The Scrupulous Augustine

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By Elizabeth Zahorick, University of Notre Dame

When Our Lord appears to His disciples after the Resurrection, He greets them on three separate occasions with the same greeting: “Peace be with you” (Jn 20:19). Christ knew that their hearts were deeply troubled after the events of His Passion and wanted to show them that only His Presence in their lives could bring them true peace. Christ wants to extend that same peace to all of us, and yet our lives are filled with anxieties. Ironically, anxiety can arise in our very act of attempting to pursue Him when we do so in a misguided way. We can get so caught up in overanalyzing every one of our moral acts that we fear that we have mortally sinned when we have not and that we must hold ourselves to impossibly high standards of purity and virtue in order to make it to heaven. This spiritual anxiety is commonly known as scrupulosity.

Although scrupulosity disguises itself as holiness, as an earnest desire to please God in everything we do, it is a monster. It is a temptation to believe that God is just waiting for us to slip up so He can turn off our salvation like a light switch. This vision is irreconcilable with the ever-loving, ever-merciful God that we know and love in the Person of Jesus Christ, and so scrupulosity gradually separates us from the truth of who God is. At its core, scrupulosity is a lack of trust in God and trust in His willingness to forgive us and save us, and it traps us in a mindset of attempting to climb to heaven by closely observing the commandments that God has given us through the Church. Like the 4th-century heretic Pelagius, we come to believe, at least subconsciously, that it is our own efforts that bring about our salvation.

It is no wonder, then, that a powerful antidote to scrupulosity can be found in the writings of Pelagius’ most fearsome adversary. Saint Augustine’s Confessions tells the story of a man who worked hard to gain earthly glory for years, until he finally realized that the only place his heart could find rest was in the Lord (I.1.1). In Book Ten, after the narrative of his former life of sin and subsequent conversion is ended, we receive illuminating insight into who he is. Here, Augustine shifts from describing his past sins to his present ones: “I will disclose myself not as I have been but as I am now, as I am still, though I do not judge myself” (X.4.6).

He journeys through the five senses, describing the ways in which he sins by seeking sensible goods for their own sake and not for the sake of God. He begins with the sense of touch, relating it to the sin of indulging in sexual pleasure. Augustine chose a life of celibacy after pursuing sex outside of marriage for many years, and earlier in the Confessions he personifies the virtue of continence as a “pure and honorable” woman with her arms outstretched to him (VIII.11.27). Despite this wholehearted embrace of the celibate life, Augustine is still plagued by the fear that he will fall into sexual sin. He confesses that although he is able to resist sexual temptation while awake, he continues to have dreams in which he gives in to lust. Although he knows he is not culpable for the things he does in dreams, he is still tormented by the fact that the sin “was in some sense done in [him]” (X.30.41).

Here we can begin to see Augustine’s struggle against scrupulosity. He knows that his mind does not retain the same capacity for reason when sleeping as it does when awake, and as such he is not sinning when he seems to consent to sex in these dreams. All the same, he criticizes himself for being unable to resist temptation while asleep, naming it as an “area of [his] sinfulness” and pleading with God to “extinguish unruly stirrings even in [his] sleep” (X.30.42). Many scrupulous people irrationally blame themselves for emotions and desires that they have little control over and feel that they have sinned even when they make an honest effort to resist disordered desires. They convince themselves that they ought to have more self-control and that they have failed in purity even when they are clearly doing their best.

Later in his treatment of the five senses, Augustine explores the sense of hearing, particularly as it pertains to music. Augustine loved music, and as a newly baptized Catholic in Milan was moved deeply by the hymns of St. Ambrose that had been incorporated into the liturgy. However, in this passage he struggles to find a balance between loving music insofar as it increases his devotion to God and loving music purely for its aesthetic beauty. The former he recognizes as good, but he believes that the latter is sinful. He further confesses that his anxiety over falling into sin while listening to music has led him to the opposite extreme of condemning all music:

On occasion, however, I stray into excessive rigor in my exaggerated caution against such a mistake. While this mood lasts I would dearly like all those sweet and tuneful strains which accompany David’s psalter to be banished from my ears, and indeed from the ears of the Church… Thus I vacillate between the danger of sensuality and its undeniable benefits (X.33.50).

