St. Thérèse of Lisieux: Overcoming Catholic Guilt

St. Thérèse is a patroness of Russia, where the 2014 Winter Olympics are taking place in Sochi.
St. Thérèse is a patroness of Russia, where the 2014 Winter Olympics are taking place in Sochi.

When I returned to the Catholic Church after a long time away, I made a general confession and started fresh with a clean slate. Confession of sins to a priest in the Sacrament of Reconciliation is truly good for the soul. Of course, committed Christians should do our best to avoid offending God. Unfortunately, some of us can go too far with vigilant concern for sin in a way that is spiritually and psychologically unhealthy.

I’m referring to the age-old problem of scrupulosity. The OCD Foundation describes this as “a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) involving religious or moral obsessions. Scrupulous individuals are overly concerned that something they thought or did might be a sin or other violation of religious or moral doctrine.”

It’s like being a moral hypochondriac. In Catholics, this problem manifests in people going to confession too frequently. There are also irrational fears that, somehow, one’s confession wasn’t really valid or the Sacrament didn’t quite count because of some imagined technicality. People with Scrup/OCD worry excessively about sinning — whether by having “bad thoughts” or through other human imperfections — and they struggle to accept God’s forgiveness. They fear God is angry with them and often try to make up for things with perfect devotional practices. Instead of trusting in the mercy of God, scrupulosity sufferers live with awful anxiety. When you’re in the bondage of a scrupulous mindset, nothing you do will ever be enough to bring lasting peace.

I’ve been there! So has St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who is one of my favorite saints for that reason.

St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face (1873-1897) was a French Carmelite nun who devoted her brief but brilliant life to praying for priests. Famous for her “little way” of spirituality, she offers a refreshingly realistic and human approach to having a personal relationship with God.

Anyone who’s ever walked into a Roman Catholic church has likely seen a statue or stained glass window image of “The Little Flower,” as she is best known. St. Thérèse is always depicted wearing her brown Carmelite habit while holding a crucifix and bouquet of roses. This innocent, devout young woman entered the convent at 15 years old and bravely persevered in her vocation until she died of tuberculosis at age 24.

Her beautiful writing — especially St. Thérèse’s must-read autobiography, Story of a Soul — contributed to her cause for canonization and helped establish her as a Doctor of the Church. It also opens a window into a young person’s private hell.

Before she became a nun, the tweenage Thérèse experienced a time of excessive anxiety and introspection — fearing that even her thoughts could lead to damnation. “One would have to pass through this martyrdom to understand it well,” she wrote, “and for me to express what I experienced for a year and a half would be impossible.”

Eventually, she reported receiving a grace from God that liberated her from crippling “oversensitivity.” But the emotional difficulties she endured would enable Thérèse to counsel the Lisieux Carmel’s novices with wisdom beyond her years. The spiritual Olympian offered this gem of advice, which applies to anyone trying to build a fitter faith: “Do not fear to tell Jesus that you love Him, even though you may not feel that love,” she told her nuns in training. “In this way you will compel Him to come to your aid, and to carry you like a little child who is too weak to walk.”

Entire books have been written about St. Thérèse’s “little way” of spiritual childhood, but that statement sums it up for me! Our relationship with God will flourish if we learn to depend on God, and not on our own perfectionism or our fluctuating feelings. “Apart from me, you can do nothing,” Jesus tells us (John 15:5).

And as St. Thérèse wrote, “God our Father loves us always, absolutely, unfailingly, eternally.” She clearly learned to stop being afraid and trust the goodness of God, who is the source of life and love. We can learn so much from the Little Flower!