Overcoming scrupulosity with God’s mercy – and a therapist

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Ignatius of Loyola, Alphonsus Liguori and Therese of Lisieux are only a few of the saints who suffered from scrupulosity on their path to sainthood. Their desire to follow God wholeheartedly became a double-edged sword, as they often experienced great guilt and restlessness for doubting whether many of their actions were sinful — when they were not. Such struggle often kept them from enjoying life.

If you struggle with scruples, don’t let them keep you from celebrating God’s blessings in your life. Here’s what you can do about them.

Psychologists have found in this malady — still very common in our day — a close connection with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and some suggest a joint priest-therapist approach when helping a person overcome this disorder.

“Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is an anxiety disorder… Typically, the form that it takes is that people have one or more areas of fear. They are worried about something bad happening, and they engage in behaviors that we call ‘compulsion’ in order to decrease the anxiety that results from these fears,” explained Elizabeth Higbie, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker at St. Raphael Counseling in Denver.

OCD can manifest in many ways, she explained. The classic examples include those of people with an obsessive fear of contamination who engage in the compulsion of handwashing, or of people who need to have everything in order as a compulsion to some other fear.

But it can also manifest in other areas, such as in the fear of harming others.

“Scrupulosity is a manifestation of OCD, and I think it is a unique manifestation because we have to consider the role of spirituality,” she added.

“[In scrupulosity] there’s an obsession that I’m not in a state of grace, that I’m not pleasing to God,” explained Father Scott Bailey, Pastor at Risen Christ and Chaplain at St. Raphael’s Counseling. “A scrupulous person really believes that they’re always guilty of serious sin. Even if their heart is in the right place, if they desire to know God above everything else, they have this anxiety that they’re making the wrong choice, that they’re not pleasing to God… While it’s a spiritual reality, there is also a large psychological element to it.”

Such guilt often comes from the difficulty of distinguishing temptation from sin.

People with scrupulosity tend to see God as a punishing God who is out to get them or waiting for them to mess up.”

Father Bailey explained: “A temptation comes to our mind, it’s appealing to us, but if we refuse to engage in that thought, then it just remains a temptation. [Yet] sometimes the scrupulous person thinks that because they have the thought to do this tempting thing, that they are in sin.”

People also experience scrupulosity in the form of real anxiety around things that are not large moral issues.

“You might find this in the person who commits himself to some particular spiritual practice, like praying the rosary every day. It’s a wonderful thing to do, but if they miss a day, then they suddenly are in concern that they are in serious sin… or that they didn’t pray the rosary with the attention it deserved,” he added. “It’s hard because maybe there are legitimate things in there, like realizing we could do a better job of praying, but it doesn’t mean that we are displeasing to God.”

Common compulsions of people who struggle with scrupulosity include going to confession very often because they think they’re in a state of mortal sin, and “priest hopping” because they don’t want the same priest to listen to their confession repeatedly.

Overcoming scrupulosity

Although Higbie assures OCD is a complex disorder — since people are often genetically predisposed to it and others can acquire it from a history of trauma — she guarantees there is hope: “I think people who get into these patterns can become very hopeless and it can feel very overwhelming and out of control. So, to remember that there is hope and that treatment really can help.”

Both Father Bailey and Higbie highlight the importance of recurring visits to both a spiritual director or confessor and a mental health professional to overcome this struggle.

For the psychological aspect of this reality, Higbie recommends finding a Catholic therapist, since scrupulosity cannot be treated as any other type of OCD.

“We have to manage [scrupulosity] a little bit differently than we manage other types of fears,” Higbie said. “Frontline treatment for [OCD] is something called ‘exposure and response prevention therapy’ (ERP). So, if someone is afraid of contamination, an exposure might be having them use a public restroom or not washing their hands… where they actually have to face their fears and not [fall into] other compulsive behaviors.

“If we’re going to treat scrupulosity, we have to take a bit of a different approach because, obviously, as Catholic therapists, we’re not going to recommend that someone engage in mortal sin and then sit with it… Instead, I typically take a modified approach where if somebody is questioning, for example, whether they have committed a mortal sin, the exposure might involve sitting with the uncertainty of whether or not they may have committed a sin, and not rushing to confession at the first impulse or fear.”

Another recommended measure is committing to one confessor or spiritual director, who can aid with the spiritual aspect of scrupulosity.

You’re not hopeless, you’re not beyond repair. The Lord is going to continue to walk with you and be with you.”

Other than helping the person make the commitment of not going to confession every two or three days, a priest can also help correct the distorted understanding of God that is common in people with this struggle.

“People with scrupulosity tend to see God as a punishing God who is out to get them or waiting for them to mess up. There’s this constant fear of condemnation… They do not think about the mercy and love that we know is available to us,” Higbie explained.

“A part of the spiritual healing is healing who I am before my God,” Father Bailey added. “Can I see myself as loved by God the father? Maybe that means that I see myself like the prodigal son in Luke 15… being embraced by the Father.”

Higbie assured there are many priests in the archdiocese who are “well-versed” in scrupulosity and encouraged those struggling with it to not be afraid to talk to one and find a Catholic therapist.

“OCD is very common, and I would venture to say that it’s fairly underdiagnosed,” Higbie concluded. “I think there’s a lot of people that don’t think of OCD or they think of it in just the traditional ways of handwashing, contamination or order; but they don’t think or know about the different ways it might manifest.

“If you find yourself having significant anxiety that requires you to do specific behaviors in order to reduce that anxiety, it might be good to seek out some professional support in assessing whether or not you would be suffering from OCD.”

