The Last Will Be First
Having been to Scotland, I know what a lovely country it is. So when I came across a video of an event in Scotland which involved the relics of one of my favorite saints, I had to view it. The video, filmed in Carfin Grotto, (not far from Glasgow), showed people lining the roads in heartfelt veneration as the relics of St. Thérèse of Lisieux were carried in procession and then placed in a special vehicle in order to be brought to another part of the country. The number of people reverently lining the streets was both amazing and wonderful to behold. Seeing this inspired me to reflect upon how people respond to the sacred, especially to those who have lived holy lives: it seems that the saints fascinate us because they give us hope. Perhaps the response in Scotland was because of the goodness of St. Thérèse and her promise to “spend her heaven” interceding for those who were in need, both of which glorify God, not Thérèse. Honoring her remains is a reminder that God works through the love and service of His holy ones. But I also thought about how we should want to be remembered after our own death. To do so is not egotistical or bizarre in any way. We should all think about this because it is, in fact, our call as Christians. Each of us should desire that we would leave the world a better place, a holier place, because we have lived in it. We are meant to build up the Kingdom, and so we should desire to be remembered as those who served the Lord with humility and love. Therefore, it should be part of our reflection and prayer to ask for the graces to live in such a way that when we are gone others will be inspired by our memory and desire to live holy lives, too. And if we are truly growing in holiness, we will not desire any acclaim because we took to heart the teaching of Jesus when He said that “the first will be last and the last will be first” (Mark 10:30); thus our intention will be to glorify God so that others will be attracted to Him via our love and humble service.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897, feast day October 1) was one who chose to be ‘little.’ As she matured both emotionally and spiritually she realized that her life was about living in service of Jesus. Thérèse came from an upper middle-class family, surrounded by her loving parents and siblings. But as the ‘baby,’ she had been the center of attention for many years, something she relished until she had a painful revelation, after which she cast aside her selfish behavior and focused on pouring her love outward. At only 15, she entered a Carmelite convent, a place of obscurity and poverty, and it did not take long for the other nuns to see that she was filled with great love and holiness. A few years later, when it became clear that Thérèse was terminally ill, her superior had her write her autobiography (The Story of a Soul). Thérèse did so as an act of obedience; she never dreamed it would be published, intending it for her community and nothing more. Without that book the world would never have known one of its greatest saints. Thérèse would have died in obscurity the way she chose to live. But it was her humility and the little acts of love she directed at each and every nun in her community which made her so beloved. In other words, she who was ‘first,’ coming from a comfortable background, had desired to be ‘last,’ (entering into humble service), just as Jesus taught. And in so doing, Thérèse of Lisieux caught the attention of the world as the last who became the first; she viewed herself as little and became one of the most inspiring Saints of all.*
Another who can be described similarly is St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226, feast day October 4). He, too, was born into a well-off family, though perhaps his was a bit more prominent than that of Thérèse. Also similar is that as a youth Francis was self-indulging: he was haughty and loved partying with his friends, spending money on vanities and the so-called good life. And also like Thérèse, he had a ‘moment of reckoning’ in which he made a complete break with ego and pride, embracing instead humility and poverty. His conversion was a lengthier process than that of Thérèse, but his love for Jesus grew so great that he eventually threw off all of his finery (quite literally), donned a rough garment with a rope belt around his waist, and devoted himself to Lady Poverty and service of Jesus in the poor, especially the lepers. Unlike Thérèse, however, he was a laughing-stock at first; but then Francis become one of the most respected of people, and now, one of the most beloved of Saints. ‘The first’ (the rich powerful one), became ‘the last’ (in poverty and humility), because he chose it. Thus in becoming ‘the last’, he became ‘first’ again, only this time in the estimation of the one who is most important, Jesus the Lord.
There are many similarities in the stories of these two saints, yet they could not have had personalities that were more different and could not have lived in eras more diverse. However, what they had in common is the thread that binds all the holy ones: Thérèse and Francis each had the desire to serve God, fueled by intense, intimate love for Him which enabled them to become humble and lowly. Thus, both desired poverty and to serve others via the life to which they were called. These two great saints became ‘the first,’ as acclaimed, revered, canonized Saints, when they chose to be ‘the last;’ that is, they chose others over self, little acts of love over grandiose gestures, Christ over honors. Jesus became their wealth, their goal, and their greatest love. In desiring lowliness, they chose to make the lives of others better, Thérèse in her obscure convent, and Francis either working with lepers, evangelizing, or in prayer on Mt. Subiaco. Both sought only Jesus, nothing else; thus they learned to find Him in their own little ways in the ones they served. Both were filled with love which was so evident that after their deaths each were acclaimed and canonized almost instantaneously. As the saying goes, “Cream rises to the top.” The last shall be first.
