Understanding and overcoming scrupulosity – Part II
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: The word “scrupulous” comes from a Latin word meaning “pebble.” Like a scale that registers the weight of even the tiniest pebble, the scrupulous conscience is thrown into doubts about its love for God and fidelity to God’s will by tiny faults or questions that, objectively, should not disturb its peace. Scrupulous people feel intense anxiety after confession: “Did I confess everything? Did I confess sincerely? Did I explain everything sufficiently?” They also often feel debilitating anxiety about whether or not they are truly in the state of grace, and whether they should receive communion (when we sincerely doubt whether we are in the state of grace, we should make as sincere an act of contrition as we can, and then receive holy Communion). As we explained in the last post, this condition of over-sensitivity can cause great interior suffering.
Whether scruples arise from a combination of personality and circumstance, or whether they are more developed and a true trial allowed by God and sent by the devil, the direct remedy is the same. It consists of practicing the virtue of obedience. This is simpler for those in the religious life than in the lay life. Nevertheless, the principle is the same. Scrupulosity is like a temporary darkening of the conscience; one’s interior compass has gone haywire and you can’t tell what direction you are going in. The only way out is to let oneself be guided by an objective party, a confessor or a spiritual director who knows how to listen, is experienced in the spiritual life and in guiding others, and whom you can trust solidly. If you don’t have a regular confessor or spiritual director, but you find yourself suffering from scruples, that should be a good motivation to ask God to help you find one, then go looking.
The Task of Obedience
When you explain the situation to your director, explain fully why you think you suffering from scruples. The director will listen to the description of your situation, ask some questions, and restate what you have said in such a way that they show they have understood clearly. They may either confirm your suspicion that this is indeed a case of scruples, or they may offer another explanation – a misunderstanding about the difference between venial and mortal sin, a misunderstanding about the nature of a particular sin, another psychological factor… In either case, the key step for you is to obey. Trust that God will use your director to guide you, as he has used directors to guide all the saints. Your director will probably give you some very specific and firm points of work and instruct you to report on them. For instance, as regards the sacrament of reconciliation, he may instruct you to confess specifically only your mortal sins, and to confess all your venial sins together, as a group. He may instruct you to absolutely discard any doubts about whether you have sinned, practically ordering you to admit as sin only those actions where you have absolute, mathematical certitude. He may instruct you, even without giving reasons (scruples can blind our capacity to reason clearly), never to confess again past sins that you have already confessed. He may even tell you that if you do not trust him enough to obey, he will help you find another spiritual director whom you can trust. These kinds of instructions may be hard for you to fulfill, but fulfill them you must, if you want to make your way though the dark valley of scrupulosity and emerge back into the interior peace of a healthy, balanced conscience.
The very nature of the cure, firm and faith-guided obedience to a trustworthy confessor or spiritual director, shows why God at times permits his children (us) to suffer this painful trial: it is an excellent workout for the virtue of humility, and it is a sure way to purify us from hidden attachments.
In our day and age, a lax and lazy conscience is more often met than a scrupulous one. In either case, however, the first sign that we are deviating from the true path of moral and spiritual growth is usually inner turbulence. Our God is a God of peace, and his peace goes deep. When we lose it, that may be because we are trying to paddle through the shallow muskeg of an apparent shortcut.
Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC
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