By Natalie SalamehThe Maronite Servants have recently returned from a visit to France, during which we took our weeklong annual retreat in Lisieux (from September 25 to October 1).
During this Year of Consecrated Life, a generous priest benefactor (wishing to remain anonymous) sponsored us for a retreat in Lisieux, meditating on the spirituality of Saint Therese of the Infant Jesus. Lisieux is the site where Saint Therese lived as a Carmelite nun in the late 19th Century and died at the age of 24 from tuberculosis.
St. Therese is now known all over the world as the “Little Flower” who showed us her “little way of spiritual childhood” to Jesus. She believed in doing small things and offering small sacrifices with great love. She took her assignments in the convent of Lisieux as ways of manifesting her love for God and for others. St. Therese knew from her life that God is merciful love, and her confidence in His love knew no limits. Her “little way” puts holiness of life within the reach of ordinary people, and helps us to live with confidence in God’s love for us.
It was a great privilege over the week of our retreat to pray in the great Basilica dedicated to St. Therese that was built on the highest hill overlooking the city of Lisieux. Construction of the Basilica started in 1929 and finished in 1954, and can hold up to 4,000 worshippers. The Basilica features the most beautiful mosaics, and not only holds relics of St. Therese, but also the mortal remains of Louis and Zelie Martin, St. Therese’s parents, who will be canonized as saints in the Vatican on October 18. We celebrated a beautiful Divine Liturgy in the Basilica on Sunday, September 27, in honor of St. Therese’s feast day. It was so great to see the Basilica filled with devoted pilgrims from every nation and race.
The Basilica is located close by the Carmelite Monastery, where St. Therese spent 9 years as a nun. The Carmelite Monastery is currently the home of the mortal remains of St. Therese, along with that of her three other sisters who were also Carmelite nuns; Pauline, Marie and Celine. On the evening of Saturday, September 26, we participated in a beautiful procession during which the relics of St. Therese were moved from the Carmel Monastery to the Basilica in honor of her feast. We experienced such a strong sense of “church” that evening.
Part of the Carmelite Monastery has been transformed into a museum, showcasing the belongings and writings of St. Therese, including the holy habit she once wore. We spent a number of days looking and praying over these belongings, and reading about the many favors and miracles St. Therese performed for people all over the world. We had the great privilege of praying Divine Liturgy in the small Carmel Chapel on several days, and listening to the sisters offer Morning Prayer in French. The Lisieux Carmelite Monastery is still the home of many nuns.
Our next stop in the journey and life of St. Therese was Les Buissonnets. Louis Martin and his five daughters moved into “Les Buissonnets” in Lisieux in 1877 after the death of his wife, Zelie. Therese, who was the youngest of the five Martin daughters, was about 4 years old at the time, and she would remain at “Les Buissonnets” until the age of 15 when she would leave for the Carmelite Monastery. In the backyard of “Les Buissonnets” there was a very moving monument that depicted a re-enactment of when Therese sat down with her father to ask his blessing to become a Carmelite nun. They shared a very special father-daughter bond. She was his “little queen” and he was her “king”.
It was also at “Les Buissonnets” that St. Therese says that she received the greatest grace of her life on Christmas Day in 1886; the grace of conversion. On that day, the then fourteen-year-old Therese hurried home from Midnight Mass at Saint Peter's Cathedral. In France, young children left their shoes by the fireplace at Christmas, and their parents would fill them with gifts. By fourteen, most children outgrew this custom. But Therese, being the youngest and most spoiled, continued to have presents in her shoes.
As she and her sister, Céline climbed the stairs to take off their hats, their father's voice rose up from the parlor below. Standing over the shoes, he sighed, "Thank goodness that's the last time we shall have this kind of thing!" Thérèse froze, and her sister looked at her helplessly. Céline knew that in a few minutes Thérèse would be in tears over what her father had said.
But the tantrum never came. Something incredible had happened to Thérèse. Jesus had come into her heart and done what she could not do herself. He had made her more sensitive to her father's feelings rather than her own. She swallowed her tears, walked slowly down the stairs, and exclaimed over the gifts in the shoes, as if she had never heard a word her father said.
During our visit to Les Buissonnets, we prayed over the very fireplace that this event took place and walked up the steps that Therese herself came down on that Christmas morning having been changed by Jesus forever.
On our last day of retreat, which was the actual feast day of St. Therese on October 1st, we visited Alencon, the birthplace of St. Therese, and first home of Louis and Zelie Martin. Alencon is about a one hour drive from Lisieux. St. Therese spent the first 4 years of her life in Alencon before moving to Les Buissonnets. The home has been transformed into a Museum, and boasts a very beautiful chapel in which we celebrated Divine Liturgy that morning. It was absolutely amazing to see how everything has been preserved including St. Therese’s toys; her father’s fishing poles, and her mother’s lace work. It was here in Alencon that St. Therese gave the Maronite Servants a big gift. The sisters at the museum granted us permission to pray in the very room in which St. Therese was born, and in which her mother died. This room is enclosed in glass and access is not granted to all pilgrims; this was very special to us. I was personally very moved as venerated St. Therese’s cradle and the bed in which her mother died.
Thanks be to God for such a wonderful retreat! Walking in the footsteps of St. Therese, we felt she was walking with us. We took your intentions and petitions with us at every holy site and prayed for them before every relic. May St. Therese bless you all abundantly and shower down upon you bouquet of roses! Next week’s blog will feature highlights from our pilgrimage in Paris (October 2 – October 8).