Scrupulosity can be a great burden; I have experienced this first–hand. There was a time when I was terribly scrupulous; my spiritual life was dominated by minute examinations of conscience, endless self–reflection, fear, doubt, anxiety, discouragement, frustration and uneasiness. I did not possess peace, nor could I; for I was too preoccupied with my own desires, my own will.
I may now say, with great gratitude to Almighty God, that I have found many powerful means for overcoming scruples. By God’s grace, I have been extricated from the web of scrupulosity. Of course, this does not mean that I am exempt from doubts and uncertainty etc.
I say these things not to boast, but to encourage others. Scruples can be overcome! How? Please read on. I assure you that these remedies have worked for me.
** Keep in mind that this article will not be exhaustive; it would be impossible to explain every scrupulous doubt and state of mind. Rather, this article will provide several tips for overcoming scruples in general.
THREE NECESSARY WEAPONS
Obey God; obey His Church; and obey your confessor. From disobedience springs chaos, unhappiness and spiritual blindness. One fruit of spiritual blindness, says a holy author, is the inability to distinguish between venial sin and mortal sin.
“It is a secret pride,” says St. Francis de Sales, “that entertains and nourishes scruples, for the scrupulous person adheres to his opinion and inquietude in spite of his director’s advice to the contrary. He always persuades himself in justification of his disobedience that some new and unforeseen circumstance has occurred to which this advice cannot be applicable. But submit without other reasoning than this: I SHOULD OBEY, AND YOU WILL BE DELIVERED FROM THIS LAMENTABLE MALADY.”
Here is some excellent, necessary and consoling advice from St. Alphonsus in relation to obedience:
Humility (i.e. “the sister of obedience” – revelation to St. Catherine of Siena) is necessary for salvation. Humility attracts an abundance of grace. We should ask God frequently for everything we need, including humility, knowing that He will infallibly grant us what is necessary to become holy.
“I possess humility for your pride.” – Our Lord to SG. Sr. Josefa Menendez
“Humility is truth” (St. Teresa, St. Padre Pio and others). The humble soul knows what they are and what God is. Consequently, they are ever at peace; trials are recognised as gifts of love from God’s Providence, which seeks only to purify us on earth so that we might avoid Purgatory and receive a greater reward in Heaven; imperfections are seen as occasions for humbling oneself; and the soul places all its confidence in God, Who desires that we entrust ourselves to Him like little children. To be humble is to obey God lovingly, calling to mind the truth that God’s will is the best possible thing for us; it is rely on Almighty God for everything; it is to believe that the only good we can ever hope to achieve or possess is a gift from God’s bounty.
“It is only by the measure of thy humility that thou canst hope to please God and save thyself, because it is certain that God ‘will save the humble of spirit.’ (Ps. 33:19– page 60) – Fr. Cajetan
“There is no way that conducts more directly, more securely, more swiftly, and more sweetly to God than humility. But it is the humility studied in the Gospel, humility learned in My Life, humility profoundly taught in the Holy Eucharist. If thou seek humility in these three sources, thou wilt ever find it.”
– Our Lord to SG. Sr. Benigna Consolata Ferrero
The term “abandonment” has many meanings in the spiritual life, but here it refers to abandoning one’s will (i.e. making of it a gift) to God, as well as one’s problems. If we are to overcome any vice, imperfection, or struggle, it is certain that we can do so only with God’s help. He loves it when we trust in Him; that way He receives the glory.
Obedience, humility and abandonment: these three things will help us to conquer scrupulosity. What has been said so far is fairly general. The following pieces of advice are more specific.
1. ‘Have confidence in the Lord with all thy heart, and lean not upon thy own prudence’ (Prov. 3:5)
The scrupulous soul is inclined to excessive reflection and introspection. God does not demand this; He does not will it; it is useless! Consequently, it can never give us peace.
What is the fruit of continually examining and analysing fleeting thoughts, imperfections, sins, spiritual advice, and a host of other things? Quite simply it is this: the mind grows weary; the will loses focus of its proper object (God); and the soul lacks the courage and strength to persevere.
What is the remedy? For starters – and this should go without say – we should ask God humbly for the grace to trust in Him.
