The relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux have arrived in Britain, as they begin a month long tour of the country. They are stopping at numerous churches, monasteries and Cathedrals (including York Minster), with time to take in a hospice for the dying and Wormwood Scrubs prison. They will spend the final week in London, ending with four days in Westminster Cathedral. There are so many articles you can read about the visit – here is a recent one from the Guardian, and from the Telegraph.
Just to get the facts: These are some bones of a young nineteenth century French nun, carried around in an ornate casket for people to venerate. To any hardened secularists it must be baffling; and to many Protestants it will be a confirmation that the Catholic Church is stuck in an age of superstition and medieval heresy. But to Catholics it is the most natural thing in the world to pray to the saints, to visit a shrine, and by extension to go on pilgrimage to those places where the memory and the mortal remains of the saints are preserved. The tour of St Thérèse’s relics is a pilgrimage in reverse – she comes to us and saves us the bother of taking the ferry to Normandy.
I won’t give a big theological explanation of the meaning of relics. There is lots of information on the official website of the Catholic Church. I just want to point to the sound instincts that lie behind the desire to venerate relics and draw closer to the saints. There is a human instinct to honour the dead, to visit their graves, and to believe that their relationship with us is not just a memory but a continuing presence – one that is strengthened by our love and devotion. There is a Christian instinct to ask others to pray for us, especially those who seem close to God, and to believe that these bonds of prayer and love aren’t broken by death. Why would someone pray less or love less just because they had gone to Heaven?
And there is the instinct of all those in need to seek out help wherever they can find it. The overwhelming evidence from history and recent experience is that people’s lives are changed when they come to the relics of a saint with faith and an open heart. So it is no surprise that ‘the poor’ – whether their poverty is material or emotional or spiritual – are flocking to St Thérèse. It’s not desperation; it’s just an honest confession of weakness and need; and an acknowledgement that here is someone who understands, someone who can help. Not someone who takes us away from God, but someone who helps us draw closer to him. Not someone who distracts us from believing in Christ, but someone who helps us to see what that belief really involves, and gives us the spiritual support we need to live it.
There are not many places in our culture outside the confessional or the therapist’s lounge where you can express your deepest human and spiritual needs, and believe that there might be a way of meeting them. How wonderful that for a few weeks now people can go to Thérèse, and in her company go to God, with honest and expectant hearts.
[I gave a retreat about the life and significance of Thérèse this summer. Click here if you want to listen to the talks.]