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Suicide: Insights from St. Thérèse of Lisieux

   by Fr. J. Linus Ryan, O. Carm.

    The thought of suicide comes to most people at some time in their lives. For the majority it may be only a fleeting thought that is fairly quickly dismissed. But for others it can be a real temptation that must be strenuously fought. St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower (d.1897), would seem to belong to the second category. Even though she was an enclosed Carmelite nun in a French provincial town, who died at the age of twenty-four, she has something important to say to people seeking to tackle the problem of suicide.

   The issue of suicide seems only to have come to her towards the end of her life. Her sister, Mother Agnes, said to her a week before she died, what a terrible sickness and how much you suffered! She replied, "Yes! What a grace it is to have faith! If I had not any faith, I would have committed suicide without an instant's hesitation." (LastConv 22.9.6).

   About a month earlier she was in such pain that she spoke of nearly losing her mind (CG 22.8.97). At this time too she said to her sister, Agnes:

   "Watch carefully, Mother, when you will have persons a prey to violent pains; don't leave near them any medicines that are poisonous. I assure you, it needs only a second when one suffers intensely to lose one's reason. Then one could easily poison oneself." (August 30, Green Notebook).

   Her sister repeated this on oath at the process for Thérèse's beatification (PA 204). In fact, another young sister who was helping to nurse her - Sr. Marie of the Trinity, - also testified the following: 

   "Three days before she died, I saw her in such pain that I was heartbroken. When I drew near to her bed, she tried to smile, and, in a strangled sort of voice, she said: If I didn't have faith, I could never bear such suffering. I am surprised that there aren't more suicides among atheists."  [Text in Procès de béatification et canonisation. Vol. 1  Procès informative ordinaire (Rome: Teresianum, 1973) 472. English tr. in C. O'Mahony, St. Thérèse of Lisieux by Those who Knew Her: Testimonies from the Process of her Beatification (Dublin: Veritas, 1975) 254.]

    These texts make clear that suicide was not just a passing idea, but a consideration that she thought about very seriously. We have some idea of how grave this thought was when we look at her physical, psychological and spiritual state at the time. Her thoughts on suicide are found in the last months of her life.

    At this time Thérèse was desperately ill with a terrible form of tuberculosis. The first sign of the seriousness of her condition was a hemoptysis (coughing blood from the lungs) on the night of Good Friday in 1896. From that time her health deteriorated. After a year she was very seriously ill with intense chest pain, frequent hemoptysis and weakness. From July 1897 until her death on 30th September that year she had acute pain, often with suffocation. In time the tuberculosis spread throughout her body, so that around the 23rd August medical people spoke of gangrene of the intestines; there was a collapse of bodily functions. Though best medical practice at the time was morphine injections, her superior, Mother Gonzaga, thought that religious should suffer, and would not allow its administration to Thérèse (later the same superior would refuse morphine when she herself was dying with cancer). 

   Her psychological and spiritual sufferings were as great if not greater than her physical distress. Within a few days of her first coughing of blood, Good Friday the previous year, she had a sudden collapse of her faith experience. What had been normal to her, like thoughts of heaven, now seemed a fantasy. She spoke of a high wall between her and faith realities. She was in acute darkness of faith almost without remission until her death. The images she used were of darkness, a black hole, a thick fog, a tunnel and a high wall that she could not scale. In the meantime, she kept the best side out as it were. She continued her religious exercises, she wrote charming devotional poems at the request of the sisters of her community. But all the time, she was personally in darkness, with no feeling of faith. She said that she really knew the experience of atheists. She was walking through a dark night of faith.

   When we put these facts about her physical condition and her spiritual and psychological darkness side by side with her thoughts of suicide, we find a deeper perspective. For many religious people the thought of God or Heaven can be a reason against suicide, but Thérèse is now without any sense of the Divine Presence, devoid of faith experience, clinging on in darkness. As such her experience is of interest not only for the issue of suicide, but also for the whole area of unbelief. She knew in the depths of her being the crushing desolation of unbelief.

   - from www.sttherese.com