Posted by: catholicrelics | October 4, 2009

Bishop Roche speaks of St Therese as an apostle of love

Rt Rev Arthur Roche, Bishop of Leeds, preaching at the reception of the Relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux:

‘St Thérèse of Lisieux is known to millions throughout the world. The story of her life and her inner journey towards God is now in its fortieth French edition and is available in more than fifty languages. Such facts as these alone indicate something not only of her popularity, but of the importance of what she has to say to us today and why the Holy Father declared her to be the youngest ever Doctor of the Universal Church – i.e. someone whose teaching is important for our lives as Christians. Her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, introduces us to a new school of spirituality known as The Little Way.

‘Though this very young and great woman is famous she is not always well understood. Some reduce her to the realms of mere sentimentality and others, wrongly, credit her with an unreal and superhuman level of virtue and innocence. Neither is true. We need to go beyond the painted image to discover what is the true greatness of this young woman who has captivated the minds and the hearts of countless millions and whose relics in recent days have been venerated in our country by overwhelming numbers of people.

‘When looking at the many photographs that exist of her we cannot but be engaged by her childlike face, yet she was extremely robust, and although young (she died at the age of 24) she had the wisdom of a woman decades beyond her years; even though she looked innocent, she was capable of the most amusing pranks; and, though she was known as a comedian in the convent, she was one of the greatest mystics of our age. She is someone about whom we should be very cautious of over simplifying.

‘She herself claimed that her life was very ordinary – and so did many others, even those among whom she lived, who did not see beyond what they saw. She was only a nun for nine of her twenty four years yet, today, she stands alongside some of the greatest thinkers and philosophers of her age, as one who wrestled with the deepest problems of human existence, the enigma of human suffering and the mystery of despair. And now she stands among the Doctors of the Church – those theological giants, and mystics, to whom has been revealed insights into the divine life that are important for Christian living. One of her greatest exponents, Mgr Vernon Johnson – an English priest who was really converted to Catholicism because of her influence – delighted in telling the story that at the end of her canonisation at St Peter’s in 1925, a priest who was present at it turned to his companions and said: today the Gospel has been canonised! For her life and her message is nothing more than a fresh and vigorous restatement of the Gospel and, more importantly, what lies at its heart: a God of love and compassion and mercy. What her life and her writings do for us is to draw back the veil that can sometimes create a distance and the feeling that surely Jesus wants nothing to do with the likes of us. How slow we can be to learn the lessons of the Incarnation: our God comes to live with us, not at a remote distance, but with us. Her secret, I think in part, was that like a restless explorer she burnt with an ardent desire and a deep love to know the true heart of God. And without being aware of it, she was like a great teacher revealing to the modern world the God of the Gospels who is the God of love and mercy.

‘Where for many, these truths may be marginal to life, for her it was something to be lived as a central and dynamic principle of life: God is love, to be loved with all our hearts, who loves us passionately and whose love is made present in the world by the way we love our neighbour. As Pope John Paul II pointed out on the occasion when he raised her as the youngest Doctor of the Universal Church, he said, that despite her youthfulness: her ardent spiritual journey shows such maturity, and the insights of faith expressed in her writings are so vast and profound, that they deserve a place among the great spiritual masters. In the Apostolic Letter which I wrote for this occasion, he continued, I stressed several salient aspects of her doctrine. But how can we fail to recall here what can be considered its high point, starting with the account of the moving discovery of her special vocation in the Church? “Charity”, she wrote, “gave me the key to my vocation. I understood that if the Church had a body composed of different members, the most necessary and most noble of all could not be lacking to it, and so I understood that the Church had a heart and that this heart was burning with love. I understood that it was love alone that made the Church’s members act, that if love were ever extinguished, apostles would not proclaim the Gospel and martyrs would refuse to shed their blood. I understood that love includes all vocations…. Then in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out: “O Jesus, my Love … at last I have found my vocation; my vocation is Love!’” (Ms B, 3vº). This is a wonderful passage which suffices itself to show that one can apply to St Thérèse the Gospel passage …: “I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes” (Mt 11: 25).

‘The heart of the Incarnation, for St Thérèse, was the unfolding of the depths of God’s love and mercy, made visible in real life circumstances by Jesus, the Son of God. She called Him a beggar of love who from His poverty and lowliness, even His obscurity, made visible the loving heart of God our Father. She loved those scenes in the Gospel that most spoke to her of God’s love: the Samaritan woman at the well, Zachaeus, the good thief on the Cross and the accounts of Mary Magdalene, the prostitutes and the sinners who were despised by others but not by Jesus. In these stories love and mercy met and added a dimension to loving that was open-handed, never begrudging and full of hope. She knew that anyone who turned to Jesus in love, despite their fragility or sinfulness or weakness, would receive overwhelmingly more than they could ever humanly have expected. Even in the depths of her own terrible suffering and agony, the last words she spoke with great tenderness were my God I love you.

