Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Because of The Old-Fashioned, Round-Faced, Foreign-Looking Nun in the Picture at My Grandmother’s House (Guest Post)

Now and then I'll publish guest posts from friends of this blog around the globe. This lovely piece was written by a long-lost schoolmate of mine who prefers to remain anonymous. I've already written about Thérèse of the Child Jesus (Thérèse of Lisieux) in recent days, so I'll let my old chum observe her feast day here.

Catholic tradition is something I happily left behind as a teenager in the 1960s. Back then, Sacred Heart of Jesus portraits, scapulars, the Legion of Mary, the picture of an old-fashioned, round-faced, foreign-looking nun at my grandmother's house in New Jersey, no hamburgers at Friday-night cookouts, calendars with fish symbols, the word Mass itself, and that other "Catholic stuff" embarrassed me. Most of my friends were Protestant. Catholic devotions were uncool and kind of un-American too. I was happy to be free of them.

But being free of Catholicism led to being free of God, which did not work out so well. By age thirty, I was asking Him for help and got it. I have been back in the Catholic Church, more or less, for twenty years now—done some reading and made some retreats along the way. But this year, I awakened. I now consciously attune myself to the liturgical calendar. I go to confession frequently and Mass as often as three times a week. This summer, a week-long silent retreat using St. Ignatius's Spiritual Exercises had a huge impact. The retreat included a one-on-one general confession with the retreat master. I attend Latin Mass at least once a week. I even bought a secondhand Sacred Heart of Jesus print for ten dollars, frame and all. Then I spent way too much getting it framed with olive wood from Italy.

This year, I have discovered that the old-fashioned, round-faced, foreign-looking nun in the picture I used to see at my grandmother's house wasn't so old-fashioned after all. In 1887, fourteen-year-old Thérèse Martin of Lisieux, France, "code-pinked" a Pope. Thérèse sought to enter a Carmelite convent at age fifteen, years before the normal age of twenty. She had already confronted her French bishop at his home and been told no. During a papal audience in Rome, Thérèse—who had been instructed not to speak to the Pope—grabbed Pope Leo XIII's hand and begged a "great favor." When the Pope diplomatically suggested that she do whatever French authorities decided, her response was to put her clasped hands on his knee and pretty much tell him his answer was not good enough. Thérèse needed a yes. All she got was Pope Leo's finger on her lips and a blessing as the Swiss Guards pulled her away. It is said that the old Pope followed her with his eyes for a long time.

Three months after her fifteenth birthday, Thérèse Martin did enter the Carmel at Lisieux. Inside, she took the name Thérèse of the Child Jesus. Less than ten years later, at age twenty-four, ravaged by tuberculosis, Thérèse died an obscure nun. In the months before her death, she had said, "After my death, I will let fall a shower of roses." She also said, "I will spend my heaven in doing good upon earth." On October 4, 1897, the door to Lisieux Carmel, a door that can only be opened from inside, swung open. Thérèse Martin's simple coffin was carried out past three of her biological sisters who, as Carmelites themselves, did not leave the convent, even for the burial of their own sister. A priest and a handful of relations and friends walked the simple coffin to the cemetery.

As was customary, the Carmel at Lisieux sent out a written account of Thérèse's life to other Carmels. In part because she died so young and was not well known, the Carmel decided to send Thérèse's own account of her life, known now as Story of a Soul. In the three years before her death, while very sick, she had written the account in a copybook using a pencil during the little spare time she had. The book went out to other Carmels in October 1898. Within a few weeks, letters arrived at Lisieux asking for more copies. Then came the first letters describing miraculous physical healings and spiritual conversions connected with Thérèse's book. Such letters have never stopped coming. They come from all over the world.

On March 26, 1923, the door at Carmel Lisieux that can only be opened from inside swung open again for Thérèse Martin's coffin. Just as they did twenty-six years before, her three biological sisters stood inside the threshold as Thérèse came past. Only this time, instead of one priest and a handful of mourners outside, there were two hundred priests and fifty thousand faithful who had escorted the coffin from the cemetery. When the coffin was lifted from the grave, the scent of roses filled the air. As the solemn procession from the cemetery to Carmel passed by him, a paralyzed soldier regained the use of his legs. At the gate to Carmel, a blind girl regained her sight.

On May 17, 1925, only twenty-eight years after her death and thirty-eight years after code-pinking gentle old Pope Leo, Thérèse Martin returned to the Vatican. Over two hundred thousand people from all over the world jammed St. Peter's and the square outside as Pope Pius XI canonized Thérèse of Lisieux. The bells in every church in Rome pealed. She is officially known as St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus because that was her name inside Carmel. But Thérèse Martin is known everywhere as Thérèse of Lisieux.

So the old-fashioned, round-faced, foreign-looking nun in the picture at my grandmother's house was not so old-fashioned after all. St. Thérèse was only eight years older than my grandmother. My grandmother was six when Thérèse met the Pope and told him to change his answer.

Most of what I know about St. Thérèse's life comes from this thirty-four-page summary of her life by Msgr. Vernon Johnson, an Englishman: In 1924, Johnson was a pious, highly regarded Anglican pastor, very happy in his faith and ministry. He had already looked into Story of a Soul and knew it to be a "sentimental," "artificial," and "un-English" "Roman Catholic scheme." Even when he finally picked up the book to read it, the first two chapters "did not appeal" to him and were "difficult to get through."

St. Thérèse apparently did not view all that as much of an obstacle. Johnson kept reading till "long after midnight. . . . All I can say is that it moved my whole being as no other piece of writing has ever done," he wrote. Johnson entered Catholic seminary at age forty-three, and Thérèse had her greatest English-language champion. The quotes above come from the first few pages of Msgr. Johnson's classic work of apologetics, One Lord, One Faith (Ignatius Press).