St Therese of Lisieux

Friday, 2nd October 2009 at 7:49 UTC 9 comments

I write this sat in the Chapter House of York Minster at half midnight, have spent an hour watching and praying a few meters from the relics of St Therese. Aware that I’m somewhat beyond my own comfort zone, the whole thing is a learning experience. But if this event is about reconcilliation, then one thing is for certain: it cannot ‘work’ without give and take from both sides.

I was at the back of the nave when her casket arrived, the Carmelite sisters lined on the steps at the Great West doors, the gathering crowds visible beyond, and the casket being lifted onto the shoulders of the group of men who would carry it to its current resting place in the Minster’s Lady Chapel. If we needed evidence that the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church have come a very long way towards reconciliation, it is here, now.

I can’t claim to understand, let alone approve, the motives of every one of the thousands passing through this building, now only a trickle compared with those first hours, but I can see why people are drawn to remember this person. She came from a pretty ordinary background, had no special education, and yet has become the most recent of the 33 “Doctors of the Church”, the saints with specific teachings for the church. Only 3 are women, and of all 33, Therese is perhaps the least highly educated. But her life is seen as a reminder of the simple message of Christ’s love.

I do find it a little odd, by the way, the number of photos of her that seem to exist. One feels a Saint should not be represented in this way, but it all adds to how ordinary, approachable, she appears. Her greatest teachings are all about love: loving the one with whom our personality clashes, practicing God’s love in the smallest things that are closest to us. “God needs from us neither treasures nor talents, only simplicity” – the message should not be difficult to remember, but too often Christians have forgotten it.

As I sat looking at her casket, seeing the line of people approaching, touching, kissing, kneeling, praying, I found myself wondering how one might relate this seemingly alien activity to someone who has no understanding of it. I realised it would probably be easiest to start by suggesting to the enquirer that they might have stood by the grave of someone important to them who has inspired them in some way; most of us have. It isn’t that we worship that person, or that we believe them to have been perfect, but we take a moment to consider the aspects of their life that inspired us. Two things are different here: this is someone who we haven’t known personally, but who inspires people none-the-less, and the remains are moved from place to place, partly out of a desire to make them more accessible.

I’m not here because I want to worship Therese, though I don’t doubt some will stumble across that line. I haven’t been within 3 meters of the casket, and I doubt I’d want to touch the glass that surrounds it. But being here has reminded me of a few things that I’m sure God would be pleased if I spent more time remembering. First, that if we are to seek reconcilliation, there must be understanding, and that this must be a two way process, one in which both sides step out in faith, even when it feels painful. Second, that we should try hardest to love those we find least easy to love. Finally that we should give people the benefit of the doubt, even when we suspect them of having bad motives.

A phrase came to mind, and to some of you reading this it will be immensely familiar: “the outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace”. I think that’s what is really going on here. The bones may have no intrinsic power, but they certainly point to something that all Christians should be able to identify with: the immeasurable power of God’s love. You’d never guess it was so easy to forget, but we all need reminding once in a while, and I hope this event will help to do just that.

P.S. I doubt that was all coherent. My apologies if it jumped around even more than my normal posts.


Entry filed under: Church, Faith, Religion, York.

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9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Steve thack  |  Friday, 2nd October 2009 at 9:27 UTC

    My instant reaction to this is so strongly negative i shock myself. Usually i can manage an each to their own attitude , for some reason i can’t manage it now. That said g you got me questioning my biases. I have in the past visited graves of famous people – why is that any different? Logically it shouldn’t be but on an emotional level it is. Maybe difference is bones on tour seems too close to turning spirituality into a commodity. (Nope that can’t be it, I’ve taken part in enough events that did that)

  • 2. Steve thack  |  Friday, 2nd October 2009 at 9:58 UTC

    The last two ‘famous ‘ graves i took time to find would be sylvia plath and john smith. (Both grave yards in very beautiful places worth a visit.) Found smith’s grave emotional prob more for what it represents. Logically visiting the bones of a saint shouldn’t be any different so why does it get my protestant blood boiling? Its not just that i think your time would be better spent in the black swan or another nice york pub .

  • 3. Lois  |  Friday, 2nd October 2009 at 12:36 UTC

    Interesting as usual. To put a slightly different slant on it, arriving at work today almost the first thing my colleague told me was that she’d been to see the relics before work this morning, and that 3 other members of staff had gone during the morning. None of them, from what I know, are usually churchgoers, but they had, I suppose, been curious and wanted to see what was going on. She had found the experience interesting, intriguing and somewhat puzzling, engaging her curiosity. That, I think counts as a ‘good experience of church’ which is a positive step for many people who aren’t normally interested in faith.

  • 4. tiggs  |  Friday, 2nd October 2009 at 15:20 UTC

    On a sort of related note –
    On a Sixth form school trip to Moscow, my aggressively secular (don’t go there) class mates were more in awe of, inspired and impressed by the smiley laysister’s heartfelt devotionals to a saint’s relics, than the rather hard-faced curators of Lenin’s house at Gorky.


  • 5. Lois  |  Monday, 5th October 2009 at 12:47 UTC

    Sadly, on the other hand, the other Christian who works for my firm was the most sceptical person I’ve heard on the subject.

    • 6. Graham Martin  |  Monday, 5th October 2009 at 14:43 UTC

      Yes, this is a definite emerging trend. I can’t help but get the feeling certain Christians were rather “getting in God’s way” with their views and reactions. 10,000 people went to see the relics and I don’t your friends were atypical – so many people just wanted to find something and many did; not necessarily answers, but definitely something that can be worked with later (and should have been). It would be cool to hear of people going to Alpha and stuff like that off the back of the visit.

      • 7. Lois  |  Monday, 5th October 2009 at 15:05 UTC

        It would be interesting, since I believe that sceptic person is hosting Alpha at my church…

  • 8. Steve thack  |  Monday, 5th October 2009 at 17:05 UTC

    Alpha : the best way to put people off christianity for life.
    Even more effective than the bizarre veneration of old bones. My views won’t win me friends i’m cool with that i’ve got enough friends thanks. Yes alpha works for a minority, yes visiting the bones turns some onto the life me the saint but i’m still arguing both do more harm than good.

    • 9. Graham Martin  |  Monday, 5th October 2009 at 17:46 UTC

      I’m not totally sure I agree with you. The effect in York has been thousands of people popping into the Minster at all hours of the day to find out what the fuss was all about (footfall of 10,000, but some would have been in anyhow, or were part of pilgrimages).

      We have to offer a mixed economy; everyone from St Paul (all things to all people) to the Archbishop of Canterbury says that. The stories I’m getting are basically all a lot like Lois’ whereby people felt curious to some extent, went and had a look, were moved by it all, but had questions. However and whenever it happens, I hope those people can move further along the path, for want of a better phrase.


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