Those of you who've been paying attention to the news this week may well have noticed an illustration of the truth of our Lord's teaching and promise that, "if anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all". I'm not referring to Gordon Brown saying that there will be spending cuts, rather, I am referring to the many news reports, even in the secular media, reports of the tour of the relics of St Therese of Lisieux, known to many of us not by her French ‘Therese’ but as St Teresa of the Child Jesus, or of the little way, or “the little flower”. A good number of us went to one of the smaller places of the relic tour in Taunton, and two weeks ago I preached about venerating relics and the miracles associated with them, but I want to preach today not so much about the relics as about her own life. I want to talk about her glory now on earth, her glory in heaven, & contrast that with her hidden glory while she lived on earth.
Concerning her glory now on earth, St Teresa is quite possibly glorified more than any other saint other than the Blessed Virgin herself. Referring again to the tour of her relics, a number of the news reports noted that the non-stop high paced itinerary of her relics moving made her comparable to a rock star, and the TV images of long lines of faithful pilgrims waiting at the cathedrals for their turn to pass by the casket of her relics gave the same impression. And this phenomenon during her tour through England is typical of the adoring crowds of pilgrims that are devoted to her across the world -if you go to her town of Lisieux in France you will see a MASSIVE basilica built for this small but much loved saint.
Her glory now on earth, however, is very closely related to the glory she now possesses in heaven. One of the reasons that pilgrims flock to her now is that she has been found to be very effective in answering prayers, and this is why miracles are associated with her. While she was still living, the Lord made this known to her, so that she said to one of her sisters, "After my death, I will let fall a shower of roses. I will spend my heaven doing good on earth”. Such a display of heavenly power, even when it comes through one of the saints, such a display of heavenly power can come from only one source: it comes from the Lord. And when the Lord associates the display of heavenly power with one of His saints, then it is a sign to us of the glory that saint now enjoys in heaven.
But there is a deep irony here, because St Teresa who now enjoys glory in heaven, and has that glory reflected in her devotees on earth, that saint enjoyed precious little glory while she lived on earth. She lacked glory because of the many physical sufferings she endured, ultimately, in dying a horrible slow death of tuberculosis. She also lacked glory because of her many emotional sufferings, especially in the childhood trauma she experienced at the early death of her mother, and emotional trauma she never truly recovered from. She is admired as a saint because those who lived with her heard her to complain so rarely, and saw her loving so consistently even while she herself suffered.
Even beyond this, there is a more specific aspect to the hiddenness of her glory while she lived, and that concerns the fact that she tries to hide her good deeds. It concerns her practice of "hidden" acts of kindness. I was reading from her autobiography this week (an autobiography she only wrote because she was commanded to by her superior), and in it she says, "I endeavoured above all to practice little HIDDEN acts of virtue, such as folding the mantles which the Sisters had forgotten". And that small little act is typical of the way of life St Therese lived and calls upon us to live: to be content to do many small hidden acts, to do them because somebody needs to do those acts, and WE can be that somebody.
You and I, when we do good deeds, like to have people thank us having done them, and that means we like to have people see that WE have done this good deed -not somebody else. But when we look at ourselves closely this is easily revealed as false virtue, as vanity. Part of what it means to be, as Jesus put it, "servant of all" means to not care about taking the credit, it means being willing to be hidden.
What we see in St Teresa of Lisieux is that the hiddenness of being good does not last forever. The good God who calls us to be good gives glory in heaven to those who did not care about that glory on earth. He is faithful to his word, "the first will be last, and the last will be first”, and “the meek will inherit the earth”.