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Psychological Healing
in the Catholic Mystic Tradition

Questions and Answers

. . . I let the fears that I will be yelled at in confession and/or refused absolution keep me from it. (I have intense panic attacks over the whole confession experience.)

 
Saint John of the Cross gives a very good answer to this question in one of his letters to a nun suffering from scruples:
 

 
Letter 20

[To a discalced Carmelite nun suffering from scruples
Shortly before Pentecost, 1590]

Jesus, Mary.

In these days try to keep interiorly occupied with a desire for the coming of the Holy Spirit and on the feast and afterward with his continual presence. Let your care and esteem for this be so great that nothing else will matter to you or receive your attention, whether it may concern some affliction or some other disturbing memories. And if there be faults in the house during these days, pass over them for love of the Holy Spirit and of what you owe to the peace and quietude of the soul in which he is pleased to dwell.

If you could put an end to your scruples, I think it would be better for your quietude of soul not to confess during these days. But when you do confess, you should do so in this manner: 

In regard to thoughts and imaginings (whether they concern judgments, or other inordinate objects or representations, or any other motions) that occur without being desired or accepted or deliberately adverted to: Do not confess them or pay attention to them or worry about them.[1] It is better to forget them no matter how much they afflict the soul. At most you can mention in general any omission or remissness as regards the purity and perfection you ought to have in the interior faculties: memory, intellect, and will.

In regard to words: Confess any want of caution in speaking with truthfulness and rectitude, out of necessity, and with purity of intention. 

In regard to deeds: Confess any lack of the proper and only motive—God alone without any other concern.[2]

By such a confession you can be content and need not tell any other particular thing, however much it may battle against you. Receive Communion on Pentecost in addition to those days on which you usually receive.

When something distasteful or unpleasant comes your way, remember Christ crucified and be silent.

Live in faith and hope, even though you are in darkness, because it is in these darknesses that God protects the soul.

Cast your care on God, for he watches over you and will not forget you. Do not think that he leaves you alone; that would be an affront to him.

Read, pray, rejoice in God, both your good and your salvation. May he grant you this good and this salvation and conserve it all until the day of eternity. Amen. Amen.

Fray John of the Cross

 
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Notes

1There is, however, a profound psychological complication here. Many of your darkest and most hateful thoughts and imaginings—the thoughts that you keep shielded in secrecy and would never reveal to anyone, not even a psychologist or confessor—are triggered when emotional wounds from your childhood are rekindled by emotionally difficult events in the present. Your experiencing these thoughts and imaginings can provoke feelings of guilt, and then, to punish yourself for this guilt, you can engage in self-destructive temptations or behaviors (such as smoking or drinking or gambling or sexual activity or overeating or whatever). Now, you might acknowledge the behaviors themselves, but unless you get to the psychological root of the behaviors, you will just keep repeating them because of unconscious sin. And what is the psychological root of the self-destructive temptations and behaviors? It is the hate that you as a child felt in childhood for your parents, the hate that has remained an unspoken secret in your heart that you would not dare to reveal to anyone.

2This sentence was written in Late Medieval Spanish and then translated into English, so it’s complicated. I’ll paraphrase: In regard to deeds: Confess any lack of the motive to do things purely for the sake of God alone without any other reward. Now remember, of course, that this was written to a cloistered nun who was supposed to spend all day doing everything “purely for the sake of God alone” in constant prayer. So if she slipped up once in a while, it needed to be confessed. Most Catholic lay persons in the world today spend about 99% of their time NOT thinking about God alone, so Confession could take hours. And, well, oh! the scruples! So if you want to apply this to yourself, just focus on your major deeds and confess what we could call “self-serving” motives in one lump sum. You could say something like, “Forgive me, for there have been many times that I did things to serve my own self-interests, rather than out of pure love.” And then apply the counsels I explain on this website so that most of your time is spent in thinking about God alone. And if it isn’t, then consider psychotherapy to get to the root of the problem.

 


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