Prayer intentions pile up. Christmas is supposed to be a season of joy, but perhaps a relative is dying, or a relationship is crumbling. Maybe an illness is preventing you or someone you love from enjoying the end-of-the-year festivities. You are trying to be a good, responsible Catholic, but you feel overwhelmed by all the needs. So you pray, “Give me a hand, Jesus!”
With a similar list of prayer intentions from family and friends, I set off on a hiking pilgrimage in the Holy Land last May. The stunning landscape of Israel awaited our group, with mountains accented by olive trees and purple thistles. We were an enthusiastic bunch of young adults, carrying our prayer requests to the place where Jesus carried all burdens.
My Struggle with Scrupulosity. On top of everyone else’s intentions, I was bringing my own: I wanted God’s help with my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). I have a particular type of OCD, which is called scrupulosity—an irrational fear of sin. A person with scrupulosity OCD becomes anxious that they have offended God when in reality they haven’t committed a sin at all. Mental health professionals say that scrupulosity is identified as OCD when religious obsessions and compulsions become involved. For example, one of my obsessions is that I must pray the Rosary perfectly without any distraction. My corresponding compulsion is that I will repeat the Hail Mary (or a whole decade) if I feel I haven’t done it “well enough.”
This illness can prevent me from daily functioning. At times, it causes me to feel so inadequate that I cannot pass a church without panicking. I know that God became man to save us and fill us with his grace, but all I see are my imperfections.
Through therapy, I have learned coping exercises to help me recognize OCD’s impossible demands and resist its compulsions. But it’s still a daily struggle. So it was a significant decision when my therapist and I decided that OCD would not stop me from going to Israel. Although my illness can be triggered by holy places, I really wanted to go.
Things started out just fine. Although some negative thoughts squeezed into my mind, it wasn’t hard for me to put them aside. I was making friends, having fun, learning a lot, and feeling close to God—until we got to Bethlehem.
Near the end of our pilgrimage, we visited the Church of the Nativity, which contains the site where it is traditionally believed that Jesus was born. As we got close, my mind filled with terrible thoughts:
Every person in this church is fit for God, and I am not. I should be filled with perfect love and devotion right now.
It was OCD. I recognized its voice by its false logic, but the thoughts seemed so believable. They left no room in my mind to pray or contemplate the significance of our Lord’s Nativity.
After a tour of the church, our group was invited to pray and explore the church until Mass. I darted into a corner, desperate to find a spot alone. Seating myself between two thick pillars, I tried to breathe. Pulling out paper and a pen, I began to write, because writing is one of my best coping skills. I wrote to the Lord in utmost honesty, telling him that all the holy things in the church overwhelmed me.
Stilling my pen, I rested for a moment. I was trying, as usual, not to let the thoughts overcome me, but my efforts weren’t working. “Okay, Jesus,” I thought, “I know that OCD is in full attack mode right now. I need your help.”
The thought then came to me, and I have no doubt that it was the Lord: “What would you tell someone who was in the same situation as you?”
I pressed my pen to the paper and started writing, taking into account all that I had learned throughout the years. “OCD attacks what a person holds dear. Those with scrupulosity hold God dear, so the illness attacks that love. The scrupulous may feel they must pray or praise God perfectly (perform a compulsion). However, this is not necessary because God firmly knows the heart of the scrupulous and he takes delight in them.” Priests and theologians have assured me of this. “No exercise or prayer is needed for the scrupulous. The simplest and most helpful thing to do is . . . Mary. Go to Mary.”
Finding Peace. I smiled to myself. Of course the most helpful thing to do is go to Mary! I had read about how St. Louis de Montfort spoke of the Virgin Mary being the easiest and simplest path to heaven, but here I was trying to fix my thoughts all by myself. I had almost forgotten to surrender these things to Mary first.
I try to consecrate myself to Mary every day by saying St. Louis de Montfort’s prayer: “I am all yours, my Mother, my Queen, and all that I have is yours.” I remembered this as I sat there in between those two pillars, and I knew that even if my mind couldn’t form a prayer of consecration, all I had to do was renew my surrender to Mary, within my heart. As soon as I realized this, I was filled with peace. I felt helpless, but I also felt perfectly safe. The obsessive thoughts didn’t disappear, but I felt like an infant, like Jesus in the arms of the Blessed Mother. Mary was seeing to my needs, as she saw to his.
Mary Holds Us. That feeling of being carried by Mary accompanied me for the rest of the pilgrimage and it hasn’t left. My OCD thoughts come and go too, but I no longer feel alone in managing them.
And all those other prayer intentions? I entrusted those into her arms as well. If the Son of God could become an infant with no responsibilities in Mary’s arms, why shouldn’t we? Since God the Father trusted Mary to feed, clothe, and teach Jesus, we can also trust her to handle our concerns in the best way possible. She is our Mother, and she continues to hold out her arms and beckon.
*At the author’s request, a pseudonym has been used.