Simcha Fisher, author of The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning writes for several publications and blogs daily at Aleteia. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and ten children. Without supernatural aid, she would hardly be a human being.
The other day, I wrote about how this Friday is within the Octave of Easter, which makes it a solemnity, or at least a day to be treated as a solemnity. This means that we can eat meat -- and, unlike any other Friday, we don't have to substitute another penance or sacrifice. It's a feast day, and we don't fast when the Bridegroom is with us.
For most people, this news means one thing: "Yay, meat!" But for others, it's a trapdoor into a pit of scrupulosity. The rules are not 100% crystal clear, and even if we do get clarity, we may still not be at peace: what if we're not necessarily required to abstain from meat, but not abstaining feels like we're letting ourselves off easy? Might that be a sin? What if we didn't research enough, and there might be some other reputable source that disagree about what kind of Friday it is? Is it sinful to stop researching? What if we accidentally swallowed a bit of chicken that was stuck in our teeth before we found out that it was okay to eat meat? And so on.
Scrupulosity might look foolish or even funny to outsiders, but for people gripped in its claws, it's hellish. I mean that literally: it feels like we are locked away from God and His love. Scrupulosity is a coil of fear, doubt, guilt, and despair.
For some people, it's a temporary if painful phase, common when we first begin to take their faith seriously, or when we are feeling anxious or doubtful about life in general. It's possible to work our way out of this transient kind of scrupulosity by receiving the sacraments regularly, and by putting ourselves under obedience to a good confessor, especially one who is trained in scrupulosity. Put yourself entirely under his care and let him make the calls about what to confess, how often to go to confession, and so on. Obedience is absolutely vital.
Many people find relief through reciting the Divine Mercy chaplet, or through other Divine Mercy devotions. Mercy is, after all, at the heart of peace. There is no way that we can earn grace or forgiveness or salvation, so sometimes we need a firm reminder that it's only through God's mercy that we exist at all. Any time we approach God, it is empty-handed. There is great freedom in realizing this.
Other recommended resources:
Ten Commandments for the Scrupulous outlines the best practices for recalibrating our habits away from scrupulosity and toward spiritual health.
Scrupulous Anonymous is a newsletter published by Liguori Press by the Redeptorists, who see it as part of their mission to minister to those suffering from religious scruples.
Other reading that many people find helpful:
Light and Peace by Carlo Giuseppe Quadrupani (Free ebook here) (If the link isn't working, cut and paste: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/38355)
33 Days to Merciful Love by Fr. Michael Gaitley
The works of the Catholic psychiatrist Conrad Baars
Spirituality and the Gentle Life by Adrian L.Van Kaam
Understanding Scrupulosity: Questions, Helps, and Encouragement by Thomas M. Santa
If these things, along with prayer, do not bring peace, then it's very likely that spiritual scrupulosity is actually a symptom of larger problem: an anxiety disorder or obsessive compulsive disorder, and it won't clear up on its own. In fact, insisting on pursuing only spiritual remedies can make our distress worse, because it feeds into the idea that we're simply not trusting or praying hard enough. The Church absolutely wants us to seek secular help with our emotional problems, even if they have some spiritual component.
A trained therapist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy, perhaps combined with anti-anxiety medication, can help restore your peace and help you learn better mental habits. A Catholic therapist would be ideal, but a good secular therapist should be able to help, too, as long as he's open to the idea that your spiritual life is important to you.
Scrupulosity can be so immensely painful, it may actually drive people from the Church as they seek relief -- which is precisely why the devil loves scruples. Scrupulosity drives us away from God and his love.
I'll end with a passage from a letter from St. Maximilan Kolbe, which can be found in Forget Not Love: The Passion of Maximilian Kolbe:
Whenever you feel guilty, even if it is because you have consciously committed a sin, a serious sin, something you have kept doing many, many times, never let the devil deceive you by allowing him to discourage you. Whenever you feel guilty, offer all your guilt to the Immaculate, without analyzing it or examining it, as something that belongs to her…
My beloved, may every fall, even if it is serious and habitual sin, always become for us a small step toward a higher degree of perfection.
In fact, the only reason why the Immaculate permits us to fall is to cure us from our self-conceit, from our pride, to make us humble and thus make us docile to the divine graces.
The devil, instead, tries to inject in us discouragement and internal depression in those circumstances, which is, in fact, nothing else than our pride surfacing again.
If we knew the depth of our poverty, we would not be at all surprised by our falls, but rather astonished, and we would thank God, after sinning, for not allowing us to fall even deeper and still more frequently.