By Fr. Alex Ezechukwu
Thérèse’s doubts of faith
St. Thérèse of Lisieux is known for her “Little Way of Spiritual Childhood” and of her candid and instructive autobiography, The Story of a Soul.
However, not many people know about the physical and personal struggles this French Carmelite nun endured throughout her life, and especially in the 18 months leading up to her death of tuberculous at the young age of 24.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux, also known as St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, lived from 1873 to 1897. While she had a deep and profound spiritual life, she also experienced various struggles throughout her life.
Here are some of the challenges she faced:
• Sensitivity and emotional intensity: Thérèse was known for her sensitive and emotional nature. She experienced intense emotions, which could be overwhelming at times. This sensitivity often caused her inner turmoil and led to moments of spiritual desolation.
• Scruples and obsessive thoughts: St. Thérèse struggled with scrupulosity, a religious form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. She had a strong desire to be perfect in her faith and worried excessively about committing even the smallest of sins. This caused her significant distress and required guidance and support from her spiritual directors.
• Dark Night of the Soul: Like many mystics and saints throughout history, St. Thérèse experienced periods of spiritual darkness and a feeling of abandonment by God. She wrote about these experiences in her autobiography, describing the profound emptiness and longing she felt during these times.
• Physical and mental suffering: Thérèse faced physical and mental health challenges throughout her life. She suffered from various illnesses, including tuberculosis, which ultimately led to her death. These health struggles likely contributed to her psychological difficulties as well.
Five Difficult Struggles
Despite these psychological struggles, St. Thérèse maintained a strong faith and found solace in her relationship with God. She believed that even in the midst of her struggles, she could offer her sufferings as a way to draw closer to God and bring about the salvation of souls.
There were five difficult episodes in the saint’s life that stand out:
• Death of her mother. Thérèse was only four and one-half years old when her mother died of breast cancer. She relates that at this incident, she no longer had the joyful disposition of her early childhood, but that she became timid and withdrawn. For example, the slightest glance from someone would cause her to burst into tears.
• Illness upon “losing” Pauline to the convent. Thérèse was ten when her sister Pauline left to join Carmel. As Thérèse lay in bed, sick, she hallucinated. The nails in the wall, and the hat her father held, turned into grotesque images in her mind. At one point she did not even recognize her sister Marie, who was in the room. Finally, she relates how she was cured by Our Lady of Victories, who appeared to her as a statue in the room come to life.
• Suffering after her sister Marie left for the convent. She said, “I loved her so much that I found life unbearable without her company….I cried just as I did when you [Pauline] went and resolved that I would take no more interest in anything on earth.”
• Vicious attacks of scruples. This occurred while she was preparing for her second Communion, and also after her Confirmation. These lasted many months. “…no one could possibly understand what I had to go through, unless they had gone through it themselves. Every single thought and even my most commonplace actions became a source of worry and anxiety.”
• Thinking that she was an atheist. As she was dying of tuberculosis she suffered doubts about eternal life. She found herself saying, “I don’t believe in eternal life. It seems to me that after this mortal life, there is nothing any more.”
Despite these temptations she was able to endure the intense sufferings of her last days without losing patience, and even with supernatural joy. “My sufferings are very intense indeed, yet nevertheless I am extraordinarily at peace. All my desires are realized, and I am full of confidence.”
Embracing the Darkness
Carmelite author and Theresian scholar Fr. Marc Foley has reflected on her suffering, saying,
“What is important are the choices she made in the face of her darkness. That’s what made her trial of suffering redemptive. She did not merely endure the darkness, she chose to embrace it.”
Fr. Marc summarizes her agonies thus:
“Holiness does not depend upon whether we are healed of our emotional problems – but are we cooperating with God’s grace in the midst of them, in doing God’s will. Don’t judge your spiritual life with an emotional yardstick.”
Thus, there is hope for all of us, especially those going through emotional turmoil of any kind.
Emotional Struggles and a Religious Vocation
If you are wondering whether psychological difficulties can be an obstacle to a religious vocation, you can take heart in St. Thérèse’s life.
Psychological problems and emotional instability, in and of themselves, are not necessarily barriers to pursuing a religious vocation as a brother or priest. Many individuals who have struggled with these problems have successfully embraced religious vocations and made significant contributions to their communities. However, the severity and continuity of these problems can impact one's suitability for such a vocation.
Ultimately, the decision to enter religious life rests on a case-by-case basis, considering various factors, including the nature and severity of psychological challenges, the individual's commitment to growth and healing, and the guidance and discernment of spiritual directors and superiors.
A Contemplative Calling – the Carmelite Friars
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Contact me, Fr. Alex, Carmelite Encounter Director, at +44 (0)7477 673932, email@example.com
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