What else? We must get used to reasoning (and perhaps praying) as follows: ‘Dear Lord, my mind is perplexed; nevertheless, I will not seek to understand my troubles; this will not bring me peace. Instead, I will follow St. Augustine’s advice and believe in you, so that I may understand. Only you can deliver me from my doubts. It is only reasonable, then, that I trust in you entirely. Forgive me for relying on my own strength, which is really nothing but an illusion. I confess, dear God, that all light comes from you – all wisdom, all knowledge and all truth. I resolve, therefore, to rely on you for all the knowledge that I need to overcome the Evil One and his lies. Although he is a fallen angel, his intellect is far superior to mine. Help me to avoid dialogue with him. When I encounter his snares, or any evil whatsoever, inspire me to call on you for help. From you alone do I hope for salvation; from you alone do I hope for the graces necessary to overcome my scruples. Reasoning alone cannot deliver me from my fear; and if it could, this would still be a grace from you. In temptation, in distress, in hardship, let me fly to you, Who are the Source of all goodness. Let me not turn away from you, trusting in my own understanding – I can understand nothing without you. Without your illumination I walk in darkness. You are Light (1 Jn. 1:5); guide me.’
2. Casting all your care upon him, for he hath care of you’ (1 Pt. 5:7)
We cannot care for ourselves. Without God, we can only damn ourselves. Without self–will, says St. Bernard, there would be no Hell! This is a profound truth. Ponder this truth often and you will grow in distrust of self as well as confidence in God. This is necessary for salvation, writes St. Alphonsus; and Our Lord confirmed to SG. Sr. Benigna Consolata that this is the key to sanctity!
No one loves us more than God. Any love that we possess, including the desire that we have for our own salvation, is a gift from God! Surely, then, we should trust in God’s all-powerful love.
Furthermore, no one knows us better than God; He knows our weaknesses, our needs… everything! He is also the only One capable of saving us. All grace comes from Him. Surely we can make the following prayer: ‘Dear God, you created me for Heaven; your only desire is that I be happy and holy. I cannot do this without you. In fact, the more I rely on myself, the more certain I am of failure. “Take me from myself and give me all to you.” Then I will rest secure in the Sacred Heart of Jesus.’
3. ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all iniquity’ (1 Jn. 1:9)
God’s mercy is inexhaustible to those who repent with contrite hearts. A contrite heart is not necessarily one that feels great sorrow. Contrition is in the will; sorrow is merely an effect of contrition.
As soon as the soul desires to turn from sin to God, she is pardoned, provided that love – not fear – is the mainspring. This is perfect contrition. It is not too difficult to attain if only we ask God regularly for this grace. He is more eager to grant it than we can ever be to desire it.
“You ask me how you can make your act of contrition in a short time. I answer that scarcely any time at all is needed to do it thoroughly well, since all that has to be done is to prostrate oneself in a humble spirit before God, and regret having offended Him. To exercise an act of the will is a wonderful power that God has bestowed upon us, and in consequence of that you have contrition by the very fact that you desire to have it. You do not feel it – perhaps not. The fire that is under the ashes is neither seen nor felt, but the fire is there nevertheless.”
– St. Francis de Sales
Look at a crucifix and imagine that Our Lord were right before your eyes. Better yet, go to Mass, where Our Lord truly is right before your eyes (though only visible with the eyes of faith)! This is a powerful means for achieving true sorrow for our sins, which is always accompanied by a firm purpose of amendment. In other words, we must make a strong resolution to avoid all serious sin (at the very least) and the occasions of sin (e.g. movies with sexually explicit content).
‘Why are you tormenting yourself? Do what lies in your power: I will supply whatever is wanting in you. Moreover, in this sacrament [of Confession] I only require a contrite and humble heart, with sincere will never to offend Me again, and sincere confession. In that case I forgive without delay, and thence comes a perfect amendment.’
– Our Lord to St. Margaret Mary
“Take care of your soul and DO NOT CONFESS SCRUPLES OR FIRST MOVEMENTS OR IMAGININGS IN WHICH THE SOUL DOES NOT DESIRE TO BE DETAINED. Look after your health, and do not fail to pray when you can.”
– St. John of the Cross
About 3/4 of following words were in the original post. Some further quotes etc., have been added.
