Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

09 October 2012

Doctor, My Eyes Cannot See the Sky

On Sunday Pope Benedict XVI conferred upon Saint Hildegard of Bingen and Saint John of Avila the status of "Doctor of the Church."  Their writings (and, in St. Hildegard's case, musical compositions) bear value for Church teaching, the Sacred Liturgy, Christian prayer, and/or the moral life.

According to the Holy Father, the two new doctors together summarize "the ideal in Christian life, expressed in the call to holiness" which, in its turn, catalyzes the "call to mission."  The example of their unique lives
draws us to look with humility at the fragility, even sin, of many Christians, as individuals and communities, which is a great obstacle to evangelization and to recognizing the force of God that, in faith, meets human weakness. Thus, we cannot speak about the new evangelization without a sincere desire for conversion. The best path to the new evangelization is to let ourselves be reconciled with God and with each other (cf. 2 Cor 5:20). Solemnly purified, Christians can regain a legitimate pride in their dignity as children of God, created in his image and redeemed by the precious blood of Jesus Christ, and they can experience his joy in order to share it with everyone, both near and far. [emphases mine]
"Fragility, even sin": the Holy Father distinguishes the two because sin originates either in weakness or in malice.  We see the latter all the time; and everybody else is guilty of it!  Perhaps fragility is more prevalent.  Everybody means well, though he does not always do well.  In the moral context I would define fragility as the perceived difference between one's intentions and actions.  The moral agent intends to do well, but at the last moment of choice, does not do what he or she intends.  We have no better example than Saint Paul: "What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate" (Rom 7:15 NAB).

Many persons are becoming increasingly concerned with the persistent and debilitating notion that their every action, word, or thought is a sin.   Religion and spirituality speak of this condition as scrupulosity.  Recent research of the medical community identifies scrupulosity as a species of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD, not to be confused with Ordo Carmelitarum Discalceatorum- the link is to a valuable periodical published by their Washington D.C. province).  The Redemptorist Fathers (whose founder, St. Alphonsus Liguori, suffered from scruples) have largely accepted the insights of modern medicine and have incorporated them into their pastoral efforts (read Fr. Thomas Santa's valuable article here).

OCD occurs across the human spectrum to varying degrees.  The better part of it is method, organization, and steadfastness, which non-sufferers also exhibit--and sometimes jokingly label OCD.  Perhaps many high achievers have channeled their excessiveness to good effect, with or without therapies.

The scrupulous person pays undue attention to "the rules," with an intense (and often inaccurate) perspective.  We are told in the above-cited OCFoundation article that "there is no evidence that the moral or religious character of scrupulosity sufferers is any different from that of other people."  Like those in the general population afflicted with OCD, religiously scrupulous people may be more or less virtuous, or attend religious services more or less, than non-scrupulous people.  Whether or not they are in fact committing more objective sin than others, the thought of it bothers them more.

We may tend to envision all scrupulous people among the devout, as observant of religious practices--"to a fault," to their own agony and to the pathos of loved ones.  But many scrupulous people do not attend church because it seems better for them to refrain, both physically and mentally, than to go occasionally and fear repercussions, or to go and become upset by their distractions or failure to say all the words properly.  (Did the revised translation pose any problems for the scrupulous, I wonder?)  For non-observant people who choose to absent themselves from Mass, their course of action seems to them to be the best way to arrive at healing.

Under the presumption that every baptized Catholic would do well to act in accord with his or her identity, faithful sacramental participation is the best course, especially when "managed" with spiritual direction and, when appropriate, psychological counseling.  This was the professional opinion of Doctor John of Avila, whose Letter to a Soul Suffering from Scrupulosity is worth reading.  He notes well how the scrupulous become so consumed with themselves--with the concern that they are not pleasing to God, that they have failed Him, or that He might turn on them at the very hint of offense.  This nagging feeling (and it is just that--a feeling, not a fact; no moral value to it) may prompt them to say, "To hell with it" and to act out that feeling by suicide, either in one fell swoop or, as most people do, on an installment plan.  Failing to see "the sky"--the all-consuming love of God for them and for the many--they may become hardened to the Source of all good and to His design for our days.

In these times when so few (as few as 20% of Catholics) attend Mass regularly, we want to encourage every Catholic, regardless of mental/emotional health, to "become who they are" by immersing themselves in the Christian Mystery.  Our world, beset with laxity, could stand a greater moral and religious conscientiousness born of trust in God's everlasting love.

To return to Pope Benedict's address cited above: Christians would profit to recover their dignity as God's beloved, and share with others the fruits of their conversion.  That ongoing process is what we call "evangelization."

+ Incidentally, certain musically inclined (or googling) readers may recognize the title of this article as a reference to a song by Jackson Browne, who shares my birthday.  Find some interesting interpretations of the cited song here.

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