St Therese Novena 2011 – Day 6 homily

Blessed Louis and Blessed Zelie Martin, Parents of St. Therese of Lisieux

As they left Mass after the priest had preached about marriage, the two parishioners looked at each other and said, “I only wish to God that I knew as little about marriage as he did.” Now this is true – for all of us – in the sense that we know nothing about marriages – plural! We only know and live our own experience of lack of experience.

The story of Therese of Lisieux begins with the marriage of Louis Martin, a watchmaker and jeweller and Zelie Guerin a lace-maker. They had 9 children, 4 of whom died in infancy. Being left with 4 daughters Zelin found at 40 that she was expecting once more and on January 2nd. 1873 Therese was born. And this daughter received from her family a deep, lively and charitable faith. Life was happy and all going well until, when Therese was 4 years of age, her mother died of breast cancer. This bereavement experience was to last with deep hurt with Therese and gradually lessened after about 10 years. Then Louis, on the advice of his brother- in- law moved the family to Lisieux.

Her sister Pauline became her second mother and when Pauline entered the Carmelites in Lisieux when Therese was 10 she fell seriously ill, medical treatment seemed to have no effect, all her symptoms showed that she was suffering anxiety, anorexia, regression back to a baby state and hypersensitive. On May 13th 1883 a statue of Our Blessed mother smiled at her and instantly she was cured. Shortly afterwards her other sister, Marie, joined the Carmelites and this took a bad effect on her health and nervous system again. She became introverted and prone to excessive crying. The suddenly on Christmas night 1886 ….. Jesus communicated his strength to her through the Child Jesus of the crib. Hence her name Sister Therese of the Child Jesus.

From that moment she felt prepared to take the task of growing up, a grace had opened her heart and over the next 2 years she resolved also to join the Carmelites by taking on – to use a phrase – the convent chaplain, her local Bishop and the Pope himself. The incident of her going directly to speak to the Pope at an audience is not a made-up story but was in fact reported in the French press, “young female pilgrim escapes Swiss Guards to speak directly to Pope”. In 1888 she left forever her father, her sisters, her home and her beloved dog Tom.

Her father Louis was to live another 6 years, part of this time spent in a psychiatric hospital suffering with depression and onsetting dementia. He died at home and having cared for him for these 6 years the final sister Celine entered Carmel. “I wish to God I knew as little about marriage as he did ” our two were speaking about what they knew indeed.

Now you and I know there is hardly anyone here tonight that cannot identify in some way, small or big way, some small way, with the story of that marriage. The bereavement of a mother and – often overlooked, the father – in the early death of children, daughter anorexic, or a son with depression, moving house expecting a change for the better, breast cancer, mastectomy, the bereavement of stopping work through illness or redundancy, children one after another moving away, a son or daughter staying at home to mind a parent or parents. Lives of tremendous heroism, often unsung, often taken for granted, and especially if there are other members of the family who seem to be able to avoid in some way their share of responsibility.

Like my Auntie Mae, or as she was referred to as “Poor Mae”, she enjoyed years of bad health. I suspect that somewhere about the time of the last Eucharist Congress in 1932 she caught a cold and lived on it ever since. Whenever there was anything to be done in my grandmother’s house, there immediately came the cry, “Ah but you can’t ask poor Mae.” And just to confirm that you plea did not go unheard Mae, lifting herself off the sofa, would move, like a high altar on the move, and disappear into her room already prepared for such emergencies with a Baby Power, a bottle of Invalid stout and  a pinch or two of snuff.”  Agus mar a deartear, Sin Samonlella!

There is a line or two in Psalm 55 that speaks I believe to so many of us in our life situations. I quote:

“If this had been done by an enemy
I could bear his taunts.
If a rival had risen against me
I could hide from him.
But it is you, my own companion,
My intimate friend!
How close was the friendship between us.”

Do these words ring a bell with you?

I would like to offer you now just 4 words that Archbishop Diarmuid Martin spoke in a sermon to two priests that he had just ordained last week in Dublin. They struck me very powerfully and in the light of the world in which we live today you might consider them for a second. His words were:

“Let God surprise you.”

They are strong affirmative words that we need to hear again and again these days. The French novelist, Gustave Flubert, writing in the 1800s, described in words so much of our situation today. He wrote:

“We shouldn’t touch our idols, the gilt comes off in our hands.”

Those words strike all the various ways of life and institutions that we revered, took for granted, all of them, the banks, politicians, the clerical church, governments, bishops, schools, institutions… the words of that song by Peggy Lee come to mind…. the refrain is “Is that all there is to life….is that all there is.” And I believe passionately the answer is NO, let God surprise us.

And you who are are mothers and fathers in faith take those words to heart, and you who are thinking of marriage, and you who are choosing the single life, mother and father us with the new strength and new energy that Therese found that Christmas night. “Where the Spirit of God is leading us may be unknown to us yet we aspire to venture into the undefined” as E.Hemrick once wrote. There is an emerging Church, “a church that will be seen in its essence a Christ-centered community, a community of healing and hope, rather than a focus of fear and recrimination. The first step in healing the Irish Catholic Church is for us to stop being afraid. Modern Catholicism however has made non-specific fear a part of its administrative profile… fear needs to be replaced by participation and consent… look for the rich spiritual resources and the abundance of good will still to be found in the Irish Church, worrying less about control and more about encouragement.” (cf. Studies.Autum 2010.p 265/266)

The courage of married men and women of faith like Louis and Zelie Martin. How they faced the future with their children, with their work, the early death of a wife, the mystifying illness of their youngest child, the ravages that dementia and depression bring to a loved one and to those who care for that person.

I look at men and women I have known over the years and I see what Ii wish for the Church, I see “Selflessness, Integrity, Objectivity, Accountability, Openess, Honesty, Shared Leadership, Respect” (cf Nuala O’Loan). Not without struggle, not without sacrifice, not without pain at times, not without that fear of where are we going in this relationship? And not without faith and prayer, lived faith, lived prayer at times day in, day out. The daily God-contact that Louis and Zelie Martin made part of their married life, quietly, without fuss and yet enabled their youngest child to say those words “I want to be love in the heart of the Church.”

A story started my words and a story to finish:

One day before Sunday Mass the Devil appeared, it might have been Ballinlough, The Lough, Blackrock or here I just can’t remember. He wanted to scare all the folk away, he huffed and he puffed and scared people right out of the Church that morning – except for one lady, sitting where she usually sat every Sunday, so he tried a few more scare tactics, she just sat there ignoring him. “Don’t you know who I am”, he said. “I am the Devil, are you not afraid of me?” Not in the least boy”, she said, “Why aren’t you scared of me the devil?” “Sure, I’ve been married to your brother for the last 48 years!”

Holy Scripture tells us that the sun may indeed rise on good and bad alike and the same rain refresh good and bad alike but that lesson is in danger of being lost on us, on me, unless the warmth and indeed the faith life of another human being envelopes us, unless some other human person refreshes the weariness of our defeated days – we will not even value our lives, our own very selves or gift of God – unless someone else values us and we in our turn value them.

Do not be afraid! Let God surprise you! In your strength, in your goodness, in your commitment, in your love, in your daily living of your marriage. Through the intercession of Blessed Louis and Blessed Zelie Martin and in the words of Eric Fromm “to hope means to be ready at any moment for that which is not yet born, and yet not become desperate if there is no birth in our life time.” (The Art of Loving).

However, tonight, tomorrow and in all the days to come, let God surprise you. Amen. Amen.

A J Butler SMA