When I was 8 years old, I confessed to a crime. It wasn’t a ‘crime’ per se, and I also didn’t commit it, but it certainly felt like I did.
During an ordinary school day, a classmate’s art project was found broken. Assembled before the teacher, those of us who were near the scene were asked to confess what we had done.
I took that instruction a bit too personally.
My memory of the incident is relatively clear. I felt overwhelming guilt. I didn’t remember breaking the art, but I did remember brushing it briefly with my hand. Maybe I broke it without realizing, I thought to myself. Even as I write this, I hear a voice in my head telling me that the whole introduction to this article is based on a false premise, and that I did break it.
To be clear, I didn’t.
I haven’t changed all that much from when I was 8. I don’t know how many people have heard of ‘scrupulosity’, ’intrusive thinking’ or ‘pure OCD,’ but (to avoid diagnostic jargon) I have a mental illness which predisposes me to persistent, anxiety-inducing, and sometimes terrifying thoughts which often relate to deeply negative perceptions about myself.
My schoolroom false confession is an example of what I’ve seen termed ‘moral scrupulosity’. I feel excessively guilty for minor acts, or even things which I did not do at all, often accompanied by an obsessive urge to confess what I have done.
Scrupulosity manifests as a kind of torturous self-directed Pelagianism. Suffering under these thoughts, I found myself constantly afflicted with a self-imposed perfectionism. This standard of perfection did not apply to others, to whom I wished to sacrifice myself completely. The idea of ‘self-compassion’ simply made no sense to me. Altruism was to be something entirely reserved for others, while I labored in a purposeless quest for perfection.
There are limits to the comparison with Pelagianism. Pelagius believed that perfection for the individual was obligatory because it was possible. I never held this belief explicitly. I was entirely aware that I could never be more than what I was. I labored under a toxic, paradoxical view of myself as being under the obligations of a Pelagian while possessing Calvinist-like total depravity. This is because what I suffer from is a mental illness, not a coherent theology.
By mentioning doctrines like total depravity, I am not trying to turn this article into a critique of any individual theological viewpoint. Rather, I intend to focus on a Christian practice which has helped me to cope with my mental health issues: the tradition of contemplative prayer.
To develop this practice of contemplation, it was first necessary for me to realize that Christianity is not incompatible with self-compassion. In certain evangelical circles, there is a cheap discourse that ‘self-love’ is the new great sin. While the virtue of humbleness has always been central to Christianity, it is important to distinguish between narcissism and true self-love. Where narcissism drives us to ignore our imperfections, self-compassion recognizes these imperfections and pushes us to heal them. When evangelicals attack self-love, they are really attacking a false vision of it promoted in certain self-help circles.
Thankfully, I don’t think many sensible theologians promote the kind of relentless self-hatred which mental illnesses like scrupulosity push us to adopt. The Christian view of human nature is highly complex. We are simultaneously fallen and made in the image of God. How the light and shadow within the human soul relate to each other is a complex question with which I lack both the expertise and the time to engage. However, it is relatively clear that Christianity (when taught correctly) need not be an endless exercise in self-flagellation.
Still, even though it may be theologically possible to dispel the kinds of toxic thoughts I labor under, for me, it is not a question of dismantling a theological system. Rather, my brain is structured in such a way that certain phrases and concepts (sin, purity, etc.) trigger my intrusive thinking. So, finding a healthy relationship to religion is not merely a matter of debunking toxic theology, it is a question of adopting the right spiritual practices to prevent toxic theological thoughts from arising. For me, these theological practices all belong to the school of techniques known as contemplative prayer.
As a neurotic child, my prayers took the form of long laundry lists of concerns. They were sequential, highly ritualized, and based on the suite of anxieties I had at the time. One fear would follow another, with the same sequence of fears lasting months (if not years). Now, as a slightly less neurotic pseudo-adult, I have found that contemplative prayer suits me better. I sit silently and God is there. This form of prayer is the antithesis of my scrupulosity. Allowing myself to dwell quietly inside infinite love is not something my intrusive thoughts see me as worthy of doing.
Gradually, through the application of contemplative techniques, I find myself as willing to accept God’s forgiveness as I once was to endure my own self-imposed wrath. Paradoxically, I also believe that through these practices I have come to a deeper understanding of sin and morality than I possessed when I was fixated on questions of my own self-worth.
I feel that contemplative prayer brings me nearer to the foundation of virtue than the intrusive thinking of my youth. I close my eyes and there is love. This love is the rule and measure of all things, all goodness and virtue. It feels funny to put it so simply, because to me it does not seem simple. Though I had always professed belief in the importance of love, I never knew what this truly meant until I felt for myself the love which is at the base of everything.
I have come to see the sensations of love and presence which we perceive during contemplative prayer as close contact with the part of God that is knowable. This part (the Logos that became flesh as Christ) is love itself. While, I don’t think I’m saying anything hugely original, for me, this is the most liberating truth there ever has been or will be.
I have also come to believe that this perception of the Logos within us (in the form of a sense of infinite compassion) serves as the epistemic foundation of all valid normative structures. With this belief, I can step outside the cage of rules I had made for myself, surrounded by the eternity of God’s love.
Those thoughts and rules which were not rooted in the love of myself or others could be cast into the flames. To paraphrase St. Paul in Galatians, through the [true meaning of] the law I died to [the false appearance of] the law (Gal 2:19). It is through the endless love that dwells within us that we know what is good. If the ultimate outcome of the rules we create for ourselves is fear and self-hatred, we are engaging in acts of pointless flagellation.
I still find myself prone to intrusive thinking. I’m working at it, I’m getting there. No religion is a substitute for discipline and a properly trained therapist. Now, rather than trying to defeat my anxiety by reasoning with it, I sometimes find myself floating above the thoughts that used to terrify me. They’re still there, but they don’t seem to matter.
I believe that God was with me when I falsely confessed to breaking the art project. He was there in the warmth of my mother, who heroically ventured back into the school to tell my teacher the truth. For me, God has always been the whispering voice, murmuring softly beneath the wind and flames. God is the terrible, daring presence who whispers that maybe, just maybe, everything is alright.