Scruples, saints and celestial hope

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St. Thérèse of Lisieux is one of the many Saints who struggled with scrupulosity. Photo by Larisa Tuttle.

Beginning the scrupulosity conversation at UD


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In “The Story of a Soul,” St. Thérèse of Lisieux recounts her severe struggle with scruples as a child, writing, “You would have to pass through that martyrdom in order to understand it well.”

There are many souls at the University of Dallas who do understand, who share in Thérèse’s martyrdom at the rack of scrupulosity.

Scrupulosity is an excessive preoccupation with having sinned or committed a serious fault. It is often a manifestation of obsessive-compulsive disorder; the person anxiously obsesses over whether he has sinned and is only able to lessen the anxiety through a compulsive response, such as asking for reassurance from another person that he has not sinned, or immediate confession.

The tricky thing is that these compulsions push one towards good things. It is good to seek out counsel from friends and mentors. Confession is a precious sacrament that frees us from the horror of sin.

But scrupulosity responds to an unwarranted fear, as the “sinful” thought or deed in question is often not actually a sin. Scrupulosity often stems from a flawed understanding of the human person. It jumps to the Fall of Genesis 3 without pausing to consider that the first thing said about man and woman in Scripture is that they are created in God’s image and are very good.

Furthermore, since compulsions are addictive behaviors, confessing a sin once will never be enough for the scrupulous mind. Perhaps your friend misunderstood your situation and you need to explain yourself once more to double, triple, quadruple check that you are not in a state of mortal sin.

Perhaps your confession was not fully sincere, perhaps a detail of the sin was forgotten. These fears and responses continue in an unmitigated spiral, leaving the person paralyzed and feeling hopelessly alone.

Our secular culture rejects sin and hylomorphism, seeing scrupulosity as nothing more than a chemical misfiring or unconscious wound inflicted by bigoted doctrine. In response, well-meaning Catholics often perceive everything they enjoy or do as tainted and spiritually dangerous. This dichotomy results in a dearth of resources that effectively minister to the whole person – body and soul – in his or her struggle with scrupulosity.

But there are resources for Catholics with scrupulosity. I believe that this is the year in which the Holy Spirit longs to pull back the curtain on the scrupulosity epidemic at UD, and to lead every soul on campus into a deeper awareness of his or her inherent belovedness.

Dear reader, the Lord and His Church do not desire for you to spend all of Mass deliberating whether you should or should not receive Communion. Christ does not want you to feel a knot in your stomach during the words of absolution, wondering if you did something to invalidate those words.

The secret that scrupulosity tries so hard to hide is this: you are not alone. Rather, you are “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” the Saints who once experienced the same torment you endure now, and who rest forever in the arms of Jesus Christ, whose “perfect love casts out fear.”

On today’s Solemnity of All Saints, we ask the intercession of St. Oscar Romero, the archbishop and martyr who was diagnosed with OCD at age 49. We honor St. Ignatius of Loyola, Ven. Rutilio Grande and Bl. Sebastian Valfrè, a few Saints with documented scrupulosity.

But today’s solemnity is not only for the Saints in stained glass and silver medals. Today’s victory belongs to those hidden souls who lived what T.S. Eliot calls “a lifetime’s death in love;” it is for those who continually surrendered and trusted, offering daily classes and commutes to therapy and panic attacks for the salvation of souls.

How many unacknowledged moments of grace have we received through the oblation of one soul whose suffering we will never know in this life? But if you are that suffering soul, I promise that Christ offers healing and freedom even in this life, a foretaste of the total healing you will one day experience beneath His gaze.

The flickering red candle in the chapel is the ultimate testimony against scrupulosity’s lie that you are alone. In the Eucharist, our infinite God is helpless and immobile, just as you may feel beneath the weight of scruples.

The tabernacle on campus holds the One who saw little Thérèse in her martyrdom of scrupulosity. For those with scrupulosity, Thérèse’s victory belongs to them as well. Theirs is the victory of the One in the garden, whose perspired blood still cries out, “You are not alone.”

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