Dromantine celebrates Novena in honour of St Therese
Sr (Dr) Carol Breslin is a member of the Medical Missionaries of Mary (MMM), at present involved in the Communications work of her Congregation. At the Novena, Sr Carol spoke on St Thérèse and suffering.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux and suffering
My background: Originally from US, where I entered MMM. I came to Ireland in the 1970’s and trained as a physician. I then spent 26 years in Africa:
- In Tanzania briefly as a student
- 12 years in Nigeria (West Africa) in hospital medicine: hands on – medical practice with very sick people – very poor people, often with women in maternity but also TB, Hansen’s disease (leprosy).
During this period I came into contact with different faith groups: ðWestern / Latin Christianity, traditional religions, Islam.
- 14 years in Ethiopia (Horn of Africa): some clinical work but mainly as administrator of centre for people affected by HIV – a very wide issue that mainly impacts women.
During this period I came into contact with different faith groups: ðIslam, traditional religions. Also experience of Eastern (Orthodox) Christianity and the Oriental Catholic Church. An ancient Christianity – Acts of Apostles but at least 4th century (before St. Patrick) – with an early monastic tradition
So a very varied experience
It brought me into contact with a lot of suffering from illness. It struck me that in dealing especially with the cause of illness – and other kinds of suffering.
My training: Looking for an impersonal cause: Biochemical imbalance; micro-organism causing infection: TB or HIV.
Maternity work: Reason for a complicated delivery; blood loss
When I found the cause, or thought I did, I was expected to fix it – antibiotic, blood, other medicine, an operation.
In Africa, sick people and families I was working with looked elsewhere for cause of illness and misfortune. People were very aware of their family and community. They usually looked for a social cause for the problem – not that there aren’t social causes for many illnesses, especially stress-related problems – but:
Nigeria: Often with traditional religion, it was a spirit that needed to be placated; an ancestor that was offended; something the person had done that I would look on as having nothing to do with the present illness
Ethiopia: Old Testament concept of God: sickness a punishment for sin: a vengeful God. This presented a huge problem with HIV, which especially when I first went to Ethiopia, was often seen as retribution.
Several consequences of these beliefs:
- Tried a local/traditional healer before Western medicine: I was often seen as the last resort
- Cure God’s will; death God’s will – fatalism. People were grateful but not so much to do with me. [not a lot of litigation]
- Because of deep belief in spirit world – not talking about witchcraft but external agent that needs to be placated – there is a great element of fear associated with God and suffering
- Part of spirituality and deeply held belief – needs to be respected – One of the advances I saw more recently before I left Ethiopia was that we were beginning to be able to do both. Carry out helpful or neutral religious practices and take medicine. I feel this is a more holistic approach to medicine and religion and we were able to work with the Orthodox leaders in training programmes.
- It was the way that people coped with illness – with unseen forces. I was doing it in a different way.
In Western / Latin Christianity many of us are not so different – subconsciously or consciously we still see God as judge, with a book writing down offences. Implied in this is a belief that God wants us to suffer or wants to punish us because we have offended God in some way.
If we read and listen to the gospels, God is trying to tell us something very different. It is about a Jesus who spent a lot of his time healing people in all sorts of ways – mental, physical, psychological, spiritual. A Jesus who didn’t want to put burdens on people.
I hasten to add, I feel it is very normal to feel this way – to ask why? “What did I do – or my child, friend – to deserve this?”
What has all this to do with Thérèse of Lisieux? I sometimes feel that we have a distorted image of Thérèse:
When the story of her life was originally published those around her tried to sweeten her image – probably to make her more acceptable and more in keeping with what many people’s ideal of what a saint should be like.
I think this does her a disservice because we didn’t get to know about her humanity – her weaknesses, times of doubt and despair.
I think this is true about many saints: their lives seen as easy- enlightened.
After they are canonized we find out the truth. They had human faults and experienced life as we do. And there are many saints around us who will not be canonized. It’s very expensive, for one thing.
What they often had in common was:
- They had a deep personal relationship with a loving God
- They often questioned contemporary practice (Therese and frequent Holy Communion) and called people back to a deeper spirituality: St Benedict, St Francis of Assisi, Archbishop Oscar Romero
- Offered renewal in time of disillusionment about religious practice at a particular time
Thérèse is someone who experienced great suffering and loss:
- Lost her mother when she was 4; her older sister, Pauline, who was her substitute mother, entered Carmel
- Very protected at home and then bullied at school
- Child with scruples Illness: mental (obsessive-compulsive) Modern psychiatry only beginning – mental illness not understood – surrounded with fear
- She experienced great mental anguish and struggles with faith.
- Later, like many people of her times, she contracted TB, for which there was no cure (just as today there is no cure for HIV)
- Her father became mentally ill and suffered stroke when daughters entered Carmel. Sounds like he wasn’t overjoyed when all of them decided to enter the convent.
A child and woman of her times and came from a family of the times: Deeply religious family: saw world as evil and some practices may not appeal to us.
God doesn’t expect us to live in the late 1800’s. Yet we all ask the same big question about suffering and all the hard things that happen in life.
The biggest question is the one we know cannot be answered here in this life, but we keep asking anyway – why?
Same things happen to the saints. All the hard things that happened to Thérèse and at one point she even despaired of life – couldn’t take any more.
A few things about Therese that she can offer us today:
- Despite being sheltered she had a world view – wanted to be a missionary – to Viet Nam, mission of her time. When she could not go she corresponded with 2 young priests
- Even in darkness she had an unshakeable belief in God, not as an avenging judge, but as a loving Father (from her own experience of her father) [and mother]
- Belief that God wants to be close to us: “It is not to remain in a golden ciborium that He comes down each day from Heaven, but to find another Heaven, the Heaven of our hearts in which He takes delight.”
God does not want us to suffer;
God is with us in our suffering;
The central mystery of our Christian faith includes our belief that Jesus took on our suffering.