St. Therese, conqueror of the interior battlefield

Scrupulosity is a hard cross to bear. It can be overwhelming, mentally debilitating, and incredibly painful. It can make you feel like there’s something wrong with you, and make you wonder why you’re never “good enough” to be as faithful to the Lord as you so desire to be.

But, maybe the hardest part about it is that it’s invisible.

Today we celebrate the feast of St. Therese of Lisieux, a fellow sufferer of scruples, anxiety, and, especially towards the end of her life, depression. She’s also my best friend.

I met St. Therese as I was flipping through a book of potential confirmation saints at the tender age of 14. I had been reading the stories of all these great saints, saints who had founded religious orders and led warriors into battle and done so many great things, and frankly I was feeling overwhelmed. If this was what it means to be a saint, what hope did I have?

Then my eyes fell upon a little paragraph about little French nun who by all appearances hadn’t done anything very great at all. Naturally, I liked her immediately. I was captivated by her “little way” and I was relieved to find a saint who hadn’t performed any of the grand feats I had feared would be required of me if I wanted to be a saint. Therese had simply loved the other nuns in her convent well and chosen a quiet way of holiness. And she made me believe that maybe I could do that too. Simply put, Therese made me believe I could be a saint. So she became my confirmation saint.

My mom told me when I was picking my confirmation saint that it wasn’t really me who chose the saint, but the saint who chose me. I had no idea how right she would be.

At 19, she was the patron saint of the retreat where I had my reversion back to the faith. Six months later she taught me how to pray and how to find God during one of the loneliest summers of my life. These were incredibly important moments, and someday I want to write about these in detail. But today I want to focus on how this little French nun who had undergone so much suffering taught me how to enter into my own and shoulder the burden of my biggest and most important cross.

As I said before, Therese is no stranger to severe mental suffering. She struggled deeply with scruples as a child, keeping a ledger of her good deeds and prayers as if she needed to have it ready to present to God at the hour of her death. She often had anxiety over her sins and her behavior, lamenting every little choice not done in perfect love. And towards the end of her life, as she battled the growing infection of tuberculosis in her lungs, she also battled a great interior darkness of depression and temptations to despair. It turns out this “little saint” was not so little after all, having fought a constant war in the interior of her heart for life, for love, and at times even for her sanity.

Over the past three years, I have come to understand this war well, having taken up arms against my own mental illness and entered the battleground of interior suffering. It is a constant effort, though one not without victories, and I am proud to say I have made more ground in this fight than I ever thought was possible. And these victories come in no small part due to the silent, fervent prayers of St. Therese, fighting by my side.

This little saint, who loved to dress up as St. Joan of Arc for pageants in the convent, has become a true warrior in the courts of heaven, serving as commander and guide for all those who find themselves in the fight for their interior lives. Her Little Way, painted as a quaint and quiet trajectory to holiness, is in fact a battle plan drawn up for us and left behind to give us victory. What St. Therese learned during her own life of suffering and struggle, and what she offers to us, is the key to overcoming our interior darkness and letting light have its reign again.

And that is simply Love. Love and always Love.

The Little Way of surrender, of abandoning yourself in your weakness and misery to the divine workings of God, of humble admittance that we can do nothing without His grace and have nothing to offer Him but our poor broken souls, this is our greatest weapon. Because in calling upon our Savior and learning to rely on Him and His grace rather than our own strength, we directly combat the lies in our souls that drive us to anxiety, scruples, and the constant pressure to please. It is by leaning into this struggle in our lives by calling on the name of Jesus and asking Him to meet us there (in conjunction with psychiatric help and appropriate human resources) that we will find our way to freedom.

This interior battlefield, which Therese knew so much about and fought in the quiet of her heart for so long, is no little thing. It is big. It is scary. And I am convinced that, no matter what I do with my career or my vocation or the rest of my life, entering into it will be the greatest thing I ever do.

Because it is here, in encountering the darkness and encountering Christ in the midst of it, that I find my greatest insights, my greatest joys, and the fruit that will support my mission to love as Christ on Earth.

St. Therese, you never saw yourself as a great saint. You were content to be but a little flower in a field of great blossoms, to be small and unnoticed. You considered yourself the smallest saint of all. But I can tell you, as someone who has shared your suffering and gone through some of the same battles that you yourself have overcome, that nothing could be further from the truth. You are a giant. You are a conqueror. And you are helping all of us do the same.

St. Therese, conqueror of the interior battlefield, pray for us!