self-pity to concern for others. Second, moral conversion is an experience of more adult decisionmaking. A movement out of childhood is precisely the process that Thérèse identifies as most characteristic of this event; it marked her "growing up." Third, the qualities of strength and freedom of decision -- characteristics of moral conversion -- are singled out in Thérèse's later interpretations of this conversion (877, 97).(8)


Unfortunately, moral conversion is not moral perfection. Moral conversion is more a beginning than an end, more a challenge than an achievement. To opt for value as a criterion for decision is one thing; to choose consistently according to it is quite another. If the choice of a life of value is to be effective in the long term, and not be just a short bloomer, it must be supported by affective conversion. For Lonergan, affective conversion is a falling-in-love. Through affective conversion one becomes a being-in-love. To a greater or lesser extent, love establishes itself as a first principle, takes over one's life, and from it "flow one's desires and fears, one's joys and sorrows, one's discernment of values, one's decisions and deeds."(9) Just as one can live for the good of one's beloved, or of one's children, when no sacrifice is too great, one's love can also extend to the entire human family. Jesus' example of a vision in which no one is a stranger can become a reality in one's own life.

Thérèse's life is marked by an ever deepening and expanding and maturing love. At her adolescent moral conversion she said, "I felt charity enter into my soul," a love she wanted, at that time, to express through work for the conversion of sinners. This youthful love was characterized by a certain condescending attitude toward these sinners -- she would reach down to "snatch them from the eternal flames." Nine years later she has become a woman who, in the dryness and darkness of her trial of faith, can lovingly identify herself in a relationship of sisterhood with these sinners, these unbelievers at whose table she is content to eat the bread of sorrow (99, 212).

The reality and development, over the years, of her affective conversion is clear when Thérèse declared that the particular grace of the year 1896 (the year before her death) was to finally understand perfectly what charity was. When meditating on John 15:13, she said: "I understood how imperfect was my love for my Sisters. I saw I didn't love them as God loves them," in their faults and weakness. "I understood above all that charity must not remain hidden . . . ," The "more united I am to [Jesus], the more also do I love my Sisters" (220-21).


A life committed to the gospel call of loving service to the neighbor is the route -- long and difficult -- to fully religious conversion, to falling-in-love with God without limits or qualifications or conditions or reservations. In fulfilling our capacity for self-transcendence, such an unrestricted being-in-love with God is experienced as otherworldly joy, peace, bliss.(10) Falling-in-love involves surrender, and falling-in-love with God involves the most profound surrender -- the surrender of one's deepest (though unadmitted) pretense to absolute autonomy. Such unrestricted, loving surrender allows God to move from the periphery to the center of one's life. Now all of one's life -- indeed, all of reality -- is seen as gift.

In the same year in which Thérèse wrote the autobiographical narrative of her Christmas conversion, she committed herself to an action that epitomized the definition of religious conversion: total, permanent, unconditional self-surrender in love. On Trinity Sunday, June 9, 1895, she felt strongly inspired to make a total offering of herself to God's merciful love in the form of an Act of Oblation.

In order to live in one single act of perfect Love, I OFFER MYSELF AS A VICTIM OF HOLOCAUST TO YOUR MERCIFUL LOVE, asking You to consume me incessantly, allowing the waves of infinite tenderness shut up within You to overflow into my soul, and that thus I may become a martyr of Your Love, O my God! (277)
The surrender's totality is conveyed through the image of martyrdom. Permanence is implied in the desire that love consume her incessantly. The oblation is framed precisely in terms of love, a framework radically different from most offerings made by nuns in Thérèse's day who gave themselves to God's justice as victims of reparation for outrages of atheism and secularism.

Conversion is usually a gradual process, though its manifestation may be concentrated in a momentous decision or declaration.(11) So it is in Thérèse's case, where her earlier poetry, letters, and autobiographical manuscript manifest an ever deepening love of God. The Act of Oblation becomes the concentrated declaration of that total, loving abandon.