Some Helpful Resources
+ ‘Confession: A Little Book for the Reluctant’by Msgr. Louis Gaston de Segur (deals indirectly with scrupulosity by answering objections, such as: ‘I can’t remember all my sins’, ‘My sins are too grave to be forgiven’, ‘I am just going to fall back into sin, anyway’ etc.)
+ ‘Scruples and Their Treatment’by Fr. William Doyle (available for free online): http://fatherdoyle.files.wordpress.com/2010/06/scruples-and-their-treatment.pdf
You might also like to read some other posts on this site, many of which are aimed at encouraging souls to trust in God. Posts tagged with ‘scruples’ or ‘scrupulosity’ might be particularly helpful.
Side note: For those who fear that they cannot be forgiven, rest assured that you can:https://littlestsouls.wordpress.com/2012/05/15/the-seemingly-unforgivable-sin/
For a simple explanation of certain sins that typically trouble scrupulous individuals (e.g. lust/impurity, blasphemy, gluttony), try here:https://littlestsouls.wordpress.com/2013/08/12/clarity-for-scrupulous-souls-simple-explanations-of-grey-sins/
Keep in mind, dear friend, that Our Lord desires your love more than you desire to love Him. Pray the Holy Rosary well, and Mary, the Mother of Mercy, will obtain for you the grace to acknowledge and remove the source of your scruples. To pray the Rosary well, remember that it is an extremely powerful prayer (search ‘Rosary’), and a great gift, granted to relatively few to know and love; furthermore, we are talking to the most tender of mothers, who is no less attentive to our prayers than she was to St. Bernadette at Lourdes, or the three little shepherds at Fatima. Prayer is a great privilege! Our sins merit terrible punishment, but if- and only if- we exercise the virtue of humility, we will receive not what our sins merit, but what Jesus has merited for us through His Passion, Death and Resurrection. Do not wallow in distrust, which stems from pride and brings only misery, spiritual blindness and a decrease in grace. Trust blindly (if need be) in God’s grace and you will eventually experience the truth of the words of Our Lord to St. Gertrude:
“Contemplate now, My beloved, the hidden secrets of My Heart, and consider attentively with what fidelity I have ordered all that you have ever desired of Me for your benefit and the salvation of your soul; and see if you can accuse Me of unfaithfulness to you, even by a single word.”
The merit for even a single act of faith is immeasurable!
“In the first place it should be known that if anyone is seeking God, the Beloved is seeking that person much more.”
– St. John of the Cross
Various Pieces of Advice
+ (Taken from a website that I cannot recall): “St. Philip Neri suggests that the best remedy for scruples is to treat them with contempt. In his life it is recorded that as well as advising the accepted remedy of total submission in everything to the judgment of one’s confessor, he also advised his penitents to treat scruples with disdain and contempt. His practice with scrupulous persons was to forbid them to confess frequently. And when they did confess to him and mentioned their scruples he ordered them to go to Holy Communion without listening further to their scruples.”
Some maxims to help with scrupulosity:
+ Bad thoughts are only sinful if we consent to them. As St. Francis de Sales says: “Do not be disturbed about bad thoughts; it is one thing to have them and quite another to consent to them.” Our thoughts are not always free. Various thoughts enter our minds throughout the day; some that even enter our minds subconsciously, without us realising it. Furthermore, our brain forms connections (neural pathways) between certain thoughts or experiences; for example, if someone says the word “sponge”, I immediately think “bob.” I cannot control this, and if “bob” was hypothetically a sinful word, this would not be a sin because I do not will/desire the thought, nor would I let it disturb me. Why? Because that would only increase the thoughts and create a vicious cycle. There were saints, such as St. Faustina, St. Padre Pio, and St. Anthony Mary, who experienced severe blasphemous thoughts. Their remedy was abandonment to the will of God, and trust in His mercy. An excessive fear of offending God, particularly when we desire to please Him in all things, offends His tender goodness. Our Lord consoled Sr. Consolata Betrone by reminding her that He would not consider any thoughts that she had dwelled on involuntarily.
