4 Saints Who Struggled With Mental Illness
Mental or neurological disorders affect one in four persons at some point in their lives, according to the World Health Organization. Approximately 450 million people currently suffer from one of two hundred varieties of mental illness, ranging from depression, anxiety, dementia, to severe schizophrenia. I sadly see my own father slowly succumb to the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. While these troubles are so prevalent across every social stratum, we usually don’t associate them with the saints. Aren’t the saints cloudless souls, exempted from the darker miseries of humanity? As we shall see, the long road to sanctity is often the way of the cross.
St. Jane Frances de Chantal (1572-1651)
St. Jane was born into wealth, married happily, and had a fulfilled life with four children. Then, her beloved husband, Baron Christophe de Chantal died in a hunting accident. For four months, she descended in an abyss of depression, barely able to cope with her circumstances. A letter from her father about her maternal duties roused her to take action.
As such, she forgave the man who accidentally shot her husband, extended alms to needy persons, and divided her time between care for her children, work, and prayer. Just when she started to gain momentum and forget her troubles, her father-in-law insisted that she move into his house. He was seventy-five years old and crankier than a rusty windmill. Nonetheless, Jane saw the futility of being depressed. She fought against it.
Knowing her fragility, she begged God for a spiritual guide to lead her through the shadows. One night she dreamt of a priest whom she understood to be her future director. When Francis de Sales, bishop of Geneva, came to preach a Lenten retreat, she beheld the holy man of her dream. In time, he agreed to be her spiritual director. She not only found a wise guide but the catalyst to a wonderful design. Together, they founded the Congregation of the Visitation for women whose age, health, or insufficient dowry prevented them from becoming a nun. When Jane died, there were 87 convents.
Even as she successfully guided her congregation, Jane bore a cross of mental anguish. Doubt and depression were chief among her difficulties. Fortunately, Francis was there to help unburden her woes. In a letter to him, she wrote, “My interior state is so gravely defective that in anguish of spirit, I see myself giving way on every side. Assuredly, my good Father, I am almost overwhelmed by this abyss of misery…Death itself, it seems to me, would be less painful to bear than the distress of mind which this occasions.” (Letter 6)
In their extensive correspondence, St. Francis de Sales emphasized trust in God, patience with self, and the need to let go of worry: “I leave you the spirit of freedom, not that which excludes obedience, which is the freedom of the world, but that liberty which excludes violence, anxiety and scruples.” (Letter 11) By habitually redirecting her thoughts, she gained serenity. In addition, her struggles gave her great compassion in her role as mother superior, particularly toward nuns who may have had similar afflictions.
Besides his letters, Jane also gained much from Francis’ book, Introduction to the Devout Life. “It is also useful to be actively employed,” he advises, “and that with as much variety as may be, so as to divert the mind from the cause of its sadness.” Such wisdom is still applicable for sufferers of depression. Though Jane’s struggles endured to the end, it did not prevent her from living a full and meaningful life. Indeed, her conflict became the very means to stay close to God and gain virtues.
St. Benedict Joseph Labré (1748-1783)
Whereas St. Jane’s mental troubles were lifelong, this saint’s battle with neurosis healed with time. He began life in Amettes, northern France, the eldest son of well-to-do parents. With the hope of interesting him in the priesthood, they sent him to a priest-uncle to be educated. Benedict was twelve years old at the time. As he poured over his uncle’s books, however, an idea nestled in his mind: “I wish to be a plain monk, not a priest.” At age sixteen, Benedict placed this dream before his parents who refused their consent.
He then returned to his uncle’s rectory. In 1766, an epidemic of cholera broke out in that region. While the uncle cared for souls, Benedict tended the sick and their cattle. After the uncle succumbed to the disease, Benedict returned home. He was now eighteen and still intent on La Trappe, the strictest monastery in France. His parents at last gave their consent, fearing to impede God’s design.
Yet, it wasn’t God’s design. It would take eleven failed attempts before Benedict understood this clearly. In his first try, the eighteen-year-old Benedict walked 60 miles in winter to La Trappe. This was the founding house of the Trappists, a community of reformed Cistercians. The monks rejected him as being too young and delicate. He later tried the Carthusians of Neuville, where he was accepted but dismissed after four weeks. Later, he tried this house again and lasted six weeks.
