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: A time to reflect on death

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November is a month when the Church asks us to pray for the dead. After celebrating those in heaven on Nov. 1, we pray for all the faithful departed who await heaven while undergoing purgation on Nov. 2, All Souls Day. The Church encourages us to pray for the dead by granting special indulgences in November to assist the souls in purgatory. A plenary (or full) indulgence can be received November 1-8 and then a partial indulgence the rest of the month when we “devoutly visit a cemetery and at least mentally pray for the dead” or “devoutly recite lauds or vespers from the Office of the Dead or the prayer Requiem aeternam”: “Eternal rest grant unto him/her (them), O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him/her/them. May he/she/they rest in peace. Amen.”

November, therefore, provides an opportunity to reflect upon death. Even the readings at the end of the liturgical year and the beginning of Advent point us to the coming judgment and end of the world. We may not relish contemplating death but doing so constitutes an essential element of a life well lived, realizing that our life on earth will decide how we spend eternity. Socrates described philosophy as a preparation for death and the same has been made for monasticism.  “Remember to keep death before your eyes daily,” the great Patriarch of monks, St. Benedict, directed in his Rule (ch. 4). A French writer, Nicholas Diat, put this maxim to the test in his new book, A Time to Die: Monks on the Threshold of Eternal Life (Ignatius, 2019). Diat, known for his three interview books with Cardinal Robert Sarah, visited eight monasteries in France — Norbertines, Benedictines, Cistercians, and Carthusians — to talk to the monks about their experience of death.

He describes why he wrote the book: “The West has worked hard to bury death more deeply in the vaults of its history. Today, the liturgy of death no longer exists. Yet fear and anxiety have never been as strong. Men no longer know how to die. In this desolate world, I had the idea to take the path of the great monasteries in order to discover what the monks might have to teach us about death. Behind cloister walls, they pass their existence in prayer and reflection of the last things. I thought their testimonies could help people understand suffering, sickness, pain, and the final moments of life. They have known complicated deaths, quick deaths, simple deaths. They have confronted death more often, and more intimately, than most who live outside monastery walls” (13).

I found that Diat achieved his objective. Although the monks live very different lives, they still face similar human struggles, sometimes magnified by lack of distractions, including the dominance of technology in sickness and the last stages of life. The Benedictine Monastery of En-Calcat experienced many difficult deaths and the superior, Dom David, related how sedation can make it hard to die: “We no longer feel life. We no longer feel humanity. We no longer feel God approaching” (55). When death approaches more naturally (or should we say supernaturally), the monks can die the “most beautiful death.” Such was the death of Father Henri Rousselot, who died at 96: “His face in death was magnificent. He was supernaturally radiant. The monks had the impression that his features had been drawn by God. Everyone who entered this room was struck by his beauty. Each found the child that Father Henri had always been” (72).

Some monasteries experienced difficult deaths — young monks whose lives were cut short by cancer, or, in the case of the canon Brother Vincent, multiple sclerosis, sudden deaths, even in chapel, or cases of dementia or mental illness. It did seem, however, in my own assessment, that the more a monastery was withdrawn from the world and its cares the more peaceful the deaths of its monks. This was true especially of the Grand Chartreuse (see the film Into Great Silence), where the monks live like hermits in the silent seclusion of prayer. Here the monks, already anticipating heaven, seem to die miraculously by slipping away peacefully. “The beauty of Carthusian deaths, sweet and simple, seems to bear witness to the fact that the spiritual combat of the sons of Bruno is so powerful that, in the final hour, fears are abolished. In the last moments, the peace that dwells in them is so profound that the majority of them are not afraid to die alone. They have spent their lives in the silence of an austere cell that sees them leave this earth” (165).

The book does not treat simply the experience of monks, but a central question for us all: “No one knows how he will live his death. Will we be courageous, fearful, happy? Will we be cowards or heroes?” (114). It’s time to start preparing now!