+ The Law of Presumptions: “Let us consider the question of impure thoughts. It is morally impossible for a person who is habitually careful about purity to give full consent to impure thoughts without being fairly certain of it. When the will is habitually set against impurity, full consent to impure thoughts implies a somersault of the will, a volte-face, a turning round from North to South Pole. It is impossible for such a complete change to take place in the will without the mind being pretty certain about it. Uncertainty is, therefore, a clear sign that there was no full consent. In this matter we should go by what the theologians call “the law of presumptions.” If a person regularly gives way to sins of impurity, in case of doubt it is probable that there was sin. If a person never or hardly ever gives way to sins of impurity, in case of doubt it is morally impossible that there was serious sin, for the reason just given.” (Fr. Wilson)
+ “Peace to men of good-will” (Lk. 2:14)
Good-will comes from God. This extends to all good-will – even the atheist’s good-will. Without actual grace, we cannot so much as think a good thought (2 Cor. 3:5).
When God gives us the desire to repent or to keep His commandments, it is as if He made a pledge with us; it is as if He said: ‘My child, I love you. Receive this gift of my grace. Trust in Me and I will give you grace in abundance. Be faithful and I will protect you.’
We must not anticipate falls and sins. God knows that we are weak and imperfect; He asks only for our trust and fidelity.
“Do not fear, my child, Jesus asks only for your good will.”
– Our Lady to Sr. Josefa Menendez
“When a precept is susceptible of a twofold interpretation — one strict and the other more gentle — other things being equal, this latter must be preferred. The reason is because the commands of God and the Church have not been framed so as to destroy all spiritual sweetness, which must inevitably disappear under a too narrow and fearsome interpretation. The intention of God and His Church is not to prescribe the impossible, because, according to the law of justice, ‘no one can be bound to that which he cannot perform.” – St. Antoninus (who was far from a liberal theologian!)
To read more about ‘probabilism’, see this link: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12441a.htm
+ Our consent or responsibility for sin is diminished by fear and anxiety: Fear and anxiety in particular have the tendency to cloud judgement, exacerbate unwanted thoughts and weaken the will. Fear multiplies the number and intensity of unwanted thoughts. We should ask God to remove this fear, and keep in mind that what we fear is a phantom; it cannot harm us. We must recognise that even the most hideous thoughts (if not consented to) are morally neutral; they are neither good (deserving of reward) nor bad (deserving of punishment), and should therefore be ignored.
+ “Anxiety is a temptation in itself and also the source from and by which other temptations come.” (St. Francis de Sales). Anxiety that results from distrust, as opposed to the feeling of anxiety, inevitably leads to other sins, because we must trust in God, without Whom we can do nothing. Avoid things that make you anxious, and reflect upon the mercies God has granted you. If He has pardoned us so many times when we were careless and sinful, we can be assured that He is more than willing to assist us when our desire is to love Him. Do not be proud and let past failures discourage us. Pray fervently for humility and trust, and don’t “combat” anxiety. We might think that our weaknesses cause us to fall into sin very easily. This is not so. This mistaken thinking might be the reason we become discouraged so easily.
+ Likewise, discouragement is a temptation in itself and also the source from and by which other temptations come. “Discouragement is the enemy of your perseverance. If you don’t fight against your discouragement, you will become pessimistic first and lukewarm afterwards. Be an optimist.” (St. Josémaria Escriva). “He (the devil) is overcome by unlimited confidence in Jesus; the more frequent the falls, the more should confidence grow in the divine Mercy” (Jesus to Sr. Benigna). If we are so weak, we are most likely “little souls.” The doctrine of St. Therese on “little souls” (found in her biography and in the book, ‘My Sister, Saint Therese’) is most consoling.
+ Do not take an active approach to dispelling unwanted thoughts: It is quite useless, of course, to try and rid ourselves of these thoughts by thinking about them. Rather, the scrupulous person must recognise their habits, and proceed to go about their daily lives, regardless of the intrusiveness of their thoughts, which in time will lose their power. Our Lord has compassion for our weaknesses; we must therefore have full confidence in His grace, the advice of our confessor, and any other remedy that His Providence places before us. The book ‘The Doubting Disease’ (by Joseph Ciarrochi) is a helpful tool for recognising and overcoming obsessions and compulsions of all sorts. The author, however, is not a theologian. The author says that Jesus did not tell us what “the sin that will not be pardoned” is. That is true in some sense, but elsewhere in Scripture we are given to understand the context for this Scripture: God the Father draws us to His Son for pardon, and the Precious Blood of Jesus washes away all our sins “without exception”, as St. Ambrose says. Search ‘The SEEMINGLY unforgivable sin’ and you will be assured that God is willing to pardon every sin, but He cannot pardon those who are so blind and hardened that they neither recognise nor accept God’s mercy (which can always be accepted in this life).
