The Carmelite monks of Sicily and Veneto organized a pilgrimage to Lisieux, a town in the north of France where the Carmelite nun, Saint Therese of the Child Jesus, had lived in a convent. The pilgrimage started from Verona, a city in the north of Italy, where the group coming from Sicily joined the other from Veneto.
I could never imagine going on a pilgrimage to the north of France, and I hadn’t even heard of Saint Therese of the Child Jesus. It was a girl named Margherita, who attended Saint Joseph Church in Enna, who proposed I take part in the pilgrimage with her. Despite her young age, she had a degree in classic literature and taught ancient Greek at Enna’s high school.
“It is not just a pilgrimage,” she said to me. “It is also a sightseeing tour. We will visit Paris, a few castles by the Loire River, and Versailles.”
I had fallen in love with Margherita, and the chance to go on a trip together thrilled me. So I accepted with enthusiasm. Unfortunately, people’s minds and hearts are changeable, and a few days before the start of the trip she told me that she had changed her mind and wouldn’t come. What to do? I could cancel my booking, but I didn’t, despite the fact that travelling with a group of people who I didn’t know didn’t thrill me at all.
At that time, I feared of travelling by airplane, and that was not my only phobia. I also feared being isolated from other people. What would I do alone on the trip? All the other participants knew one another, while I didn’t know anyone. I resigned myself to being alone for the duration of the trip, but I felt very ill at ease.
After I arrived at the station in Verona, I walked to the meeting place, which was not far away. A girl was waiting there for the rest of the group. As soon as I arrived I seized the opportunity not to be alone.
“My name is Vincenzino. What is your name?”
“My name is Lucia,” she answered. She was tall and lean and had shadows under her eyes.
“Do you want to sit together on the bus?” I asked.
She looked at me with her broad eyes full of surprise. Certainly she would have preferred saying no, but she was too polite to refuse my request.
“Okay,” she answered, “you can sit close to me.”
I was relieved because I had solved my problem of being alone, but over time I realized that I had behaved stupidly. In fact, I had compelled that well-mannered girl to stay with me while she might have preferred to travel with her friends whose company was more enjoyable than mine. I had treated her not as a human being but as a tool to solve my problem.
The trip leader was a Carmelite monk from northern Italy. His name was Father Leo, and he was a very learned person who knew Saint Therese’s life to perfection. He gladdened our trip on the bus by telling biblical stories and, above all, talking about Saint Therese.
“Saint Therese of the Child Jesus was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope John Paul II. She is the youngest person, and the third woman, to be so honored in the history of the Catholic Church. She died from tuberculosis when she was just twenty-four years old.”
“What did she do to be declared a Doctor of the Church?” asked one of the pilgrims.
“She pointed out the ‘Little Way’ to humans. It does not take vast learning to know God, but it does take humility and simplicity of heart,” answered Father Leo.
We had just visited the Palace of Versailles, and on the bus Father Leo kept telling the humble life story of Saint Therese.
As for me, I couldn’t help comparing a nobleman’s life in the Palace of Versailles to life in a convent. They were two opposite ways of living. I concluded that everyone follows his or her own path according to their destiny and tendencies, but in the end paradise has its gates open to all, because God is inside every human being.
What made an impression on me was when Father Leo told us the story of Saint Therese’s miraculous recovery.
“At the end of 1882, Saint Therese was seized by a persistent headache that lasted until Easter of the following year. She was just nine years old. Afterwards, she got worse and the doctor diagnosed a serious rare disease, unusual for a little girl. She was bound to die, but one day while she was praying before a statue portraying Our Lady, she saw the Virgin Mary smiling at her. Suddenly big tears welled in the little girl’s eyes. From then on she started recovering, and five years later she entered the Carmelite convent as a cloistered nun.”
“How is it possible,” I asked Father Leo, “that a teenager is allowed to take the vows?”
“You are right to ask this question,” he answered, “but Saint Therese got a dispensation from the bishop. Indeed, canon law is not as strict as civil law, thanks to the institution of dispensation. Obviously, if the bishop allowed Saint Therese to enter the convent at a very young age, he did so after due consideration.”
On the way back when we were near the sanctuary of La Salette, I took a seat near another pilgrim. At that moment I saw Lucia laughing for the first time. Now she was sitting near a nun, with whom she was at ease. As for me, I had overcome my stupid fear of being alone.
On the way, Father Leo told us the story of the apparition of Our Lady of La Salette.
“One hundred fifty years ago, La Salette was a small village in Southern France. There were less than one thousand people living there. One day, two children who had been minding the cows on Mount Sous-Les Baisses came back to the village and reported that they had seen a weeping beautiful lady.
“According to the children’s account, the apparition, who spoke their dialect, was weeping because people didn’t respect God anymore. The lady gave the children a few messages, which were all based on her wish that human hearts are converted to God.”
Our bus took us up to the top of the mount where the apparition had happened. At that moment, thin mist alternated with clear sky. I had the sensation that the whole area was enveloped in mystery, as if Our Lady had left the imprint of her apparition on the mountain.
When I returned home from the pilgrimage, I saw Margherita with another man. I thought maybe they were just friends, but unfortunately they were already engaged, and six months later they got married.
I had lost Margherita, but I had gained much more. In fact, the pilgrimage to Lisieux and La Salette strengthened my personality. Now I had the sensation of being stronger and less picky. Apparently, the teachings of Saint Therese about keeping a simple and pure heart had worked.
Excerpt from A Hidden Sicilian History by ETTORE GRILLO
– A Hidden Sicilian History
– The Vibrations of Words
– Travels of the Mind