S C R U P L E S
AND HOW TO OVERCOME THEM
The cause of over scrupulousness
and its remedy.
The way to interior peace.
The Causes of Scruples…………………………...23
The Baneful Effects of Scruples…………………..37
The Remedy for Scruples…………………………49
Pursue regularly your daily course of autosuggestion. Say to yourself,
and keep repeating: I will faithfully follow the direction of my confessor, who is my guide.
Once you have really grasped the fact that, with your powers of judgement clouded by scruples, you are spiritually blind or almost blind; once this conviction has taken firm root in your mind, you will find no difficulty in obedience. Your anxieties will assume their proper proportions as dreams and hallucinations.
Exercise No. 2.
Form the double resolution neither to dwell on you scruples, nor, by reason of them, to neglect either your practice of your religious or the duties of your mundane affairs.
Make a clean breast of all your troubles to your confessor on the day appointed by him. Hold fast to his advice and drive away your fears as evil temptations. When you sense the coming of a period of spiritual travail, turn your mind away from it and seek refuge in your daily work. Occupy yourself with some healthy distraction; seek an agreeable companion and go for a long walk, for exercise is important. Above all, shun introspection and soul searchings, for you know from experience that such activities are not merely useless but positively harmful and that, far from resolving your uncertainties, they will only befog your mind still further. Renew this double resolution daily, preferably in the morning and evening, after your usual prayers. Repeat to yourself: I am casting away my scruples for the groundless fears that they really are, worthy only of silence and contempt. I am getting on better and better.
Exercise No. 3.
Devote yourself wholeheartedly to the carrying out of your duties in life. Tackle your work energetically and enthusiastically and try to make others share your sense of joy in work well done. Herein lies the road to sanctity, and God asks no more of you than this. Beware of creating for yourself an unreal standard of perfection, and be content to find it within the limits of Christian charity and your own environment. The more you devote yourself to the faithful discharge of your responsibilities, the more you fulfil the designs of Providence and the sooner will your scruples disappear.
The Baneful Effects
Whether they spring from physical causes of from the machinations of the Evil One, scruples imperil the soul and expose if to grave injury. It is only scruples arising from trials sent to us by God that bring good results, providing always that we accept them without flinching. Such scruples, if accepted with resignation and combated with energy, purify the conscience, reawaken fervour and increase the soul’s horror of sin. We cannot over emphasise the fact that these scruples, though permitted by God, are nonetheless a spiritual malady, to be treated like all maladies, with the appropriate prudence. Divine Providence at times makes use of bodily ailments for the strengthening of souls destined to a high degree of sanctity. As a young man, St. Francis of Assisi dreamed of the glories and splendour of this world until a long illness taught him the vanity of mundane things and engendered in him an enveloping love for the Sovereign God. If, however, Francis had not been cared for during this Providential illness he would have died and the Church would have been the poorer for the loss of his example of heroic sanctity. The scruples to which we refer are in the nature of a Providential illness, but, like that of St. Francis, they must be wisely treated. Otherwise they will become envenomed and instead of fortifying our confidence, will end up by destroying it.
2. If we do not combat our scruples, they will lessen our confidence in Providence.The scruple-tortured soul, haunted by perpetual disquiet, comes to look upon God as a Judge Whose severity is untempered by pity. Instead of knowing God as the infinitely gook Father that He is, such a soul comes to regard Him – forgive the simile – as a crabbed step-mother, always on the lookout for the smallest excuse to heap reproaches and blows on a detested stepchild. The victim of scruples admittedly does not think in these terms, but he acts as though he did. What a terrifying error! And how little the poor blind sufferer understands the spirit of the Gospel; "God so loved the world, that he gave up for our redemption of His only begotten Son 1."
