I’ve wanted to write about scruples for months now but I could never contrive the post in such a way that I could avoid mentioning that I was writing from personal experience, and it’s embarrassing to admit to having experienced them. In retrospect, they seem so effeminate and grounded in the sort of questions that have no answers, and doubts that have no point.
What I mean by “scruples” only make sense to someone who takes the idea of mortal sin and hell fire seriously, and so they can’t exist outside of a Catholic-Orthodox sacramental life.* The scruple is in large part an anxiety over, as it seems, the inevitability of sin and exhaustion over the impossible degree of self-awareness and focus it takes to avoid it. In a Catholic-Orthodox sacramental scheme, one with scruples might confess multiple times over short periods – even in the same day.
In retrospect, the most subtle evil of scruples is that they retard spiritual growth. The scruple is inevitably over some perceived fault that you already have more or less under control, or which is not the sort of thing that does all that much harm to God or neighbor. The high-voltage anxiety of the scruple makes the sort of calm spirituality that is required to see our deep faults – the ones that actually cause our characteristic sins. To take a typical example, while we’re obsessing over Jesuitical minutiae of whether some lustful thought was “consented to”, and replaying the stupid thought over and over again in our head, we overlook that the main problem in our relation to others is not lusting over them but being impatient, over demanding, overly self-absorbed, a doormat, etc. While we’re busily asking questions that have no answers, like whether we said or thought something with “full knowledge” or not, we have no time to do actually useful spiritual exercises like disciplining the sense appetite or focusing on opportunities for small acts of charity.
Scruples played an important role in my spiritual development, but I can say this about every stupid (and wicked) thing I ever thought, said, did or failed to do. In retrospect, they were a transition to a life of habitually avoiding mortal sins, and a testimony to divine providence that could preserve faith even under conditions that had distorted that faith into a mental illness.
*Historically, there have been Protestant versions of scruples (e.g. Cowper) but they all have a 19th century ring to me.