This “excessive rigor” is familiar to many who have suffered from scrupulosity: the temptation to deny ourselves a true good for fear that the good thing is sinful or that enjoying it will somehow cause us to sin. Rather than attempt to find the virtuous mean and risk sinning by overindulging, the scrupulous person avoids the good thing entirely. In his anxiety Augustine is unable to determine what exactly this virtuous mean is for him, stating, “I have become an enigma to myself, and herein lies my sickness” (X.33.50).

Augustine’s anxieties are further evident after his discussion of the five senses, when he discusses the sin of pride. As a good bishop who was beloved by his flock, Augustine was frequently praised, and here he has no idea how to respond to it. As a leader of the Church, he had to accept an exalted position while remembering at all times Christ’s command to humble oneself lest one “be humbled” by God at the Last Judgment (Lk 14:11). He recognizes that it is good that the people praise him as long as they are really praising God for working good things through him, and he realizes the only way to get them to stop praising him is to stop being a good bishop. Since this is not an option, he must find some virtuous way of accepting and responding to praise. This is difficult for him. He confesses that he “enjoy[s] being praised” despite his best efforts to maintain humility (X.37.61). Furthermore, his very efforts to avoid indulging in pride seem to him to be a sort of pride:

This is a real temptation for me, and even when I am accusing myself of it, the very fact that I am accusing myself tempts me to a further self-esteem. We can make our very contempt for vainglory a ground for preening ourselves more vainly still, which proves that what we are congratulating ourselves on is certainly not contempt for vainglory; for no one who indulges in it can be despising it (X.38.63).

In other words, being praised sends Augustine into a tumult of anxiety, in which any effort he makes to stay humble seems to him to be pride in his own humility. He describes himself as “hemmed in” on all sides by his own internal struggle, in which the emotional responses he experiences and choices he makes appear to all be sinful in different ways (X.39.64). This feeling of being trapped is one of the hallmarks of scrupulosity, in which the scrupulous person feels that no matter what he does, he is somehow sinning.

What to do about such mental torment? One solution is offered to us by the devil: to despair. Scrupulosity can easily lead to resentment of God for imposing such heavy burdens on us and destruction of our hope for attaining eternal life. It tempts us to believe that we cannot win. However, Augustine rejects despair because he knows that even in his suffering God is with him, perpetually giving him grace. Augustine accepts the pain that his anxiety brings each day because he believes in the power of his Redeemer: “It is not that I have ceased to inflict these wounds on myself; rather I am conscious that ever and anew you are healing them” (X.39.64).

As Christians, we are commanded to “pray constantly” and form a relationship with God through prayer (1 Thess 5:17). Prayer strengthens anxious Christians and helps them to foster a greater dependence on God, but scrupulous Christians often find it difficult to pray. Even in their attempts to allow their souls to be lifted to God they are weighed down with anxiety and doubt. Fortunately, Christ is ever mindful of our weakness and does not expect us to unite ourselves with Him through prayer alone. He has given us the ultimate gift, the gift of His very Self, in the Blessed Sacrament. Any doubt of His love for us is banished away by the real, substantial Presence that He gives to us every day out of His abundant mercy. We do not have to convince our scrupulous minds of the truth of God’s love. In the Eucharist it is right there before us, to be seen, held, and tasted. Augustine closes Book Ten by throwing himself, anxieties and all, on the mercy of God as present in the Eucharist:

See, then, Lord: I cast my care upon You that I may live, and I will contemplate the wonders You have revealed. You know how stupid and weak I am: teach me and heal me. Your only Son, in Whom are hidden all treasures of wisdom and knowledge, has redeemed me with His Blood. Let not the proud disparage me, for I am mindful of my ransom. I eat it, I drink it, I dispense it to others, and as a poor man I long to be filled with it among those who are fed and feasted. And then do those who seek Him praise the Lord (X.43.70).

May we all be given the grace to ask for God’s healing for all anxieties that plague us, and to continue to receive the peace that only He can bring through the saving power of the Eucharist.

Works Cited

The Holy Bible. Revised Standard Version, The Melton Book Company, 1971.

Augustine, and Maria Boulding. The Confessions. New York: New City Press, 2012. Print.

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