Saturday, October 10, 2009

Thérèse of Lisieux - Daniel Lloyd

Each Monday a student gives a short homily at the end of Evening Prayer. This week Daniel Lloyd, a third year ordinand, reflects on the visit of the relics of S. Thérèse of Lisieux to Oxford. During the visit staff and students went to venerate the relics and attend Mass at the Oxford Oratory in her presence. It was a wonderful, grace-filled visit for the 6,200 pilgrims of which we were but a small part.

Most of us will never have seen the bones of a twenty-four-year-old woman. As you will probably know, unless you have spend the weeks before the start of term living in a cave, the relics of Marie-Françoise-Thérèse Martin, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, are making a journey around this country. They are presently reposing in Nottingham Cathedral, having been inter alia to Liverpool, Portsmouth and York, and with Gerrards Cross and London to come. On Wednesday and Thursday, they will be in the Oratory here in Oxford, where a comprehensive programme of devotions and veneration is to take place.

Thérèse is, in many ways, a saint of modernity. Hers is an iconography inseparable from photography and mass-media reproduction. Staged representations of a type common in the late nineteenth-century confront us at every turn: Young Thérèse Martin with her high collar and hair worn up, Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus in full habit looking pensive in a garden, even the soon-to-be beata, crowned with flowers, depicted serene on her deathbed.

There is no doubt that she was forthright person. Indeed, at fifteen she wanted so much to enter the Carmelite Convent at Lisieux that, on being refused by its superior, she went to Rome with her father Louis to seek audience of Pope Leo XIII. A letter she wrote back to the Convent included the line “the good Pope is so old that one would think he is dead”, a line excised at the time of her canonization process.

Nevertheless, Leo outlived the eager teenager by six years, since she died of tuberculosis in 1897, at the age of just 24. The sceptic says, in the readiness with which she posed for holy photographs, and in a certain flintiness of gaze which one might detect in the pale-faced little creature, we can discount her as an anomaly, a sugary saint manufactured for an exhausted French church going through difficult relations with the state, as close to a real saint as a telly academic is to those horny-handed toilers in Bodley’s Library.

The journalist and former MP Matthew Parris gives our sceptic a helping hand, or rather a great big shove, in a recent column in the Times: ‘“Organisers said that the arrival of the casket […] was likely to attract hundreds of thousands of pilgrims.” I’m sorry: “pilgrims”? Isn’t the word “dupes”? Does balanced reporting require neutrality even towards the self-evidently preposterous?’

So, we can discount the saint because we don’t understand her; we can discount the veneration of her relics because such practice is self-evidently, and I quote, “paganistic nonsense”. Her shrine at Lisieux is bad-taste in marble and mosaic, and we are beyond this outmoded attitude. It’s modern, and we’re all post-modern now.

I think not. S. Thérèse’s spiritual autobiography is not to be dismissed as just good PR. Thérèse is a saint who, by her very example of holiness has something to say to all of us. From her we learn that we can and should all desire to be holy. She who spoke of love as her vocation reminds us that we should put love at the heart of all things. We see the importance of family life in nurturing vocations, not only the vocation to diaconate, priesthood or the religious life, but also to that love of God and neighbour to which we are all called.

As Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote, “It was God's purpose for Thérèse to light up certain aspects of revelation afresh for the benefit of contemporary Christendom, to make certain accepted but neglected truths astonishingly clear.” Thérèse’s “Little Way” speaks openly and clearly about the nature and appearance of charity in daily life. Critics call her childish, simplistic: but rather, her very simplicity is her greatest challenge to us.

And, as for the relics themselves, Pope Benedict put it thus: “By inviting us to venerate the mortal remains of the martyrs and saints, the Church does not forget that, in the end, these are indeed just human bones, but they are bones that belonged to individuals touched by the transcendent power of God. The relics of the saints are traces of that invisible but real presence which sheds light upon the shadows of the world and reveals the Kingdom of Heaven in our midst.”

Are we prepared to take the opportunity afforded us to go and affirm the faith in the Communion of Saints which we have already confessed with Thérèse, who said “I am your sister and your friend; Jesus will not disappoint you”?