The feast days of four very significant saints for the Church occur in October: St. Thérèse of Lisieux (Oct. 1), St. Maria Faustina Kowalska (Oct.5), St. Teresa of Ávila (Oct.15), and St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (Oct.16). Though each lived in different periods, their lives collectively hold some valuable lessons for Christians who seek to live out the vocation to be holy.
Each of these women experienced some form of severe illness in their lives.
St. Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582) contracted malaria after she had begun her life in the cloister. Her battle with malaria left her paralyzed for three years and she never fully recovered.
St. Thérèse (1873-1897), also known as the “Little Flower of Jesus,” began suffering from nervous tremors at a very early age, stemming from the loss of her mother. It was a condition that would assault her for nearly 10 years. Later, she discovered that she had tuberculosis, the disease that would cause her a great deal of pain and eventually end her life at age 24.
St. Faustina (1905-1938) also battled tuberculosis from 1930 until her death from it in 1938.
St. Margaret Mary (1647-1690) was confined to her bed for four years in her youth due to rheumatic fever.
These encounters with illness certainly showed these women the physical frailty and weakness of human existence. The illnesses served to awaken and intensify an acute awareness on the part of these saints of their limits and shortcomings in all areas of life due to sin. For example, St. Teresa explained how she came to understand the awful terror of sin and the inherent nature of sin during a period of religious ecstasy that accompanied her illness.
However, these illnesses also became the occasions for these saints to grow in intimacy with Christ. Faced with the limitations that illness imposed upon them, each saint grew in their total dependence and surrender to God – and so did their joy in this dependence because it was accompanied by the intense experience of God’s mercy.
St. Thérèse recovered from both her nervous condition and scrupulosity when she discovered the joy of self-forgetfulness through the grace of charity. By looking away from herself, God had granted her the freedom she had tried to win on her own for nine years. This experience led her to offer herself as a sacrificial victim to merciful love. She wrote, “In the evening of this life, I shall appear before You with empty hands, for I do not ask you Lord to count my works.”
St. Margaret Mary is reputed to have been restored to perfect health after her four-year battle with rheumatic fever when she made a vow to the Blessed Virgin to consecrate herself to religious life. Of course, she is most remembered for her reception of the revelations of the Sacred Heart, which lasted for 18 months. The image of the Sacred Heart alone communicates enormous amounts about the depth of Christ’s love for humanity.
Finally, about nine months after her first major bout with tuberculosis, Jesus appeared to St. Faustina as the “King of Divine Mercy.” She was instructed to paint the image she saw, adding the words, “Jesus, I trust in you.” This says it all.