Jesus came on earth to seek and to save that which was lost 2. Far from being harsh to sinners, He pursued them to bring them back to the fold, to care fro them and to cure them. If He could speak with such gentleness to the woman taken in adultery, if He dwelt on the plight of the Woman of Samaria, if He did not hesitate to shed the last drop of His Precious Blood to atone for our sins, can anyone doubt the immeasurable depth of His Mercy. Why then should the soul trouble itself with groundless fears? What will be the ultimate state of the victim of scruples if he does not liberate himself from their toils by fervent acts of faith in the Love and Mercy of Christ? He will no longer be able to pray with that unshakable confidence that storms the adorable Heart of Our Saviour and obtains all things from Him. Our Divine Lord demands complete confidence from us as an essential to effective prayer. All things, whatsoever you ask when ye pray, believe that you shall receive; and they shall come unto you 3. Consider how Christ acted towards the Canaanean who implored Him to cure her daughter. To test her faith, He made what seemed a severe reply and appeared to be unwilling to listen to her humble supplication. The woman however did not lose courage and pressed her demand even more ardently, so that Jesus cried out with joy: Woman, great is thy faith, and he added: Be it done to thee as thou wilt 4
1 John III, 6.
It has been proved a thousand times over by experience that the sufferer from scruples will not submit to guidance. He will not abide by the decisions of his own director and often consults various other confessors, only to ignore their advice also. Yet if only he could learn to obey, his condition would improve rapidly to the point of sure and final cure.
This inability to accept direction is a characteristic sign of the unduly scrupulous and is indeed an integral part of the affliction which makes it all the more diff\cult to treat. It arises from the fact that scruples have the effect of warping the spiritual outlook of the sufferer who, to again quote Pere Gearon, sees life through dark of clouded spectacles. His vision is impaired, if not destroyed and his conscience distorts facts, He argues somewhat along the following lines: "My confessor does not understand me, his advice is based on wrong premises; why therefore should I follow it?" He never asks himself by what right he charges his confessor with ignorance, obtuseness and lack of intelligence. Can he really believe that his confessor is too stupid to assess his case accurately or to sort our the relevant from the mass of irrelevancies with which he has been deluged quite unnecessarily
For the sufferer from scruples, the key to recovery lies in obedience. Christ, himself, obedient to the death of the Cross 1 has commanded us to obey his priests who stand in His place. To hear them is to hear Him: to doubt them is to doubt Him.
When Our Lord appeared to St. Margaret Mary He sometimes gave her orders, but He stipulated that those orders must be endorsed by the Saint’s religious superiors and He commanded her to obey their ruling. What greater proof could we have of the fact that the only sure way to salvation lies in obedience.
1. Philip II, 8
sufferer who does not struggle against his idle fears becomes obsessed by them and thinks of and cares about nothing except his spiritual trials. He becomes morose and a prey to melancholy. His preoccupation with self prevents him from serving his neighbour and, to his cost, his unhappy temperament make his a burden to his associates. He makes utterly unreasonable demands on the time and patience of his confessor, taking an hour to repeat over and over again the tale of his mental anguish. When, in his own interest, his confessor deems it useless to proceed further, the penitent becomes irritated and leaves his confessor discontented, as troubled as before and totally unaware of the patient manner in which his case has been handled.
The Remedy for Scruples
Here are some practical and highly important rules for guidance.
Do not prolong unduly your examination of conscience. Far from dissipating your anxieties, overlong searchings of conscience will deepen them and add to your burden. Such examinations are not only useless but positively harmful. Even our confessional examinations should be brief and they will be sufficient to uncover obviously grave sins which are the only ones of which it is necessary for you to accuse yourself in the Sacrament.
"But" you may complain "if I follow your advice my confessions will lack the completeness I wish for them." The answer to this is of course that while the law of Christ imposes on us the duty of prudently ensuring the completeness of our confession, it does not ask us to make efforts beyond our competence to achieve this end. Our Lord instituted the Sacrament of Penance as a remedy, a help and a consolation; not as an instrument of torture. In exceptional cases the Church even dispenses with this obligation entirely. For example, on the battlefield or in case of shipwreck, does She not grant absolution without any confession at all of sins committed. On the other hand, She will never dispense with Contrition, which is the essential condition for the obtaining of pardon for sins. The sufferer from scruples instead of torturing his conscience with long drawn out and anxious examinations, should direct all his efforts towards true repentance.
Do not keep harping back on the past. There are people who suffer qualms of conscience about actions committed perhaps years age, or who are uneasy because they fear that they might have omitted to confess some sin in a long past confession. They revive these old memories in the hope that by dealing with them now they will be able to lay the spectre of possibly imperfect confessions in the past, but in fact the result will be the direct opposite. The lapse of time will have dulled the sharpness of their recollections so that these retrospective self searchings will exacerbate their anxiety instead of calming it.
