I’d wandered into a lonely chapel to pray, happy to find a tabernacle and some peaceful quiet. Some moments into my time before the King, a dryness in my nose was bothering me and so I distractedly picked it.
I can’t remember if the wave of guilt came right away, or if it was some days later that it occurred to me that I had disrespected the Lord of Lords by my indelicacy and was surely in grave sin.
Such worries were a trend of that time of my life. The more humiliating something was, the more I was convinced I had to accuse myself of it in confession. Everything from bodily functions I could have or should have controlled to unclean thoughts — did I consent? did I not? — even if it involved an animal, or horror of horrors, the priest himself — had to be dragged out in confession or I felt I was receiving the Eucharist unworthily.
I explained all this to my therapist — who talked to me gently about how crazy our brains could be, and how he could have a thought cross his mind about something wild and deranged (like killing his son perhaps) but that that didn’t mean he was really thinking it. But I told him that I wasn’t having bad thoughts, exactly, but that I felt that they were always outside my mind’s door, an ever-present threat, and if I didn’t keep myself focused on making sure the door stayed slammed shut, they just might come in.
I found myself memorizing quotes from St. Therese about weakness and the mercy of God — and counting. Counting as I sprinted through pain in my joints because I had to keep running to keep the thoughts at bay. Or pedaled faster and more frantically on the stationary bike. Finding refuge in the numbers that would make sure those other humiliating thoughts would stay outside the door. And wouldn’t find me the next morning before Mass in the confessional, burning with embarrassment (mercifully behind the screen), accusing myself of a new humiliating horror.
I Take Responsibility For You
It was in the midst of this ever-present knottedness that kept me even from finding peace in sleep — was I guilty of that half-dream because I hadn’t gotten up to the go to the bathroom when I thought I had the urge? the covers were so warm and I gave into the flesh? — that I heard or read about some saintly spiritual director who, feeling such sorrow (and probably desperation) at the sufferings of his scrupulous charge, assured the soul: Whatever sin you commit or fear you have committed, I take responsibility for. You shall give me total obedience regarding your soul, and I will tell Our Lord that as your spiritual director, I will take the blame for any faults that you commit.
I don’t know who this saint was or if it’s even a true story. I also don’t know if it’s pastorally legit, or something that the moral theologians would say is possible.
But I know that when I heard the account, it sounded to me like a fresh spring in the desert — something that could finally relieve me of my agony and help me to go back to a life of peace, or at least, please God, get a night of sleep.
When I next had a chance, I penned a note to my spiritual advisor. I explained to her the account I’d heard and — more than asking — informed her that, please, I had to have the same concession. Please. That I was desperate for her willingness to take charge of my soul in the same way as this saint had taken charge of his wretched ward, and facilitate a return of calm to my overwrought mind.
Oddly, I don’t recall her response to my note. I don’t know if we talked about it during our next session, or if she simply left a check mark beside my paragraphs, which I took for consent.
The Mystery of Salvation
What I do know is that at some point later on, it dawned on me that what I had asked her is, in fact, the mystery of salvation. It is the drama of all that happened on Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
St Paul writes about it: There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, he says, explaining how God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us.
Jesus did exactly what I asked my spiritual advisor to do. You take the responsibility for whatever sin I believe I am committing, I begged her, You stand before God with my guilt on your shoulders.
I needed her help because my mental illness had put me in a state where I saw everything as sinful, or at least all the most humiliating things. My scruples had me deluded.
But reality is that all of us in fact are sinful, plagued by a situation that “the law, weakened by the flesh, could not” remedy. There is no way for us to fulfill God’s justice. That the “just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us,” we needed a Savior, a man-God with infinite possibilities for expiating sin. We need someone to stand before God, wearing our sin on himself, that we might be freed from the torment.
Mental illness gives a person a skewed sense of reality and those months that I was plagued by incessant scruples were among the most difficult of my life. But I’m glad that from that agony that brought me so far from reality, I was able to learn something about the truest and deepest reality of all. Jesus has taken responsibility for my sin and saved me. We have a Savior from our sin.
… if any one does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world …