Having religious OCD can feel isolating. Most people in our faith communities don’t understand the condition where OCD and faith collide. We may struggle with our symptoms and feel like we are alone. However, scrupulosity has been identifiable — at least within Christianity — for hundreds of years. Here are 6 scrupulosity OCD stories from Christian history that will remind you that you’re not alone.
But before you read through the list, go ahead and take this fun quiz to find out who’s your scrupulosity soulmate. The results might surprise you!
1. Scrupulosity OCD Stories: Ignatius of Loyola
In his early years, Ignatius of Loyola fought in the Spanish military and was known to be a driven leader, even remembered for the occasional sword fight. In the Battle of Pamplona in 1521, while storming the fortress of Pamplona, Loyola was critically hit in the legs by a cannonball. While healing from his wounds, he experienced a spiritual conversion and a call to ministry. He went on to found the Jesuit missionary order and become a key contributor to Catholic mysticism.
Loyola was not free from anxiety, however. Despite his strong personality and great successes, he suffered scrupulous fears. In his writings, he mentions his fears of stepping on two pieces of straw that happen to overlay each other in the shape of a cross, as well as other spiritual intrusive thoughts. He eventually suggested a cure for scruples that involved blindly following a spiritual guide who would act as an arbiter for which of your obsessions and compulsions are reasonable. This seemed to work for Loyola, since he went on to become one of the most influential leaders in the history of Christian mission.
2. Scrupulosity OCD Stories: John Bunyan
John Bunyan began life as a foul-speaking, worldly lad who would later recall a great deal of foolishness from his younger years. After his wedding, his father-in-law gave the young couple two religious books. Bunyan’s exposure to religious ideas increasingly discomforted him, leading to agonizing soul searching and eventually religious conversion. He became an ardent preacher for Christ. At that time, however, when threats of revolution were on every hand, open-air preaching was forbidden in England. Bunyan preached anyways, with large crowds flocking to hear him speak.
This stubbornness led to his arrest and imprisonment. It was then that Bunyan wrote the immortal Pilgrim’s Progress which has blessed untold millions. However, his active and creative mind were not always a blessing. Bunyan suffered from severe scrupulosity, including intrusive religious thoughts, urges to blaspheme, and irrational fears that the church bells would fall on his head. He eventually found comfort by seeking for relief in the Bible.
3. Scrupulosity OCD Stories: Mother Teresa
Mother Teresa, originally Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, was born in Albania in 1910. She suffered from poverty at a young age but was brought up to love God and love the church. She served as a Roman Catholic nun for most of her life — in Albania, Ireland, and most famously, India. She cared for the poor, outcast, sick, and dying. In a time when the Catholic Church viewed AIDS as a divine punishment for sin, Mother Teresa went out of her way to care for these sufferers. At the end of her life, she was granted the Nobel Peace Prize for her work with the world’s most vulnerable and has become an international symbol of compassion.
But Mother Teresa wasn’t free from spiritual discouragement. She suffered from recurring bouts of spiritual doubt and darkness. She experienced anxiety when she felt as though God was not listening or responding to her prayers. Some have suggested that Mother Teresa’s compulsive charity may have been a sign of scrupulosity. She finally found a sense of reassurance by corresponding with Father Joseph Neuner, who helped her reframe her doubts in a more helpful way.
4. Scrupulosity OCD Stories: Søren Kierkegaard
Søren Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher most famous for his contributions to existential philosophy. Throughout his life he remained a faithful Christian who both decried religious abuses in the church and yet sought to live an authentic spiritual life himself. He was a well-known figure who was known for witty debates, stinging literary critiques, and his quirks — such as avoiding the patches of sunlight on the sidewalk as he went for his daily stroll. His scruples and heavy melancholy persisted throughout his life and could be quite invasive in his decisions.
At one crucial point, he called off his engagement to Regina Olsen, the love of his life, because his excessive rumination made him feel that this was the right thing to do. He never married, and had her returned engagement ring recast into a cross to remind him of what he viewed as a sacrifice for the cause of Christ. Despite what may have been compulsive behavior, Kierkegaard remains a lofty figure in Christian philosophy and theology today.
5. Scrupulosity OCD Stories: Thérèse of Lisieux
Thérèse of Lisieux, known affectionately as the “Little Flower of Jesus,” was a young Carmelite nun in 19th century France. After losing her mother at a young age, she grew up pampered by her father and older sisters yet was deeply pious. She experienced a turning point in her religious experience when she pled with God to help her contain her raw, intense emotions and she received His help. She then sought to become a nun, even requesting early admission to the convent from the pope himself.
As a young nun, Thérèse promoted the idea of finding contentment in little things. She believed that not all are to become the stately lily or the glorious rose — some are to be simple little flowers, and all may find contentment in being just what Jesus meant for us to be. Despite this, she went through periods of great anxiety and doubt about her spiritual life, fearing that she had committed a mortal sin or had offended God. She would often pray compulsively until she fell asleep from exhaustion, and she also demonstrated signs of depression. Despite this, her theology of grace has been a comfort to thousands of believers who aspire to be little flowers in the garden of Jesus.
6. Scrupulosity OCD Stories: Martin Luther
Martin Luther was an ardent, fiery monk born in 1483. He later became a professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg in Germany and spent many years traveling, preaching, and writing. Luther is a controversial figure, loved by some and hated by others — theological views aside, he was known to be blunt and colorful in his insults, which he wielded in his work in support of the Protestant Reformation. For example,
“You are the worst rascal of all the rascals on earth!”From Against the Roman Papacy, an Institution of the Devil, pg. 341 of Luther’s Works, Vol. 41
“Your writings and head are disordered and mixed up, so that it is exceedingly annoying to read and difficult to remember what you write.”From Against the Heavenly Prophets, pg. 146 of Luther’s Works, Vol. 40
Unfortunately, Luther suffered from scrupulous thoughts that he may have unconfessed sins, as well as intrusive thoughts urging him to blaspheme God. His intense scruples led him to emphasize salvation by grace through faith, which became a cornerstone of Protestant theology.
If you’re suffering from scrupulosity, don’t let yourself feel like you’re the only believer experiencing it. And with such a lineup of great Christian achievers, you certainly shouldn’t feel like religious OCD can limit you from living a spiritually satisfying life. In many cases, scrupulosity leads us to be more active and successful in whatever we do for God, despite the drawbacks and anxiety we face from day to day.
So who’s your scrupulosity soulmate? Take the quiz at the top of the page and leave us a comment to let us know who resonated with you the most.
Best wishes on the journey,