We're all so used to the emotionally devoid notion of virtual reality in this age of the internet, that my extraordinary experience of venerating a saint's relics in person this week came as an unexpected shock. This was no animated video game, this was raw human interaction on a scale that I have never observed before.
During the month of October, a thigh and foot bone of Saint Therese of Lisieux toured Britain, culminating in a four-day vigil at Westminster Cathedral in London, arriving amongst great pomp and circumstance on the evening of 12th.
Known as Little Flower, due to her demure and unassuming nature, Saint Therese isn't exactly the most famous saint in the panoply of canonized personages. She was a 24-year-old virgin who died of tuberculosis in 1897 without having performed any miracles of particular note. Her own description of her life's work was that her purpose was to transmit "love". It was only after her death that her strange effect on people around her was observed.
Consequently, it was perhaps due to the low risk security factor of this relatively unknown saint that Saint Therese became the world's first "touring saint". In bygone times, the faithful would perform challenging pilgrimages to venerate a saint's relics at their fixed location—but, this is the first time ever that the relics have come to the people.
Of course, in true mass media style, it's difficult to resist the temptation to compare the exercize to the touring of a famous rock band. One devotee commented that Saint Therese has "got the X-Factor", in homage to the popular music TV show, while another one drolly quipped that this should be dubbed "The Rolling Bones Tour".
In any case, after what I experienced on Monday evening, I would definitely buy the teeshirt.
Although I must admit that, cynically, my original motivation was one of purely intellectual curiosity. This might be the only opportunity in my life that I'd get to embark on a hassle-free "pilgrimage", as Westminster Cathedral is practically on my doorstep, so I decided to go for it.
As it happened, I arrived at exactly the "right" moment... just as the Cathedral's bouncer--oops, I mean one of the stewards--counted out the first 200 pilgrims who would be privileged enough to be admitted into the Cathedral to celebrate the Mass in the run-up to the Arrival of the Relics of Saint Therese of Lisieux that evening. The rest of the rapidly gathering crowd would have to stand outside for almost four hours in the chilly night air and watch from the large-screen TV installed in the square. I estimated that I was roughly number 175th.
After purchasing a rose and a Saint Therese votive candle from a strategically-placed concessions stand, I managed to blag myself an aisle seat with a good view of both the altar in front of me and the west entrance behind me, where the casket would be carried in.
On the seat was a leaflet explaining what a Plenary Indulgence was and how to obtain one. Basically, a Plenary Indulgence is like a karmic "Get Out of Jail Free" card. If you've got one, you can skip Purgatory when you die and go straight to Heaven. Reflecting back over my colorful life, I figured that this might come in handy at the appropriate moment, so I read on.
The process seemed fairly straightforward... all I had to do was venerate the relics (check), attend the Mass (check), say loads of Hail Marys (check, check), and take Communion having first attended Confession, for which purpose there was a designated priest in a rear confessional sporting a sign stating "Confessions Available Here". Despite the fact that I hadn't been to confession since I was approximately 14 years old, I decided to damn the torpedoes and go for it.
And that's when it kicked off.
Kneeling in the confessional enclosure, facing the screened priest, I completely disintegrated. To this day, I couldn't even begin to explain what happened to me. One minute I was perfectly normal and the next minute I was sobbing uncontrollably, blubbering to a complete stranger that I needed to resolve my "mother issues", which I hadn't even been consciously aware of until that precise moment.
The priest reassuringly explained that this was all perfectly understandable, as Saint Therese also had mother issues. Therese and I were obviously resonating at the same frequency.
I don't actually remember floating back to my aisle seat. I sat in a dreamlike state through almost three hours of the most beautifully sung Latin High Masses--Vespers and a Pontifical Mass, both poignantly dedicated to Saint Edward the Confessor, who founded the nearby Westminster Abbey--performed by priests adorned in ivory white vestments and bishops in wine red, with enough billowing wafts of Frankincense to intoxicate the entire congregation en masse.
As the Relics of Saint Therese of Lisieux were carried from the square into Westminster Cathedral through the doors just behind us, I numbly thrust a camera at a fellow pilgrim companion, as I was unable to cope with the technology in the state I was in.
Afterwards, my companion confessed that he was perfectly happy to hide behind the camera, as he himself had burst uncontrollably into tears at the moment the relics entered the nave, in a long-suppressed act of mourning for his own mother who had passed away twenty-nine years ago, almost exactly to the day. He, too, was resonating at the Therese frequency.
You can see the procession, which the stewards kindly allowed us to film, here.
There have been decades of debates about the Roman Catholic Church’s attitude towards the “Divine Feminine” in the wake of books such as Holy Blood, Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code. But, as far as I am concerned, The Divine Feminine was alive and well under the auspices of Saint Therese of Lisieux at Westminster Cathedral on the evening of October 12, 2009.
As we sang together in the Litany: Saint Therese, converter of the hardened hearts, pray for us.
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