Edith Piaf and Thérèse of Lisieux
by Fr. J. Linus Ryan, O. Carm.,
National Co-Ordinator, St. Thérèse Relics Visit 2001.
“I thirst for LOVE, fulfil my hope.” [Thérèse PN 31, 6]
In 1999, a book associated the two Christian names Edith and Thérèse with the sub-title ‘The Saint and the Sinner.’
Today the film ‘La Vie en Rose’ (recently released in France under the title of ‘La Môme’—young girl) and showing in Ireland since June 22, 2007, continues to bring them together. Is this a legend? No, it is the truth. In fact, the very first picture on screen shows a desperately ill Edith Piaf on stage in a state of collapse earnestly invoking St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
How has life brought them together? Born in 1913, Edith, abandoned by her mother, was entrusted by her father to her grandmother Louise Gassion. At the age of 7/8 Edith had an inflammation of the cornea (keratin) which for three years had been making her gradually blind. Louise, her grandmother, was a cook in a brothel in Bernay in the province of Eure (not far from Lisieux) and the child was looked after by the women who lived there. They were devastated by her handicap until somebody related a miracle which had become the talk of the town in 1908: the cure of Reine Fouquet, 4½ years old, who also had a keratin. Coming from a working class area of Lisieux she had been cured on the 26th March 1908 having prayed at the grave of Thérèse in the cemetery of Lisieux. “If Thérèse cured the little Fouquet girl she will have to cure my Edith” said the grandmother and off she went with Edith and the women from the house. Taking the train for Lisieux, they climbed up to the cemetery on the hill, as did the thousands of soldiers during the 1914/18 war. They prayed, they returned home with some clay and each evening at Bernay they put a clay bandage on the child’s eyes and lo and behold eight days later Edith was cured.
During her whole life Edith Piaf had a great devotion to Thérèse, wearing her medal around her neck and she kept a little statue of Thérèse on her night table and also in her stage dressing room. Sometime later through ‘Story of a Soul’ (St. Thérèse’s Autobiography) she discovered the journey and the message of Thérèse. Whenever she came on stage she prayed to her and petitioned her. She brought her friends and lovers to her at Lisieux.
Today in Lisieux there are people who remember having seen Edith and Marcel Cerdan, the world boxing champion, before his prize fight in the United States in 1949.
All those who knew Edith are witness to the fact: Thérèse is the intimate friend to whom she entrusts everything.
Is it possible to explain this privileged connection?
Yes. On first reading ‘little Thérèse’ touches simple people by her faith and confidence which put her in direct contact with God. You can ask her anything and that is fine. She spends her heaven, as she promised, doing good on earth. In Lisieux thousands of people come to entrust to Thérèse their sorrows, anxieties and problems and come back afterwards to thank her. It is not unusual to find non-Christians among them. The journey of the Relics of Thérèse through the world (including Ireland) confirmed: “Thérèse is blessed by God”. All the signs of the ‘Storm of Glory’ (Pope Pius XI) that occurred at the beginning of the 20th century are occurring today.
But there are other traits in common between the two women:
Their personal history. Thérèse as a child loved by her sisters and her father was marked at the age of 4½ years by the death of her mother. She was affected by a nervous condition at this loss until at the age of 10 years she was cured by the Blessed Virgin (Our Lady of the Smile). Edith also suffered from maternal abandonment even though she was surrounded by love. As a child and adolescent she suffered greatly from emotional distress. Both of them suffered from the same affective weakness which would mark their whole life: “Am I loved?” asks Thérèse She relates one year before her death that in one of her dreams she asks the question: “Is the Good God content with me?” [Ms B, 2Vº]
The Surname of Edith:
Louis Leplée in 1935, who engaged Edith to sing in a cabaret, wanted to give her a singer’s name: he found that Edith Gassion didn’t sound good. “You remind me of a little sparrow of Paris: you could be called the sparrow kid ‘La Môme’ but it is already taken; then why can’t we call you Piaf?” (Piaf means little sparrow). Thus was born the name Edith Piaf.
Thérèse loved little birds; in her spiritual testament one year before her death she develops a beautiful parable in which she compares herself to a weak little bird, loved by the sun, the Sun of Love. [Ms B, 5]
It is above all in their deep experience that Thérèse and Edith are united: describing in different ways their life of love.
In Thérèse’s case the love she has for “her beloved Spouse”, from a language point of view, is symbolised by flowers and objects (her little crucifix). The images of the ‘Canticle of Canticles’ are repeated with their poetic strength.
Her faith in the Eucharist is not abstract, it is the dialogue of a beloved with her lover. “For lovers solitude is necessary, a heart to heart which lasts night and day . . . just one glance of Yours makes my beatitude . . . I live on love.” When she is in the dark night of faith she interprets it as a test of love.
The romantic life of Edith is a succession of lovers often great stars; but she isn’t sensual, she is looking for tenderness. She is disturbed when she realises that her connection with Marcel Cerdan is endangering a family, a wife and children. Because she herself has suffered a great deal she is very sensitive to the suffering of others. Her last connection with Théo Sarapo is a final SOS to love “Non, rien de rien, je ne regrette rien.” (No regrets)
It is because of the search for love that she finds in Thérèse that Edith is attracted by her. Both of them discover themselves in Mary Magdalene of the Gospel.
Reflecting on her life two years before her death, Thérèse tells us that if she hadn’t met Jesus she also would have been lost. “I know that without Him I could have fallen as low as St. Mary Magdalene and the profound words of Our Lord to Simon resound with a great sweetness in my soul. I know that ‘he to whom less is forgiven LOVES less’, but I also know that Jesus has forgiven me more than St. Mary Magdalene since He forgave me in advance by preventing me from falling.” [Ms A, 38Vº]
She had a particular love for the pardoned sinners that Jesus hasn’t condemned, but to whom He has offered the possibility of a new start.
Through ‘Story of a Soul’ Edith Piaf feels also that she belongs to the same race as Mary Magdalene. Thérèse leads her towards the tenderness of God. Whatever happens for herself as well as for her lovers, Edith knows that for those who love nothing is ever lost. When she comes with them to Lisieux leading them into this trust, she proposes to them the abandonment of Thérèse to the Merciful Love of God. “If I had committed all the crimes in the world I wouldn’t hesitate to throw them into the furnace of love.”
Jesus, who knew the heart of Magdalene, knows the heart of Thérèse and the heart of Edith. They have plunged “into the shoreless Ocean of Love.” [Ms C, 34]