Following in the Little Way of St. Therese
St. Therese of Lisieux was something of a drama queen. In her biography, Story of a Soul, she wrote that she was "really unbearable" to those around her because of her “overly great sensitivity." The littlest thing could set her off crying and then just as she was feeling comforted she “cried because I had cried.”*
I don’t know anything about that. Nope. Not me. I’ve never ever ever cried because I cried. AHEM.
OK, fine. I admit to being something of a drama queen myself. I know. You’re shocked.
I was a sensitive child by nature but instead of growing out of those sensitivities—or at least learning to manage them properly—childhood trauma made them worse. Studies show that adults who experienced a debilitating number of adverse childhood events are 460% more likely to be depressed and 1220% more likely to attempt suicide. I’m not suggesting that depression is the result of being melodramatic, I’m merely pointing out that my own ‘overly great sensitivity’ was exacerbated by abusive situations outside my control.
I sometimes wonder if I’d had a fairly happy childhood with minimal trauma, would I be a mostly-normal adult without debilitating manic depressive disorder? I’ll never know.
What I do know is that there is hope for even the most sensitive of souls—because I’m one of them. And so was St. Therese.
A couple of months ago I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. This illness has been the undercurrent for most of my adult life, but after my best friend's suicide this past January, it roared in like a tsunami.
One blazing hot summer afternoon I found myself hunkered down in my bedroom, blinds closed, convinced someone (the CIA? FBI? ex-fundamentalists with a grudge?) spying on me through my desktop computer. Yeah. Fun times.
I was rushed to the hospital and after a series of appointments with various doctors, was given the Bipolar 2 diagnosis.
This is why I adore St. Therese of Lisieux: precisely because she experienced mental illness (a childhood bout of neuroses) and also, she allowed herself to feel everything so deeply. She never apologized for wanting the fullness of love. In fact, she actually proclaimed "my vocation is love!"
St. Therese didn't reject her feelings, she used them to enhance her obedience to God.
She was not immune to the problems, pains and temptations of everyday life. Being a cloistered nun did not mean she was cloistered from pain. She suffered tremendously (dying at age 24 of tuberculosis while refusing pain medication). And yet, she found a way—a “Little Way” as she came to call it—of offering the smallest acts of love and obedience to God for the benefit of others.
There’s a story about St. Therese where she disciplines herself not to snap at another nun who had an annoying habit of clicking her rosary against teeth during choir. This nun sat right behind St. Therese and the repetitive clicking noise just about drove her crazy. But instead of spinning around and giving the nun a dirty look or shushing her, St. Therese offered her irritation up to God pretended the sound was music to Christ’s ears. Hello, saintly behavior.
How often—especially when I’m not feeling well—do I become irritable with others? All the time! ALL THE TIME. I don’t believe the feeling of irritability is sinful. We all have feelings and they are just that: feelings. It’s what I do with the irritability that makes all the difference. Do I turn my irritability into a kind word? An act of service? Do I mortify my pride and annoyance and offer a friendly smile even when I’d rather look bored or annoyed?
St. Therese also went out of her way to attend to the sickest, frailest and most “difficult” nuns in the convent. It was almost as if she mortified her flesh with acts of kindness. Instead of doing what was required, she did what was unthinkable: pouring out kindness like expensive perfume on the feet of Jesus.
When I can feel nothing, when I am altogether arid, I seek tiny occasions, real trivialities to give joy to my Jesus: a smile, for example, or a friendly word, when I would rather be silent or look bored...I prefer the monotony of obscure sacrifice to all ecstasies. —St. Therese of Lisieux
The monotony of obscure sacrifice. Well, I certainly don’t prefer that. Give me ecstasies any day of the week!
And yet, faith isn’t faith if it is dependent on feelings. This is not to say that feelings are wrong—no, not at all! God gave us our feelings and how beautiful and wonderful they are! But for me, I have found that especially with my sensitive nature and my mental illness, I need to be careful about not relying solely on my feelings.
It is An impoverished faith that depends on ecstasies, consolations, signs and wonders. it is a wobbly faith, a weak faith that crumbles when the feelings inevitably change.
A true faith believes even when I don't feel like it. It believes despite how often my manic depressive illness flares up. Despite whether I’m going through a remission or in the midst of the darkest valley.
I am so thankful for St. Therese’s example because she shows me what is possible in the life of faith. She is the saint for sensitive souls, for fainting hearts, for swoon-prone poets like myself. She is the saint who performed a miracle on my behalf and later, kept me from killing myself.
She is the saint for melodramatics, of whom I am the chief drama queen. She is the saint who helps me believe—as a Jewish poet imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp wrote on the cell wall—'I believe in the sun even when it is not shining, I believe in love even when I cannot feel it, I believe in God even when He is silent."
* Heather King, Shirt of flame: a year with Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (Brewster, MA.: Paraclete Press, 2011), 25-26.