Never undertake or omit an action under the compulsion of scruples alone. The victim of scruples sometimes develops the fear that the omission of commission of some action will be sinful where in fact the question of sin does not arise at all. For example he will say to himself: " If I tread on these blades of corn on the path, am I not doing insult to a gift of God?" or perhaps again: " I may have been inattentive at Mass this morning and have not pronounced every work in my missal properly. I must therefore attend a second Mass under pain of sin." Let such a man attend Mass again by all means, but not because of his scruple. For the reasons given in the nest paragraph such fears should be ignored and under no circumstances yielded to.
Such obligations derive from natural and positive law, both Divine and human, and these laws are precise and positive in their demands. Where doubt exists, and hesitation, there is in all probability no obligation involved. The victim of such scruple-inspired anxiety can calm his conscience by saying to himself: " I am not sure that I have an obligation to do this or not to do that. Therefore I am free to act as I choose." Alternatively he may say: I am in doubt whether I have any right to do this or that, but I do know that people of high sanctity do it and deem it no harm. Therefore I can follow their example with complete safety."
Indolence is harmful because it encourages introspection. The best possible way to forget one’s mental preoccupations is to devote oneself to work and to do that work well. There are duties that at first sight appear to be distasteful and tedious but, if they are tackled wholeheartedly and cheerfully they become easy and pleasant.
Solitude is as bad as indolence, and for much the same reason. The sufferer from scruples should try to fine a pleasant companion for his hours of ease; one who will help to distract his mind during acute periods of anxiety. Good conversation will dispel depression and for a time at least will turn his mind away from its troubles.
Overwork or the practice of too much austerity are to be avoided because of the strain they impose on the physical and nervous systems. We have already demonstrated that, in the majority of cases, scruples have a physical cause and so here is again proved the truth of the adage: Mens sana in corpore sano.
It may surprise some readers that we should raise the question of austerity, but we have very good reason for doing so, for there are scrupulous people who observe periods of Church Fasts so rigorously that they do injury to their nerves and minds. Such people should consult their confessor, who will permit them to fast of not according to the circumstances of their case.
People of great piety, members of religious orders, contemplatives, deprive themselves of sleep and nourishment in a spirit of penance. This is in itself an admirable practise, but it must be carried out in obedience to a rule. The most robust constitution may be ruined by injudicious austerity. Even the great St. Bernard at the close of his life regretted the excessive austerity of his youth. For the ordinary man and woman there are other forms of mortification which can be undertaken without danger to mind or body; the complete resignation of the will to God, patience, humility and the constant and considerate practice of charity. This is the hard path, but it is also the sure way to sanctity.
If, in the physical sphere, they develop signs of anaemia, of if their mental disquietude takes a more acute form, they should consult a doctor who will prescribe a course of treatment. Speaking in general terms, they should adopt a calming and strengthening regime. A sufficient quantity of food should be consumed slowly and properly masticated; work should be punctuated by short and regular intervals of relaxation. For the rest, treatment should consist of plenty of fresh air and exercise, seven or eight hours of sleep each night, deep-breathing exercises and hydropathy. There are of course other details of treatment, but these are better left to the doctor.
Exercise No. 1.
Exercise No. 3.
Force your mind to dismiss all thoughts of your scruples. Do not allow your anxieties to take hold of you for, if you do, you will sink into a morass of self searching and your last state will be worse than your first. Each time that you ruthlessly spurn your scruples you gain a moral victory and each such victory will be an important milestone on your road to recovery.
qualities most ardently longed for by poor souls who, tortured by their scruples, live a life of mental agony. Their troubles are often accentuated by the fact that they are misunderstood and even sometimes become objects of ridicule.
It is for such people that this book has been written; and if only they will study it carefully and follow fearlessly the advice it contains, they will surely attain the haven they seek. We propose therefore to close our work with some practical reflections on interior peace, so that sufferers from scruples can build their inner lives on a sound foundation. Learn of Me, said Jesus, because I am meek and humble of heart; and you shall find rest in your souls 1.
