St. Alphonsus Liguori: Bearing the Cross of Mental Illness

As I’ve shared before, I have suffered from scrupulosity since early childhood. It is managed much better these days, thanks to some wonderful priests, spiritual directors, and therapists that I’ve met along the way. But for many years, the guilt of scrupulosity crushed me. I couldn’t understand why I was constantly feeling guilty, or why I felt the need to go to Confession once a week or more.

In my late teens, I encountered St. Alphonsus Liguori (and St. Therese of Lisieux) and was surprised to find out that even saints had suffered from scrupulosity. It wasn’t a sign of lack of holiness, but rather an opportunity to carry the cross with Christ.

St. Alphonsus Liguori was an eighteenth-century priest and founder of the Redemptorist order. However, especially at the end of his life, he suffered terribly from scrupulosity. Needless to say, the scrupulosity did not prevent him from becoming a saint. In fact, it became a part of the cross he bore, that made him a saint.

During St. Alphonsus’s time, little was known about scrupulosity’s neurological component. We now know that scrupulosity is often a manifestation of OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), in that it manifests in obsessive thoughts about whether a sin has been committed, and the compulsive need to go to Confession or seek reassurance from loved ones. Knowing this now means that scrupulosity can be treated and managed with greater effectiveness. However, it doesn’t negate the weight of the suffering caused by scrupulosity and other mental illness. (To better understand the struggle of scrupulosity and obsessive-compulsive disorder, I highly recommend this article from the archives of Catholic Exchange. OCD isn’t just about neatness and scrupulosity isn’t about trying to be perfect and holy. These stereotypes need to be dispelled if we are to support the healing of loved ones.)

 

I have been thinking about this recently, considering a story that I heard recently about deliverance prayer. To clarify, deliverance prayer (i.e. prayer meant to free an individual from the influence of evil or demonic attack) is a real thing and is sometimes necessary. The incident that I’m recalling, involved someone showing great anxiety during prayer and when the name of Jesus was said. It was assumed in this story, that it was the sign of evil trying to attack this family in a particular way (and that certainly may have been the case).

This story stuck with me for a couple of weeks, though, until I realized that it was affecting me in my own prayer life. It is a common experience of those who suffer from anxiety or OCD to experience heightened symptoms at Mass or in prayer. This is not because of demonic attack. Rather, it is either because of triggers (in the case of OCD – triggers for scrupulosity or perceived danger) or because of being confined in a single place, allowing anxious thoughts to build. I know this is a common phenomenon, but after hearing the story about deliverance prayer, I found myself worrying, “Am I actually anxious because of some sort of demonic influence I am unaware of? Is this anxiety actually a sign that I’m failing in prayer?”

I was reassured to see that St. Alphonsus Liguori’s feast day was coming up. It served as a reality check for me. Presumably, he suffered terribly from anxiety in prayer (as is common for those suffering from scrupulosity). If that is true, then it means that even saints can experience terrible anxiety in prayer. Those feelings are not a sign of failure.

Although I appreciate (and have experienced) the value of peace in prayer, lack of peace in prayer is sometimes not due to anything that a person is doing wrong. Sometimes it is simply a sign that they are suffering from the cross of mental illness.

This is not to say that treatment should not be sought for scrupulosity, OCD, anxiety, depression, or any other mental illness. However, the reality is that there is no perfect cure for any of these conditions. Treatment — therapy, medication, spiritual support — can help to manage and alleviate symptoms, but typically, those who have mental illness have it for life. It can certainly be much easier to live with when treated but seeking treatment doesn’t eliminate it. Our faith does not teach that we must forgo treatment for health conditions, and mental health conditions are no different.

But just like with all health conditions, sometimes treatment isn’t perfect. Sometimes, there is still suffering. Unfortunately, there are religious circles that claim that depression and anxiety are somehow due to lack of prayer or trust from God. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Although God can and does work miracles, many times he chooses not to. Sometimes, he answers our prayers in ways we wouldn’t expect.

I can distinctly remember being a freshman in college and coming to terms with my scrupulosity and anxiety. I remember kneeling before the tabernacle in my dorm chapel, late into the night, and begging Jesus in tears to heal me. I couldn’t understand why he didn’t heal me instantly.

But that prayer was eventually answered.

A couple of years later, I met the man who I ended up marrying. He was and is a man of gentleness and calm, and he supported me in seeking out the resources I needed to manage my scrupulosity and other anxiety issues. As I began to heal, I realized that my scrupulosity and anxiety were not a sign of weakness. They were the cross that I had been given and bearing it with Christ – and my husband – by my side, made it a source of strength. As St. Paul wrote in his second letter to the Corinthians, “Your grace is enough for me, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

I saw that God used my own experience of the cross to strengthen me in my ministry work. The cross in my life made me love deeper and be more open to God at work in my life. Were it not for that cross, I wouldn’t be writing this article. Being open to embracing that suffering showed me that God can turn suffering into a strength, when it is united to his cross. I am not anxious when I pray, or anxious at Mass, because I am failing. When I feel anxiety or depression it is a reminder, “This is the cross. And this world is not your final home, so don’t despair.”

In those moment, being able to offer up that suffering of anxiety or scrupulosity or whatever – that is what brings me peace. What brings me peace is realizing that the presence of the cross doesn’t mean that I’m doing things wrong. It means that I’m doing something right. Christ’s embracing of the cross has turned suffering into an opportunity for tremendous love.

This is the secret that St. Alphonsus Liguori knew. Scrupulosity, mental illness, or any other suffering or weakness is not a sign of failure. It is an invitation to love as Christ loved, through the cross.

image: St Alphonsus Liguori by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

By

Michele Chronister is a wife, and mother to three little girls and one little one in heaven. She received her BA and MA in theology from the University of Notre Dame (’09 and ’11). She is the author of a number of books, including Handbook for Adaptive Catechesis, the co-author of Faith Beginnings – Family Nurturing from Birth Through Preschool, editor of the book Rosaries Aren't Just for Teething, as well as an assortment of Catholic children's books. In addition to writing, she also homeschools her daughters, and is the social media manager for the Office of Natural Family Planning in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. When her oldest was a baby, she realized that their family life had taken on a sort of monastic rhythm – eat, pray, play, sleep. Prompted by this, she started the blog My Domestic Monastery (www.mydomesticmonastery.com), where she shares inspiration for families wanting to grow in holiness.

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