The day that I am writing this article was a huge day for our family — the day that our oldest child received the Sacrament of Reconciliation for the first time. It wasn’t planned that way. She was supposed to have her official First Reconciliation Service in a few days, but as she and I left the house to go and decorate our church for Advent (I’m a member of our parish’s sacristy team, and she’s the littlest sacristan and my biggest helper) I mentioned to her that I was going to go to Confession after we finished decorating. “Just think!” she said. “Next year, when we go to decorate our church for Advent…I can go to Confession, too!”
I hesitated a moment, before suggesting, “You know, if you wanted to, you could have your First Confession today, instead?” She was already extremely well-prepared (a side effect of having two parents who are theologians and an excellent catechist in the parish program) and half of her class had already had their First Confession service. Thankfully, when I talked to our pastor and expressed her desire, he obliged.
And so, just like that, she received the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
I remember the day that this child was baptized. I was completely unprepared, that day, for the incredible joy I would experience at the moment of her Baptism. Today, as she emerged from the confessional into my open arms, she radiated joy and I felt joy so intense that I nearly cried. That solitary moment was a foretaste of heaven, and the joy of the saints and their embrace. As we left the church and walked to our car, she was practically floating. “I am so happy!” she said.
This February, it will be twenty-three years since I received my First Reconciliation. I remember the lightness and joy that I felt that day, and the joy on my mother’s face, too. Since then, my Confession experiences have run the gamut. I have been blessed with some remarkable Confessors over the years, men who were truly Christ to me. I’ve experienced very “dry” Confessions, devoid of emotion, but full of grace regardless. I’ve also had Confessions where I left in tears — either because I felt the priest wasn’t as gentle and kind as I hoped for, or because of a bout of scrupulosity (which I’ve suffered from since early childhood). In each of these Sacramental encounters, though, I’ve experienced grace.
The grace of that repeat encounter with Christ has strengthened me in ways that I couldn’t previously have imagined. Yet, in particular because of the pain of my scrupulousity, Confession hasn’t always been something that I’ve desired and looked forward to. In fact, for much of my life, I approached the Sacrament with unhealthy fear. I came to Confession, not expecting to meet a loving Savior, but an exacting judge. Indeed, God is just, but his justice is a merciful one. Divine justice cannot be separated from Divine Love. And what is Divine Love? It is the kind of love by which an Almighty, All-Powerful God is born in a manger as a newborn, and thirty-three years later dies a gruesome death…so we wouldn’t have to.
Because my scrupulosity began when I was such a young child, it took me years to understand that my way of thinking of sin and grace was not a healthy one. As a college student, I found comfort in resources like Scrupulous Anonymous, which helped me understand that I was not alone in my struggles. Scrupulosity is far more common that people realize. A number of saints are thought to have suffered from scrupulosity – well-known saints such as St. Alphonsus Ligouri and St. Therese of Lisieux.
Scrupulosity can come in one of two forms. It can be manifest just as someone with an overly sensitive conscience (the websites I looked up all defined it as a “tender conscience”) or (in its more serious form) it can actually be a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), a condition that has far less to do with tidiness and organization (a propensity that is actually more often tied to obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, an entirely different condition) and more to do with a neurological state in which the brain plays upsetting thoughts on a loop. In the case of scrupulosity deriving from OCD, treatment is most effective when the sufferer simultaneously works with a regular confessor (i.e. a priest that he or she goes to on a regular basis, and who can hold the individual accountable for not confessing scruples instead of actual sin) and a certified therapist (especially one who has experience with obsessive-compulsive disorder). In the case of an overly sensitive conscience without a diagnosis of OCD, a priest who has some experience with scrupulosity is often sufficient in helping the scrupulous person.
Regardless of which form it takes, scrupulosity is a painful state of doubt. The scrupulous person worries that even the most ordinary actions are sins, and that even the smallest sins are in fact very serious sins. As I’ve said, I’ve had some remarkable priests as Confessors, and my scrupulosity is mostly under control these days. Yet, in a strange way, I am grateful for having experienced the pain of severe scrupulosity, as it has made me a more sensitive and merciful catechist and parent. These days, I joke that parenting my small children makes me feel like I could go to Confession every day and never run out of things to say, but there was a time in my life when I truly believed that I needed to go to Confession every day. There were times, as a young adult in college, that I would lay in bed in the morning, wracking my brain to make sure that there wasn’t a serious sin that I had committed and needed to take to Confession that day. There were times as a child that I begged my poor parents to take me to Confession week after week, and times as an adolescent when I would spend the weeks in between Confession in tears and anxiety, convinced that I was guilty of serious sin. (Spoiler: I wasn’t.) My parents would try to reassure me, but with little success.
I first began to find comfort when reading the autobiography of St. Therese, The Story of a Soul. As a child, St. Therese suffered from terrible scrupulosity. I remember reading her descriptions of this suffering and feeling relieved. I wasn’t alone, and I, like her, could find relief one day.
Fast forward to present day, seeing my sweet (not scrupulous) child emerging from the confessional with joy. This child is being raised by a mother who now (finally!) believes in the love of God, and who reminds her daughters of that love and mercy constantly. Maybe, one day, one of my children will suffer from scrupulosity, but I hope that these early encounters with God’s love in the sacraments will give them hope, too.
And now I come to you, dear reader. Maybe you suffer from scrupulosity. Maybe you don’t, but it has been an incredibly long time since you went to Confession. Either way, maybe going to this sacrament fills you with unbearable fear and anxiety. And so I stand here — as one who has known the agony of that fear but who has also known the utter joy of that encounter — and I encourage you to go to Jesus in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I encourage you to bring Him your burdens and guilt, knowing of his tender love for you. Hopefully, like me, you will be met with a priest who exemplifies Christ to you — a man who is gentle and welcoming and joyful at your return to the sacrament. But even if you don’t encounter a priest like this, know that that is how Jesus is. Know that when you go to Confession, Jesus waits there, eager and ready to meet you, forgive you, and give you the grace you need to keep going.
And know, too, that there is a reality that our earthly eyes cannot see. For each time you return to this sacrament, the saints greet you afterwards with joy and open arms — a joy and openness more perfect than even a mother who embraces her seven-year-old on her First Confession day.