Sin, Sensitivity, and Scrupulosity

‘Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty’ – St Paul (2 Cor, 3:17)

In the last two articles we highlighted how sensitivity is part of the human condition and that sin is the greatness evil and one that we should be continuously on our guard against.  So if we are to recognise this reality about sin and maintain, rather than numb, our sensitivity, how can we stop ourselves slipping into inordinate fear about sin or into scrupulosity? How can we stop ourselves being continuously on edge after we have recognised these realities? Well, to do so, we first need to understand the relationship between love and fear and know what we are realistically aiming at.

‘Perfect love casteth out fear.’ (I John 4:18)

This quote from the Bible is often paraphrased in slogans such as ‘fxxk fear, rise love’, or ‘love trumps fear’.  These, often crass, slogans are usually promoted by those on the left side of the political fringe and while they are deluded in their overall programmes, i.e., a communist utopia without God and His Church where everyone gets on just splendidly, they are right in recognising that love does overcome and push out fear. However, there is only a certain type of fear, and not all fear, that is pushed out by love. As explained by St. Bernard, the fear that St. John is talking about being cast out is servile fear, i.e., the fear a slave has for his master who can punish him.  Servile fear is cast out by love but fear is not totally cast out. Servile fear is replaced with filial fear, i.e., a fear of displeasing a person we know loves us dearly. As St. Bernard (‘On Loving God’) explains:

‘Love is a good and pleasant law; it is not only easy to bear, but it makes the laws of slaves and hirelings tolerable; not destroying but completing them; as the Lord saith: ‘I am not come to destroy the law, but to fulfil’ (Matt. 5:17). It tempers the fear of the slave, it regulates the desires of the hireling, it mitigates the severity of each. Love is never without fear, but it is godly fear. Love is never without desire, but it is lawful desire. So love perfects the law of service by infusing devotion; it perfects the law of wages by restraining covetousness. Devotion mixed with fear does not destroy it, but purges it. Then the burden of fear which was intolerable while it was only servile, becomes tolerable; and the fear itself remains ever pure and filial. For though we read: ‘Perfect love casteth out fear’ (I John 4:18), we understand by that the suffering which is never absent from servile fear, the cause being put for the effect, as often elsewhere.’

Now, scrupulosity often develops when we have gained some insight into the awfulness of sin and we have started trying to overcome the stains we see on our soul. We have developed a certain fear of sin and how it offends God. An article such as the previous one on this website about the horror of sin can almost overwhelm a sensitive soul, particularly when we have been struggling for years to overcome certain sins and have begun to realise that God asks for nothing less than perfection to enter Heaven. What a shock to the mind this can be when we realise the height of the mountain we have to scale! What are we to do about this challenge that lies before us? Are we to dismiss these ideas about sin and perfection as old fables used as means to subjugate the ignorant and poor as it is claimed today? Maybe we can readjust our thinking about sin and claim that it is really not as bad as all those Catholic saints from times past made it out to be? Or perhaps we can dismiss all those notions of being perfect to enter Heaven and see God as a more lenient, ‘compassionate’ God than the nasty and harsh God our grandparents were told about? Maybe we can convince ourselves that no one believes in that ‘Catholic guilt’ stuff anymore so why should I? Or perhaps to overcome our scruples about our sinfulness and lack of perfection we can take the route of Martin Luther who was suffering from scruples around the time of his revolt:

His biographers tell us that at this time his terrible fear as to the remission of his sins increased his bodily sufferings…After long efforts to save himself by his own strength, Luther suddenly caught at the contrary extreme, an occurrence by no means rare in such cases. Excessive austerity was followed by slothfulness; exaggerated, passionate, penitential fervour ended in his abandonment of every means of amendment and sanctification. With the passionate violence of his character, he took refuge in the truth of faith, that Jesus Christ by His death on the cross has won for us salvation. It was not sufficient for him to despair of attaining salvation by his own strength, but he went still further. He altogether rejected man’s co-operation in the work of salvation, as if he would say to God: ‘Since I cannot do all, since I am unable to attain my ideal, I will do nothing at all, not even that which is in my power!’

