For years, I’ve gone to church and have felt like an outsider. For years, I’ve tried to jam in the puzzle pieces that clearly won’t fit. What remains is a distorted picture painted with purposeless colors. When I was a child, I didn’t need a reason to go to church. I didn’t need a reason to engage in all the expected activities and tenets of faith proprietary to the Catholic Church. Faith was easy back then. You just believed. You never questioned. Why would you?
Just as an infant is spoon-fed mushy food, children are “spoon-fed” elements of faith based on their parents’ religious convictions. The word “choice” has no place when it comes to religious upbringing. I was born and raised Catholic. In Baptism, we believe that the Holy Spirit leaves an indelible mark on the soul. Once a Catholic, always a Catholic–though the degree to which one chooses to practice the faith is always in flux.
It was easier to be a Catholic as a child since not much was required of me. But the older I get, the more I see how many demands are present. There are now more types of sins and they’re easier to commit. There are numerous ways to go to Hell–and here’s a hint–rape, murder, and theft aren’t required.
My experience of this religion has been fraught with issues from the start. Try explaining eternal punishment to kid. Let them wrap their heads around the idea of Hell at an early age so that they’re “scared straight” to act in accordance with their beliefs. Allow a child to attempt to comprehend two messages that are true at the same time: human souls can be punished eternally and God loves you eternally.
I had issues with the sacraments. Confession, or the sacrament of Reconciliation, was always tough for me. I never really “got used to” telling a priest all my sins. As I got older, the sins became doubly embarrassing and doubly severe. The anxiety I felt, at times, was extreme. I would fret about Confession days before I was actually supposed to go.
And then I developed a hell on earth, scrupulosity. This is a form of OCD, or at least obsessive thoughts, centered around the fear of angering God or getting punished by God. For instance, let’s say I confessed my sins. But then my mind convinces me that I didn’t do a good job or that I tried to make myself forget a sin because I was too embarrassed to admit it. What that means, at least in my mind, is that I didn’t make a valid confession and the sins on my soul still remain. And if I die in this state, then hellfire awaits me.
Scrupulosity is not something I’ve talked about with anyone at length. But I can tell you that nothing kills a faith with as much ferocity as scrupulosity. I would fret over almost everything. In my mind, I would question myself. Did I just sin now? Is that something I have to confess? Was the action I did a severe sin? If it is, how many times did I truly do it?
I have had this affliction for years. Looking back, I know I had it at least as early back as middle school. See, scrupulosity can get so severe that you literally can’t answer anything for yourself. You will never find peace of mind no matter how many times you turn something over in your mind. You can argue with yourself all day and night if that thing you did was a sin and you’ll never get an answer that satisfies you. You’ll never leave Confession thinking that your soul was cleaned or that God forgave you. Why? Because that’s the nature of scrupulosity. It is an illness that breeds uncertainty.
You fear Hell so much that you do everything you can to remain clean, holy, pure, and loyal. Here’s the problem, though. Scrupulosity causes fear of punishment to be the primary motivation to adhere to the faith and to love God. Tell me, reader, how strong can a love based on fear be? How authentic of a religious experience can you get when you’re soaked in fear of doing wrong? How do you reconcile that God is all-loving and yet you fear God and see God as more judgmental than merciful?
Well, I never fully got my peace of mind. I do remember that I made a few pages of all my concerns borne of scrupulosity and I talked with a priest about it at a Confession. This priest, a Catholic campus minister at my university, looked at my list and was generous enough to entertain some of my concerns. But, rightfully so, he stopped me (I had a long, long list of questions because I felt I could never be at peace until I got them all answered). This priest saw right through me. He saw that I had a problem. And I saw it with clarity. I was in tears and I finally admitted that everything just felt so overwhelming. I have never been more honest in my life.
Without mental illness, I wonder how my faith would be today. Maybe I would be more devout. Maybe I’d feel what the others feel. But for the most part, I go to church just because it’s what I’m expected to do. And I do realize that’s not a healthy reason to go. But at this time, I don’t know what to do. For at least a year, I skipped going to church because of the pandemic. During that time, I was fine. But now, I’ve run out of excuses not to go since restrictions are loosening.
Breaking away from one’s childhood religion is painful. I don’t even know if I’m breaking away. For me, it’s more like I’d prefer to step back and just see what makes the most sense to me. It’s killing me to just pretend that I’m okay and that I’m as religious as I appear. But I know there are many people in my shoes.
As of today, I don’t suffer with scrupulosity as much as I used to. To be fair, though, I’m also not as devout as I used to be. The more devout I am, the more scrupulous I become. And so, it discourages me from trying to “get back in” on the religion. As of now, I’ve relieved myself of the weight of certain teachings. I’ve chosen to ignore certain things so I can just simply live my life.
Do I have faith at all? I still pray. I still talk to God. In fact, I’m trying to be honest with God. I have told God my thoughts about faith. My guess is that God would rather me be authentic than simply spit out lip service.
I don’t know what the future holds or where I stand. All I know is that something had to change for my sanity.