What we learn from Sts. Francis and Thérèse is that if we desire to be holy, which we should want with all our heart, we should imitate the one thing they both did, and that is to seek to be ‘the last’, not ‘the first.’ If we seek to be ‘the last’ we need to put God before ourselves, desiring to serve Him in our families, with our friends, and especially in the poor, lonely, ill, and marginalized. And we should desire to be remembered after our death as one who lived a holy life, not for the acclaim, – (a lack of humility does not make one holy, it does the opposite) – but because it is what we are called to do, because it glorifies God, and mostly because it is our gift of love to Him. A holy life, and thus a life well lived, is our best gift of gratitude to God. Jesus taught on numerous occasions that seeking the highest position is a fleeting, hollow honor, there is nothing lasting to be gained in it. However, if we choose to be the least, serving as He served, we are His true disciples and we will attain the glory which does last: to share eternity with Him in Heaven.
To become the last we need to be like St. Thérèse, with love as our vocation, and like St. Francis who was able to be Christ-like despite what anyone thought of him. These are not impossible dreams to pursue, but with work and discipline, with love as our motivation, we can joyfully choose to be humble, (to be as ‘the last’), so that others may be brought to God. The gospels tell us that if we love our neighbor as ourselves, if we are generous, kind, merciful, strive to serve others, and seek forgiveness when needed, we will grow in holiness. And like Thérèse and Francis we need to be women and men of prayer so that we might grow in intimacy with God and to better recognize His presence when the going gets tough as well as in times of joy. If we live humbly and with the love Jesus taught, everyone we encounter will be left just a bit better and the world a bit holier, because we have lived. Indeed, we should spend time reflecting upon how we want to be remembered after our life is over. And if we seek no honors now, and are willing to serve others even in the smallest, seemingly insignificant ways, we will have imitated Christ and we will have become holy, honored in His sight. If that is your dream and the passion of your heart, then you will be the last who God will invite to be the first.
May we seek to be humble, desiring to live the gospels as Jesus taught! May we be inspired by the saints who made humility, service of others, and love their response to God! May we ask the intercession of St. Thérèse and St. Francis so that we might live holy lives! May we devote our lives to striving for holiness according to the lifestyle to which we have been called! May we eventually leave this life having made the world just a bit better for having lived! And may we live with gratitude for all the graces and gifts given to us by God! Let us continue to meet in the heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* When I use the terms ‘the first’ and ‘the last’ I am putting them in partial quotes (as is my style) so that we are reminded that I am using the definition of first and last as applied by Jesus in the gospels. He is not speaking as if we are in a race, nor is He implying that we denigrate ourselves. Rather, Jesus is implying 'the last' are those who do not seek honors and who seek to live with humility, serving with love. Those who seek to be ‘the first’ are the haughty: the true ‘first’ are the ones who God honors, that is, the holy ones.
To view the video which inspired this post, mentioned in the first paragraph, click here: https://www.facebook.com/sanctafamiliamedia/videos/863612750701716/
1. My photo, at garden at Direlton Castle, N. Berwick, Scotland: I thought that this would be an appropriate photo to begin since it was in a beautiful garden in Scotland, but also because St. Thérèse of Lisieux is often referred to as "The Little Flower" after a reference she made to herself in her autobiography in which she said that she was a little flower in the garden of the Lord.
2. My photo of a photo, taken in Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France (2013): I took this photo while in my second visit to Notre Dame Cathedral. It was part of a permanent collection of photos of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Unfortunately, I do not know if those original photos survived the recent fire at the Cathedral.
3. Icon, St. Francis Wounded Winter Light, by Fr. William Hart McNichols: This icon shows the humility and chosen poverty of St. Francis of Assisi. He truly was a humble servant of God, the last who became the first, as described by Jesus in the gospels. You can find this icon at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/st-francis-wounded-winter-light-098-william-hart-mcnichols.html
4. Painting, St. Francis Giving His Cloak to a Beggar, Giotto: This painting depicts St. Francis as a young man. The event painted here shows him as his conversion was evolving, so to speak. It was one of his first offerings to the poor, taking place shortly before he left all of his family's wealth behind for good.
5. My photo, a hummingbird on a feeder: I chose this photo because the hummingbird is a tiny bird, humble in size, but amazing to behold. They are almost insignificant in size, yet they are beautiful. It seemed a fitting reminder that the littlest can be great in its own way.
6. Painting, Mother and Child, by Vincent van Gogh: I chose this because it is a humble scene of the security given through the bond of love between the mother and the child, both asleep before the warmth of a fire. There is no finery here, just love.
7. My photo, trees in a park outside of Auckland, New Zealand: I chose this because the (large) tree looked rather luminous. Just as holy people have a kind of luminosity, a radiance often depicted as a halo, so this tree seemed to have a radiance of its own.
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