On my post about Francis and Therese someone commented on the toughness underneath their apparent simpering sweetness.
Absolutely! In the great adventure that is the spiritual life the sweetness is only valid when it’s supported by strength. Francis was no weakling. Therese was no softie.
I had my own experience of meeting Therese. In the summer of 1987 I was still an Anglican priest, and was living in England. I had three months free between jobs and decided to hitch hike to Jerusalem staying in religious houses along the way. One of my first stops in France was Lisieux.
I was brought up as an Evangelical. I had become an Anglican. I had heard of St Therese, but considered her to be a sentimental sort of spiritual saint. She was a saint for girl scouts, a sweet litte thing who said a rosary bead as she went up the stairs one by one on her knees. The an Evangelical with an Anglican sensibility she didn’t appeal.
Once I got to Lisieux it didn’t get better. The road up to the Basilica was crowded with tacky gift shops with dangling glittery rosaries, bright religious cards and plastic holy water bottles shaped like the Blessed Virgin. I wasn’t attracted by the poor taste and commercialism and thought the French ought to have known better.
I got a room at the Hermitage–the pilgrim guest house next to the Carmelit monastery where Therese lived and died. I went back to my simple room after finding my meal in the dining hall. It was a warm summer evening and the high French windows were open as I went to sleep. The net curtains blew gently in the breeze.
I woke up wide awake at three in the morning. There seemed to be a presence in the room. I cannot explain it except to say that it was a spiritual presence, and that it seemed to be female. The presence was beautiful, young and full of power, love and light. I could only conclude that it was Therese. I sat there in the silence with her, knowing somehow that I needed to see past my objection and learn to get to know this remarkable person.
The next day I bought a copy of her Story of a Soul and read it as I went on my way. By the end I was converted. I knew that she prayed for priests and said a simple prayer, “Little Therese, I am only an Anglican priest, and not a full member of your family, but maybe you will say a prayer for me?”
Thirteen years later I became a full member of her family,and now, another ten years later, I am about to become one of her priests. It has been a long hard pilgrimage of another sort, but I’m convinced that all along the way the Little Flower of Lisieux has been by my side.