Can someone who is mentally ill become a saint?
Mental Illness can bring holiness
By Request- I decided to place something back into our blog: it is a booklet that someone sent me named Neuroses and Sanctity. God Bless Mr. Laruffa for his courageous effort. Warning- The booklet may be contraversial for some of you.
Since the beginning of the founding the Guild, I have always been pondering the question: Can someone who is mentally ill become a saint? The answer is Yes! In fact, they are living out their vocation of mental and emotional suffering. Let me explain further please. Will the Church canonize them? Probably not!
Although, Christ did not suffer mental illness, he took on all human suffering to redeem it. He identified himself with those with mental suffering as to be an example of love. He experienced a mental agony in the Garden of Gethsemane which caused him to sweat blood. The aloneness that Christ experienced can be a great sign of hope. This holds true especially for those with depression and other emotional difficulties. Many of those persons with mental illness have great moral courage in dealing with the challenges that come with the illness. The side effects of medication make it difficult but one can take their medication in a spirit of love with Christ and know that He is with them. This gives them the opportunity to share in the redemptive suffering of Christ and to grow in holiness.
by Timothy Hughes Duff, STM, MA Cert. RCHL, ERD and BCC Guardian and Founder of the Guild of St. Benedict Joseph Labre
Neuroses and Sanctity
By Joseph P. Laruffa
Martin S. Rushford
Francis J. Mugavero, D.D. Bishop of Brooklyn
September 14th, 1981
The granting of the imprimatur indicates that the work is free from doctrinal error.
In no way does it imply a favorable or infavorable judgement on the opinions expressed by the author.
There are a great many people who believe that the canonized saints were never neurotic, never depressed, never suffered from scrupulosity, never mentally or emotionally ill. These people hold on to their belief that the saints experienced spiritual sufferings ("dark night of the soul"), had cancer, TB, heart trouble and broken' bones; but never nervous breakdowns, never shattered minds. Are these good people correct in their thinking; belief?
No; they are, in fact, very far from the actual truth as we shall presently see.
The saints were wholly and truly human, and many of them, just because they were human, had serious mental problems, psychological sufferings, such as one today might expect to find in psychiatric case histories.
An eminent psychiatrist made this statement recently: "Many psychiatrists will read accounts of St. Francis de Sales and St. Alphonus Ligouri, smile, and say, 'clear cases of manic-depressive psychosis with depression and anxiety'."
This same doctor also believes that St. Paul, the Apostle, was a manic-depressive -- in other words, this eminent doctor believes that the great Paul could have been psychotic. "It is evident," he writes, "that he (St. Paul) had some serious sort of physical trouble or disability. Nearly all kinds of illnesses have been suggested. I myself think that likely it was some nervous disorder that gave him splitting migraine headaches. I have always thought that he must have been an insomniac. But anyway, reading his letters one can see quite clearly that he had the sort of temperament that today would be called manic- depressive. That is to say, his moods alternated violently. He would be extremely cheerful and then very depressed. He could be extremely strict and sharp, and at the same time time very loving in his attitude toward people.”
The fact that a few saints may have been psychotic ought to give courage and encouragement to both the psychotic person or neurotic person alike in their quest for holiness.
SOME NEUROTIC SAINTS
Here we present a small list of some neurotic persons who practiced such virtues as love, humility, hope, trust and confidence to a heroic degree and became great saints, in spite of their neuroses; psychological diseases.
St. Louise de Marillac, a very dear and close friend of St. Vincent de Paul, had a serious mental condition which has been described as neurasthenia.
St. Teresa of Avila, it has been said, endured a prolonged and agonizing illness which, from our present day knowledge, seems to have been nervous in origin.
This illness did not stop St. Teresa from becoming a great saint and a Doctor of the Church.
We read that St. John of the Cross" . . . suffered from a terrible nervous breakdown."
St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Mother, a very young Passionist when he died, suffered immensely from discouragement, they say, which was
mostly caused by his mental depression; his melancholic temperament.
It has been at least suggested that a nervous condition may have been the cause of St. Gertrude's chronic illnesses and of her spells of insomnia.
The same can be said of St. Mechtilde who was sick so often.
St. Camillus of Lellis was a compulsive gambler, which is very definitely a neurotic characteristic.
St. John Neumann, one of the newer canonized saints, had a melancholic temperament which made him a
SCRUPULOSITY AND THE SAINTS
Scrupulosity is one illness that many of the saints shared Scrupulousness is more than just a symptom of a mental ailment. It is in itself a serious mental illness.
We read that St. Bonaventure was overwhelmed with attacks of scrupulosity. In fact, he was so plagued by scruples that at times he could not even celebrate Mass.
