St. Therese and Mental Illness

Mental illness and spiritual battle often get conflated, and the faithful that suffer with mental illness find differentiating the two nearly impossible. The assumption at the root of this conflation is that emotional and mental distress is a purely spiritual phenomenon that requires a solely spiritual response. Resentment, loss of faith, and/or despair abound for devout faithful people who do not recover through prayer alone. Isolation and fear take root which discourages trust and love in Christ as well as leads people to self-hatred and even self-destruction. Mental suffering in this light, places the blame on the sufferer and does not offer them true spiritual and physical healing. Navigating the turmoil of mental illness while also maintaining a good Christian life can be difficult yet not impossible. Often at the heart of this internal conflict are physical ailments, fear, discouragement, and a sense of failure. 

Important to this discussion is a de-stigmatization of psychological help. Human beings are composed of body and soul. The intimate link between the material and spiritual world requires holistic approaches to human struggles. A human being with mental illness requires both spiritual and physical aid. We do not question a person who has a heart problem that requires exercise, medicine, and frequent doctor visits. Mental illness, like many physical illnesses, can be behaviorally driven. However, chemical imbalances and genetic factors can also play a significant role. Regardless of whether a person has a genetic history of mental illness, scars from their past (spiritual and/or physical), or a congregate of bad behaviors, emotional and mental disorders often require the assistance of good health care professionals and the aid of wise spiritual directors that together strive to holistically treat the person.

Souls struggling internally can find great solace in the surrender of suffering and invitation to entrust all things to Christ as addressed in Saint Therese’s autobiography The Story of a Soul. She is referred to as the Little Flower because of her childlike dependence on God and her trust in His Will. At a young age, Therese lost her mother and for several years was afflicted by an emotional wound that caused her great distress. She was consumed with self-examination, fear, and an overwhelming sense of guilt. Her struggle with emotional illness and scrupulosity is best understood in the book Lessons from Therese:

Scruples is a spiritual struggle in which a person becomes obsessed with sin and one’s own perceived moral failings to a dangerous degree. Some psychologists identify this moral struggle as a spiritual form of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.  Those who struggle with scruples cannot look at their sins clearly, in the light of God’s mercy. Every perceived weakness or sin is magnified and becomes a terrible burden, causing anxiety and fear… Her extremely sensitive nature and her desire for perfection began to confuse her thinking and she would cry every time she was aware of the least imperfection. (Lesson 41) 

Therese’s description of her “scruples” helps to elucidate the connection between mental illness and her internal spiritual battle. “If ever I hurt anyone’s feelings by accident, instead of making the best of it, I was so disconsolate that I made myself ill, and made things worse. Then, if I got over the first mistake, I would begin to cry because I had cried. I seemed to make troubles out of everything then” (Lisieux, 62-63). Therese prayed for emotional healing so that she could “overcome this tiresome fault” (64).

It was not until her “Christmas Grace” five years after her mother’s death, that one of her emotional wounds was healed. She describes it as a spiritual healing, which does not diminish the physical aspect of her ailment; rather, it highlights the healing power of Christ. She recounted that “charity took possession of my heart, making me forget myself, and I have been happy ever since” (66). Love, according to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, is self-transcendence for the sake of another. Christ quite literally pulled her out of herself and taught her to thirst for Him and for souls: 

The cry of Jesus as He died, “I thirst,” echoed every moment in my soul, inflaming my heart with a burning love. I longed to satisfy His thirst for souls; I was consumed myself with this same thirst and yearned to save them.

Therese understood love to be her primary vocation: “my greatest vocation is to love.” Christ’s resurrection and continual urging to “be not afraid” highlights the role of love in conquering fear. Therese understood this pivotal aspect of the Christian life; Jesus desires a relationship of mutual self-giving with each of us. Her healing and rest in Christ are a beautiful testament to the healing power of Christ and the consolation that, especially in difficult moments, Christ is continually calling us to a greater trust and love in Him. 

Therese was mentally distressed, yet she was preserved in her innocence and was believed to have never committed a mortal sin in her life. Her near sinlessness did not, however, preclude her from mentally, emotionally, and physically suffering with Christ. Therese found great solace in delighting in her weakness. I think this point is critical. Saint Therese was near sinless, yet she suffered from mental illness. This fact alone demonstrates that mental and emotional illnesses are not simply a “spiritual problem” that can be prayed away. Her “Christmas Grace” taught her the joy of embracing human frailty and relying on God’s strength: “By becoming little and weak for love of me, He made me strong and full of courage, and with the arms He gave me, I went from one victory to another, and began to ‘run as a giant.’” In addition, she sought human counsel. Her sister Marie was her greatest confidant and she found great solace in expressing her concerns and receiving guidance from her. She sought help and through both guidance and prayer she was healed from the loss of her mother. 

Therese, however, suffered from mental and emotional turmoil throughout her life. She suffered severely with tuberculosis and a deep depression that left her in fear of suicide and despair. Her sufferings show us, as Fr. David said, that “the saints are as neurotic as we are.” Therese truly did “run as a giant.” We are all called to take up our crosses daily and follow Christ. Mental illness is a misunderstood hidden cross that it is often overlooked. Souls can find great solace in Therese’s life story and her battle for sainthood. 

Therese’ story is a great inspiration to all souls suffering with mental and emotional illness. Therese was not to blame for her suffering and her healing guided by God through prayer and human interactions teaches us that God heals through many avenues. For this reason, every person who is struggling with mental and emotional illnesses should use all avenues available to them; a good spiritual director, and, if needed, a mental health professional that believes in God and the spiritual aspect of the human person. The souls fighting internal battles can find great comfort in knowing that they do not suffer alone; they have the great company of the Little Flower who promised to “spend my Heaven doing good upon earth.”


Sources: 

St. Therese of Liseux, The Story of a Soul

Fr. David, Documentary

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