How Did the Saints Handle Irritations?

Forbear one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgive each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.

Cf. Colossians 3:13

Irritations are a chance for us to practice patience and grow in grace; and when you think about it, that’s really the smartest and most efficient way to handle them. If we can’t do anything about an irritating situation (and that’s often the case), we can at least make sure we derive some spiritual benefit from it — by turning it into a prayer.

No one would reasonably claim that coping with life’s minor problems and annoyances can begin to compare with enduring persecution, imprisonment, torture, and even death for the sake of Christ, as many saints have experienced throughout the ages and which Christians around the world continue to face today. Most of our crosses are relatively minor, so let us turn to the example of the saint who, more than any other, is known for growing in holiness by offering God all the small experiences of life: St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who is famous for her “little way.”

Thérèse chose to become a saint without fuss or fanfare, by doing everything, however small or routine, with as much love as possible. This includes, of course, patiently bearing life’s irritations and annoyances. 

This article is adapted from a chapter in the book, Saintly Solutions to Life’s Common Problems. Click image to learn more.

St. Thérèse gives us beautiful, down-to-earth advice:

“Another time, washing handkerchiefs in the laundry opposite a Sister who kept on splashing me with dirty water, I was tempted to step back and wipe my face to show her that I would be obliged if she would be more careful. But why be foolish enough to refuse treasures offered so generously? I took care to hide my exasperation. I tried hard to enjoy being splashed with dirty water, and by the end of the half hour, I had acquired a real taste for this novel form of aspersion. How fortunate to find this spot where such treasures could be given away! I would come back as often as I could.” Many times we find we’re most irritated by other people, and in such a state, it’s very easy to start cataloging their faults (perhaps even inventing a few) and to begin passing judgment. As St. Thérèse reminds us, we need to keep in mind the bigger picture by looking at irritating persons as charitably as possible: “Should the Devil draw my attention to the faults of any one of them [the other Sisters] when I am seeking to increase this love in my heart, I call to mind at once her virtues and her good intentions. I tell myself that though I may have seen her fall once, there are probably a great many occasions on which she has won victories which, in her humility, she has kept to herself. What may appear to me to be a fault may even be an act of virtue because of her intention; and as I have experienced this for myself, I have little difficulty in persuading myself that this is indeed the case.”

The saints can show us how to respond patiently to life’s annoyances. Bl. Henry of Treviso was renowned for never letting anything upset him — so much so that people went out of their way to try to get a rise out of him through ridicule or petty pranks. Henry didn’t resent them, but simply prayed for his tormenters.

This sort of patience often comes from a larger perspective, as illustrated in a story about St. John of Kanty. He was once invited to dinner at a nobleman’s home, but when he arrived, he was denied entry because of the shabbiness of his cassock. Instead of being offended, John went home, changed into something more presentable, and returned. During the meal, a servant spilled food on John’s lap, but the saint said, “No matter; my clothes deserve some dinner, because to them I owe the pleasure of my being here at all.”  St. Colette once noted, “If there be a true way that leads to the everlasting Kingdom, it is most certainly that of suffering, patiently endured.”  Thus, we can choose to let the irritations of life bring us closer to the Lord.  But how do we live out this choice? A key element in this process is to begin with the right perspective.

St. Francis de Sales points out that the rod of Moses’ brother Aaron, when lying on the ground, was a frightful serpent, but when held in Aaron’s hand, it was a rod of power.79 “It is thus,” says the saint, “with tribulations. Consider them in themselves, and they are horrors; consider them in the will of God, and they are joys and delights.”

Therefore, every time we’re annoyed by someone or something, we should ask the Lord, “Father, how are You present in this situation?” Becoming aware of the Lord’s presence makes it easier to respond to all things with patience and love; indeed, as St. Thérèse discovered in her experience of being splashed by her laundry-mate, we can even come to love the things that irritate us.

St. John Vianney wrote, “I have had crosses in plenty — more than I could carry, almost. I set myself to ask for the love of crosses — then I was happy.”  Love can also help us persevere in trying to influence others who irritate us. For instance, St. Ignatius of Antioch once referred to a squad of soldiers escorting him to Rome (where he was to be martyred for his Faith) as “ten leopards” whose behavior “gets worse the better they are treated.” When our efforts to be nice to someone don’t seem to be paying off, we may be tempted to give up, but by continuing to act in charity, we pay a great tribute to God, who “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good” (Matt 5:45); moreover, it’s possible that our efforts will finally bear fruit. Like St. Thérèse, all the saints came to realize that God can be found not only in the beauties and joys of life, but also in its problems, irritations, and interruptions.

We needn’t make grandiose promises to God or look for opportunities to do something heroic or memorable, nor should we make plans for trading in our cross for a larger one. God knows best what we need. He opens up before us the unique, perfectly tailored path that can lead us to holiness, and our simple efforts to respond to life’s irritations with patience and acceptance are an important way of undertaking this journey, one step at a time.

“We gain more in a single day by trials that come to us from God and our neighbor than we would in ten years of penance and other exercises that we take up ourselves.”

St. Teresa of Avila

Something You Might Try

St. John Bosco offered some practical advice to the young Dominic Savio in his efforts to become a saint: fulfill the duties of your state (in Dominic’s case, as a schoolboy); treat companions kindly, especially those with disagreeable personalities; forgive persons who are vulgar or rude; avoid wasting food; fulfill all your duties, even those that are boring or unpleasant; don’t complain about the weather; remain bright and cheerful under all circumstances; and be ever alert for ways to show your love for Jesus.  St. Dominic Savio followed this advice, and so can you. Start by deciding to get along with the people who irritate you, and in practical terms this is very simple: merely apply the same excuses you use for our own bad behavior to those persons whose behavior annoys you.

All of us quickly learn not to look directly at the sun; if we have to look in that direction, we shield our eyes or glance indirectly. St. Paul of the Cross suggests that we approach irritations and problems in the same way: not looking at them directly in the face, but instead looking at the face of our Lord and trying to see everything in light of what He suffered for us out of love. Getting into this habit will help you keep your difficulties in perspective.  St. Paul of the Cross also says, “When you find yourself upset and disturbed over some situation you have to face, put yourself completely in God’s hands. Accept His good pleasure in advance. If you can, seek advice and wait for the situation to mature. Trust in the Passion of Jesus, who will not allow anything to harm you.”

This article is adapted from a chapter in Fr. Esper’s book, Saintly Solutions to Life’s Common Problems. It is available as an ebook or paperback from your favorite bookstore or online through Sophia Institute Press.

Find more of Fr. Esper’s practical advice gleaned from the saints here on Catholic Exchange.

Photo by Sarah Mutter on Unsplash


Fr. Joseph Esper studied at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit and at St. John’s Provincial Seminary in Plymouth, Michigan. He was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit in 1982. He has lectured at Marian conferences, spoken on Catholic radio, and written more than a dozen articles for This Rock, The Priest, Homiletic, Pastoral Review, and other publications. From his experience as a parish priest, Fr. Esper offers today’s readers practical, encouraging, and inspiring wisdom.

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