Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The "revert" saint who struggled against scrupulosity

Today is the feast of St. Alphonsus Liguori, Doctor of the Church, patron of confessors and moral theologians, founder of the Redemptorists, and wounded healer. His life and example inspire me as I spread the message of healing sexual wounds with the help of the saints.

The Catholic Encyclopedia's biography of this Doctor of the Church, who is the patron of confessors and moral theologians, gives remarkable detail about the depth of his inner life. Today we might call him a "revert":
Psychologically, Alphonsus may be classed among twice-born souls; that is to say, there was a definitely marked break or conversion, in his life, in which he turned, not from serious sin, for that he never committed, but from comparative worldliness, to thorough self-sacrifice for God.
Most moving is the encyclopedia author's account of Alphonsus's final years, which saw him battle against depression and scrupulosity:
About three years before his death he went through a veritable "Night of the Soul". Fearful temptations against every virtue crowded upon him, together with diabolical apparitions and illusions, and terrible scruples and impulses to despair which made life a hell. at last came peace, and on 1 August, 1787, as the midday Angelus was ringing, the Saint passed peacefully to his reward. He had nearly completed his ninety-first year.
Later in the same entry, the author gives additional detail about Alphonsus's dark night:
... God kept him humble by interior trials. From his earliest years he had an anxious fear about committing sin which passed at times into scruple.

He who ruled and directed others so wisely, had, where his own soul was concerned, to depend on obedience like a little child. To supplement this, God allowed him in the last years of his life to fall into disgrace with the pope, and to find himself deprived of all external authority, trembling at times even for his eternal salvation.
When I was in Detroit in June to speak about My Peace I Give You, I found at the John K. King used-book warehouse a privately published copy of some of St. Alphonsus's letters to nuns. They are very beautiful for what they reveal about how, even as the saint battled his own scruples, he was able to reach out with great fatherly gentleness to souls too timid to approach Our Lord. Here is one of my favorites, written to Sister Brianna Carafa on December 18, 1767; it is also in a book available online:
O my God! I no longer wish to hear the words "very bad state." But for pity s sake do not omit holy Communion; go to Communion in whatever condition you find yourself whether cold, very cold, or distracted. Do not say anything to me about abandonment by God.

No, I do not permit you even once to sleep on the floor. Do you perhaps wish to lose your mind? As you are still weak, you will not do wrong to take a little more rest, and to allow yourself some indulgence in your diet in order to repair the loss of strength caused by your illness.

As for the Communions prescribed by Father N., I do not wish you to omit them no, never, never; for you know how strict I am on this point ; and it does not matter that you have not gone to confession. ... By virtue of obedience, speak no more to me of Father N., nor of your bad state, nor of your abandonment by God; I do not wish to hear another word about these things. Continue what you are doing as well as you can, and God will aid you.

Do not listen to your relatives, nor to those that bring you messages. Do not give up your ordinary exercises, even when you perform them without devotion; God will supply what is wanting.

You will already have received my book The Way of Salvation; I beg you to read from time to time the short considerations that are found at the end, entitled Darts of Fire. I read them myself nearly every day, and they seem to me to be suitable to you.

Pray to Jesus Christ for me; I am colder than you, but I trust in the blood of Jesus Christ and in our Mother Mary, and this is what we should all do. It belongs to God to sanctify us, and not to us, nor to our spiritual Fathers.

I wish you to preserve my letters, because I cannot be so diffuse in my other answers, nor repeat the same things. Be careful to read them over from time to time, especially when you are losing confidence. ...

May Jesus Christ fill you with his holy love!

            Alfonso Maria
            Bishop of Sant' Agata

A bit of tough love from a great saint!
Here are more of St. Alphonsus's insights on combating scrupulosity, via the informative website A Short History of OCD:
The suffering that affects scrupulous souls comes, not from the fact that they have a scruple about what they are doing, but from the fear that what they are doing might be sinful and that they are, in fact, committing sin. But they should realize that whoever obeys a competent and holy director does not, in fact, act in doubt but acts with the greatest certainty that one can have here on earth, namely, the certainty which comes from the divine word of Jesus Christ who declares that whoever listens to the instructions of his ministers listens to himself.... In a word, to quote St. Bernard, "The great remedy for scruples is blind obedience to one's confessor."... "Scruples are to be completely disregarded, and one is to do the very opposite to what they suggest, provided one is following the advice of a prudent, competent and devout spiritual director" [apparently quoting Father Wigandt]....

Gerson [John Gerson (1363-1429)] puts the whole matter succinctly. He says that one must take a very determined stand against scruples. Philip Neri [(1515-1595)] suggested that the best remedy for scruples is to treat them with contempt. In his life it is recorded that as well as advising the accepted remedy of total submission in everything to the judgment of one's confessor, he also advised his penitents to treat scruples with disdain and contempt. His practice with scrupulous persons was to forbid them to confess frequently. And when they did confess to him and mentioned their scruples he ordered them to go to Holy Communion without listening further to their scruples.

So to conclude. 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.
[SourceAlphonsus de Liguori: selected writings, edited by Frederick M. Jones (New York: Paulist Press, 1999), pp. 209-14, 322-3]