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Pope Francis uses the symbol of St. Therese of Lisieux for Christian refugees in Iraq, calling them "the reeds of God." December 6, 2014

 photo of Therese's white Carmelite work apron; above the waist it shows her laundry mark, the reed, in redSt. Therese's laundry mark, the reed, on her Carmelite work apron

On Saturday, December 6, 2014, Pope Francis sent a special video message to the Christian refugees of Mosul, in Erbil.  Tens of thousands of Christians driven from their homes in Mosul have taken refuge in Erbil.  They are among almost two million people displaced by the offensive of the Islamic State in northern Iraq.  The Pope compared these suffering refugees to the image St. Therese used of herself, the reed that is not broken by the storm. 

Today I would like to draw near to you who are enduring this suffering, to be close to you …. And I think of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, who said that she and the Church felt like a reed: when the wind and the storm comes, the reed bends, but it does not break! You are now this reed, you bend in suffering, but you have the strength to carry on your faith, which for us is a witness. You are the reeds of God today. The reeds that are bowed down by this fierce wind, but that will then arise!

See the text of the Pope's message, sent through Cardinal Barbarin.

The context of St. Therese's use of the symbol of the reed

Therese had many nicknames and symbols for herself.  She used "the little reed" in her early religious life, usually to describe her extreme fragility.  In May 1888, about a month after she entered Carmel, she wrote to her sister Marie, who was preparing to make her vows: 

You, who are an eagle called to soar in the heights and to fix your gaze on the sun, pray for the very feeble little reed that is at the bottom of the valley, the least breeze makes it bend. Oh, pray for it on the day of your Profession.

See this letter (LT 49) at the Web site of the Archives of the Carmel of Lisieux.

On July 4, 1888, she wrote her sister Pauline, Sister Agnes of Jesus:  

Jesus alone! Nothing but Him. The grain of sand is so little that, if it wanted to place someone other than Him in its heart, there would be no room for Jesus....

and signed the letter

"The little Reed of Jesus"

See this letter (LT 51) at the Web site of the Archives of the Carmel of Lisieux.

That same week (July 5-9, 1888), the 15-year-old postulant wrote to Sister Agnes of Jesus, and it is this letter to which Pope Francis refers: 

Thanks to the dear lamb for having made the little lamb hear once again the music from heaven. The gentle breeze made the little reed sway softly....

It was after nine o'clock when the reed noticed the dear little paper; there was no earthly light, but its heart more than its eyes knew how to decipher St. Cecilia's music. It did not miss one single word!. . .

Yes, I desire them, these agonies of the heart, these pinpricks about which the lamb speaks. What does it matter to the little reed if it bends? It is not afraid of breaking, for it has been planted at the edge of the waters, and, instead of touching the ground when it bends, it encounters only a beneficent wave which strengthens it and makes it want another storm to come and pass over its frail head. Its weakness gives rise to all its confidence. It cannot break since, no matter what happens to it, it wants only to see the gentle hand of its Jesus.... Sometimes the little gusts of wind are more unbearable for the reed than the great tempests, for in these latter it will be refreshed in its dear brook, but the little gusts of wind don't make it bend low enough; these are the pinpricks....

But nothing is too much to suffer to gain the palm. . . ."

By "the great tempests" Therese could be referring to the suffering the Martin sisters experienced because of the illness of their father, who disappeared for several days at the end of June.  The "pinpricks" and 'the little gusts of wind" probably refer to the little trials of community life. See this letter (LT 55) at the Web site of the Archives of the Carmel of Lisieux.

In January 1889, when Therese received the habit, the symbol of the reed found a concrete expression in her everyday life.  The Carmel used symbols, not numbers, to mark each nun's laundry and shoes so that the nuns could recognize them, and Therese's laundry mark was the reed.  You can see it on the photo of her work apron above. Click and scroll down to view also Therese's wooden sandals and clogs with the mark of the reed.

Therese's use of this symbol could have been suggested by her novice mistress, Sister Marie of the Angels, who loved to call herself "the little reed of Jesus."  On November 21, 1889, as Therese reached the end of her prolonged novitiate and after her father had been interned in a psychiatric hospital, Sister Marie of the Angels wrote to Therese: 

Little reed, infinitely loved by Jesus and profoundly dear to my heart!. . . . Tomor­row, the feast of St. Cecilia, 1 will offer my Holy Communion for my beloved little reed, and I will ask Jesus that she may love Him just as the virgin martyr did! Time seems long for me without my Benjamin; if she were not suffering, I would feel it less, but courage, little reed of Jesus! The storm will not break the reed; it will make it bend, but afterward it will quickly stand up straight and its head will again look up to heaven. Remember that Jesus carried it in His hand on the day of His Passion! Be, then, the privileged reed of your heavenly Fiancé.

Pray, too, for your little mistress, who loves and cherishes her Benjamin.

Sister Marie of the Angels

 Read this letter at the Web site of the Archives of the Carmel of Lisieux.

In January 1895, when Therese finished the first manuscript of what would become Story of a Soul, she illustrated it with a "coat of arms of Jesus and Therese."  In Therese's explanation of the symbolism of her coat of arms, she writes of her desire for martyrdom and adds:  

In order to respond to all the love of Jesus she would desire to do for Him what He did for her ... but Thérèse is aware that she is only a weak reed, thus she has put one on her blazon

Later in her religious life Therese seems to have moved on to other symbols for herself.  But in her play The Flight into Egypt (performed on January 21, 1896), when Joseph has just told Mary that he received word in a dream that they must flee to Egypt, she puts into the mouth of the Blessed Virgin about the Child Jesus and reed, words about the refugee Savior which are curiously appropriate for the refugees to whom the Pope was speaking; 

I know that if He willed it, a word from His infant lips would suffice to wipe out all enemies; however, He chooses to flee from a weak mortal, He is the Prince of peace.... The Word made Child will not crush the half-broken reed, He will not extinguish a wick that is still burning. If He is rejected by those of His own heritage, that will not stop Him from giving His life for poor sinners who fail to recognize the time of His visit. Let us leave without fear, let us go sanctify an infidel shore with the presence of the Savior.

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