+ Jesus Himself, though sinless, experienced the temptations and suggestions of Satan (Mark 1:13; Matthew 4:8). This should encouraged us, as the grace to conquer such temptations is made available to all by “the Lord thy healer”, the “Counsellor”, “The Prince of Peace” (Exodus 15:26; Isaiah 9:6).
“Keep your hearts well under control, beware of over-anxiety. Place your confidence in the providence of our Lord. Be fully convinced that heaven and earth shall pass away rather than that our Lord shall fail to protect you while you are his obedient daughter, or, at least, desirous to obey Him.”
– St. Francis de Sales
+ St. Mechtilde also recommends (as does St. Francis de Sales) that we should bear patiently with our imperfections; we should not struggle to free ourselves from sin. This will only make matters worse. Instead, we should humble ourselves, have compassion for our lower nature (as God most certainly does) and place all our confidence in God. Here are the exact words from ‘The Love of the Sacred Heart’ based on St. Mechtilde’s recommendation “which ought to be received gratefully by scrupulous souls”: “Man should be careful not to wash his stains with too much eagerness- that is, without considering the divine goodness; for by effacing them too eagerly he might easily injure rather than heal, his soul.”
+ Fr. Giovanni Battista Scaramelli: “[Compulsions] Scruples are not grounded on true reasons…. Consequently, to act in despite of them…is not to act against reason but against a fantastic shadow; hence it cannot be said that such an action is unreasonable, and therefore it cannot possibly be sinful. Nay, more, it is necessary to act in this manner, else we could never get rid of these foolish fears and groundless anxieties…. When a man first goes to sea, he is afraid of the violence of the waves, he fears the rocks and dreads the storms; on his next voyage he is less afraid; and if he continues to go to sea, he loses all fear, as, by acting against his alarms, he has conquered and overcome them…. So, too, the scrupulous man, if he act in contempt of his fears and whimsical notions, rises above them and at length conquers them, and by this means gets rid of the toils wherein his scruples, with their countless nonsensical fancies, had entangled him. But if, withheld by empty fears, he abstain from acting, they will begin to master him, to make him a very slave, and to leave him no longer the least liberty of following the dictates of right reason…
[Obsessions] Other temptations there are which are not dangerous, as they are abhorrent…. Such are temptations to blasphemy, certain abominable thoughts and words against God, the saints, and holy images…. Now, with such temptations it is by no means prudent or wise to struggle or to enter on a hand-to-hand fight, saying “I will not consent; I detest, I abhor them”: both because, on account of there being no danger of yielding them consent, there is no need to offer resistance and because, by resisting, the person subjects himself to a slavery, by conceiving such an intense abhorrence of them, as most frequently only stirs them to activity and imprints them more deeply on the fancy….Not a few persons are timorous, and of so delicate a conscience, that they feel great abhorrence of all impurity, and of every action in which a grievous sin may lurk. When an image or a feeling contrary to purity presents itself to such as these, they fall into great fear and feel intense pain; they arm themselves against such thoughts…. And what is the result? The more these thoughts are driven away the more they return to the mind…. [A]s I have already observed, nothing is so apt to awaken such thoughts, or to fix them in the mind, as excessive fear. The reason of which is obvious. Fear excites the fancy and impresses it with the dreaded object.”
On top of this, I recommend that every individual reads the following book (regardless of whether or not you are scrupulous): ‘Love, Peace and Joy: A month of devotion to the Sacred Heart according to St. Gertrude’ by Andre Prevot. This book is certain to fill you with confidence, hope, love, peace and joy if you read it prayerfully. You can access this book legally online – for free – (as it was printed before 1923):
“It is not those who commit the least faults who are most holy, but those who have the greatest courage, the greatest generosity, the greatest love, who make the boldest efforts to overcome themselves, and are not immoderately apprehensive of tripping.”
– St. Francis de Sales