Solemn Mass was celebrated by Monsignor McGovern, Vicar General, and the congregation spilled out into the gardens, at least 1,500 people stood outside during Mass. The homily was given by Fr Michael McGoldrick in which he gave an intimate insight into Therese’s life, her agonies and unfailing desire to serve and love God.
“General descriptions, like Spouse, Carmelite, or Mother of souls, were not enough. Neither did the calls she felt to become “warrior, priest, apostle, doctor, martyr” satisfy her. She wanted more. Then it dawned on her that the body demands a heart. The body lives by its heart and the heart enters into every function of the body. “I understood,” she exclaims, “that LOVE COMPRISED ALL VOCATIONS… MY VOCATION IS LOVE!… In the heart of the Church, my Mother, I shall be Love” (Story of a Soul 194).”
After Mass the night vigil began as people came in a continual flow and passed through the tangible holy peace that surrounds the casket. Whilst others still remain keeping vigil.
Fr Michal McGoldrick, OCD homily
October 5, 2009
It is a privilege and a joy for me as a member of St Thérèse’s Carmelite family to be with you this evening as we honour our Sister.
I have been fascinated by a comment of child of four, on visiting the relics of St Thérèse at one of the venues. On seeing one of the photos of St Therese the child said “She is the most beautiful person that I have ever seen.” What was it that the child saw in Thérèse? Was it the natural beauty she had? Perhaps. Was it innocence? While there is innocence we must not forget that St Therese had a wonderful sense of humour. She was capable of all kinds of pranks and was a marvellous mimic who could have people doubled up with laughter.
What I think the child saw was someone deeply in love with God, deeply in love with Jesus. I would like to look at the story of how this young woman fell so deeply in love with Jesus
Thérèse was blessed to be born into a loving family. Her parents loved each other dearly and they loved their children. Her father was especially affectionate with her. She was his “Little Queen” and he her “King.” She would later write that this was to make it easier for her to relate to God as a loving father.
But it was not all rosy. Because of her poor health Zélie was unable to breast feed Thérèse so she sent her to a wet nurse. The fourteen months Thérèse spent away from home seem to have had a profoundly painful effect on her life. Within a few years of Thérèse’s birth Zélie was diagnosed with breast cancer. Zélie struggled with anxiety. She was afraid she might lose her Thérèse, her youngest because she was not very robust. It was easy to understand her anxiety when she became ill. She had good reason to be anxious: she was leaving behind a husband and five young girls. Thérèse seems to have inherited some of that anxiety.
Zélie died when Thérèse was only four. It was a devastating blow for a young child. Thérèse asked her older sister Pauline to be her “mother” and Pauline was a very good second “mother.” She loved her, looked after all her needs, taught her to pray….The family moved to Lisieux to be near cousins. It was yet another break for Thérèse. She had to get used to a new town, a new house and make new friends. Within a couple of years Pauline decided to enter Carmel. Thérèse heard by the news by accident. She was devastated once again. Yet another mother was being taken from her.
She found school very difficult – she speaks of it as the saddest days of her life. She was home school a lot of the time but when she did go to school she found it very difficult. She was extremely sensitive, she found it difficult to make friends, she was bullied and she could not join in the games the other girls played because she did not understand them.
All these losses were too much for Thérèse. She became seriously ill. She became to hallucinate, to have tremors. It was an illness that seemed as much emotional as physical. The family feared that she was going to die. They prayed fervently and had Masses offered at the church of our Lady of Victories in Paris. There was a statue of Our Lady of Victories by Thérèse’s bed and she speaks of experiencing Our Lady smiling at her and as a result quickly got better. She had found a mother who would never desert her. She would always have a strong devotion to Our Lady whom she would describe as “more mother than queen.”
There was a one other very bright moment in the midst of all this darkness and pain. It was her First Holy Communion. She speaks of it as the “first kiss of Jesus.” It was an especially happy time of her life.
But soon after that she was beset with scruples for eighteen months – linked it appears to the onset of puberty.
Thérèse reached a turning point when she was 13. It happened in what might seem a very insignificant event. It as Christmas and she had left out her shoes to be filled with presents. As she got home from Midnight Mass she overheard her father saying that he hoped this was the last time he would have to do this childish thing. Thérèse would normally burst into tears and throw a tantrum. This time she was determined not to upset her father. She chatted and played with him as if nothing had been said and they both had a very enjoyable time. That decision not to give in to herself was a turning point. It was blessed by God. She speaks of it as a “conversion.” She would later write that “charity entered my soul that night. The joy I had at four returned and was never to leave me again.” She grew up! A great spiritual journey had begun.
