In 1273 St. Thomas Aquinas, the great scholastic and systematic theologian and Doctor of the Church, stopped writing. When asked why, he said, “I cannot, because all I have written seems like straw to me.” He died three months later, leaving his great work Summa Theologica unfinished.
Scholars have theorized that he stopped writing because of a mystical revelation so intense that, in comparison, all of his effort seemed common and ordinary—like a bale of straw.
I’d like to suggest another perspective. The promise of systematic and scholastic theology is that if a person asks the correct questions and gets the answers to those questions, eventually everything will be explained and understood. This systematic process is based on an assumption that there are a limited number of questions and answers.
St. Thomas asked big questions about God and the meaning of the universe. No matter how many questions he asked, he never reached the end. His questions weren’t answerable. Once he understood his efforts were fruitless, he decided to leave the questions and answers behind and simply embrace the mystery and wonder of the universe.
Some theologians might aggressively challenge my insight, but I hold fast to it. I’m not dismissing or marginalizing St. Thomas’s efforts; I’m simply seeing a parallel between his quest and that of people with scrupulosity, who are regularly lured into a dogged belief that all of their questions can be answered if they apply enough effort.
Unfortunately, there are simply not enough answers to the multitude of questions scrupulosity generates. No matter what your efforts, no matter how dedicated your pursuit, the result will be the same: You’ll never run out of questions, and you’ll never find all the answers.
A much better approach is to do as St. Thomas eventually did: Give up the search for the ultimate answer, and learn to embrace life’s mystery, wonder, and awe.
When your scrupulosity manifests, assume the position of observer instead of combatant. Instead of struggling against the symptoms, observe the power of the obsessive thoughts and compulsions, and try to feel rather than deny the feeling. Embrace the wonder and the mystery of how the disorder shows itself.
This doesn’t mean you’re being controlled by or cooperating with the scrupulous thoughts; it means you’re experiencing the disorder so you can learn from it.
As you learn about your obsessions and compulsions, you’ll begin to recognize the feelings that signal them, brace yourself for the intensity of what follows, and lessen its severity. You won’t be caught off-guard, feeling helpless and hopeless. You’ll be confident that you can get through it again.
It’s in learning, rather than in denying, that you’ll learn the skills to manage the disorder.
Scrupulosity isn’t managed by seeking answers to each doubt. It’s managed by focusing on the emotional response—the feeling—rather than the intellectual response. If scrupulosity could be managed by answers, everyone would be cured with the first answer. You’ll discover much more peace and comfort if, instead of seeking answers to questions, you seek ways to manage and temper your scrupulous feelings.
To the best of my knowledge, St. Thomas Aquinas didn’t have scrupulosity, but he did suffer the frustration of too many questions and not enough answers. The following prayer to St. Thomas is one of my favorites, and you may also find it comforting:
Grant me, O Lord my God,
a mind to know you,
a heart to seek you,
wisdom to find you,
conduct pleasing to you,
faithful perseverance in waiting for you,
and a hope of finally embracing you. Amen.
by Fr. Thomas M. Santa, CSsR