One day my college psychology professor passed out a questionnaire with ten questions on it to evaluate for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). If you answered yes to three or more of these questions, you lean towards OCD. I answered yes to six.
This tendency to OCD played out in strange ways in everyday life. For example, it was my chore to clean the living room in our house of five college-age women. I dusted and vacuumed each week and rearranged our hand-me-down furniture. Every day I restored throw pillows to their proper place. Under the stress of a heavy load at school, I stared at those pillows and felt like I was going to lose my mind.
When Spirituality is Overwhelming
But my personality impacted more than just my home décor. The burden of spirituality overwhelmed me. “I cussed seven times,” I told my confessor during my weekly confession. At one point, the need felt so great, I confessed twice a week. I counted my sins. I repeated my penances unsure if I did them correctly. Examinations of conscience were torturous to me. I could number every sin. All this took place in the absence of mortal sin.
I envied the world and the freedom it seemed to contain. While hiking up to the top of Yosemite Falls, I told my friend, if swearing were not labeled a sin, I would have done it. There were other sins I would have committed if I were relieved of the rightness of following God.
Yet, I knew the Lord. I met him in the chapels of daily mass and adoration. He was my friend. When I heard of this life in God giving others joy, I knew something was not right in my relationship with him.
There was little that was joyful for me in the Lord. It was rules and punishment and rigidly doing what I must in order to have a right relationship with God: frequent holy hours, daily rosary, the Liturgy of the Hours four times a day, weekly confession, retreats, and spiritual reading. The moments gave me joy, but a pattern of obliging myself to every practice restrained that joy.
The Weight of Scruples
I learned the name of this spiritual pain is called “scruples.” Basically put, it is “a feeling of doubt or hesitation with regard to the morality or propriety of a course of action.” I not only doubted, I condemned myself, doubling the weight of my offenses and learning to hate myself in the course of it.
After the pillow incident, I sat in the office of one of the campus priests and asked how one who is prone to scruples can make an examination of conscience. He told me to ask myself, “how have I turned from the Lord?” and to confess the sins that stand as an answer to that question.
“How have I turned from the Lord?” strikes at the heart of the issue.
When I am unsettled or anxious I ask myself what is the heart of the feeling. Of what am I afraid? Often my wild emotions are grounded in something real but settle on such superficialities as throw pillows and how the dish drainer is loaded. When irrational fears overwhelm me, I ask, “what is the worst that could happen?”
In the Middle Stands Virtue
Aristotle teaches, and Thomas Aquinas echoes, in “medio stat viritus” which means “in the middle stands virtue.” We struggle in the extremes. Learning to center my heart and look for the Lord trains me in the daily tasks of identifying where my heart is on the anxiety scale. When fear is a legitimate response to a situation, such as the health of my medically complex son, “how have I turned from the Lord?” becomes both anchor and lighthouse as I manage through the storm of emotion.
In psychology, it could be called cognitive restructuring or staying with and mindfully exploring the emotion. Because we are whole persons with various domains interconnected, the psychological will influence the spiritual and vice versa. I have not gone without therapeutic help for these issues, and if a person experiences symptoms of anxiety or OCD without relief, more focused intervention may be called for. In my journey, the tools for psychology assisted spirituality and vice versa. I took greater steps towards freedom, towards joy, towards a life of trust in the Lord.
For some, Aristotle’s method of aiming for the opposite extreme of your current state is advisable. For others, working on how we think about things might be more beneficial. Whatever changes you decide to make this year, take a look and what is happening now, then decide from there where you want to go.