St. Therese, May Day and the Lily-of-the-Valley

In many countries the 1st May is a Public Holiday, and the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker.

In France, where it is officially known as La Fête du Travail (National Labour Day) it is also called La Fête du Muguet (Lily of the Valley Day). It is a tradition on this day to offer a sprig of lily-of-the-valley (“muguet” in French) to loved ones, and in the week leading up to May Day you can buy bunches of this fragrant spring flower in every florist and most supermarkets in France.

This exquisite and modest wild flower, the lily-of-the-valley, that together with others like the crocus, primrose and bluebell heralds in the joy of Spring, was a great favourite of St. Therese of Lisieux, who saw herself as just such a ‘little flower’.

Unlike her famous namesake, St. Teresa of Avila, St.Therese was not granted the grace of ecstasy or levitations in prayer, at least as far as we know, but she had many special messages to convey to us about day to day living. Her delicate health might have given her an excuse to seek exemption from the more rigorous tasks imposed by the Carmelite rule, but from the very beginning of her life in Carmel she took her turn in weeding the garden, washing the linen, sweeping and scrubbing floors, working in the kitchen, paintng frescoes, washing and mending clothes, doing the work of sacristan, showing no preference for this work or that. She uttered no complaint and expressed no regret when the particular task to which she was assigned seemed heavy enough to crush her to the earth. In and about each of her daily duties she saw the rough hands of the Carpenter’s Son beckoning her to follow Him along the sure, though rough way of labour.

Moreover, Therese tells us that it was chiefly in the midst of her daily duties that she received lights hitherto unseen, to guide her along her dark way.

St Thérèse working with other Carmelite nuns, from left to right, Sr. Marie of the Trinity, Sr. Thérèse, Sr. Geneviève (Céline), and Sr. Martha of Jesus. 1895, sometime before the end of July.

She would have us know that no matter how insignificant or tedious any task may be, it can be turned to an instrument of tremendous spiritual profit to ourselves, and a source of immeasurable joy to the Creator. Nothing undertaken for love of God is unimportant or trivial in His sight, and our humblest works, performed well and with a smile, are precious pearls which purchase for us the favour of the Lord of the world.

This thought is superbly and metaphorically expressed by the Little Flower in a letter to her sister, Celine, dated 25th April, 1893:-

“My Little Celine,

I must come and disclose the desires of Jesus with regard to your soul. Remember that He did not say: ‘I am the Flower of the gardens, a carefully-tended rose,’ but ‘I am the Flower of the fields and the Lily of the valleys.’ Well, you must always be as a drop of dew hidden in the heart of this beautiful Lily.

The dewdrop—what could be simpler, what more pure? It is not the child of the clouds; it is born beneath the starry sky, and survives but a night. When the sun darts forth its ardent rays, the delicate pearls adorning each blade of grass quickly pass into the lightest vapour…. There is the portrait of my little Celine! She is the drop of dew, an offspring of Heaven—her true home. Through the night of this life she must hide herself in the Field-flower’s golden cup; no eye must discover her abode.

Happy dewdrop, known to God alone, pay no heed to the roaring torrents of the world! Do not envy the crystal stream which winds among the meadows. The ripple of its waters may be most sweet, but it can be heard by creatures. Besides, the Field-flower could never contain it in its cup. One must be so lowly to draw near to Jesus, and few are the souls that aspire to be lowly and unknown. ‘Are not the river and the brook,’ they urge, ‘of more use than the dewdrop? Of what avail is it? Its only purpose is to refresh for one moment some poor little field-flower.’

Ah! they little know the true Flower of the field. Did they know Him they would better understand Our Lord’s reproach to Martha. Our Beloved needs neither our brilliant deeds nor our beautiful thoughts. Were He in search of lofty ideas, has He not His angels, whose knowledge infinitely surpasses that of the greatest genius on earth? Neither intellect nor other talents has He come to seek among us…. He has become the Flower of the field to show us how much He loves simplicity.

The Lily of the valley asks but a single dewdrop, which for one night will rest in its cup, hidden from all human eyes. But when the shadows begin to fade, when the Flower of the field becomes the Sun of Justice, then the dewdrop—the humble sharer of His exile—will rise up to Him as love’s vapour. He will shed on her a ray of His light, and before the whole court of Heaven she will shine eternally like a precious pearl, a dazzling mirror of the Divine Sun.”

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2 Responses to St. Therese, May Day and the Lily-of-the-Valley

  1. Elisabeth says:

    This is very beautiful and I am happy you have posted this letter from Therese to Celine, which I have never seen before.

  2. Like St. John Vianney, St. Therese of Lisieux expressed great truths in ways that we would not use now, in our more “sophisticated” age. One of the signs of St. Therese’ great stature, though, is the fact that so many Catholic intellectuals of the twentieth century admired her greatly. The American Trappist Thomas Merton, for example, whose writings on life and spirituality combine tremendous depth with eminent reasonableness, had great respect for the importance of Therese’ life and ideas.

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