Understanding and overcoming scrupulosity – Part I
Q: Dear Father John, I seem to be struggling with scrupulosity. However, when I read St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, they exhort that any small sin or attachment can keep us from union with God. How do I know if I am scrupulous or just sensitive to sin? How do I avoid taking sin too lightly? If I am scrupulous, how do I overcome it?
A: First thing: if you are sincerely concerned about not taking sin too lightly, you can rest assured that you are not taking sin too lightly. If, on the other hand, you find yourself convinced that you really don’t sin and don’t ever need to go to confession, then you are probably taking sin too lightly. All the saints were keenly aware that they were sinners and made good use of the sacrament of confession. Now on to the heart of your question.
Scrupulosity is oversensitivity to faults. It consists in seeing sin where there is no sin, which causes us to become emotionally tense and spiritually tied up in knots. It paralyzes the will, fills the mind with turbulence, and can cause intense interior suffering. Since it comes in different forms and from different sources (and since the word itself is slippery), there is no single solution. We’ll tackle this one in two parts. First we’ll look at the types and causes of scrupulosity, then we’ll examine the practical question of what to do about it.
Sin is disobedience to God’s express will. It is a rebellion against God, a breaking of the eternal law. As such, it offends God (just as teenagers who insult their parents offend their parents). As a result, it disrupts, weakens, or ruptures our friendship with God. And since friendship with God is the whole purpose of our existence, sin is our arch-enemy, the source of all unhappiness and tragedy.
Today’s culture tends to minimize and belittle sin. What matters to a hedonistic, relativistic consumer society is comfort and personal autonomy. Where does sin fit into an ethos like that? There is no eternal law to break, no universal moral order against which to rebel, no Father to offend. This poisonous ethos has a powerful ally inside each one of us: our fallen human nature. We have an enemy within. We tend towards self-centeredness (to which any parent of a two-year-old will eloquently attest). This is why most spiritual directors would agree that a scrupulous conscience is less common than its co-conspirator, a lax conscience.
The essential evil of sin explains why St Teresa and St John of the Cross so fervently exhort us to mercilessly excise every sinful habit and tame every wild tendency. We must give no quarter to sin and make no compromise with temptation – just ask Eve. Sometimes the term scrupulous or scruples is used by folks who have made a pact with certain personal sins in order to criticize other folks who have refused to make treaties with the devil. Their conscience is bothering them, and the presence of people more upright than themselves exacerbates the bother, so they use the label “scrupulous” as a shield.
Scrupulosity understood properly, however, is an authentic spiritual difficulty. It comes most often in two forms. The first is related to certain personalities. Whether by temperament, upbringing, or a combination, some people have a strong tendency towards perfectionism. When they begin taking seriously the adventure of holiness, this tendency can help, usually by energizing their efforts and giving them staying power in the face of difficulties. But the same tendency can tangle things up. God works patiently; perfectionist tend to be impatient. This impatience can take the guise of paralyzing discouragement or even desperation in the face of one’s imperfections. Keenly aware of their shortcomings, these personalities often equate holiness with impeccability – they can start straining out gnats while they still need to stop swallowing camels.
An interior flash of self-centered anger or impatience, for example, is rightly recognized as a fault – it flows from the selfish tendencies in the soul, tendencies which are un-Christlike and need to be purified. But God is less interested in the selfish flash itself than in how we react to such things. As soon as we recognize it, we should reign it in, like a dog that wants to run out of its leash. Exerting our faith and willpower to keep that selfish flesh from turning into self-righteous judgments, wounding words, or spiteful actions – that’s what should concern us. If we think we have already sinned just because the flash flashed, we are being scrupulous. Our sinful tendencies are not sins; they can be the source of sins, if we let them. But if, with God’s grace, we fight against them, the powers of our soul will gradually be trained to react less violently and less selfishly. In that way, we grow in virtue.
Turmoil and Temptation
The second form of scrupulosity comes from the devil in the form of a temptation. In this spiritual attack, the person who is sincerely seeking holiness and has made progress towards it is suddenly confronted with doubts about what God’s will really is for them. If sin can be understood as rebellious disobedience to God’s will, holiness is its contrary: loving obedience to God’s will. But what if you start seeing God’s will everywhere? What if you start thinking that choosing which outfit to wear has as much moral and spiritual weight as obeying the commandment against murder? Well, you think to yourself, what I wear does matter to God – he wants me to reflect his dignity, but he also wants me to avoid ostentation and provocation. So what is his will for me? Which outfit should I wear?… These kind of doubts can also come in even more subtle forms. We experience a flash of interior anger; we govern it as Christ would have us; all is well. But then, we start wondering why the flash happened in the first place. Did I encourage it without realizing it? Did I allow a selfish thought to take root in my mind, and the thought bore the fruit of that flash? Am I doing something to displease God that I don’t even realize?… And we find ourselves in a labyrinth of doubts and “what ifs” and “maybes” that really torture the soul and won’t leave it in peace. It is a trial, and it can be severe, that many saints have undergone.
Sometimes this second kind of scrupulosity can also derive from psychological conditions that are clinically treatable, chemical imbalances or wounds from trauma. It is not always easy to tell the difference. Usually it takes looking at other factors and behavior patterns in a person’s life, not just the scrupulosity itself.
Those are the common manifestations of scrupulosity, or over-sensitivity to faults. More could be said about each one, but that’s enough to lay the groundwork for the next post, which will examine some tactics for dealing with scrupulosity in practice.
Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC
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