We all have models in our life, people we look up to and try to emulate. Sometimes, however, our veneration of those models leads us to view their lives with rose-colored glasses. We only see their successes and we don’t recognize their struggles. By doing so, we miss out on the opportunity to allow their example of overcoming those struggles to form us.
Living Life Off the Pedestal
Rather than being discouraged or intimidated by the saints, their lives can serve as an inspiration.
For Catholics, the saints are the greatest models to emulate. They have lived exemplary lives of holiness. Their holiness is so exemplary, in fact, that they are formally recognized by the Church for the way they lived their faith. However, the saints are not one dimensional. They didn’t live in the pages of the Lives of the Saints or on a pedestal that you and I can never hope to reach. Rather, they lived lives of suffering and struggle. Their lives weren’t easy and their path to holiness wasn’t simple and straightforward. Some struggled with physical illnesses and limitations while others experienced psychological ones. For example, St. Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa) struggled with spiritual dryness and darkness. St. Ignatius and St. Alphonsus Liguori struggled with scrupulosity. The saints were not immune to suffering.
Like you and I, the saints faced obstacles to living holy lives. Rather than being discouraged or intimidated by their example, their lives can serve as an inspiration. Think of the consolation that comes from knowing a saint experienced exactly what you are experiencing. If you think about it, there’s a patron saint for practically everything. The lives of the saints can serve as a blueprint for how to live in holiness in a broken world. After all, they didn’t grow in holiness despite their sufferings but through of their suffering.
The Little Flower Did Not Wilt
St. Therese experienced not only physical suffering but also psychological suffering throughout her life.
St. Therese of Lisieux is a prime example of a saint whose life is often misunderstood. When we think of St. Therese, images of roses, simplicity, and delicacy come to mind. We think of her “little way” and there can be a tendency to dismiss her as a simple, childlike saint that is better suited as a model for children than for the complex lives of adults living in the modern world. Her message of a simple approach to faith can be mistaken for a lack of depth. But, in fact, St. Therese experienced not only physical suffering but also psychological suffering throughout her life. She lost her mother at a young age, her older sister whom she considered her second mother left her to join the convent, she suffered a major illness when she was young, struggled with anxiety, and died from tuberculosis. Her life was a holy one but not an easy one. Conquering these sufferings required strength.
Marc Foley, O.C.D., in his book The Context of Holiness, describes how Therese struggled with scrupulosity (a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) for a period of approximately eighteen months when she was around twelve years old. In general, for individuals who struggle with scrupulosity, there are three common symptoms that they experience and, according to Foley, Therese experienced them all: being excessively fearful of being punished for a transgression, believing actions that are not sinful to be sinful, and doubting forgiveness after having been forgiven (i.e., after confession). Foley writes that she often feared that Therese had unintentionally sinned against God and that her imperfections had offended Him in some way. Fearful that she had unknowingly sinned, she would turn to her sister Marie for consolation and reassurance that she had not done anything wrong. But, like for many who struggle with scrupulosity and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, the relief she experienced from her symptoms after Marie’s help was only temporary and her anxiety returned.
It is important to note here that Therese fully experienced her anxiety and the fear and uncertainty that came with her struggle with scrupulosity. Her suffering was real. It wasn’t somehow not as intense or real because she happened to have such a close relationship with Jesus. She knew how tortuous it feels to experience deep and pervasive doubts followed by a brief period of relief only to be pulled back into the cycle of anxiety and fear. If you’ve ever experienced anxiety, St. Therese knows what you are going through.
Suffering Does Not Mean Weakness
Prayer and the sacraments are important for psychological healing but utilizing the benefits of scientific research is also a critical component to the healing process.
There can be a tendency to confuse psychological suffering with some kind of weakness, even spiritual weakness. For example, someone might be told that if they prayed more or went to confession more often, they wouldn’t be experiencing depression or anxiety. The subtext being that if the person was “holier”, they wouldn’t be experiencing these illness and trials. But we only have to look at the lives of a St. Therese of Lisieux or a St. Teresa of Calcutta to see that the psychological suffering they experienced was very real and was experienced alongside a life of holiness.
Prayer and the sacraments are important for psychological healing but utilizing the benefits of scientific research is also a critical component to the healing process. It is worth noting that St. Therese’s methods of coping with her struggles and symptoms happened to be what our current research shows to be one of the most effective ways to treat scrupulosity and obsessive compulsive disorder. We could say that she was ahead of her time.
How was Therese able to break free from her obsessions and the anxiety-relief cycle of scrupulosity? In a letter Therese writes, “We must despise all these temptations and pay no attention whatsoever to them.” Here she demonstrates that the best method for overcoming her obsessions and compulsions was to resist the temptation to seek reassurance from her sister but, instead, to do the opposite. By resisting the strong urge to seek reassurance from her sister that she had not sinned, she was able to break her cycle of anxiety and fear. Simple as it sounds, it is a very difficult hurdle to overcome and is one of the recommended treatments for someone who experiences Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or scrupulosity.
Struggles Can Make Us Whole
Let us be inspired by the fact that the saints experienced very real and human experiences.
Knowing that St. Therese struggled with anxiety paints a very real and three dimensional picture of someone who is too often reduced to a one-dimensional view. Her story confirms for us that experiencing psychological and physical struggles does not preclude us from holiness and does not mean that we are “failing” God in some way. Instead of being intimidated by the heroic and holy lives of the saints, let us be inspired by the fact that they experienced very real and human experiences – just like us.