St. Mary Magdalene of Pazzi suffered five long and very painful years because of the terrible scourge of scrupulousness.
St. Ignatius, the saint who founded the Jesuits, tells us himself that he passed through a time of considerable tension during his one year retreat in the Cave of Manresa. Most of his sufferings were chiefly based on the fact that he was scrupulous. The saint records the fact that he was severely tempted to commit suicide.
St. Gerard Majella, the humble Redemptorist Brother is still one more saint, among the many saints, who dreadfully suffered from the mental sickness of scrupulosity.
St. Jane de Chantal, the special friend of St. Francis de Sales, the "saint of friendship," courageously endured 40 years of spiritual dryness and desolation, and went through the tribulation of scruples very often.
We read of St. Francis of Assisi, the “joyful saint", that he was often sick and heart-broken. He lost his usual joyfulness and humor, and began to suffer from scrupulosity.
It is said that the famous Father Damien, the great missionary to the lepers in Molokai, and a candidate for sainthood, suffered frequent periods of depression and scruples.
DEPRESSION AND THE SAINTS
Mental depression today is just as common, and just as baffling, as the common cold. It is begirming to rival schizophrenia as the number one mental problem. A psy- chiatrist penned these words: "Depression is a miserable, wretched experience that leaves the patient exhausted, un- motivated, and in deep despair." Saints were mentally de- pressed; they knew the horrible feeling of utter despair and desperation.
Depression is a very grave mental illness that can easily lead one to suicide. However, God sends mental depres- sion as a trial, a cross; not to cause harm to a soul, but to spiritually purify it. Yes, depression can cause one to feel miserable, like he was in a black hell; it can lead to self de- struction -- but it can also lead to holiness, to high sanctity! Depression can make a saint out of a neurotic person!
We read that St. Catherine suffered from mental depression.
We have already mentioned that St. Alphonus bore the heavy burden of an illness called manic-depressive, as did St. Francis de Sales, who suffered a serious nervous col- lapse as an undergraduate student at Padua. Both of them suffered from depression.
St. John Baptist Rossi had a severe mental breakdown be- fore he was ordained a priest, and the result of it lasted for the rest of his priestly life in the form of constant ill health.
St. Vincent de Paul, who grew angry whenever he suffered his "black moods,'! had a natural basis for his anxious de- pression in that he was naturally inclined to melancholy.
St. Benedict Joseph Labre, Rome's beggar, and called "the great unwashed," was a neurotic derelict, who ex- perienced mental depression to a painful degree. It wasn't just "the blues"; it was "black depression," writes his biographer.
The troubles St. Paul of the Cross, the holy founder of the Passionists, had to suffer sometimes filled him with such weat1ness and melancholy that he felt vehemently impelled to throw himself out of a window. At such times, every- thing was repugnant to him. "Even the sun I see depresses me," he would say to his confreres.
St. Charles of Sozze, one of many sainted Franciscan lay Brothers, had periods of deep depression which were pro- longed and agonizing. "It weighed down my soul, putting me into a state of great pain and anxiety, without enjoying a moment of relief," wrote St. Charles. The trial of depres- sion continued throughout his novitiate. Again, he wrote: "When I saw the sun, its rays only depressed me the more, and filled me with sadness; and when I heard the birds sing, they renewed my mental sufferings, "
In his "Varieties," William James, tells us of St. Mal'garet Mary's long, deep and intense periods of melancholis.
ST . THERESE AND THE AGE OF MENTAL SUFFERING
Caryll Houselander once wrote: "The suffering of any given saint seemingly useless and exaggerated is always a prophecy and a preparation for something that is com- ing to mankind,"
God, being AII- knowing, foresaw our 20th century as the age of mental and emotional suffering, and being also All-merciful, prepared us for it.
Toward the turn of the present century, a child of about eight years of age fell seriously ill. The child was
Therese Martin, the lovely and beloved daughter of Louis and Zelie Martin. Today we call her St. Therese of Lisieux, or more popularly, the Little Flower of Jesus. No one could help the poor sick Therese; not her beloved father; not her "little mother", her sister Pauline, (her real mother was dead) not any of her other sisters. She baffled the doctors, and no medicine or treatment could cure her.
Besides suffering very severe headaches, Ida F. Goerres tells us in "The Hidden Face~" that little Therese screamed and shrieked in extreme fear; contorted her face, rolled her eyes; saw monsters and nightmarish fig- ures everywhere; sometimes she failed to recognize members of her family; she was shaken by convulsions, twisted her limbs, tried to throw herself out of bed and had to be forcibly restrained."
As already has been said, no doctor, no medicine or treatment could be of any help to the poor, pitiable child. However, she was finally helped; her aid came from heaven. The holy Mother of God herself intervented and Therese was miraculously cured in a twinkling of an eye!
