Stay Awake! Advent & Religious OCD

This post contains reflections specific to Western Christianity and Scrupulosity OCD.

Hello, and apologies for my extended absence. The last few months have been bursting with activity. First, my fiancé and I became engaged during a trip to Ireland. Second, I turned 33 years old. Third, we moved into a new apartment together. Fourth, the organization I worked for hosted our annual conference in Cleveland. Fifth, we just completed a four-day Thanksgiving trip.

Whew! These have all been wonderful events. Now, as life finally begins to take on a normal rhythm again, I feel called to re-commit to this blog. Today is Sunday, Dec. 1st – the First Sunday of Advent. While attending a Catholic Mass this morning (a gray and rainy morning, at that), I heard a bit in the Gospel reading that spiked me and inspired me to reflect on Religious OCD (Scrupulosity) and Western Christianity in general.

The bit that spiked me was this: in a passage describing the future “coming of the Son of Man,” Jesus tells the disciples:

Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come. Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour of night when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into. So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come. – Matthew 24:37-44

In ye olden days, they used to describe individuals suffering from religious or moral obsessions as “scrupulous” or as “having the scruples.” This is where we get the modern-day phrase/diagnosis, Scrupulosity OCD. Wikipedia says: “Scrupulosity is characterized by pathological guilt about moral or religious issues. It is personally distressing, objectively dysfunctional, and often accompanied by significant impairment in social functioning.”

The Gospel reading above plays directly into this concept of scrupulosity: “Stay awake! Be prepared! God is coming like a thief in the night!”

Bottom line: you’ll be punished if you aren’t vigilant.

This sounds a lot like what OCD threatens me with daily. As such, I react strongly to any language that implores me to be alert. With my personal background, how can I possibly find positive meaning in this passage, instead of fear?

I’ve got a few ideas to start with.

First, I am going to trust that God does not desire humanity (including me!) to live in despair, and that God does not desire anyone to suffer from depression, anxiety, or OCD. With my whole heart, I believe this is a really, really good place to start. So, in this moment, I am going to breathe deeply and recall all the messages of hope within the scriptures – especially some of the Advent messages. Sometimes, the good news is overshadowed by apocalyptic warning cries; I don’t know why – that’s just the way it is. God speaks to all persons, and I suppose some respond only to volume.

Second, I am going to rethink my response to “Stay Awake!” When I first heard that message today, my OCD said, “But I am awake! I’m checking, I’m searching, I’m working overtime to stay safe.” Upon reflection, though, what if doing my insane compulsions is not really staying awake at all – but rather, walking in circles within a bad dream? This would be a dream worth being snapped out of. Living life according to OCD’s terms will definitely keep my active life “asleep,” preventing me from connecting, sharing myself, and loving my neighbor.

Third, I am going to creatively imagine that God is calling me to be a peacemaker through today’s readings. Incidentally, in the first reading today the prophet Isaiah describes a vision of nations gathering together in the Lord’s house. They learn God’s ways, and they are instructed that nation shall no longer raise sword against another nation, nor shall they make preparations for war. With all respect to the real-world implications of these words, I’d also like to bump that message down to the individual level. For instance, OCD is a way of making war against oneself. The readings today imply a God who desires peace and security for all people (including me!). I am going to trust and follow this promise. Rather than treating myself with suspicion and violence, I shall make peace with my mind.

In my humblest opinion, the shortest way to salvation from Religious OCD is to live a true life – not to be paralyzed about being a good or bad person, or worrying about heaven and hell – but to actually live in the here and now. True life is about immersing myself in the world and all of its experiences. It is about taking in stimuli, and creating stimuli of my own – art, food, love, music, romance, and even sensuality. If I fall, I will (with God’s help) get up again.

I will never be properly prepared for the coming of the Son of Man. Nevertheless, I choose to join the “Advent people” in their joyful expectation. I will walk and follow the light of the star, rather than my own fruitless quest for certainty and moral perfection.

We are all imperfect, and we all have the capacity to harm and hurt others. God knows this, and has subsequently sent his light into the world to help correct us, not to torture us – despite what OCD would have me believe.

-M.C.

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