By LORRAINE V. MURRAY, Commentary | Published February 7, 2023
The grocery stores are brimming with cards heralding the arrival of Valentine’s Day. Many cards speak of love and passion and undying affection. I wish there were cards proclaiming a love rarely mentioned, but still in existence. It’s the love linking men and women as spiritual brothers and sisters, a love that goes beyond the limits of time.
Saint Therese of Lisieux and a priest, Adolphe Roulland, shared a spiritual love. Therese had entered the Carmelite cloister at age 15 with the intention of praying for missionary priests. She already had been writing to a young seminarian, when God sent her Roulland, a second spiritual brother, who would eventually go to China.
Their friendship began in 1896, when he was a seminarian and wrote to the Mother Superior at the Lisieux monastery, asking for an “angel” to pray for him. She chose Sister Therese of the Child Jesus, because as she later told him, “She’s the best of my nuns.”
Therese’s request in her first letter revealed her deep devotion to Christ. She hoped that when Roulland celebrated his first Mass, he would ask Jesus “to set me on fire with His love, so I may enkindle it in hearts.” Of course, he agreed.
Roulland later wrote to the Mother Superior, requesting permission to say his first Mass at the monastery, so he could give Sister Therese “the God of the Eucharist, the beloved Lord Jesus.” This wondrous event happened on July 3, when he celebrated Mass with Therese assisting as sacristan.
As he was preparing to leave for China, he wrote to Therese, promising to pray for her at every Mass, even after her death. In her letters, she referred to him as “the brother of my soul,” and told him the Mother Superior had allowed her to keep a photograph taken at his ordination.
When he’d been in China about a year, Father Roulland almost died from a serious illness. He wrote to her, “In our situation, we must not ask that I not suffer, but that I know how to suffer.” He detailed the horrendous situation of Christians in China, where people were being killed, and churches destroyed. He described the horrors of famine, and how families could no longer feed their children.
He wrote about the dangers of living there, and the importance of her prayers. As a result of the famine, people were desperate and crimes were rampant. “If the bandits kill me, and if I am not worthy to enter heaven immediately, you will draw me out of purgatory and I shall go to await you in paradise.”
The letters Therese wrote right before her death reveal two points that vividly show why she is a saint. First, she was battling tuberculosis and suffering terribly during the last months of her life, but she never mentioned her agony. She told him she was near death: “Soon I shall sit down at the heavenly banquet. I shall quench my thirst at the waters of eternal life!”
Second, she wrote, “I do not want you to ask God to deliver me from the flames of purgatory.” This humble little sister wanted to stay in purgatory, so she could help bring more people to heaven through her suffering. She signed her last letter “your little sister for eternity.”
She died on September 30, 1897, but the news didn’t reach Father Roulland in China for a few months. In his last letter, written after her death, he told her many conversions were taking place, thanks to God’s grace and her prayers. Reflecting on his own future death, he said he’d be sad about leaving her to suffer alone.
In a moment of irony, since she was already dead, he wrote, “Do not forget that you are my younger sister; I must die before you.” He also expressed hope they would be someday reunited in heaven, and closed with “Au revoir, in the hearts of Jesus and Mary.”
Is there any deeper, sweeter love than this? Two people united in friendship and prayer, helping each other bear their crosses and working together for the glory of God. A spiritual brother and sister, awaiting each other in paradise! It’s hard to imagine a more magnificent and miraculous love.