But was the cure complete? Was it short-lived?
In her very famous autobiography, "The Story of a Soul, "
St. Therese of the Child Jesus herself tells us most vividly about the vision and the instant cure: "Suddenly," the saint writes, "the statue (of the Blessed Mother) came to life and Mary appeared utterly lovely, with a divine beauty I could not possibly describe. There was a wonderful sweetness and goodness about her face, and her expression was infinitely tender, but what went right to my heart was her smile. Then, all my pain was gone."
But again, we are forced to ask: Was the cure complete? Was it permanent?
Yes, the pain was gone; yes, she was out of danger. She didn't die as a result of the strange and very mysterious sickness, nor did she go insane as was at first feared. But in spite of the cure, our saint remained a very nervous person. In curing her, God did not destroy her natural emotions, nor change her temperament, nor her very unique personality.
Not all of Therese's emotional troubles were over after the Blessed Mother smiled on her. The Little Flower gives us a little hint of her mental sufferings even after her cure by telling us that she continually lived in fear that she herself simulated her own illnesses. Here we can clearly see that she suffered from a guilt complex, definitely a neurotic condition.
Listen to what St. Therese has to tell us about herself when she was but thirteen years old:
"I was stricken by the terrible disease of scrupulousness (note that the Saint called' it a "disease," and she could have very well have said mental disease: for it is very definitely an neurotic ailment), to understand it one must have been through this martyrdom oneself. It is impossible for me to describe what I suffered for nearly two years. Every thought, every action became a source of fear and bewilderment."
For one more bit of proof that the Little Flower of Jesus was a nervous person, even behind the walls of her Carmelite Convent, we have the famous "rosary incident." In the "Story of a Soul," she relates the incident as fol- lows: "At meditation I was for a long time always near a Sister who never stopped fidgeting with her rosary or something else. Perhaps I was the only one who heard her, as my ears are very sharp; but I could not tell you how it irritated me." It is said that this irritation was so bad that St. Therese broke out in a cold sweat each time the old nun rattled her beads. St. Therese was greatly irritated and broke out in a cold sweat because she was still a very nervous person.
Caryll Houselander, in her book "Guilt," wrote: "Therese fell ill with what was unquestionably a neurotic illness."
Father Joseph Goldrunner in his "Holiness is Wholeness," called our saint "a subject of compulsion neurosis." And finally, Father Etienne Robo writes in "Two Portraits of
St. Therese": "St. Therese was a nervous subject. She may be called a neuropath; she suffered from psychoneurosis."
In praise of St. Therese, we must point out that she used her nervous condition and peculiarities of her melancholic temperament as a means to rise her to holiness. If she was a neurotic person before, during and after her cure when she was eight years old, she didn't become a saint because of it, but IN SPITE OF IT. She endured all her mental sufferings without a word of complaint and without indulging in self -pitty. She was ever serene; ever full of confident, hope and trust in God.
So we see that neuroses and sanctity are indeed compatible. As Father Allen Keenan put it in his very fine book, "Neuroses and the Sacraments": “Good people have suffered from scruples, saints have suffered from melancholia. Above all, people may be saintly and good in spite, and even because of, neuroses." And Father Keenan adds: "A neurotic can hope for sanctity. In fact, a neurotic has a potent instrument of sanctity in his hands" (his mental sufferings).
It is possible then for a mentally or emotionally sick person to become a saint, for he has in his power (with God's grace) to become another Christ (for that is what a saint is), another Christ in agony in the Garden of Gethsemane (the Garden of Mental Suffering; the haven for Mental Sufferers).
Therefore, let neurotics and all mental sufferers take heart and not lose hope. Let them be willing to accept themselves as they are (as God wants them to be) with all their melancholic temperaments, many limitations and weaknesses, and their many faults and fears.
The sinner is an escapist, and the saint, an acceptist. St. Therese, for instance, was a great acceptist. She once said: "I choose all!" And she did! She chose all that God willed for her! Mental pains, nervous symptoms, neurotic tendencies, fears, sorrows, aridities, temptations, as well as physical sufferings -- the Little Flower accepted all! She bravely, heroically accepted and sanctified all, and thus became a great saint, perhaps the greatest modern saint.
Let those who suffer any kind of mental trouble use these saints, who themselves had mental trouble, for their example. If they do, one day they will be numbered among them, in spite, or maybe because of, their deformed psychic structures.
Let neurotics, those who suffer depression, from scrupu- losity, look at the life of St. Therese, and the other saints listed as neurotic, and say, "This is the stuff saints are made of. We can become saints! We MUST become saints! And this is the reason, meaning and purpose of our mental sufferings!"