for the Scrupulous
Rev. Thomas M. Santa, C.SS.R.
This is a perfect time to review the Ten Commandments for the Scrupulous, first proposed by Father Don Miller, C.SS.R., almost thirty years ago. These commandments have frequently appeared in the SA bulletin and previous directors have referred to them. Many of you have also referred to them as being very helpful.
As we review the commandments, I will state the commandment as proposed by Father Don, and then follow it with a short commentary. I would like to give credit to both Father Dan Lowery and Father Pat Kaler for any comments that I might suggest in commentary. For my reflections I have relied on their wisdom and direction as it has been collected over the years in the pages of SA.
The first three commandments refer to the celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation and to the confession of sins. They contain a great deal of practical wisdom for the scrupulous.
1. You shall not repeat a sin in confession when it has been confessed in a previous confession, even when there is a doubt that it was confessed or a doubt that it was confessed in a sufficiently adequate and complete way.
Almost every scrupulous person experiences anxiety and doubt about past sins. Older people have a natural tendency to reflect back on their younger years, and in doing so, often remember something that triggers a doubt. More often than not, such a doubt has to do with impure thoughts, desires, or actions. As a result of the combination of remembering and doubting, it is not unusual that the scrupulous person then experiences great anxiety and is robbed of a sense of peace. This is why this first commandment is so very important: Do not go back over past sins and do not repeat the confession of them! Such an exercise is not at all helpful and must be resisted.
2. You shall not confess doubtful sins in confession, but only sins that are clear and certain.
Of all of the correspondence that I receive, I would say that this issue is the one that occurs most often. "What does a person do if they are not sure that they committed a sin?" For this reason, this is a very important commandment to remember because it clearly states the truth: Doubtful sins don't count! There is no need to confess something that does not clearly and certainly exist. In fact, it is harmful to one's self to confess that which is doubtful. Again, such a practice is not at all helpful and must be resisted.
Now I can almost hear some of you saying, "I am not sure if I doubt that I sinned or if I am just trying to fool myself to believe that I am doubting that I sinned." This thought in itself demonstrates that you are in fact doubting and so, therefore, the commandment comes into play: You shall not confess doubtful sins.
3. You shall not repeat your penance after confession or any of the words of your penance because you feel or think that you had distractions or may not have said the words properly.
The temptation to repeat prayers is a constant one for the scrupulous. You may feel that you need to repeat them, again and again, until you "get them right." Unfortunately, such perfectionism is never satisfied, and so you will remain in a constant state of anxiety and fear. This situation becomes all the more distressing because many times the scrupulous person will argue that, because they feel anxious or fearful, that must be a sign that they did not correctly perform their penance. "If I did it right I would be peaceful."
This commandment is, therefore, very important because it is the only solution to the dilemma in which you find yourself. Father Miller is right: Do not repeat your penance.
4. You shall not worry about breaking your fast before receiving communion, unless you actually put food and drink in your mouth and swallow it in the same way that a person does when eating a meal.
Much of the anxiety that is present in reference to breaking your fast before communion centers around extraneous matters. It is helpful to remember that lipstick is not food. Snowflakes are not food. You cannot break you fast unless you deliberately choose to eat in the same way that you would choose to eat a meal or a snack. The commandment clearly suggests that no hesitations are allowed regarding accidental swallowing of things that are not considered food.
5. You shall not hesitate to look at any crucifix or at any statue in church or at home or anywhere else because you may get bad thoughts in your mind and imagination. If such thoughts occur, they carry no sin whatever.
Although this commandment deals with a situation that is not necessarily a problem for all scrupulous persons, it is nevertheless a real burden for some. If you try to avoid the problem by not looking, the problem will tend to become more severe. It is a much better choice to meet the problem head on. Thoughts and imaginations that occur in this situation are simply not sinful. One should try and confront fear, not give in to it.
6. You shall not consider yourself guilty of bad thoughts, desires, or feelings, unless you can honestly swear before the all-truthful God that you remember clearly and certainly consenting to them.
This is a very important commandment. The whole area of impure thoughts and desires causes scrupulous people much anxiety. Unfortunately, scrupulous persons often believe that the very appearance of thoughts or desires in their thoughts or imagination means that they have committed a sin. This is most certainly not the case. In fact, it is humanly impossible for us to have absolute control over our interior faculties. Such thoughts and images are going to happen, whether we like them or not.
