On an unexceptional Friday in February 2012, I came home for a weekend away from college life, as students regularly do. What set my trip apart from others was my motivation: I wasn’t looking to visit family or pets, nor was I eager to refuel on home cooking. Rather, I was in desperate need of spiritual guidance from my pastor, because I had developed a crippling belief that the devil was taking control of my life.
My mother picked me up from the train station and immediately noticed that I had lost a great deal of weight. She also observed me repeatedly making what appeared to be random physical gestures. She didn’t realize that those compulsive actions were blessings that I hoped would keep Satan and his minions at bay whenever I felt driven to profess loyalty to him. As soon as we got home, my parents realized that something was clearly wrong with me. Several frustrating weeks later, I was diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which explained my compulsions and intrusive thoughts. It was some consolation during this difficult time to learn from my mother, who had undertaken extensive research on the subject, that St. Ignatius of Loyola was plagued with these afflictions, as well.
Mental illness is complicated, and its causes are never straightforward or easily identifiable. My illness manifested only after I was exposed to the world of Protestant fundamentalism (which is, like the existential reality of many with OCD, a world governed by fear) and their accusations that the Catholic Church is the Whore of Babylon, the pope is the Antichrist, and the Jesuits control the world. In this environment, I found myself more vulnerable than I could have imagined.
Whenever I sought to counter this Protestant fundamentalism with the truth of Catholicism, I found myself falling victim to another, equally-damaging idea: Catholic fundamentalism (which I hadn’t known existed). They called it “Traditionalism,” of course. This radical ideology espoused, for example, that we have not had a valid pope since Pius XII’s death in 1958, and that the Second Vatican Council was pure heresy. This narrow “Catholic” perspective came through the influence of a person I met online named George, who would not hesitate to share conspiracy theories with me regarding the diabolical influence over what other trads referred to as the current imposter church. Thus, in addition to my particular struggles, I was contending with the terrifying notions that Pope St. Paul VI intended to start the apocalypse and that 99% of the world would be going to Hell.
OCD is often called “the doubting disease” because regardless of how much time sufferers spend planning and rehearsing appropriate responses to a given stressor—such as germs, the fear that you unwittingly hit someone with your car, or a search for religious truth—that plan will be tossed away as soon as a new perspective on the danger comes up, regardless of whether there is any logic to it or not. Desperate for a way out of this dynamic and its state of perpetual fear, I found myself returning countless times to George and other trads for solace, only to have them respond to my sharing of intrusive thoughts with the accusation that I was “not praying enough.”
While I have come to see my relationship with George in terms of abuse, I also understand that he understood my illness as a literal battle for my eternal soul. To him, those who sought to explain my scruples in terms of natural phenomena or psychiatry were under the influence of demons. He instructed me to find a priest in “good standing” (by which he meant one who was ordained prior to Vatican 2 or who was ordained by a bishop whose succession could be traced to contemporary bishops who rejected the Council). According to his strict legalistic theology, it was only there, hours away from where I lived, that I could receive my sacraments. Moreover, receive them I must, for there was no room in his theology for a merciful God who understood my desire to repent. Without the sacrament of reconciliation—even if I died en route to receiving it—I would face damnation, end of story (unless he wanted to add a coda to the story in the form of a quotation from one of his preferred popes). Whenever I shared how overwhelmed I felt, he would respond with a simple platitude along the lines of “God doesn’t give you what you can’t handle.” He likely did not mean any harm and may have genuinely meant well, but his inability to look beyond the echo chamber of traditionalism into the complex reality of my situation exacerbated what for me was already a tormented existence.
After many arduous months at home, away from college, spent crying and screaming (both with my parents and God), I slowly began to climb back to a healthy mentality. The process taught me much about the extensive world of mental health, as well as the Church as a whole.
The Catechism explicitly addresses one aspect of mental health—suicide—when it reflects on the culpability of someone who has taken their life by saying “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide” (2282). It can perhaps be seen to go even further in regards to scrupulosity, in its reflections on conscience and reasoning that has been poisoned (starting at paragraph 1776), concluding that if “the moral subject is not responsible for his erroneous judgment, the evil committed by the person cannot be imputed to him. [But] It remains no less an evil, a privation, a disorder” (1793). I cannot think of a better corrective for one overcome by scrupulosity than these writings.
During my first full week of recovery at home, I shared my desire to get ashes for the start of Lent, which my parents refused. This set off a panic in me, as I worried that they were holding me back from the necessary graces. I only recently learned that—unlike the sacraments—Catholics are under no obligation to receive ashes. I wish I had been aware of it then, but I doubt my mental state would have allowed me to accept it even if I had been. I don’t think Lent was any harder than the other days during my trials, as every day was basically Hell for me, if we understand the true experience of Hell as despair. All the same, I cannot imagine how this holy season is intensifying the horrors of those enduring the same mental health issues that I did.
Without listing any names, I can confidently state that certain folk in the traditionalist community who are bragging about their prayer life and spirituality (with some prominent ones even professing that those who do not pray the rosary “are on the wrong side”) are causing real psychological and spiritual harm to the vulnerable and suffering in their midst even as they try to exhort them to new levels of piety. It’s heartbreaking to come across those who would belittle others for undertaking “simple” prayerful and penitential practices for the next 40 days. Do they not realize that God has created us all differently, and that we are not equally capable of undertaking intense penitential practices? Can one help but wonder if, though they appear on Twitter rather than street corners, they could be among the ones Our Lord admonished for praying simply to be seen and admired by others?
Should anyone feel inadequate about being capable of reciting only the Lord’s Prayer every day, do not be discouraged. God has made clear countless times throughout scripture that he desires a simple contrite heart and obedience to him, not least in Our Lord’s lesson on the widow’s mite:
Jesus sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the multitude putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came, and put in two copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him, and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living” (Mk 12:41-44, RSVCE).
If there is more joy in Heaven over one sinner’s penance than the righteousness of ninety-nine others, we can set aside our insecurities about how frequently we receive the Eucharist every week or how many novenas we have prayed. I promise you that each simple sacrifice offered earnestly will be remembered by and will delight our Heavenly Father.
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