Humility and meekness – these, according to the Infallible Word, are the true sources of interior peace.
2. Humilityconsists of the full realisation and practical acceptance of the fact that we are literally nothing – worthless, powerless and helpless. Contrary to the opinion of warped minds, the virtue of humility, far from being degrading, is the wellspring of peace, strength and victory.
The truly humble man knows his own weakness far too well to count on himself; and so he turns for strength to God, his one unbreakable support. Without me you can do nothing 2 Christ assures us, and St. Paul adds: I can do all things in Him who strengthens me. 3.
"Theresa alone counts for little", said the great saint of Carmel "but Theresa helped by God counts for a great deal." With confidence in God we can obtain all we desire. But we must understand that such confidence necessarily implies distrust of our own powers. This confidence and distrust are complementary – one cannot exist without the other.
The humble of heart finds no difficulty in accepting the judgement of others, for, not deeming themselves superior to their neighbours, they do not cling unduly to their own opinion. They appreciate the fact that others may see things more clearly than they do and do not disdain to take advice. If only the sufferer from scruples could learn greater humility, surely he would yield himself more easily to the direction of his confessor and realise how much better than his troubled self the latter is qualified to judge his case.
The humble man does not forge for himself an unattainable standard of perfection, which God never intended for him. He does not attempt to scale the heights reached by the great mystics and, in the words of St. Francis of Sales, he is content to travel the lower slopes. He does not look beyond his horizon and accomplishes his destiny by the faithful performance of his daily duties in life. How many scruples have their origin in a wrong conception of virtue People dream of doing great deeds for God, but they neglect the daily tasks which He has imposed on them. They are grieved by what appears to them a pedestrian way of life and do not realise that holiness consists in the faithful carrying out of God’s Will towards them. Our Laky has revealed that during her dedicated service in the temple, she considered herself the least of the daughters of Israel. The Annunciation threw her into inexpressible anxiety, for it had never been revealed to her that she was destined to be the Mother of God.
The humble man is not shocked by his own weakness. He has true contrition for his faults but they do not cause him despair. Knowing his worthlessness, he is not surprised by his fall, and instead of futile self reproach, he implores his Heavenly Father for support. The more he realises his weakness the more firmly he relies on Divine Grace.
The humble man prays with his whole soul. Knowing his helplessness, he implores Our Lord and His Blessed Mother to work through him and in him that which he cannot achieve without their help.
The humble man submits his will to God’s in all things, for God is his Sovereign Lord and it is proper that the created should do the Will of the Creator. Furthermore, God is Infinite Love; so how can we not accept joyfully His plans for us, since these plans are dictated by His boundless love?
The humble man asks God to spare him from trials but adds, as Jesus did in Gethsemene: Not my will, but Thine be done 1.
3. From humility springs meekness, that meekness that Our Saviour has promised will triumph. Blessed are the meek. For they shall possess the land 1.
Meekness means the patient and willing acceptance of sorrow and misfortune; the loving acceptance of those trials which, in His Love, God sends us. It means forbearance with our neighbour and a smiling forgetfulness of wrongs suffered from him and of defects in his character. It means the calm acceptance of one’s personal faults, accompanied by constant efforts to correct them.
Sufferers from scruples can take heart, for the evil from which they suffer is far from being incurable. The writer of this book has had long experience throughout his ministry as a priest, and knows that complete recovery is possible and that troubled souls can regain peace. Their joy when that day comes will be all the greater by reason of the turmoil through which they have passed.
It must always be remembered however that recovery depends largely on the goodwill of the sufferer, who should follow precisely the methods outlined for him in this book. Our interior lives should be built on the main foundations of humility and meekness; those virtues which Jesus himself manifested in such a sublime and striking manner. Remember that Our Lady, the greatest, the most perfect and the fairest of all created beings, was also the most humble and that it was her humility that made her worthy to be the Mother of Christ. So we learn that God awards His favours to us in proportion to our humility of soul. The more we abase ourselves, the higher will God raise us.
Know therefore your own littleness and the full measure of your helplessness. If, by God’s Grace, you should succeed in fashioning a gulf of humility in your soul, the Most High will hasten to irrigate it with that torrent of Peace 1 of which the Scriptures speak.