“… the devout souls kneeling before the Virgin could not be worshipping mere marble. They were fired with genuine devotion and they worshipped not stone, but the divinity of which it was symbolic. I have an impression that I felt then that by this worship they were not detracting from, but increasing, the glory of God.”
– Mahatma Gandhi reflecting on a visit to
Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, in 1889
Editor’s Note: October 1st is the Feast of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. October 2nd is the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi. And this year, 2019, we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of India’s great Hindu saint.
While from different worlds and different religions, Thérèse and Gandhiji had much in common. To celebrate the Feast day of St. Thérèse and the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi, we offer a short reflection on some common threads they shared.
In 1889, a 16-year-old Carmelite novice, Thérèse Martin, was assigned refectory and sweeping duties in Lisieux. At the same time a great International Exhibition was held in Paris. Its main attractions included the official opening of the Eiffel Tower. Two of the young novice’s sisters, Leonie and Celine Martin, attended the exhibition.
Also in attendance was a 20-year-old student from India who was studying law in London. His name was Mohandas K. Gandhi. Like Thérèse Martin, Mohandas Gandhi was also to write an autobiography. Thérèse named hers: Story of a Soul. Mohandas named his: The Story of my experiments with Truth.
Both were to become great 20th Century Mystics and Saints in their respective religions.
In her autobiography St. Thérèse of Lisieux wrote:
I am seeking only the truth.
In his autobiography Mohandas K Gandhi wrote:
There are innumerable definitions of God, because His manifestations are innumerable… But I worship God as Truth only.
Shortly before she died at the age of twenty-four Thérèse said to her prioress, Mother Marie de Gonzague:
… I never looked for anything but the truth; I have understood humility of heart…
Mahatma Gandhi wrote:
The seeker after truth should be humbler than the dust.
The journey to the God of Truth for St. Thérèse and Mahatma Gandhi were different but their quest was the same.
While in Paris in 1889, Mahatma Gandhi respectfully visited many Catholic churches, including the great Cathedral of Notre Dame. He later reflected in his autobiography:
I had read a lot about the fashions and frivolity of Paris. These were in evidence in every street, but the churches stood noticeably apart from these scenes. A man would forget the outside noise and bustle as soon as he entered one of these churches. His manner would change, he would behave with dignity and reverence as he passed someone kneeling before the image of the Virgin. The feeling I had then has since been growing on me, that all this kneeling and prayer could not be mere superstition; the devout souls kneeling before the Virgin could not be worshipping mere marble. They were fired with genuine devotion and they worshipped not stone, but the divinity of which it was symbolic. I have an impression that I felt then that by this worship they were not detracting from, but increasing, the glory of God.