Mother Theodore offers support for living with mental illness
A woman, who at times suffered thoughts of wanting to die and flashbacks to traumatic times, managed to found an order of Catholic sisters and a college. Both are still making a positive impact on the world nearly 200 years later.
She also left, in her “Journals and Letters,” a blueprint for handling emotional distress and mental anxieties. Its hallmarks: kindness and common sense.
That woman was Mother Theodore Guerin, foundress of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana. In her time that area was a wilderness, a river’s crossing from the nearest town. Mother Theodore was canonized a saint in the Roman Catholic Church in 2006.
Mother Theodore offers support
I had my first bout of bipolar disorder as a freshman at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. My friends and my boss in the library wrapped me in Mother Theodore’s legacy of kindness. Even though I didn’t make grades, the sisters offered to extend my scholarship. They gave me hope.
When I learned of Mother Guerin’s struggles, it eased my pain and shame.
Every morning, I meditate on her writings.
Sometimes the advice is as simple as, “What strength the soul draws from prayer.”
Other days, her words are funny, “The more we stir up a dunghill the more it exhales bad odors.”
A saint’s challenges
When the sisters’ enemies burned down their barn and granaries and destroyed their food, she wrote: “How often this winter have I started out of my sleep, thinking that I have heard the noise of the flames and saw their terrible light.”
As a child her two brothers died in accidental fires in their home.
She wrote, “I have often felt that I should be glad to die.”
The medicines and therapy available now didn’t exist then. If I had lived in that time I would have been unable to work and unable to retain the love of my family friends without those meds.
Going it alone can be a threat to your life.
A fact I learned that is extremely helpful: Not all my thoughts are correct.
I don’t use Mother Guerin’s writings as a Ouija board. I use them as prompts.
The saint’s example
Recently I reflected on her writings about making sacrifices.
Sacrifice is an old word for the cost of a wise decision. I talked to my doctor about how stress would affect my improving health. I decided not to do something, even though it hurt.
Mother Theodore wrote to friends. We can talk by phone or text. She walks. She weeps.
When she is too exhausted to function, she rests.
She talks to herself about the good in her life. She reminds herself how much she loves the sisters entrusted to her care and how much they need her.
And she has confidence in “the Providence that has never failed us.”
Providence through people
I have found that Providence often acts through people.
She counsels, “Never speak when excited.” That is particularly good advice for people who are quick to anger.
Some mornings she keeps me from my impulses by saying, “The way is not yet clear, grope along slowly. Be patient. Be trustful.”
Sometimes when I am overwhelmed, I read, “We are not called upon to do all the good possible, but only that which we can do.”
Some mornings, when I am struggling and could use a hug, I open to this, “No one will ever love you as your old Mother Theodore does.”