Comment Opinion & Features

The most peaceful and prayerful liturgy I’ve ever known

Officers carry the relics into Barlinnie prison in Glasgow (Getty)

The triumphant tour of the relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux showed that Catholicism is alive and well in Scotland. Thousands came out to see her: the spontaneous enthusiasm of old and young demonstrated that piety draws piety. It was also a credit to the team at Sancta Familia Media, a brilliant local crew of filmmakers whose videos encouraged the high turnout. This is precisely why faith has to be public and spectacular – to capture our attention and spark the imagination.

I decided to join the relics when they visited Barlinnie prison in Glasgow. St Thérèse was a young nun who specialised in small acts of kindness. One was to pray for the conversion of a murderer who seemed beyond redemption. On the day of his execution, at the foot of the scaffold, he paused to kiss a crucifix, suggesting that God had heard Thérèse’s prayer. On that basis, it has become tradition that whenever she goes abroad, the young lady’s remains visit a prison.

About a hundred prisoners turned out in Barlinnie chapel and they sat in absolute silence throughout the Mass. Given the lack of the usual screaming babies and phones going off, I’ve never known a more peaceful or prayerful liturgy. The guests, including myself, sat just behind the prisoners – no barrier between us – which meant that at the Sign of the Peace, I was able to dart forward and shake a couple of hands, to look into their eyes. The men had peaceful, serene faces; not unlike monks. At the end, everyone shuffled slowly out, passing the relics in a glass case; they kissed the glass or stopped and crossed themselves. At the door, four Carmelite nuns gave each of them a rose and a chocolate.

The secret to the popularity of St Thérèse is, I think, twofold. First, Marie Françoise-Thérèse Martin lived in the modern era, from 1873 to 1897, so we have black-and-white photos of her. This makes her come alive. The pictures are of a sweet, surprisingly modern-looking girl; she could easily be one’s own sister, which makes the tragedy of her death from tuberculosis at the age of 24 all the more awful.

Second, she didn’t really do anything spectacular, rather just lots of small, lovely things that are easily imitated: what she called her spirituality of the “little way”. Many saints are intimidating figures who do the impossible or unpleasant, like killing dragons or leaping into fires. St Thérèse lived charitably and beautifully; she died with courage. She was indeed modern. In an age of motor cars and electric lights, the simplicity of her vision, like Mother Teresa’s, cuts through the growing complexity and alienation of Western life. The Little Way is about navigating living in close quarters with other people. It applies as easily to a convent as it does to the 21st-century city or, indeed, a prison.

I did a wee video with Sancta Familia immediately after Mass in which I rather clumsily said it had been a privilege to be there in the prisoners’ “home”. I didn’t mean the prison, of course, with its bars and cells, but the chapel – although, yes, I absolutely stand by the word “privilege”. Barlinnie is one of the places Christ is most needed, and to be among those Christ loves is an honour.

***

It’s autumn and the spiders are coming in to the house from the cold. One morning I visited my mother’s house while she was out. I let myself in and strolled into the living room, only to spot a spider the size of a saucer clinging to the wall.

My instinct, obviously, was to run into the garden screaming for help,­ but it occurred to me that the moment I left the room, the monster would go into hiding. There it would wait, probably lay a thousand eggs, and reemerge when I least expect it and crawl all over me.

In case you haven’t guessed yet, I’m a bit of an arachnophobe.

So I decided to stand perfectly still in the living room until my mother returned. Just me and the spider. I stood like that for about half an hour until mum came through the door.

“Enter the room very slowly,” I said as if standing on a landmine, “and look at the wall.”

“Good grief!” She said, “it’s got eyes!”

“Get a glass, put it over it and take it outside.”

This she did very slowly and the thing fought back with all its might. You could hear its enormous body crashing against the glass. She carried it out across the road and dropped it in a neighbour’s garden. Finally, I could breathe.

Two nights later I passed through the living room, turned on a light and found the spider back on the wall.

“Whatever,” I said, switched the light off and pretended I never saw it.

Tim Stanley is a journalist, historian and Catholic Herald contributing editor