After trying several other monastic houses, the Cistercians of Sept-Fons accepted him as a postulant. His monastic dream, however, slowly turned into a nightmare. The silence and discipline of the life generated towering clouds of neurosis. He desired to be more mortified than the rule required. After eight months of heroic effort, the abbot, Giraud, “feared for his reason,” and asked him to leave. Benedict finally surrendered with the words, “God’s will be done.”
The life of Benedict Joseph Labré illustrates that way in which God sometimes uses neurosis to lead a man into a vocation he would not imagine for himself. No sooner had Labré understood what it was that he was to do, then his mental condition was cured.— Carryl Houselander
Finding His Way
Benedict had a great spirit, albeit, in need of healing. After convalescing from his experience, he made a pilgrimage to Rome. In the course of his journey, he received a life-changing inspiration. He felt inwardly called to be a devout pilgrim after the model of St. Alexis. He placed this proposal before several theologians who assured him that it was a good path.
For the next seven years, Benedict made pilgrimages to the major shrines of Western Europe. He prayed always, generally slept in the open air, and did not beg unless illness required it. He lived in dire poverty yet was happy and settled in his vocation. The neurosis disappeared and he gradually realized his original goal: holiness.
He spent the last six years of his life in Rome where he slept in the Coliseum at night. During the day, he prayed in the various churches. Reports of his holiness spread as people observed him absorbed in prayer for hours. Miracles were not lacking. He once healed a confirmed paralytic and allegedly multiplied bread for homeless persons. When Benedict died at age thirty-five, the children of Rome cried out, “The saint is dead, the saint is dead!” There were 136 miracles reported within three months of his death. Benedict is the patron saint of homeless and mentally ill persons.
St. Louis Martin (1823-1894)
Like his fellow Frenchman, Louis Martin was a natural contemplative who dreamed of monastic life in his youth. The monks of the Great St. Bernard in Switzerland nonetheless found his Latin inadequate. Louis accepted it as God’s will and learned watchmaking instead.
He settled in Alençon, France, where he opened his own shop. He met Azélie-Marie Guerin and they married after a three-month courtship. They had nine children, five of whom survived into adulthood. The five surviving daughters all entered convents. The youngest, Thérèse, is a canonized saint.
Louis excelled in his role as a father. He loved to read stories, sing songs, and construct interesting toys for his daughters. He also enjoyed the outdoors, particularly trout fishing, and could imitate most birds. His wife ran a successful lace-making business. Besides creating a comfortable home, they were very devout, attending Mass at 5:45 AM. Sadly, cancer took his beloved wife from him when she was 45 years old.
The Onset of Mental Illness
Some months after his fourth and favorite daughter, Thérèse, entered the convent, Louis showed preliminary signs of mental illness. He experienced dementia, speech impediments, obsessions, groundless fears, feelings of depression and exaltation, and a tendency to run away. After he was missing for three days, his daughter Celine received a telegram from him in Le Havre, 24 miles to the north. When she found him, he said, “I wanted to go and love God with all my heart!” Care in an asylum became the only solution. The family tearfully admitted him to Bon Sauveur asylum, coarsely known among townsfolk as the “madhouse.”
It was a profound humiliation for the family. Unkind gossip spread like ghastly perfume. In times of lucidity, Louis felt his abasement; “I know why the good God has given me this trial,” he said, “I have never had any humiliations in my life, and I needed to have some.” He later experienced two strokes and cerebral arteriosclerosis, which confined him to a wheelchair.
One may view his illness from different angles, both natural and supernatural. On the one hand, he had lost his wife to cancer and several of his daughters to the convent. These events may have had a traumatizing effect on his emotions and psyche. The other, spiritual dimension needs elucidation.
From his youth, Louis was a deeply spiritual man and easily wept through devotion. During his healthy years preceding the trial, he bought a beautiful new altar for the town church. Through an act of personal generosity, he evidently offered himself to God as a victim. Many saints have made similar offerings of themselves as a means of imitating Christ’s self-sacrifice and atonement.
Louis gave clues that he offered himself in such a way. While visiting his daughters in the convent, he told them of his prayer before the new altar; "My God, I am too happy. It’s not possible to go to Heaven like that. I want to suffer something for you.” Then he added quietly, “I offered myself…" He didn’t pronounce the word victim, but they understood.
Per Angusta ad Augusta
Whatever the cause of Louis’ struggle, his humiliation did not prevent Pope Francis from canonizing him and Azélie on October 18, 2015. They are the first canonized married couple in the Church’s history. This came after a thorough investigation and two approved miracles (one for the beatification in 2008). Louis Martin’s canonization offers hope to those with mental disorders of any kind as he passed from anguish to honors.
St Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897)
As noted above, Thérèse Martin was the youngest daughter of Louis and Azélie. She was a remarkably sweet child until her fourth year. It was then that she lost her mother and her personality altered; "When Mama died,” she wrote, “my happy disposition changed. I had been so lively and open; now I became diffident and oversensitive, crying if anyone looked at me.”
When Thérèse turned nine, she lost her eldest sister and second mother, Pauline, to convent life. This was too much for her wounded psyche and within months, she suffered a type of nervous breakdown. This confined her to bed for three months, where she experienced hallucinations, delirium, and hysteria. Thérèse attributed her instant recovery from this ordeal to the Virgin Mary’s smile.
Nonetheless, Thérèse’s difficulties were not over. Starting at age twelve, she entered into a battle with scrupulosity. This mental affliction sometimes affects sensitive souls, indicating an obsessive-compulsive disorder. It involves an exaggerated sense of sin, whereby the victim scrutinizes the least thoughts and actions as possibly offending God.
The word “scruple” comes from the Latin word, scrupus, “little stone.” As a pebble inside the shoe aggravates, so poor Thérèse’s conscience continually annoyed her; “One must pass through this martyrdom to understand it well,” she explains, “It would be quite impossible for me to tell you what I suffered for nearly two years. All my thoughts and actions, even the simplest, were a source of trouble and anguish to me.” Her elder sister Marie became her confidant. Thérèse confided her troubles to her each day and Marie helped her let go of the pebble.
Eventually, Thérèse triumphed over this ordeal and regained the charm of her childhood. As she felt called to be a nun from a very early age, she set her hopes on the Carmelite convent of Lisieux. With special permission, she entered this convent at age 15. Two of her sisters were already nuns there.
Her life in the convent was no Sunday boat ride. The coarser grade nuns bristled her sensitive nature. Moreover, the prioress, Mother Marie de Gonzague felt it her duty to humiliate Thérèse at every pass. Far from buckling under the strain, Thérèse gained such maturity that the prioress appointed her to be in charge of the novices when only 23 years old.
Also at age 23, Thérèse became ill with tuberculosis. Even with her weakened condition, she carried out her duties till it was no longer possible. As if this weren’t enough, she entered into a trial of faith on Easter Monday of 1896. The trial lasted until her death, eighteen months later. “God allowed my soul to be enveloped in utter darkness,” she explains, “and the thought of heaven, which had consoled me from my earliest childhood, now became a subject of conflict and torture.” At one time, she thought atheists were lying. Now, she understood their thoughts. She called them her brothers and sisters. By sheer willpower, she clung to the faith despite the wall of darkness.
As doubts battered her soul and her bodily sufferings increased, she often felt tempted to suicide. “If I had not the faith,” she confessed, “I would have committed suicide without a moment’s hesitation.” She wondered why more atheists didn’t commit suicide when suffering intensely.
Yet, she persevered right to the end. As she lay dying on the night of September 30, 1897, the nuns gathered around her to pray. They witnessed a transformation in the last moments of her life. With her face aglow with indescribable joy, she sat straight up as if gazing upon some marvelous sight. Then she lay back and peacefully died.
A Crown of Thorns
In the Christian consciousness, suffering is not meaningless. Jesus transformed an instrument of death, the cross, into a means of life. His sufferings opened the gate to immortality. While persons with mental struggles should always seek help, the saints reveal that good can emerge from an apparent evil. They transformed their sufferings into something better. In addition, to unite one’s sufferings with Jesus is to share in his redemptive ministry. Our sufferings, when united with Christ, can help others who need spiritual or physical help; this is the doctrine of co-redemption. In the end, to share Christ’s crown of thorns is not a curse but a blessing; “If we patiently endure pain, we shall also share His Kingship.” (2 Timothy 2:12)
Butler’s Lives of the Saints, Complete Edition, edited by Herbert Thurston, S.J., and Donald Attwater; Volume II, pages 106-108; Volume III, pages 369-373
Mental disorder statistics of the World Health Organization
Article with additional facts on mental disorders
The Story of a Soul, The Autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, translated by John Clarke, OCD., ICS Publications, 1972
The Life of Venerable Benedict Joseph Labré, Giuseppe Marconi, scanned reprint of the original 1786 biography
Louis Martin, Father of a Saint, by Joyce Emert, Alba House, New York, NY, 1983
© 2018 Bede