I was an Anglican priest the summer I met St Therese of Lisieux. I was living in England and had three months free between jobs, so I decided to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. I was going to hitch hike and stay in monasteries and religious houses on the way.
The first leg of my journey took me across the English channel to Normandy. As divine providence would have it, I missed the ferry to the more Eastern port of St Malo and headed instead for the French port of Le Havre. Once off the boat, I headed for the Benedictine monastery of Bec Hellouin. Bec is over a thousand years old, and is famous for providing the church in England with a couple of archbishops over the years. After staying with the monks at Bec I headed for the town of Lisieux.
As a convert from Evangelical American religion, I didn’t know much about the little saint of Lisieux. I had learned that Catholics call her the ‘little flower’ and that she died young of a terrible disease. What little I did know I didn’t like. Her syrupy sweet spirituality didn’t seem very manly to me. I wasn’t sure what ‘little flowers’ had to do with anything and thought all the little girl talk about ‘Dear papa in heaven’ and ‘being God’s good little girl’ were a bit much.
When I got to Lisieux things didn’t improve much. I made my way up to the imposing basilica dedicated to the saint on the hill outside the town. It looked big and ugly from the outside, and the road leading up to the basilica was crowded with souvenir shops with rosaries hanging from the awnings, postcards and images of the saint (and every other saint imaginable) pictures of Mary and Jesus with wide eyes, and holy water bottles shaped like Mary with crowns that unscrewed. To a tasteful young Anglican priest it was all pretty tacky, and I thought the French ought to know better.
I enquired at the guest house called The Hermitage next to Therese’s Carmelite convent. A neat little nun showed me up to my room, and after a simple French supper I wandered around the town for a short time. It was a balmy June evening, and the sun was setting as I went back to The Hermitage and settled down for the night. I opened the window and before long I was fast asleep.
At three in the morning I woke up and was immediately aware of something happening. The moon was shining through the window and a light breeze wafted the curtains. I sat up in bed, not alarmed, but alert—more alert and awake than one should be if woken up in the small hours of the morning. There seemed to be a presence in the room, and it felt like a feminine presence—a very benign and loving and powerful feminine presence. I sensed that it was Therese. I sat there for at least thirty minutes in silence experiencing a dynamic inner calm I can only describe as a quiet bliss. Then the experience passed and I went back to sleep—but not before I decided that I would get over my prejudice and have a more serious meeting with the young lady called Therese of Lisieux.
The next day I went to her childhood home and bought an English translation of her Story of a Soul. I discovered that her sentimental spirituality had a purpose. It was a reminder of the gospel lesson that all of us, if we were to enter the kingdom, had to become as little children. I also learned that this little flower was no shrinking violet. She was tough, tougher than I had ever thought it necessary to be in my own feeble attempts at being a Christian. Then I learned that she had a vocation to pray for priests, and I said, “Therese, I know you pray for priests. I am only an Anglican priest, and not a full member of your family, but I hope you will pray for me too as I embark on this pilgrimage.”
The pilgrimage took me through the most historic and wonderful parts of France and Italy, and then through Greece to the Holy Lands. Along the way I stayed in Benedictine monasteries and got into the rhythm of prayer and the life of the monks with whom I stayed. All summer I also felt the presence and prayers of the little saint of Lisieux.
Since then, my life’s pilgrimage has taken me places I never imagined. Eight years after my encounter in Lisieux I left the Anglican ministry to become a Catholic. Twelve years after that I was ordained as a Catholic priest. I am convinced that the prayer I said all those years ago in Lisieux was answered more amazingly than I ever could have imagined. Who would have guessed that her prayers would not only help me to make my way into the Catholic Church, but that I (a married man with four children) would also be able to be ordained as a Catholic priest.
My interest in Therese led me to write a book called St Benedict and St Therese—the Little Rule and the Little Way. The book has become a favorite among followers of both St Benedict and St Therese, and now with a pope called Benedict there is an upsurge of interest in both St Benedict and St Therese. This interest continues to grow because both saints have so much to say to ordinary people who are struggling to live lives of holiness and service to God.