Conversion also means a new beginning that later blossoms in a cumulative sequence of developments.(12) In Thérèse's case, there is a new perspective at the time of the Oblation; then, later, still newer developments. Thérèse affirms that "the grace" of the Act of Oblation was a new understanding about how much Jesus desires to be loved, and a new beginning of being penetrated and surrounded by love. Her surrender was also a principle of later dramatically new experience and insight: the sudden experience, at Easter 1896, of a plunge into a radical trial of faith; and the remarkably new insights this generated regarding the fact of authentic unbelief and her own affirmation of a relationship of sisterhood with unbelievers. She who formerly was afraid of soiling her baptismal robe could later peacefully declare identity with unbelievers and speak of sinners as "us" (180-81, 212).

Thérèse's surrender in love also exemplifies qualities of the particular type of religious conversion that is Christian.(13) For Christians, conversion is God's own love flooding our hearts. Thérèse understands this love to be the focal point of her experience. Christian conversion is rooted in confidence. On her death bed, her hand barely able to hold a pencil, Thérèse wrote, "I go to Him with confidence and love." Heroism is not required for Christian conversion. Rather, the model is a child who takes for granted that it will receive. These are exactly Thérèse's own sentiments: "I am only a child, powerless and weak, and yet it is my weakness that gives me the boldness of offering myself as a victim of Your Love, O Jesus!" (181, 259, 195).

Dying in great pain and the darkness of her trial of faith, Thérèse's last writings are, nevertheless, permeated with a sense of being fulfilled -- filled with the immensity of love -- and of missionary concern to draw everyone in the world with her into the immensity of this love. Even in emptiness she is fulfilled by reaching out in love.

  1. One of the best foundational treatments of conversion in the explicit context of spirituality is Donald L. Gelpi, Experiencing God: A Theology of Human Emergence (New York: Paulist, 1978). Also see the essays collected in Walter E. Conn ed., Conversion: Perspectives on Personal and Social Transformation (New York: Alba House, 1978).
  2. For a more complete critical discussion of self-sacrifice and self-fulfillment, including authentic meanings of both in terms of self-transcendence, see our "Self-Transcendence in the Spiritual Life: Thérèse of Lisieux" (a paper presented at the annual meeting of the College Theology Society [Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, Penn., June 4-7, 1981] and to appear in the CTS annual publication, edited by Robert Masson (Chico, CA: Scholars Press 1982]) from which this essay is drawn.
  3. See his Method in Theology (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972), pp. 104-5, for a quick sketch; also see selected essays in his Collection, ed. F. E. Crowe (New York: Herder and Herder, 1967), especially pp. 211-67, and A Second Collection, ed. W. F. J. Ryan and B. J. Tyrrell (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1974), especially pp. 69-86, 165-87.
  4. For Lonergan on conversion, see Method in Theology, pp. 237-43, and "Natural Right and Historical Mindedness," Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 51 (1977): 132-43, at 140. In the cognitive dimension, Lonergan focuses on the profound but relatively rare experience of intellectual conversion (philosophical selfappropriation); here we will deliberately consider cognitive conversion in the wider sense of one's discovery of oneself as a knower.
  5. Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, trans. John Clarke, O.C.D. (Washington, D.C.: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1975), p. 82. Hereafter page references to The Autobiography will be cited parenthetically in the text.
  6. See Jean-François Six, Thérèse de Lisieux au Carmel (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1973), p. 141.
  7. See letters of 6 July 1893 and 12 July 1896 in Collected Letters of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, ed. Abbé Combes, trans. F. J. Sheed (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1949).
  8. See letter of 1 November 1896.
  9. Lonergan, Method in Theology, p. 105.
  10. Ibid., p. 243.
  11. Ibid., p. 130.
  12. Ibid.
  13. For an elaboration of these characteristics, see Hans Ming, On Being a Christian (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976), pp. 249-50.