               Sad and insane conclusion, to which scruples not unfrequently bring a soul weary of fruitless combats, and conscious at last of her own impotence to carry out her vain theories of perfection!’ – p. 340 (‘The Way of Interior Peace’ – Fr De Lehen, 1888) (1)

God, in His mercy, gave Luther some insight into the horror that sin is.  Through the Holy Ghost He has done this with many people who went on to be great saints. He gave them clear insights into the hideousness of sin, revealing these horrors most clearly to His own Mother as St. Jean Vianney explains, ‘As a watchmaker with his glasses distinguishes the most minute wheels of a watch, so we, with the light of the Holy Ghost, distinguish all the details of our poor life. Then the smallest imperfections appear very great, the least sins inspire us with horror. That is the reason why the most Holy Virgin never sinned. The Holy Ghost made her understand the hideousness of sin; she shuddered with terror at the least fault.  Those who have the Holy Spirit cannot endure themselves, so well do they know their poor misery.’ (‘The Little Catechism of the Cure of Ars’). Luther was given the grace to see the extent of his misery and have insights into what sin is. It also appears that he was beginning to get insights into how futile his efforts were as these efforts relied more on himself than God. At this stage, saints threw themselves into the loving arms of our Heavenly Father, pleaded with Our Lady for her help, and with holy resignation, said ‘Thy will be done, not mine’ or ‘Thou must increase and I must decrease’. St. Francis de Sales who suffered severe scruples early in his life, which were a result of recognising the extent of his own misery, did not despair and turn his back on the truth but rather turned even more to God and focused on His infinite love for us, his weak and wretched creatures. He wrote one of the most beautiful treatise on the love of God and became one of the great saints and doctors of the Church. Luther did not follow the example of the saints or St. Francis de Sales.  He did not humble himself and recognise his misery in the light of God’s infinite goodness. He did not submit his will to God’s will. He did not turn towards the loving and Sacred Heart of Our Lord but rather he turned towards the devil to try to help him out of his despair.  He started to exert his own wicked will and the devil used his naturally strong character for his own diabolical schemes. Luther became the spark for the revolution that tore Christendom apart and which allowed the devil and his minions to gain more and more power over nations and souls. Luther – an example of the sad and wretched use of the talents God had given a man and an example of how not to respond to scruples.

Today, there is a battle to maintain our natural sensitivity in a world which either numbs or distracts it from those things our soul and body truly crave – eternal health, peace and happiness. The Holy Ghost continuously works on our sensitive nature, gently calling us to Him. He shines His light on the poor misery of our lives. In His mercy, He reveals our fallen state and the fallen state of humanity to us.  For some, on seeing this, it seems like an almost easy transition to accept His loving call and, while still recognizing the need for constant co-operation with the love and graces He bestows on them, they joyfully abandon themselves into the care of His loving kindness. For others, the thought of their sinfulness almost overwhelms them with scruples. The depth of their misery seems too much, the mountain of perfection appears too steep and high. Truth seems to impose itself on them rather than to gently call. Despair and a rejection of the truth creep in. “Where is the ‘spirit of liberty’ that St. Paul preaches about?”, they cry. “What about the truth making me free?  All I see is my own misery and how far I am from the perfection of the saints. This feels more like chains than freedom!…”. Darkness and bitterness begin to creep in, Luther’s path seems to call to them…Yet, this is no time to despair. It is a moment of grace. It is a time to recognize how useless we are and how much we need God’s love and grace. A slight taste of what seems like mad scruples to worldly eyes may actually be the start of a great conversion and the beginning of the journey to sanctity and Heaven. It may be a time to meditate and really think about where we currently are at and where we are headed. Perhaps it is a time to reflect on the words in ‘The Imitation’:

No man deserves the consolation of heaven unless he persistently arouses himself to holy contrition. If you desire true sorrow of heart, seek the privacy of your cell and shut out the uproar of the world.’