I have never understood the aversion most Christians have to fasting. Say the word ‘fasting’ and you get distasteful and alarmed expressions, as if to say, “Good heavens! That’s rather unnecessarily extremist isn’t it?” One suspects that they think you go in for ‘physical mortifications’ of other kinds like flagellation or living in a cave or wearing a hair shirt or rolling naked in the briar patch or becoming a stylite.
I should add as a parenthesis that I think our modern society could use a few more troglodytes, hermits, stylites, anchorites and so forth. The sort of crazy religious nuts we have are usually terrorists of some sort–whether it is the loonies from the Westboro Baptist Church or Muslims who get teenaged girls to blow themselves up in order to kill a few other folk. Just musing–maybe if we had more properly holy religious extremists it would provide an outlet for those folks who want to do something crazy for Jesus, and maybe the reason we have crazy murderous religious loonies is because nobody gave them the opportunity to be an anchorite and be immured in the wall of a church, or become a stylite and spend thirty eight years on top of a pillar in the desert the way St Simeon Stylities did.
Instead we cultivate a nice, cosy, middle class shopping mall kind of religion in which we all shine our shoes and comb our hair (if we are blessed with such) and troop off to church on Sunday (unless of course there is something more important to do) and think about being good for an hour and then go home and live as we wish for the rest of the week. In doing so we believe ourselves to be very good, forgetting that it was the ‘very good’ people who were the wicked ones who killed Jesus.
Alas, here is the perennial paradox of the gospel–in today’s Mass reading it says that the ‘just one’ has come to confront the evil doers, and in the gospel Jesus is seen confronting the Scribes and Pharisees which reminds us that the ‘evil doers’ were good people. They were the establishment; the priests, the scholars, the teachers, the board members, the bankers, the well to do, the well connected, the well off, the well, well, well–we’ll all go to hell people.
And this is where a little bit of extremism (if that is not a contradiction in terms) could do us some good. If were were more radical in our love for Jesus it would be impossible to be one of the good people who are actually evil doers. Perhaps we need to do more Catholic things that are embarrassing. I have been tempted for some time to go to downtown Greenville on a Friday evening and do some street preaching. When the Franciscan Friars of the renewal are in town with their beards and bald heads and rough robes and a fire in their belly I want to run off and join them, but when I asked they said that they couldn’t really be doing with the wife and children.
So I try to fast and pray more–but I’m not supposed to tell you that–and I wish to do something radical for God again. Like the time when I was first an Anglican curate and suddenly had a pay check. I had lived by faith for four years as a student really and truly not knowing where the money would come from to pay my school bills, and then I had a pay check which was rather boring. So my brother Daryl (who is still more of a radical than I am) said I should give half the pay check away. So I did and we saw miracles happen.
Well, this is a rambling post, but it is my way to encourage myself and encourage you to keep up with your Lenten fast–whatever it is–and when you get a chance do something radical for God. Fast totally one day. Really try it! Write a check for $100.00 or $1,000.00; or if you are very wealthy anyway for ten times that amount and give it to the poor. Get up off your Laodicean backside and go do the Stations of the Cross or pray the rosary more of just spend time on your knees before the Blessed Sacrament.
You’ll be glad you did, and who knows, next Lent might be your opportunity to spend forty days on top of a pillar.
I always give people the benefit of the doubt. Some of my friends think it is a vice and some think it is a virtue. I hope I’m not being naive, but I really do try to see the best of every idea and every person.
In this column More Christianity I’ve tried to share my philosophy that “a man is most often right in what he affirms and wrong in what he denies.” In other words, when confronted with a new idea or a new proposal I always want to see the opportunity, not the problem. I want to see how a difficulty can be a stepping stone to a new and creative possibility. I want to see what good ideal motivates a person rather than seeing the negativities. I want to give people the benefit of the doubt and I wish they’d do me the same courtesy too!