‘For her, nothing in daily living was too small or insignificant to be the means of making this love present – even if that was not always appreciated by the eye of the beholder! Everything in life was an opportunity to love God. All it needed was a generous and humble spirit. She made the ordinary everyday opportunities in life – even the most mundane chores – into something very great and loving. She turned this doing of ordinary things in so loving a way into the stepladder of her Little Way to God: common place experiences of everyday human life: sadness, defeat, fear, disappointment even great trials – for many, stumbling blocks but for her stepping stones. Her weaknesses and her natural distaste for certain things and people were perfected by this grace. Difficult things were turned into the fresh and fragrant flowers of charity rather than the thorny dried up branches of selfishness. This was her path of conversion – turning everything and everyone towards God rather than towards me. She transformed the lowliness of her spirit into a rich conduit of love. She came before God with empty hands knowing, trusting very deeply, that He alone would fill them. Indeed, at the beginning of her autobiography which, she didn’t wish to write, but did so out of obedience to her Mother Prioress, she says, When you first asked me to do this I was frightened; it looked as if it meant wasting my spiritual energies on introspection. But since then, our Lord has made it clear to me that all he wanted of me was plain obedience. And in any case, what I shall be doing is only what will be my task in eternity – telling over and over again the stories of God’s mercies to me.

‘There was no tomorrow, just today. Everything, she said, is grace – and she meant it. She prayed to see things as they were – which included the presence of God in those things – and that nothing would blind her to that. In the last weeks of her life, the straightforward and courageous way with which she confronted the disintegration of her own body and the desolation of her soul – facing as she did the humiliation of her physical suffering and, the more troubling experience, of the dark night of faith – often proved too much for her sisters in the convent as they looked on helplessly. If I did not have faith I should have killed myself without a moment’s hesitation, she said. But her faith was very real and very deep. Even when she felt nothing and saw nothing her faith in God and her love for Him remained constant. She believed the truth would set her free – free above all to be herself without any masks or any pretence before God or before others. This Little Way made her great and has since made innumerable other people who have followed it great in their turn. But there were also many other things that God asked of her in total darkness and sheer faith. He led her into the deeper trials of the spirit where the soul was purified because against all the odds, in the darkness and the sense of abandonment, and the questions that arose as to whether God was there, she remained faithful because she knew this was the ultimate test of love. She described this experience as a night of nonexistence where she mingled with the spirits of atheism and unbelief. Even if God kills me, she said, I will still trust Him … I shall love Him to the point of recklessness. I will never put limits on my confidence. What deeper faith or love could there be when facing that real sense of darkness and nothingness – the feeling of nonexistence? He will get tired of making me wait for Him, she said, long before I get tired of waiting for Him! She found strength in weakness, victory in defeat and above all life in death.

‘As she now travels around our country, indeed throughout the world as the missionary and the witness to the gospel she always wanted to be, she teaches us this lesson: there is nothing that can permanently separate us from God if we but turn to Him in His love and mercy; and there is nothing in our lives that cannot make us saints. Despite our weaknesses, all can be used to give God happiness and, because of that, to bring happiness to others through our love. Real love goes beyond the ordinary and through the pain.

‘What greater example could there be for our modern age which itself experiences the darkness of disbelief and the sense of hopelessness in the face of suffering and death, and the increasing sense of a lack of real, genuine, enduring love. This modern tendency to seek the expedient, quick solution takes the heart out of love and mercy through which alone great dignity and respect is brought to bear on human existence.

‘People have turned to her in their desperation; people have been cured by her, including the famous Edith Piaf; soldiers surrendered their medals of bravery to her in thanksgiving for her protection in war. But above all, in that ordinary everyday way of hers, people have become deeply holy and, by following her little way, have given vitality and life to the Church by themselves becoming Love at the heart of the Church. Let us then not hesitate, as St Paul says in our reading today, to strive for the greater gifts – and the greatest of these is love!

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Responses

  1. I have been reading articles about st therese and the the meaning of the tour and this one is the most meaningful on the revelation of love and power of prayer. I hope to encourage some of my teenage children to join me on a visit to aylesford or westminster to seek a blessing or miracle for my youngest daughter with a threatening condition. Please pray that they join me.
    Peter
    A caring father with belief in the power of love.


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