‘It is a wonder that any man who considers and meditates on his exiled state and the many dangers to his soul, can ever be perfectly happy in this life. Lighthearted and heedless of our defects, we do not feel the real sorrows of our souls, but often indulge in empty laughter when we have good reason to weep. No liberty is true and no joy is genuine unless it is founded in the fear of the Lord and a good conscience.’

 ‘The sins and vices in which we are so entangled that we can rarely apply ourselves to the contemplation of heaven are matters for just sorrow and inner remorse.’ – ‘The Imitation’ – Book One, Chapter 20 – ‘The Love of Solitude and Silence’

When Luther contemplated his sinfulness he allowed servile fear and the whisperings of the devil to get the better of him. He may have had some servile fear of God but eventually his conscience became blind and corrupted. Eventually, he tried to escape reality and create his own. He imagined he found freedom but it was only a false liberty built on a non-filial fear of God and a bad conscience, which only ensnared him more in chains. Poor delusional soul! We cannot escape reality. We can either accept it or reject it. It can be accepted out of love, with filial fear being part of this perfect love, or it can be rejected because we will not cast out servile fear by turning our hearts towards Him who is Love Himself. In this rejection, we deny both the goodness of Our Heavenly Father and our childlike dependency on Him.

The saints provide us with examples of how to recognise our sinfulness and wretchedness without being overwhelmed by these.  A small dose of scruples may be the result of this recognition and, in the main, it is better to have some scruples or be too sensitive than be unscrupulous and devoid of sensitivity (2). Many saints, like St. Francis de Sales, went through this trial of scruples until their hearts inflamed with love casteth out servile fear and replaced it with filial fear and a purer love of God. Saints cast their eyes down on their own wretchedness and acknowledged this reality. Yet, what elevated them to the status of saints was the turning of their eyes upwards toward Our Heavenly Father, Truth and Love Himself, to ask for the strength, love and grace they needed to overcome their sinfulness. Today, worldly eyes will see any talk of guilt or sin as scrupulous.  However, having a holy horror of sin and having a sensitive conscience is not the same as scrupulosity. It is a sign of an ordered and healthy mind and possibly the first signs of true conversion. This is a blessing while a seared or numbed conscience is a curse as Monsignor Vaughan (‘Life After Death’, 1907) explains:

Just as the hands of the pianist acquire a greater delicacy of touch by practice, and just as the ear of the blind, who more than others are constantly depending upon that organ, becomes sensitive to sound, so conscience when obeyed, listened to, and regularly consulted acquires an extraordinary delicacy. So on the contrary, if its dictates are despised and disregarded, its influence grows weaker and weaker, till at last its voice is almost entirely drowned, amid the roar and bustle of the world, and its vanities, dissipations, and pleasures.

A sound though ever so loud, if habitually disregarded, will after a time hardly awaken a slumbering man. I have known the firing of a gun on board a ship fail at last to arouse a sleeping officer, though his berth was close by. In a somewhat similar manner a man, by continually closing his heart to the clear, ringing voice of his inward monitor, may render it by slow degrees almost inaudible. His state then becomes very hopeless and very awful.

‘We must hope for the best and do our best.’ - St. Charles Borromeo

So, let us recognise the reality of our sensitivity and what it tells us about sin and our own sinfulness.  Let us develop a holy horror of sin and discipline our minds and our bodies to react in the right way toward sin. Let us not listen to the world, the flesh, or the devil when it tries to tell us what scrupulosity is. The devil tells us subtle and clever lies about scruples to make us fall into either laxity and presumption or into depression and despair.  Let us not listen to him or his followers. Let us follow the example of St. Francis de Sales rather than Martin Luther and let us focus more on the love of God than our own misery (3). Let us not be startled at our own miserable condition in this life and let us recognise how, while God wills us to co-operate in our sanctification and we must do our best, it is His hands, not our own, that will do the heavy lifting. Here is where our hope and confidence lies – in God’s omnipotence and His infinite love. So let us have courage and follow the spiritual advice of St Terese of Lisieux as outlined by Fr Eugene Boylan (‘Difficulties in Mental Prayer’, 1943):

