One of the things I appreciate about being Catholic is the richness of our history and tradition. We can do most, if not all, of the things our non-Catholic Christian brothers and sisters do: daily prayer, praise and worship, Scripture reading and study, service in community. But our faith possesses a wealth of tools and resources unique to Catholicism: grace from the Sacraments (with the Eucharist topping that list), devotion to Mary, unity in obedience to the teachings of the Church, the wisdom of holy men and women past and present. One tenet I’ve especially come to treasure is that of the Communion of Saints.
As a child, I remember being fascinated by the stories I’d read from a series of books on the lives of saints. From this early exposure, I remember reading about St. Lawrence who bravely (and wittingly) told those who were burning him to turn him over as he was already “done” on one side, and St. Francis who renounced material possessions and lived with the animals in the forest (understand that as a kid, these were the details that struck me the most). I read of St. Maria Goretti and St. Tarcisius who, though very young, were brave enough to die for the faith. But even if I was told that I had to aspire to be like them, the one-page stories I read could very well have been fairy tales. Their stories were from a different time and place, and I couldn’t imagine anyone doing the great things they did in this day and age.
But their stories aren’t mere fantasies or legends. I only began to understand the beauty of their lives when I fell in love with God myself. Only then did their stories go from fantastical to inspirational–I wanted to love God, to follow and serve God as they did.
If we were to read the stories and writings of the Saints, and strive for holiness as they did, we would already have reaped a tremendous amount of benefit for our faith journey. But the more I got to know about these remarkable people, the more I felt drawn to forge something deeper than an intellectual knowledge of their life and work. I wanted more than just mentors–I wanted friends.
I thought, if I could speak to Jesus, in Heaven, as a friend, as a lover, and these Saints surely were in Heaven with Him, why couldn’t I speak with them as friends in the same manner? Surely I could freely tell them how their lives inspired me, how prayer can be such a struggle at times, and that I’m trying my best to exhibit the same discipline they did in their daily lives? Shouldn’t it be just as easy for me to ask them to pray for my intentions, as I would any other living-breathing Christian friend? The more I knew about them, the more I loved them, and felt their love and concern for me in return. At one point, after having gone on a pilgrimage visiting the homes of some Saints, I felt a blossoming relationship with each one, and believed that they were all in attendance every time I would go to pray. At the end of every prayer time, after my final word to my Savior, I would smile and say goodbye to my Heavenly circle of friends: Father Francis (of Assisi) and Mother Clare, Padre Anthony (of Padua), Mother Teresa (of Avila), Padre Pio, and my closest friend of all (so close that I’ve come to simply call her by her first name): Thérèse.
My friendship with Thérèse (of LIsieux) began when I came across her famous autobiography Story of a Soul while researching for a term paper in High School. I had just offered my youth to the Lord, and was happily discovering true joy in loving God as passionately as my romance-obsessed teenaged heart would allow. Reading about how deeply in love with God Thérèse was, I felt I had found a kindred spirit! With most of my friends from school thinking me strange whenever I would say I was so in love with God, and that I considered Him my boyfriend, I felt I had finally found someone who understood me completely. So convinced was I that our love stories were similar that I believed I would also romantically/tragically die of Tuberculosis at age 24. I shared with her my feelings and struggles, about how I was so in love with Christ, and I imagined her nodding in agreement, always as giddy and swooning as I was.
Thérèse had become such a special friend that when I saw a poster announcing that her relics were touring the world, the Philippines included, I said a quick prayer, telling my friend that I would love to go see her, and if she could please make a way for it to happen.
But because I didn’t care to write down the dates and places listed on the poster, I missed all my chances to visit her relics here.
Oh, how jealous I was when some friends shared that they were able to visit her! And they spared no details in telling me of how big an effort it was (though it was all worth it, I’m sure) with the deluge of pilgrims that flocked to see her: the long queues, the traffic, the difficulty parking. I was jealous, but guilty, too. I felt I had let a friend down by not visiting her while she was in town.
Around 2 months later, I was with my mom on a pilgrimage for the Jubilee year (2000). After visiting the Vatican to attend some festivities, our group went on to see other pilgrimage sites of note in Italy and some neighboring countries. En route to one of these destinations, our itinerary included a quick half-day stopover in Assisi, home of St. Francis and St. Clare.
The Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi was obviously a must-go. The enormous, clean-looking structure (refreshingly bright compared to most darker-toned churches in Europe) had an inexplicably peaceful atmosphere that kind of felt like an open invitation for visitors to come in and pray (which, considering the number of pilgrims and tourists that bustle through the city any given day, is saying something). The viewing of the crypt where St. Francis’ (and his band of brothers’) remains lay entails going down a basement, following a continuous line once around the room, then going up through an exit that takes you to the other end of the vast basilica.
Solemnly making my way through the crypt, praying silently to Father Francis, I was unprepared for what I was about to find waiting for me as I made my way up and out of the crypt exit. There, visiting for one day only, were the traveling relics of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. On the exact day my group was to visit Assisi. No queue. No traffic. No difficulty parking.
Amazed and overjoyed, I couldn’t hold back my tears. I slowly walked over to the empty pew right in front of her relics (I wasn’t kidding, no queue at all), knelt down, and just wept for a good few minutes. There were no words–there was no need for them. I knew in my heart that she considered me just as much a friend as I did her. That even if I forgot about my promise to visit her, she never did.
My dearest Thérèse, thank you for remembering. Till we meet again.