“This could be the best encouragement: Remember that Jesus is actually with you and he’s actually helping you,” Father Bailey concluded. “You’re not hopeless, you’re not beyond repair. The Lord is going to continue to walk with you and be with you.”

For professional help with scrupulosity or OCD, visit straphaelcounseling.com.

COMING UP: Machebeuf basketball star traded success playing hoops for a solitary life of prayer

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Shelly Pennefather led the Bishop Machebeuf High School girls’ basketball team to victory in every game she played in. It was not surprising to her friends and classmates that she would go on to play college ball for Villanova and then play professionally in Japan. It was not even surprising that she would have a religious vocation.

What was surprising was the order she chose. In 1991, Shelly Pennefather drove to Alexandria, Va., where she entered the Monastery of the Poor Clares. She would become a cloistered nun, living a radical life that included going barefoot out of penance and poverty and praying all of the hours of the Divine Office, even at 12:30 a.m.

This also meant she would not see her family except for twice a year from behind a transparent screen. She would not hug them until 25 years after her profession.

“I was shocked that she chose a cloistered order,” said Annie Mcbournie, graduate of Machebeuf in 1984 and a friend of Pennefather’s. “I was not at all shocked that she chose a vocation.”

Her story was recently featured on ESPN, who recounted how Pennefather gave up being the highest-paid women’s basketball player in the world in 1991 to live a life in service to the Lord as a Poor Clare.

Pennefather took the name Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels. This past June, Sister Rose Marie celebrated her 25th anniversary of her solemn profession: the long-awaited moment to greet her family from outside the screen, not to happen again for another 25 years.

Villanova teammates, friends, Machebeuf classmates, and family were all in attendance. She hugged her 78-year-old mom for what will probably be the last time.

Mcbournie was not able to make it but will visit Sister Rose Marie this fall. Since she’s kept up with her via letters, she is permitted to visit the monastery.

Pennefather attended Bishop Machebeuf High School in Denver from 1980 to 1983 before transferring for her senior year due to her dad’s military job. She left Machebeuf with a 70-0 record.

“Her entire high school career, she never lost a basketball game,” Mcbournie said.

Mcbournie was a cheerleader and friend of Sister Rose Marie in high school, but a deeper friendship began 10 years after graduation. Sister Rose Marie’s brother Dick called Mcbournie before World Youth Day in Denver in 1993 since Mcbournie was still in the area.

Sister Rose Marie had just joined the Poor Clares and Dick and McBournie met up and spoke about the mourning process the family was going through, McBournie said. Dick mentioned to her that they could write Sister Rose Marie as many letters as they wanted, and one day a year, on the Feast of the Epiphany, she could write back.

Shelly Pennefather, pictured here in this photo from the Archdiocese of Denver archives, always exuded a deep spiritual life, her former Bishop Machebeuf classmates said. (Photo by James Baca)

“From that year on, I have been writing her every year,” McBournie said. She gives Sister Rose Marie updates on life, pictures from their high school reunions, and prayer requests.

“I have witnessed her journey through these letters,” McBournie said.

When Sister Rose Marie’s dad passed away shortly after entering, she was not able to leave the monastery to go to the funeral. McBournie saw how difficult these sacrifices were for her, especially in the early years of her vocation. But the letters show Sister Rose Marie’s joy.

“The last 5 to 10 years, I could just see her say, ‘I’m so blessed to be able to do this’,” McBournie said. “She’s so joyful.”

A fellow Machebeuf classmate asked McBournie for Sister Rose Marie’s address in order to have a little fun. He sent her a $20 bill with a note saying he thought she could use a smoke and a bottle of wine.

Sister Rose Marie did not miss a beat and in her yearly letter, she responded, “I bought incense, and I drank from the chalice,” McBournie recounted.

Shelly Pennefather (#15) had a 70-0 record playing basketball for Bishop Machebeuf in the 1980s, and went on to play for Villanova and then professionally in Japan. (Photo courtesy of Villanova Athletics)

But this letter sparked a friendship. This classmate has continued to write letters and even attended the 25-anniversary jubilee.

“Her letters are still hilarious, still very sarcastic,” McBournie said.

She remembers Sister Rose Marie being reserved and quiet in high school, focused more on school and basketball than anything else. Her father was in the military and the family was very disciplined, but they had a good sense of humor and quick wit, McBournie said.
“Her spirituality permeated her existence from the time she was young,” McBournie said.

David Dominguez was a few years ahead of Sister Rose Marie at Machebeuf but remembers her discipline and her talent. He called himself her cheerleader.’

“If it was really tight, we would start yelling, ‘Shelly, Shelly!’” Dominguez said. “It was one of my favorite cheers.”

Dominguez exercised at the Air Force base gym where Sister Rose Marie would train and play basketball with her dad and brother.

“I knew she had incredible skills,” Dominguez said. “It was kind of magical to watch.”

Sister Rose Marie recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of her profession of vows with the Poor Clares. She was able to hug her friends and family for the first time in 25 years. ESPN was there to cover the occasion. (Photo courtesy of Mary Beth Bonacci)

Dominguez also knew she was different.

“She was living for a different purpose than everyone else,” he said.

Sister Rose Marie’s devotion and personality remain the same, though she has traded in her jersey for a habit.
Although Sister Rose Marie can only write one letter a year, and can seldom have visitors, her friendship and influence reach far beyond the monastery walls.

Mcbournie said that their yearly letters have brought them even closer than they were in high school.

“I look forward to her letter every year,” Mcbournie said.