Thérèse felt called to enter Carmel and despite a lot of obstacles she persisted in following that call – even asking the Holy Father to let her enter. She was eventually given permission to enter when she was 15. She immediately felt at home in the monastery. It was everything she had dreamt of and she felt very happy. She felt that her soul could expand in these surroundings. It was not easy! The discipline of Carmelite life was demanding and she found it difficult. The community was far from perfect. Lisieux could be very cold in winter and there were times she could not sleep with the cold. She had grown up in a fairly well to do family which had maids and nannies so she had never done housework or cooking. Now she had to do them! Her shortcomings were commented on – “This floor was obviously swept by our fifteen year old.”
She felt very inadequate. She did not seem able for the traditional path to holiness of long prayers and penances. Instead of becoming discouraged she asked God to show her a new way to him – a way that was new, direct and short; a way that other little soul could follow. God showed her what we have come to know as “the little way,” the way of confidence and love. The little way is a way of being with God. It is not about doing primarily about doing ordinary things extraordinarily well as it is sometimes portrayed. It is to believe in the immensity of God’s love for us and to trust him unreservedly, to have confidence in his love for us. In response one tries to make use of every little event in each day to give something back to God.
This new way helped her soul to expand. She took on more and more heart of Jesus and his concerns. So she speaks of feeling the vocation of the warrior, the priest, the apostle, the doctor, the martyr. She searched in the scriptures for how she was to fulfil these vocations. One day she found in St Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians the answer to her prayers. She read about the various roles in the church being like parts of a body and she realized that a body needs a heart. She would be that loving heart. Her call was to be love at the heart of the church. She wanted to love Jesus as he had never been loved before.
One might expect the prayer of someone like this to be full of light and consolations. Unfortunately it was not to be like that. Most of the time, her prayer was dark and dry. But God had been faithful to her and she would make this sacrifice for him. This would be an expression of her trust.
God took seriously her desire to love him with all her heart, to love him more than he had ever been loved before. He began to purify her heart even more deeply. As often happens it was through illness that is happened. First there was the illness of her father. He began to suffer dementia and had to but put in a mental hospital, an asylum. There were 1600 patients there and very basic treatment. It was both very painful for the residents and their loved ones. Louis spent over three years there and died shortly after he was discharged. Watching him suffer was a great suffering for her.
Soon Thérèse herself was to experience a very painful illness. On Good Friday 1996, she coughed blood. It was the first symptom of tuberculosis. The illness was to become so painful that she said not to leave medicines near someone who is so ill – a temptation to suicide? Not only did she suffer physically but she also had a major crisis of faith. She could not longer believe in heaven. The very thing for which she lived seemed to be taken from her. She understood atheism. She faced terrible darkness, terrible fear.
She could have been forgiven for despairing. But she never did. She held on to her trust in God – with her fingernails at times. In that for me lies Thérèse’s greatness. When everything she lived for was taken from her she still believed in God’s love for her, she still trusted him. She believed that in the awful darkness he was there, he would not desert her or let her down. She still loved him. She felt she had nothing to give him but was willing to go to him with empty hands trusting that he would accept her. Her last words were still words of love. As she looked at the crucifix she exclaimed, “How I love him.” Her dying words were, “My God I love you.”
For most of her community St Thérèse had been so ordinary that they could not think of what to say about her when she died. What a message for us! We are the little souls she talks about. Which of us has or will achieve anything outstanding? Our world measures people’s worth by the sixe of their house, by what job they does, by how much money they make. She would say that achievements don’t matter. What matters is how loving a person you are. To a world with little hope she would say trust that God is with us, God is caring for every moment of our lives. To those who did not have a good start in life she would say that you can make something great of your life.
What would she say to us tonight? I think her message would be as simple one: believe in God’s love for you. She would ask us to let go our negative views of ourselves – that we are unworthy, that we don’t deserve to be near God. She would ask us instead to throw ourselves into the arms of our loving and merciful God, trusting that he forgives everything wrong that we have done and that he will always forgive us. She would ask us to trust God’s love for us, trust in the love of Jesus for us, to have confidence in that love. And she would reassure us that it is good to go to God with empty hands.
Fr Michael McGoldrick, OCD
Boars Hill – Oxford