Because we simply do not have absolute control over our interior faculties, the emphasis of the commandment is on clear and certain consent. Only a free consent, that is clear and certain, constitutes a sin. You can not accidentally or involuntarily be guilty of sin.
7. You shall not disobey your confessor when he tells you never to make another general confession of past sins already confessed.
It is not unusual for the scrupulous person to desire to make "just one more general confession." The desire to do so is prompted by a wish for inner peace and calm. However, the exact opposite is more often than not a result. The anxiety generated by the process of examination and preparation, the actual confession, and then the review of the confession, produces no inner peace or calm. There always has to be "just one more."
The wisdom of this commandment is found in two simple words: No more! If the scrupulous person will follow the advice of their confessor on this matter, they will have a chance of finding peace. Otherwise, there is only turmoil, anxiety, and stress.
8. You shall believe and act accordingly, so that whenever you are in doubt as to whether or not you are obliged to do or not to do something, you can take it for certain that you are not obligated.
This commandment underlines the basic moral principle that doubtful laws or obligations do not bind the scrupulous conscience. The great saint, and our patron, Saint Alphonsus Liguori teaches: "When there exists in a scrupulous person the habitual will not to offend God, it is certain that he or she acts in doubt and there is no sin...."
I find it very reassuring to read the words of Saint Alphonsus in reference to this matter. It is good to know that the teaching of our very wise patron and model, a saint whom you might recall also suffered greatly from scrupulosity, is so clear and straightforward. "There is no sin," are the words we need to hear and recall as often as necessary.
9. If, before you perform or omit an act, you are doubtful whether or not it is sinful for you, you shall assume as certain that it is not sinful and shall proceed to act without any dread of sin whatever.
This commandment is also supported by Saint Alphonsus. In his advice to confessors he says, "Scrupulous persons tend to fear that everything they do is sinful. The confessor should command them to act without restraint and overcome their anxiety. He should tell them that their first obligation is to conquer their scruples. They should act against their groundless fears. The confessor may command the scrupulous to conquer their anxiety and disregard it by freely doing whatever it tells them not to do. The confessor may assure the penitent the he or she need never confess such a thing."
10. You shall put your total trust in Jesus Christ, knowing that he loves you as only God can love, and that he will never allow you to lose your soul.
We often reflected in the pages of SA that the scrupulous person, for one reason or another, has a negative image of God. A negative image of God does not inspire trust but rather fear and dread. In Jesus Christ we are able to glimpse the true image of God: a God who loves and heals and saves. It is in that God, the God revealed to us by Jesus, that we can and should place all of our trust.
It may very well be helpful to review some scripture passages which may help you change your image of God from a negative to a positive image. May I suggest that you spend some time reviewing the prophet Isaiah, chapter 43, verses 1-4. In this passage you will hear the words of the Lord speaking to you and reminding you "that you are precious in my eyes." You might follow up Isaiah with a reading from Paul's letter to the Romans, chapter 8, verses 26-39. In this reading we are assured that the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. You might finally end your reflection by reading from the first letter of the Apostle John, chapter 4, verses 7-19. In this reading John reminds us that love consists in knowing, "not that we have loved God but that God has loved us."
I hope that this familiar review of the Ten Commandments for the Scrupulous has proven helpful. I might suggest that you keep these commandments close by, especially as a point of reference when you feel anxious or distressed. It is very helpful at such moments to have the calm voice of reason speaking to us.
Prayer for the Scrupulous
I behold the Christ in you.
Words of Wisdom
Acquire the habit of speaking to God as if you were alone with God. Speak with familiarity and confidence as to your dearest and most loving friend. Speak of your life, your plans, your troubles, your joys, your fears. In return, God will speak to you--not that you will hear audible words in your ears, but words that you will clearly understand in your heart. These may be feelings of peace, hope, interior joy, or sorrow for sin...gentle knockings at the door of your heart.
St. Alphonsus Liguori
Dear Lord, be with us and guide us each day. Let us hear your voice as we use our talents to share your word with others. Give us the love and wisdom necessary to strengthen our relationships as we strive to serve you in our daily lives. Amen.
