Scrupulosity – Religious OCD

St Alphonsus Ligouri

St Alphonsus Ligouri (Photo credit: Lawrence OP)

You may also wish to read my latest blog post on scrupulosity, which goes into more detail – Scrupulosity: Doubt, Obsession and Compulsion.

Mental illness often manifests in ways which destroy things we previously enjoyed. Talking with friends becomes difficult in depression, enjoying a night out almost impossible. Our spiritual life suffers as well, as we find it harder to pray, to read, to contemplate. For some people, their mental illness plays into their faith in a destructive way.

I recently saw a reference to a religious manifestation of OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) and decided to read more about it. I myself do not have OCD, so I am relying on the words of others in trying to communicate more about this to you. If I get anything wrong, you are most welcome to correct my lack of knowledge.

What I found is that scrupulosity (a scruple is “a doubt, uncertainty or hesitation in regard to right and wrong, duty, propriety, etc.; esp. one which is regarded as over-refined or over-nice, or which causes a person to hesitate where others would be bolder to act,” according to the OED) is defined by Wikipedia as “obsessive concern with one’s own sins and compulsive performance of religious devotion” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scrupulosity)

Much of the material I was able to find was from Catholic sources – where the Church seems to have had an understanding of this form of OCD as a problem for some time. Indeed several notable saints such as St. Alphonsus Ligouri, St Ignatius Loyola and St Therese of Lisieux suffered from it, as either a life-long or temporary condition. The Protestant reformer Martin Luther is also said to have “also suffered from obsessive doubts; in his mind, his omitting the word “enim”(“for”) during the Eucharist was as horrible as laziness, divorce, or murdering one’s parent” (Wiki, again)

Scrupulosity seems, at its heart, to have an unhealthy preoccupation with sin. While it is true that we are all sinners, and we all sin, people with this condition constantly fear that they have committed a sin. If they pray, they may feel that they have worded the prayer wrong, said something they shouldn’t, in some way failed to measure up to the mark and are therefore rejected by God and in need of repentance. They may obsess, for example, on not standing on “crosses” formed naturally on the ground, feeling that this is a sin, and if they do happen to stand on one, go through agonies of conscience for the sin they have supposedly committed. Other people are troubled with thoughts, for example when going to church, taking communion or praying they may have involuntarily blasphemous or filthy thoughts, which they cannot control and which they feel makes them extraordinarily sinful.

People can end up in a cycle of committing a supposed sin, repenting, not feeling that this repentance “worked” because of some wrong they did, and then constantly repenting and repenting the same sin or sins over and over and never finding release. They may know intolerable anxiety and develop rituals aimed at pleasing or placating God – such as obsessive praying, using formulas in prayer, praying the rosary, attending church, taking communion, and obsessive Bible reading. The trouble is that those around them may not notice something is wrong because it appears so healthy – how can reading the Bible and spending time at church and in prayer be wrong? It is not the action itself but the excess which is a problem. If someone spends a lot of time at church because they love God and love spending time there that is one thing, but if someone spends all their time there because they think that they are awful and must do everything in their power to stop themselves going to Hell, if they never receive a sense of peace from their faith but are always worried that they have angered God, that is a problem. If they feel that if they omit their prayers, or if they say the wrong thing, that something terrible will happen to them, their family, or their eternal destiny then there is a problem there.

Rev. Thomas M Santa, writing for Ligouri Publications has written 10 Commandments for the Scrupulous, which seems excellent to me. I will not repeat everything he said – you will have to go to the linked webpage for that – but his commandments, shorn of the accompanying explanation are:

  1. Understand that scrupulosity can be a temporary condition or a persistent and seemingly unyielding condition, which is most often a manifestation of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD); in either case it is not a punishment from God.
  2. Acknowledge your need for help and guidance and accept that you cannot effectively pursue a path of healing and wholeness by yourself.
  3. Accept and understand that the presence of fear and anxiety is the condition of scrupulosity and not the indication or warning of the presence of sin.
  4. Always remember and never forget that discipline is essential if you wish to become healed. Choose one helper and resist the urge to seek many different helpers and a variety of different opinions.
  5. Learn to be very patient with yourself, your confessor and spiritual director, your therapist, and with family and friends.
  6. Discover and recognize your success and learn to celebrate your effort.
  7. When you fail, or feel that you have taken two steps backwards, pick yourself up and try again. Do not give in to feelings of failure.
  8. Never underestimate the power of grace.
  9. Pray, pray, pray. Try and live a life of thankful praise.
  10. Imagine yourself living free from scrupulosity.

For the excellent explanation for these, please look at http://mission.liguori.org/newsletters/scrupulosity2.htm

The most important thing is that scrupulosity is recognised as a mental illness – it is not that you are especially sinful and more in need of repentance than others. It is possible to get help for it through a therapist or other mental health professional, who should (I hope) work with your church to help you. The DSM V (the “bible” of the mental health profession in the US) in its’ definition of OCD mentions those whose prayers are compulsive. It is evidently recognised, although I was unaware of this until recently.

I can only imagine how awful it must be to have your faith warped by your mental illness. I have experienced fleeting times of thinking I am evil, more sinful than others and rejected by God. I have not experienced this as an ongoing, long-term thing and I can only imagine how awful it must be. To be caught up in fear of God like this is not what I believe God wants. To me God is merciful and loving and he does not like to see his children frightened, anxious or hurting. He brings freedom – not ritual. Seeking someone who really knows about this condition should, I think, be a priority for anyone suffering from it, because to find a way back to a healthy faith and a healthy life must be hard. But there is hope, and people do recover, and it is my prayer that those who suffer may be healed from this.

For further information I have some links for you:

 

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