This is not the column I planned to write. I had a string of ideas set down, about a different topic. When I began writing, however, God surprised me.
First I sat down and typed this, the intended beginning of the other column:
“Both Scripture and the saints tell us that we should not fear the devil: for even to fear him is to give him an illegitimate power over us.”
But then, I wrote this:
“In fact, we should not have a slavish or cowardly fear of anything at all; even our ‘fear of God’ is simply a kind of loving awe and reverence before His supreme goodness.”
Too much of the time, unfortunately, this is not how I live. Let me explain.
I live with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which means living with fear – a recurring fear that small, everyday mistakes will have terrible consequences:
“I don’t know whether I wiped my feet enough times, when I came out of the snow into the store. Someone could slip on the wet floor, fracture their skull, and be paralyzed.”
“Maybe I didn’t shut the lobby door hard enough when I left the apartment. What if someone gains access to the building and commits a crime?”
“Was that just a bump in the road? What if I actually killed a pedestrian, and didn’t even know it?”
Those are obsessions. Compulsions are the various things we do, either to try and fix these supposed mistakes (grab paper towels from the bathroom and start blottting the floor; drive home and repeatedly re-close the door; drive around in circles “making sure” there is no dead jogger), or to guard against them.
While I have been spared some manifestations of OCD, I have not been spared the affliction of religious scrupulosity. This involves an obsessive fear of offending God, incurring the guilt of mortal sin, and suffering eternal punishment.
Of course, we should be averse to all sin, especially grave sin. But scrupulosity is very different from a healthy aversion to sin. Scrupulosity turns the Christian life into torture, and fosters a warped view of God.
For many people, including myself, scrupulosity is a form of OCD. Thus, it causes obsessive thoughts, and prompts various compulsions: incessant apologizing, repeated and meticulous questions, “checking” rituals, and – for some people – over-frequent, obsessive use of sacramental Confession.
I have lived with OCD from a young age, perhaps 5 or 6. I assumed – wrongly – that it would get better “on its own.” In fact, it got worse during my 20s.
Even during my years as an atheist (roughly ages 9 to 21), I sometimes experienced a kind of “secular scrupulosity,” sometimes called Moral OCD. As a Catholic, I have not always lived with scrupulosity; but the problem has persisted since it first began some years ago.
One of the odd things about OCD and scrupulosity – and similar problems like depression – is how long it can take a person to become motivated to make changes. We become “comfortably uncomfortable”: accustomed to suffering, and able to disguise our problems well enough in most situations.
As far as I can tell, there are two basic reasons why a person will stop living with habitual mental suffering, and do something about it. Either it stands in the way of something desirable, which provides an incentive to change; or it simply becomes unmanageable, and some change then becomes imperative.
For me, the second kind of incentive never kicked in. My OCD and scrupulosity never became unmanageable. I could grit my teeth and “limp along,” narrowly avoiding the sort of crisis that would have forced a change.
However, the incentive to seek treatment finally did come, in three distinct stages.
The first incentive to change was simple: I finally decided to begin the process of becoming a monk. During my first visit to Holy Resurrection Monastery, I saw that “limping along” – managing and hiding an untreated problem like OCD – would be more difficult, or even impossible, in that setting.
The second incentive was more subtle. I began reading authors who stressed the value of living consciously in God’s presence, and committing oneself to his providential care at all times. But when I tried to apply these teachings to my life, I ran into a roadblock due to my OCD and scrupulosity.
Because of these problems, I had grown accustomed to keeping God “at a distance” much of the time, and regarding him (in practice, though not intentionally or in theory) with an attitude that was not particularly trustful or loving. These deeply ingrained mental habits made it hard to apply the wisdom of the saints.
Nor could I simply change my state of mind – from scrupulosity and distance, to trustful divine intimacy – by mere willpower. To progress in my practice, I would have to clear away certain mental obstacles. This was the second incentive to change.
There is a third and final incentive, which has prompted me to begin confronting and changing my OCD and scrupulosity. In short, I realized how much these afflictions had subtly corrupted my image of God, and warped my perception of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Again, this distortion occurred in practice, not in theory. Without denying God’s love and mercy, I let it recede into an abstract vagueness. The “other side of the coin” – our capacity to shut ourselves out of the Kingdom, to commit acts that radically estrange us from Christ – loomed much larger.
In this mindset, daily life gradually ceases to be a source of joy and a place of encounter with God. It becomes more like a grueling obstacle course, or a solitary tightrope-walk.
Thankfully, God had provided me with at least one distinct refuge. In the practice of silent, wordless, non-conceptual contemplative prayer, I was still able to relate to the Lord in a healthy way. If I could not do so consistently in the remainder of life, I could at least do it in that setting.
This non-discursive form of prayer would, at least temporarily, clear away the anxieties that distorted my view of God. When I came before the Lord in this supremely simple way, things were clear. His love was no longer abstract. It was Reality Itself.
However, back in the ordinary world of thoughts and words, life was not improving much. A priest I know well asked me: “Why can’t you carry your experience in contemplative prayer, into the rest of your life?” Something was obviously lacking – not in my prayer life, perhaps, but elsewhere.
There was no single, dramatic “moment of decision” for me. As the incentives to work on my OCD and scrupulosity gradually accumulated, my willingness grew as well.
Some outside factors have also helped push me toward treatment.
One of those factors, it turns out, is Pope Francis. While the Pope is not saying anything fundamentally new, his focus on the essence of the Gospel has helped me return to the basics of what I believe – about the God who is “on our side” and loves us more than words can say.
As a result, I feel motivated to rid myself of whatever obscures this truth – as scrupulosity and OCD (as well as depression) certainly have.
Another outside influence is St. Josemaria Escriva. I am not directly connected to Opus Dei (whose spirituality is very different from Eastern monasticism); but I appreciate their founder’s emphasis on “divine filiation” in Christ – having God as one’s own Father, by grace.
Here, again, I find motivation to do what it takes to be free from anxiety and servile fear – attitudes that are incompatible with divine sonship. “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, ‘Abba, Father!’” (Rom. 8:15, NAB).
The most powerful outside influence, however, comes from simply reflecting on the person of Jesus.
Through him, we know the supreme trustworthiness of God. His incarnate life is an image of the trust we, too, ought to have in the Father. Through him, and because of him, we know that the confidence of faith is ultimately incompatible with fear: “Do not fear, only believe.” (Mark 5:36, RSV-CE).
Scrupulosity and OCD once seemed like “erring on the safe side.” But this is false. It is not safe to live in the presence of one’s anxieties, moreso than in God’s presence. It is dangerous to confuse the true “fear of the Lord” – adoration and awe before God’s goodness – with an obsessive dread of forfeiting his favor.
Fear and trust are both habits of mind, learned and developed over time. We cannot instantly switch from fear to trust by a single act of will.
For those who live with fear, it is not just a question of “having enough faith,” or intellectually affirming a correct view of God. It is a matter of continuing conversion, often requiring patience and professional help.
But patience is not passivity. That deeper conversion, from servile fear to the “glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21) rarely happens in some automatic, spontaneous way.
Fearless trust in God will not just appear overnight. We must have the boldness to desire it. That is not the whole journey, but it is a necessary first step.