I’ve found this to be pretty effective in dealing with people. I don’t always succeed of course. Too often I fall back into a petty mindset. I blame people. I accuse them of bad motivations and gossip about them. That’s a waste of time. Instead I should see the best in them and try to bring out the best in them because that brings out the best in me too.
With this in mind I wonder if you are a conservative or a liberal? I confess that my own instincts and basic mindset are conservative. Therefore I often see the ‘liberals’ as the bad guys. I accept that liberals also see me and my friends as the bad guys. When you step out of this attitude, however, and give the other side the benefit of the doubt you will actually be free of your negativities and learn something.
The root idea of liberalism is actually good. The true liberal is open minded, accepting and tolerant. He wants justice and peace for all people. He wants to fight against cruelty, injustice and poverty. He wants to get rid of bigotry and bias and prejudice of all kinds. To be liberal is to have an open mind and an open heart to all. He has a pastoral heart and is concerned about people. He is often creative and up to date in his vision. He see what can be done in the future and is optimistic and wants to move forward. In that respect, I want to be a liberal, and all Christians should seek to be liberal in this way as well.
The root idea of conservatism, on the other hand, is to conserve what is good from the past. The conservative wants to retain the beauty, the wisdom, the learning and the truth that we have inherited from our ancestors. The conservative is cautious about new things because he would rather fix the old than get something new. The conservative treasures the good things of the past because he knows they are tried and true. They have stood the test of time and are therefore precious. The liberal seems up to date. The conservative seems out of date. The conservative often tends to be nostalgic about the past and pessimistic about the future. He values dogma and doctrine and ‘the right way to do things’, and feels the way to serve people is by calling them to the high values, beliefs and principles that have stood the test of time.
It should be obvious therefore, that ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ both want what is beautiful, good and true. We should appreciate one another more.
It’s not because we are too liberal or too conservative, but because we aren’t liberal and conservative enough! What I mean is that, too often, conservatives are not truly conservative in a positive and creative way and liberals are not liberal in a creative and positive way.
We’re too narrow in our thinking. We need More Christianity not Mere Christianity!
Conservatives become narrow and negative when they focus on retaining the past simply for its own sake. They become legalistic when they focus on retaining the order and structure of the past rather than re-activating the spirit of the tradition. They become negative and narrow by withdrawing into their own little enclaves and becoming suspicious and paranoid about everyone outside. Conservatives are narrow and negative when their love of the past makes them embalm the past rather than bring it to life in a new way. If conservatives were really conservative they would conserve all the beauty and truth and goodness of the wisdom of the past and live it in a simple and honest way today.
Liberals become narrow and negative in the same way. They hunker down into wounded little self righteous groups who blame everyone else for not dancing to their tune. They resort to name calling and petty attacks on ‘the vast right wing conspiracy’ they imagine is against them. Their instinct for liberty and tolerance turns into moral license and laziness all in the name of ‘being nice.’ Instead of being truly open minded, tolerant and accepting of others they gather in their campaign mode and declare war on all who they perceive to be their enemies. Although they are against bigotry and intolerance they become just as bigoted and intolerant of their perceived enemies as the conservatives they accuse of bigotry and intolerance!
A plague on both their houses!
The ‘More Christianity’ position is always ‘both and’ instead of ‘either or’. The true Christian who is fully Catholic in mentality will be both conservative and liberal at the same time. He will seek to conserve with creativity and a dynamic faith all that is good and beautiful and true from 2,000 years of the Holy Spirit’s work in the world. He will also be looking to the future with optimism and hope–reaching out to all with Christ’s words of forgiveness, peace and justice.
Standing on the faith conserved from the past, he will also be tolerant and positive about the future. As a conservative he will work to maintain the ‘faith once delivered to the saints’ but he will also work to apply it to the needs of modern man today. To be truly Catholic is to be ‘universal’. This means we have an expansive vision of our mission in the world and we seek to fulfill it with joy, in the power and the glory of the Holy Spirit.
Fr Dwight Longenecker is parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary in Greenville, South Carolina. Connect with his blog, purchase his books and read his archived articles at www.dwightlongenecker.com