Q. My confessor tells me that God loves me, no matter what I have done in my past life. But this priest does not really know how bad I used to be. I wonder if God really loves me?
A. God loved you first. God loved you before you even knew there was a God. God's love called you into life, gives you life, and will reward you with everlasting life when he calls you home. When God loves, God remains faithful to that love. It doesn't really matter if the priest knows or doesn't know "how bad you used to be." It doesn't change one thing. The unchanging truth is that God loves you. Be at peace. God bless you!
Q. Reading material gives me trouble. I tear out curse words and any article that promotes what I consider to be immoral. Sale catalogues, with their explicit pictures of models, bother me the most. Do I have to destroy such material?
A. I would suggest that you try a calmer approach to this kind of material. You do not have to become anxious about it or become preoccupied with it. If you find any of the material that you receive to be offensive, all you need to do is throw it away. Don't give it more energy and attention than it deserves. God bless!
Q. The most horrible, impure thoughts come to my mind over and over again, especially at communion time. I have horrendous thoughts about Jesus. If I can't get to confession first, I stay in my pew and do not go to communion because of these horrible thoughts. What should I do?
A. Regardless of your thoughts, you should go to communion. I can say this with absolute certainty, because when fear goes out of control, it becomes a disease. That is what scrupulosity is--uncontrolled fear of having done wrong. You know that you suffer from this disease. You also know that your fear allows these thoughts to become an obsession with you. A vicious cycle then sets in and you find yourself depriving yourself of holy Communion--the very gift that the Lord desires for you the most. For a person suffering as you are suffering, the best advice is to try and find the strength to force yourself out of your pew, to walk down the aisle, and to receive communion. This is the strongest statement that you can make to your fear. "I am not guilty and I will not be punished!" May God bless you!
Q. I am subject to severe guilt feelings about my deceased parents. I feel that I did not show them enough patience, especially during the long illness that my mother had to endure. Is there anything I can do about this?
A. This is a very common worry. I would imagine, because it is in reference to your parents, that it is a worry with a special anguish. The best advice I can give you is to encourage you to try and be as patient and as understanding with yourself as possible. Try and resist the urge to judge your motives and your actions harshly. Realize that in retrospect, especially looking back with worry and anxiety, is more often than not exaggerated--it seems that when we look back we are often very judgmental. It might be helpful to place your thoughts and concerns within such a context.
It might also be helpful to realize that your parents, if they were able to talk with you, might also reveal that they were worried that they were not patient enough with you. They might reveal to you that they realized you were placed in a very difficult and stressful situation. I am sure that they also feel that they were not patient enough and did not demonstrate enough understanding and support for you.
What you may very well end up with in such a scenario is that each of you realize that your efforts, although not perfect, were the best that you were capable of at that moment in time. Now that you have the luxury and the distance provided by the passage of time, you may recognize things about yourself and your behavior that you may have wanted to change. This reaction is completely normal. May God give you peace and may God bless you!
Q. Does a person ever "get over" scrupulosity?
A. Every day we receive letters from the members of SA. It is not unusual to receive a letter that asks us to remove a person's name from our list because they no longer suffer from scrupulosity. Each and every time this happens, I say a little prayer of thanksgiving because I have yet another example of the power of God's grace. How a person arrives at the conviction that they are no longer scrupulous is another question.
One of the previous directors of SA, a director that I believe was most revered and respected, was Father Patrick Kaler, C.SS.R. Father Pat answered a question like this in this way: "For some people, being able to manage their lives without excessive worry would be a real victory, considering where they have come from. For others, acquiring a certain sense of peace, even while life storms about them, gives evidence that they have, indeed, received many special graces. And for some, being scrupulous seems to have been only a temporary painful period that they had to go through but one that is now completely over. Once again they are able to enjoy life."
If you do find yourself a member of these happy groups, it is not a sin. Some people are never freed of this affliction--they have had it for years and they will carry it to their graves. We don't know the reason for this, but, I repeat, it is not a sin to be scrupulous and it is not a sin not to be able to "get over" it. All the same, we should try our best to rid ourselves of it. That is all the Lord asks of us. May God bless you.