Sunday, 27 July 2008

St Therese of Lisieux, 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, St Therese

As you may have noticed, I’ve been away, and as part it, I was chaplain to a pilgrimage to Lisieux in France, home of St Therese of the Little Child Jesus, also known as ‘The Little Flower’.

St Therese became an enclosed nun, a Carmelite, which meant that she dedicated her whole life to prayer and penance, isolated from the world.
If you go to Lisieux you can see the heavy metal door, in dull grey, that marks the entrance to the Carmel. She entered at the age of 15 and did not leave until she died. Humanly speaking, she was pretty, rich, and exceptionally intelligent. And there are no doubt many who would say that it was a terrible waste, a waste of a life.
And I want to say a word about that, because it beautifully illustrates what Jesus was talking about in today’s Gospel.

In the Gospel, Jesus referred to ‘The Pearl of Great Price’, the thing that once found was worth selling EVERYTHING else in order to get it.
He used another image: the hidden treasure buried in a field that someone finds and then realises that it’s worth selling everything else in order to get the field, and thus get the treasure.
Both images make it clear that that there is something that we have to value above all else –it’s not that the other things didn’t also have value, but that their value did not compare with the Pearl of Great Price.

The Pearl of Great Price that Jesus referred to was Himself –He is the ‘kingdom of heaven’ in person and to possess Him is to possess the Kingdom.
And that means that we must be willing to put aside all other things to have Him.

Back to St Therese: She knew that many people think that an enclosed life as a nun is a waste of a life, but she also knew something more important: She knew Jesus Christ, and she knew that anywhere and anything that would better enable her to be with Him was a sacrifice worth making.
She compared the enclosure of the Carmel with the desert referred to the Old Testament prophecies where God says that He will lead His people out into the wilderness in order that He might speak to their hearts. Why, you might wonder, did he not just speak to them in the city or place where they were? A good question. But God’s example in His workings, and our own experience, show us that it is only when we withdraw from the hustle and bustle of the world that we can be quiet enough to hear God and be with Him. Those soaked in the pleasures of this world rarely even become aware of the subtler but better and more lasting pleasures of the Lord.

That is why St Therese left the world: to be with her Beloved, with the One who loved her and who she loved.
And the Beloved that she entered Carmel to be with was a lover like no other: the One who is Himself the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
She sacrificed much to be with Him, as people often sacrifice things to be with the one they love, but she gained much more than she sacrificed –not so much in this world but in the next. Those who loved most in this world are the most glorious in the next. And those who love the RIGHT things are those who love with the purest and greatest hearts.
Our first reading about Solomon makes a similar point: It was true wisdom, God’s wisdom, that Solomon valued above all other things –and because he valued the first things first so many other things were showered upon him. His worldly rewards for setting his priorities right are a sign of the eternal rewards that come to all who set their priorities right.

So was St Therese wasting her life when she cast all aside to enter Carmel?
To those who do not know of the Pearl of Great Price, it seems so.
But to those of us who have recognised the Pearl of Great Price, the Lord Himself, St Therese’s calling to put all aside to enter Carmel is a sign to all of us to set our priorities right in pursuit of the One thing that truly matters.

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