I didn’t choose St. Thérèse of Lisieux. She chose me.
It happened in 1993, at my Cursillo weekend—three days of talks, prayer, and discussions that help people discover God’s love and their mission as Christ’s disciples through a commitment to “piety, study, and action.” Each discussion group was under a saint’s patronage. I was assigned to the St. Thérèse table.
Sitting there in the meeting room, with all the windows closed, I began to smell flowers. There were none in sight, though, and none of my neighbors was wearing perfume. Besides, this fragrance was more captivating and intense than anything I had ever experienced.
“What’s that beautiful aroma?” I finally asked. No one else could smell it.
The group leader looked at me, puzzled, then broke into a smile. “Oh, it must be St. Thérèse,” she said. “Just the other day, a friend who was praying for this weekend sensed that someone here would receive a special gift from Thérèse. The scent of flowers often indicates her presence.”
Flowers from Heaven. At the time, I knew hardly anything about St. Thérèse. Although I grew up Catholic—one of eight children in a New Orleans family—and attended Catholic schools for twelve years, I had never really taken hold of my faith. In college, I stopped going to church and stayed away for a decade, returning only after I had married and had children. All I remembered about Thérèse was that my sister Beverly once went to an All Saints Day party dressed as the Little Flower.
Now eager to learn more, I picked up Thérèse’s autobiography, Story of a Soul. Wow! Her confidence in God and surrender to his will, her passionate desire to receive Jesus’ love and share it with others, her “little way of spiritual childhood”—I took it all to heart, underlining most of the book.
And when Thérèse pictured herself as a child joyfully strewing her flowers of love before God’s throne, I couldn’t help feeling that some of those blooms had fallen on my path.
Bloom Where You’re Planted. With Thérèse as my companion, I was transformed at that Cursillo. I had seen this happen to my mother years before, following her divorce. Devastated, she had turned to God for help and had found new life through the Charismatic Renewal. I knew that what she had was real, but I was not ready to have God as a part of my life yet.
But now my faith blossomed as I met Jesus in a personal way and learned that he wanted me to be his disciple. And furthermore, I learned that he had empowered me to do it.
Up till then, I struggled with my lack of self-confidence. Maybe it was a consequence of dealing with my dad’s mental illness; or maybe it was just because I grew up feeling awkward— too tall and skinny, with curly hair and thick glasses. I had never quite grown up out of my profound shyness— at least not until that Cursillo weekend, when I heard: “God doesn’t call the qualified; he qualifies the called.”
At our last gathering, I was able to stand up in front of everyone and proclaim, “I want to be a disciple of Christ.” I’m sure that St. Thérèse was cheering me on!
Passing It On. With my husband, Juan, I passed my newfound faith and love forward to our four children with a new zeal. But I wanted to pass it backward as well—especially to my father, who had left both the church and my mother when I was in college. I began praying novenas to my new friend, St. Thérèse, for his conversion.
I saw no immediate results. Influenced by the psychiatrist who was treating him, my father was convinced that his problems stemmed from his wife, mother, and religious upbringing. He had embraced a promiscuous lifestyle and become a firm atheist. “There is no God,” he kept telling me. Still, I persisted.
Some years later, after my mother died, a difficult issue arose. It concerned the care of my sister Beverly, who had a mental disability. At my father’s insistence, she had been living alone in an apartment, but monitored by a social worker. Or so we thought, until the day two of my sisters found her wandering the city streets, hungry, dirty, and vulnerable.
“She needs more supervision,” my siblings and I told our father. He disagreed, insisting that what Beverly needed was the freedom to live as she pleased—just like him. Finally, angered by our resistance, he disinherited all eight of us. We were now responsible for Beverly and began taking her into our homes. But since she required more care than we had the resources to provide, we considered suing our dad for support.
Love Your Father. I sought advice from a Catholic friend, an expert on the law. “All you can do is love your dad,” she told me. It was the last thing I wanted to hear.
But then I remembered how St. Thérèse extended little acts of love toward people who were difficult and troubled. “Jesus does not demand great actions from us but simply surrender and gratitude,” she said. Surrendering my anger, I asked her to help me change course and find little ways to love my father. I began praying for him more fervently. I wrote. I called. I encouraged my brothers and sisters to reach out to him, too.
Through the intercession of Thérèse, I did come to love my father. And within a year, he himself had softened— so much that he agreed to pay for Beverly to live in a residence that met her needs. More changes followed.
As Dad’s health declined, he reflected on his life. He told us, his children, that he loved us; he asked forgiveness for the wounds he had inflicted. Sensing that death was near, he even requested a funeral Mass. But when I urged him to talk to a priest, he refused. Family and friends stormed heaven in response.
How could Dad resist? After finally seeing a priest—and receiving the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick and Communion—he phoned to say he loved us. God’s peace was in his voice. He died in that peace on March 15, 2010.
It took seventeen years, but God answered my Cursillo-inspired prayer. I have every hope that my father is now singing Thérèse’s “canticle of love” before God’s throne. And as I live out my calling to be a disciple of Christ, I have every confidence that despite my weakness, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).
I am so grateful that the Little Flower chose me—and that she continues to inspire and help me along!
Brenda Kindelan is Lay Director for the Cursillo Movement in Memphis, Tennessee. For more on St. Thérèse, see Everything Is Grace.
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