How often do you have trouble forgiving yourself? If you are anything like me, this probably happens a lot more often than we would want to admit. Learning to forgive and love ourselves despite our shortcomings is one of the most herculean tasks we undertake each day.
One of my colleagues in a preaching class was offering a sermon about her experience of Lent. Her brutal honesty was striking. When describing some of the difficulties she has had with Lenten practices, she stopped and exclaimed, “Sometimes I feel like dirt. To then put ashes on my forehead on Ash Wednesday feels like God is just rubbing it in.” Her words were striking, “How am I supposed to accept God’s forgiveness when I don’t even know how to forgive myself?”
Some years ago during Lent, a Jewish friend of mine joked with me saying, “Without a doubt, us Jews invented guilt; but it seems like you Catholics perfected it!”
We Catholics sometimes seem as though we have a monopoly on the sin and guilt market. Despite our vast collective knowledge of the various sins that exist, one of the sins we hear least about is that of scrupulosity. In simple terms, this sin can be defined as the sin of “being too hard on yourself.”
In high school, I would spend far too much time in the confessional. I would nit-pick at my sins and despite the fact that I was granted absolution each visit, I never felt as though I was worthy of forgiveness. At the time, no amount of forgiveness was enough.
It was not until a confession session in undergrad that a priest told me, “Even Jesus got down from the Cross. Why do you insist on staying up there? Your scrupulosity is as much a sin as anything else you’ve said.” He shared with me a reflection from the Franciscan spiritual writer Richard Rohr who described ego as not simply of the “Look at me! Look at me! Look at how great I am!” variety, but also of the “Don’t look at me! I’m unworthy!” variety. Extreme pride comes from the same source as extreme scrupulosity.
I once heard humility described as “Not thinking of yourself as less than, but simply thinking of yourself less.” Both pride and scrupulosity come from an egotistical place, a place where we spend far too much of our time thinking either about how great or how bad we are.
For St. Augustine, the “brief and true definition of virtue” is the ordo amoris, the order of love. Without going into too much detail, Augustine describes different levels of love and what it is directed toward. What is important to take away from it is his understanding of disordered loves. The Augustinian Corrective, as it is known in some circles, is the means by which we try to fix our loves which are directed down a harmful path.
What if we were to think of our scrupulosity and inability to forgive ourselves as a disordered love? Recognizing that love of God necessarily entails love of others which challenges us to a love of self. Of course, this love of self is not to be taken as self-indulgence, but as a rightly ordered love that allows us to live abundantly. By correcting our disordered love of being too scrupulous, we open ourselves up to a life where God’s love and mercy can break through our inability to forgive ourselves.
“Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’” (Luke 15:3-6)