A lot happened when I was 13. First of all, I was 13 – not an easy year. I started high school, throwing myself into marching band and honors classes with enthusiasm. And I had my second and final year of Confirmation prep – which, as a socially anxious teenager who still didn’t really know anyone in my class, with whom I was expected to share my faith and go on retreat, was not easy.
However, soon after I turned 13, early in ninth grade, I started feeling sick. Mono was going around my school, and I was tired and mopey, so I thought that’s what it was. The test came back negative, though – and so did every other test, even as I didn’t get better. I moved to home-bound instruction, taking all of my classes except band online. I was tired, in constant pain, and depressed. Finally, after a few months, I was sent to a rheumatologist, who diagnosed me with fibromyalgia. I started getting treated and feeling better. I still felt tired and sore all the time – a state that I now knew was permanent – but it was manageable, and I was able slowly to go back to school and resume my normal life.
Throughout this ordeal, I was deciding who to pick for my Confirmation saint. At first, I thought of St. Luke, because he is a writer and also the patron saint of doctors (both careers I thought I wanted to get into at the time). Then I read a children’s adaptation of St. Therese’s “Story of a Soul.” It spoke to me so much that I then read the full autobiography and then decided to pick Therese as my Confirmation name.
I’m not sure at the time that I could have articulated what exactly happened to me when I read St. Therese’s words. I knew that the way she loved God – fully, joyfully, and like a child – was how I wanted to love God. But I think, in hindsight, her philosophy of suffering and the Little Way was particularly relevant to my life that year. I didn’t have a reason for my own pain – and even once I had a medical reason, that wasn’t an existential reason. So I really believe that reading “Story of a Soul” was a gift from God given exactly when I needed it the most. I can remember sitting in the car on a drive to a band competition (I couldn’t ride in the bus that year because of my pain) and thinking, “what I am feeling right now, I’m offering up to God.” It was comforting to know that at least something productive could come out of my own pain – something bigger than myself and something small, that I could give without even doing anything other than accepting pain and praying. “Love lives only by sacrifice,” she wrote, “and the more we would surrender ourselves to Love, the more we must surrender ourselves to suffering.”
When I was confirmed that year, I was so happy. I felt like I really had a grasp of my faith and how the gifts of the Holy Spirit would guide me through my life. I wish I could say that every day in the 14 years that have passed since then, I have remembered what I learned from St. Therese. That I offered up all of my pain to God, that I let go of anxieties because I had faith in Him, that I forgave everyone their trespasses and begged forgiveness for all of mine, that I made myself small and focused on doing small acts of kindness with great love.
I can’t say that truthfully, though. Like most people, I have gone through ups and downs in my faith. I have been impatient when I haven’t gotten what I wanted from God, and I have forgotten to say thank you when I get what I needed instead. I am impatient with His children, as well – so impatient and so, so unlike St. Therese.
But when I think back to her life and what she taught us, I can get back in touch with the person who has most guided me through my journey as a Christian. I can use the example of St. Therese to make sense of suffering and use it to become closer to God, just like she did. I can draw on faith, not my own, limited reserves of patience, to love my neighbor as myself. I can realize that while I can’t solve world hunger, I can help one person at a time with a word or a simple act of love. And maybe, then, someday, I will earn a place in Heaven, and I can tell St. Therese just what her life did for me all those years ago.