3 Saints Who Struggled With Scrupulosity And What They Did to Combat It

by Faith & Life

“Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.”

– Matthew 5:48

Be Perfect

Jesus tells us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. For the person struggling with scrupulosity, this passage is taken out of context, magnified, and becomes a daily chore. Our Lord is telling us to love with the love of God, trusting in Him alone. He is the perfection of love and, through our Baptism and with our cooperation, He can love through us.

This passage at the end of the fifth chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel in which our Lord tells us to be perfect follows directly after the call to love our enemies. St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us of the words of the 6th Century bishop St. Remigius regarding this passage when he says, “Because the utmost perfection of love cannot go beyond the love of enemies, therefore as soon as the Lord has bid us love our enemies, He proceeds, Be ye then perfect, as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.”

I Am My Own Worst Enemy

In the likeness of God, if we love with His perfect love, then we must love even our enemies. This pertains to scrupulosity in one other important way: what if your worst enemy is yourself? The core of scrupulosity is an over-fixation on one’s own imperfection and sinfulness. To gain the grace and forgiveness of God, we must be willing to look in the mirror and forgive our greatest enemy: ourselves.

Scrupulosity: An unfounded apprehension and consequently unwarranted fear that something is a sin which, as a matter of fact, is not. It is not considered here so much as an isolated act, but rather as an habitual state of mind known to directors of souls as a “scrupulous conscience.” St. Alphonsus describes it as a condition in which one influenced by trifling reasons, and without any solid foundation, is often afraid that sin lies where it really does not. 

New Advent

What about the saints? Certainly, there were saints who were mighty in holiness who struggled with scrupulosity. Let us briefly look to St. Alphonsus Liguori, St. Therese of Lisieux, and St. Ignatius of Loyola and see how they combatted scrupulosity.

St. Ignatius of Loyola

St. Ignatius of Loyola was so plagued with scrupulosity that he thought he was committing a sacrilege if he stepped on anything that remotely resembled a cross.

St. Alphonsus Liguori

St. Alphonsus Liguori was racked with anguish, doubt, and anxiety because he thought he was in a consistent state of sin.

St. Therese of Lisieux

And St. Therese of Lisieux was excessively worried about displeasing God, fretting that she might offend God with the smallest action.

In each of these cases, we have powerhouse saints. St. Ignatius of Loyola went on to found the order of the Society of Jesus (the “Jesuits”), and St. Alphonsus and St. Therese are known today as Doctors of the Church for their holiness and wisdom. These saints show clearly that having the right theology is not a pass from dealing with human failings. The largely mental and emotional issue of scrupulosity got in the way of what they knew to be true theologically.

How Did These Saints Respond To Scrupulosity?

Instead of trying to “white-knuckle” their way through these maladies, these great saints all leaned into trusting God more. God is merciful and faithful. He is not trying to ruin us; to the contrary, He wants our good. The saints know this and so they trusted Him.

This is the way out of scrupulosity: we turn ourselves more and more each day over to the love and mercy of God. We distrust ourselves and our perceptions and we trust in Him even more.

The enemy looks much if a soul is gross or delicate, and if it is delicate, he tries to make it more delicate in the extreme, to disturb and embarrass it more. For instance, if he sees that a soul does not consent to either mortal sin or venial or any appearance of deliberate sin, then the enemy, when he cannot make it fall into a thing that appears sin, aims at making it make out sin where there is not sin, as in a word or very small thought.

If the soul is gross, the enemy tries to make it more gross; for instance, if before it made no account of venial sins, he will try to have it make little account of mortal sins, and if before it made some account, he will try to have it now make much less or none.

The fifth: The soul which desires to benefit itself in the spiritual life, ought always to proceed the contrary way to what the enemy proceeds; that is to say, if the enemy wants to make the soul gross, let it aim at making itself delicate. Likewise, if the enemy tries to draw it out to extreme fineness, let the soul try to establish itself in the mean, in order to quiet itself in everything.

– St. Ignatius of Loyola

 Scrupulous souls should follow the way of obedience…. Moreover, any fear that scrupulous souls may have should be treated with contempt since such fears are not authentic norms of conscience.

– St. Alphonsus Liguori

Oh, my darling, think, then, that Jesus is there in the Tabernacle expressly for you, for you alone; He is burning with the desire to enter your heart . . . so don’t listen to the devil, mock him, and go without any fear to receive Jesus in peace and love! . . .

However, I hear you saying to me: “Thérèse is saying this because she doesn’t know . . . she doesn’t know I really do it on purpose . . . it pleases me . . . and so I cannot receive Communion since I believe I would be committing a sacrilege, etc., etc., . . . .” Yes, your poor little Thérèse does know; I tell you that she understands it all, and she assures you that you can go without any fear to receive your only true Friend . . . . She, too, has passed through the martyrdom of scruples, but Jesus has given her the grace to receive Communion just the same, even when she believed that she had committed great sins. . . . And so I assure you that she knew this was the sole means of ridding herself of the devil, for when he sees that he is losing this time, he leaves you in peace! . . .

No, it is IMPOSSIBLE that a heart “which rests only at the sight of the Tabernacle” offend Jesus to the point of not being able to receive Him; what offends Him and what wounds His Heart is the lack of confidence! . . .

– St. Therese in a letter to her cousin Marie

St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Alphonsus Liguori, and St. Therese of Lisieux, pray for us.

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