St Therese of Lisieux
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.