‘The perfect picture that St. Teresa of Lisieux has drawn of the spiritual life will help to give us courage. She sees it as a stairway to be climbed, at the top of which God is waiting, looking down in Fatherly love at His child’s efforts to surmount the first step. The child, who represents ourselves, fails to manage to climb even the first step; it can only keep on lifting up its tiny little foot. Sooner or later God takes pity on it, and comes down and sweeps the child right up to the top in His arms; but – and St. Teresa insists on this as much as she insists on God’s loving kindness – we must keep on lifting up our foot. The soul must never be discouraged by the fruitlessness of its repeated efforts. It seems to be a law of the spiritual life that, since all progress ultimately depends on God, He lets us first learn our complete helplessness by long and weary efforts that come to naught. But we have His word: ‘I Myself will come and save you!’

Let us, unlike the world today, recognise our nothingness. Alongside this, and more importantly, let us, unlike Luther, recognise God’s infinite loving goodness. We must be like little children and, despite our feebleness, continue to try to climb the steps ahead of us,. We must work on being patient and trusting. He will come to help us in His own good time, once He has taught us the lessons He needs us to learn. In the meantime, let us continuously call on Him and His Blessed Mother and throw ourselves and our nothingness into their most loving arms. There we will find all the strength we need to be lifted up and transformed into the saints who He wills us to be.

God bless you in your efforts,

References/Footnotes:

  1. An excellent book for those trying to understand and overcome scruples. Available here: https://archive.org/details/wayofinteriorpea00lehe
  2. In a book on the life of St. Thomas More (‘Sir Thomas More (Blessed Thomas More)’ by Henri Bremond, published 1920), it outlines a delightful children’s story about a scrupulous donkey and an unscrupulous wolf which was passed on to St. Thomas More. St. Thomas was known to share this story with his family and friends. The author of his life, Henri Bremond, outlines how St. Thomas, by narrating this story, ‘wants to show in the main it is better to be too sensitive than not sensitive enough.’  The book is available here – https://archive.org/details/cu31924027960800/mode/2up?view=theater and the story is on pages 126 to 129.
  3. Here is some wise advice about how to develop St. Paul’s ‘spirit of liberty’ from a devout bishop, Mgr. Gay, in his book, ‘Elevations upon the Life and Doctrine of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (quoted in ‘Christ in His Mysteries’ by Abbott Marmion (1939)). This is particularly relevant to those scrupulous souls who rightfully acknowledge their nothingness but become a bit too self-obsessed about it and look too frequently down at themselves rather than up at God:

‘…The great secret for leading this free, pure and already almost superhuman Christian life is not so much to consider the vanity of the world, the fragility and baseness of this present life, our own personal misery and passions, all those evils into which, without the help of grace, we should so easily fall, and out faults and sins, which we ought, however, to hate and deplore: (all that is useful, all that is indispensable; everyone who is wise will remember and think of it at certain hours; but it is not always the hour for thinking of it, and it is not, at all events, what is the most efficacious for us). What is most efficacious, here as everywhere, the most decisive, the most triumphant, is, as far as one can, and habitually, to look upwards; it is to consider God and Jesus; the perfections of God, His rights, His attributes, His appeals, His provocations, His patient waiting, His designs, His promises; the mysteries of Jesus and the divine graces flowing from what He said, did, ordained and suffered. It is ever to remember that He is personally, the point of departure and the Chief of the Christian life; that the great virtue of baptism is to incorporate us in Him, to give us His life, to make us of His race, and to pour forth His Spirit within us, that is to say a light and a strength whereby we are enabled, and so remain, not only to avoid sin, as St. John expressly says, but moreover to judge all things, to discern our way and to follow it, and ascending from light to light, from liberty to liberty, to reach the inward state of him who said: ‘I live, now not I; but Christ liveth in me.’’ – quoted, p. 30-31