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Thérèse of Lisieux: a real saint... or a suitable case for treatment?


Revered: Worshippers at the Carmelite Church on Whitefriar St in Dublin view the relics of St
Thérèse of Lisieux

Revered: Worshippers at the Carmelite Church on Whitefriar St in Dublin view the relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux

Revered: Worshippers at the Carmelite Church on Whitefriar St in Dublin view the relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux

The relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux are in the Carmelite Church in Moate, Co Westmeath, today, as part of a tour of Ireland that will end in Knock on Monday, May 4, with a National Day being celebrated in the Little Flower's honour.

But who is St Thérèse? And does she deserve to be venerated? If she lived today, would she be honoured as a person of remarkable holiness or, in these more secular times, would her pattern of self-mortification, involving self-harming, little food and all-night praying, actually be considered an indication of mental illness?

Thérèse was born in Alencon, France, on January 2, 1873, the youngest of five daughters. The formative years are crucial for any child's future development. At the age of four, for example, children are beginning to imprint on the same-sex parent, in a bid to develop their own identity. It was at this age that Thérèse lost her mother, Marie, to cancer. The child turned to her older sister, Pauline, for consolation.

Problems at school, which Thérèse started the following year, may have stemmed from separation anxiety, but she had very specific problems with penmanship and numeracy (although she was gifted in other areas), which could indicate mild Asperger's Syndrome, or even a touch of dyspraxia. These problems would have been written off by a teacher in the 1870s as laziness or, worse, stubbornness.

Thérèse would have had a dreadful time. Today, one would hope she would be assessed, and given the help she needed. In actuality, Louis, Thérèse's father, took her out of school, and taught her at home.

When Thérèse was 10, Pauline, her "second mother", entered the Carmelite convent as a novice.

The child was inconsolable, and became seriously ill. Thérèse's biographer on the Carmelite Order's own website describes the symptoms of her illness as follows: "hallucinations, tossings, turnings and anorexia".

Thérèse, it would seem, had a complete breakdown.

The combined elements of this episode suggest that the young Therese had a collapse of the kind common with the onset of schizophrenia. Today, Therese would be hospitalised (there are only 20 child and adolescent psychiatric beds available in Ireland, but we must assume one could be made available), and medicated. In 19th-century Normandy, this option was simply not available, and her distraught family nursed her at home.

Therese's condition continued for seven months, bringing her close to death. Then, on the May 13, 1883, Thérèse saw the statue of Mary on her bedside table come to life. It smiled at her, beckoned her to come to it, and in that moment, she was "cured".

Thérèse's dramatic recovery (schizophrenics, especially in the early stages of the condition can go into rapid and dramatic periods of lucidity) caused her family to accuse her of fabricating the illness. However, the child almost immediately began spending long periods of time kneeling in a tiny space between her bed and the wall. Such instances of transcendental prayer are often reported as part of the experiences of saints and mystics.

Thérèse's face would become flushed, her eyes rolling upwards in her head, and her body becoming stiff. She was described as being exhausted, but elated, afterwards.

What I have just outlined fits the description of an epileptic seizure almost perfectly. Despite the common depiction of epileptics shaking and shuddering on the ground, most simply collapse for a period of time, before coming back around, disoriented, but calm and feeling unusually content, a cause of the electrical activity in the brain reaching a state of equilibrium.

Epilepsy is highly treatable with various courses of medication. Thérèse would probably be placed on regimen of something like Tegratol, and her progress monitored.

At this point, we have a clear picture of a very distressed teenager, who needs more than anything else to be around people who know her, and care about her -- in other words, to remain in the bosom of her family, with a good deal of professional support. This, however, was not to be the case. Aged 15, Therese herself entered the convent.

Once in the cloister, she began a severe pattern of self-mortification that continued for the rest of her short life. She called it "private sacrifice", offering her suffering for the souls in purgatory and the conversion of sinners.

Her sacrifices, which seemed to involve various forms of self-harming and anorexia, included subjecting herself to terrible degrees of cold (she was aware how susceptible she was, and avoided warm rooms consciously), refusing all but the barest scraps of food by requesting leftovers rather than proper meals, working to the point of exhaustion, and then praying through the night rather than sleeping.

In a move typical to schizophrenics, who see references to themselves in everything, Thérèse believed that her prayers and sacrifices were directly responsible for a famous wife-murderer of the time, a doggedly unrepentant criminal, kissing the crucifix before going to his execution.

"I can claim my first child", she is reported to have sobbed at the news.

When she coughed up blood for the first time, she knew that it was TB, a disease that was decimating the older and weaker members of her order at the time, but concealed her illness, and kept working for a full year before she could hide it no longer.

As a final sacrifice, Thérèse would accept no medication to dull the agony.

"But for my faith I would take my own life, so great is the pain," she wrote.

"When she finally succumbed, on September 30, 1897, her last words were: "Oh my God, I love you", which she had been repeating as a kind of mantra throughout her final days of torment.

So was Thérèse mentally ill? I would have to say that it is very likely that she was. Yet it is impossible to say for certain (never having met her), and we cannot rule out the fact that she was living in another time, when the culture of religion and spirituality were very different. She wished whole-heartedly to be a saint (a desire that could probably get you committed today on its own), and behaved as she felt someone with such a calling should.

And, ultimately, religion is about faith. If you move the focus of Thérèse's story away from her desire to suffer, and look at the motivation behind it, you find love: a love for her fellow human beings and for her God.

If spending time with her remains, and pondering her simple message of selfless acts of kindness encourages a little more love in these difficult times, then I'm all for it.

Shane Dunphy is a child protection expert.