Tuesday, 29 September 2009

The Odour of Sanctity?

The Feast of St. Thérèse of Lisieux falls on Thursday of this week, 1st October. Many people in this area are looking forward to a "visit of her relics" - part of a "nationwide tour" - to Newcastle-upon-Tyne beginning on the Eve of the Feast and continuing onto the Feast Day itself. A programme for the hours that the relics of the saint are with us is to be found here. During this time the relics will be at St. Andrew's, Worswick Street - just round the corner from the old Pilgrim Street Fire Station. It's not a huge church, and I'm wondering how they plan to cope with all the crowds.

Will I be amongst them? I've visited Lisieux myself many years ago - and the relics on view there and then were perhaps too loftily displayed. I think this is going to be a rather more intimate occasion. I'd want a visit to be more than curosity on my part - and I'd need to be asking myself just what I'm looking for? Some of my thinking is to be found in the sermon I preached in St. Cuthbert's last Sunday - click to find it. This is the way I started:

You might be puzzled by an item I’ve included in today’s pew sheet about St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Why’s it there? And what on earth is it all about? In part it’s there because I had a gap to fill, and an article ready-made to fill it. In part it’s because it’s the Feast of St. Thérèse on Thursday - we’ll be observing it as we celebrate the Eucharist that morning. And in part it’s because of a rather strange happening, which you might have come across in the news. From Wednesday afternoon until Thursday morning, Newcastle is going to have a “visit of the relics of St. Thérèse of Lisieux.” It’s part of a bigger event. Some of the physical remains of the saint (I think it’s bones from her foot and leg) have been brought from Normandy, where she lived and died, and they’re being taken round the country in a glass casket. Thérèse was a Carmelite nun who died early at the age of 24. People might have said she didn’t have much of a life: a pious childhood; education that seemed appropriate to a girl of her class in late 19th Century France; and the rest of her life in a Convent which she would never leave again. But from those narrow confines she touched the hearts of people round the world...

One thing I've recognised is that I find it hard to say merely "visit of her relics...." Much truer seems to ring: "when she comes..." Superstition or presence? Mystery or a few not-so-old bones which should be given a decent burial?

Meanwhile there's a reminder to Anglicans in our region that we're already the guardians of the mortal remains of St. Cuthbert and St. Bede, buried respectively at the east and west ends of Durham Cathedral. We don't take out their bones to put them on display (though of course there are the records of various exhumations over the centuries). But their shrines are a visible reminder of the call to holiness. What do they say to us today?

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