I am not a devotee of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Her autobiography was recommended to me soon after I returned to the Church, and I read it, eager to learn more about a relatively recent saint. I found it very hard to finish: the sentiments expressed were far too saccharine-sweet for my tastes. I preferred the acerbic qualities shown by St. Bernadette and St. Teresa of Avila.
However, it isn't every day that a canonised saint drops in for a visit, and when I heard that the relics of St. Thérèse would be coming to England, I knew that I would spend the rest of my life regretting it if I didn't make the effort to go and see her for myself.
Living on the outskirts of London, I considered going to see her relics when they were brought to Westminster Cathedral. However, I decided that this was probably not the best option for me, as I was sure there would be huge crowds, and I didn't fancy the idea of queuing for ages after having been on my feet all day at school.
Seeing the relics when they were at Aylesford seemed like a much better prospect. Aylesford is a relatively short drive down the motorway, and, even better, the relics would be there over the weekend. Although there were members of the parish UCM going early on Saturday morning (they'd been asked to stand watch over the relics for a while) and another group was going to attend the Mass on the Saturday lunchtime, I wasn't keen to get caught up with all the crowds. My knee and ankle have been playing up in the damp weather, and standing still for long periods of time, or walking in a slow-moving queue, is quite painful.
One of the Knights of St. Columba told me that there would be an all-night vigil on the Saturday night, and this seemed to be the ideal solution: I thought that there would still be lots of people, but a lot less than during the day.
Sure enough, the journey was an absolute doddle (no need to park a mile away) and, when I arrived at 10:40pm, although there were lots of cars in the parking area, the shrine itself was pretty empty...
I discovered that the all-night vigil had started with a Mass, and, on checking the programme, I realised that, since most people were at the Mass, this would be the perfect time to go to the Relic Chapel. The entrance to the Chapel was via the Rosary Way.
A large white tent had been erected as a sort of chapel, where large votive candles were burning and I asked the friar to light a couple for me, while I said a prayer or two before the statue of St. Thérèse.
I then made my way into the Relic Chapel itself, and was surprised to find it almost empty, apart from a very few people praying around the edges of the room...
I took a photo or two, and, not wanting to disturb anyone, moved in a bit closer, saying a few prayers. I felt drawn to the reliquary, but wasn't sure what to do next: after all, no-one else was moving. I waited a bit longer, and finally decided to ask the Knights of St. Columba if I could touch and venerate the reliquary.
"Yes, of course you can," came the response, "that's what it's there for."
I didn't need any further encouragement, and promptly laid my hands upon it, praying a Hail Mary or two, and then I kissed the reliquary (well, the perspex dome covering it) before moving back to sit and pray. All of a sudden, everyone else in the room converged on the reliquary, as though they had been waiting for permission!
The atmosphere in the Relic Chapel was very prayerful, and I felt intensely moved by the experience, and extremely privileged to have been able to get so close. I went back to the tent and got another candle and a rose, and I placed these on the reliquary: I believe that makes them third class relics! More and more people started to enter the chapel, and I realised that Mass had ended, so I went out, in order that others could have some time with the saint.
I shall wait and see what the fruits of this visit are: both for myself and for the country as a whole. The outpouring of devotion among so many Catholics must surely produce great things.