What is contemplative prayer?

We will begin our exploration of contemplative prayer by examining the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about it:

Contemplative prayer is the simple expression of the mystery of prayer. It is a gaze of faith fixed on Jesus, an attentiveness to the Word of God, a silent love. It achieves real union with the prayer of Christ to the extent that it makes us share in his mystery (CCC, 2724).

The Catechism describes contemplative prayer in the words of St. Teresa of Avila: “Contemplative prayer in my opinion is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us (CCC, 2709).

Contemplative prayer is further described as:

  • like entering into the Eucharistic liturgy (CCC, 2711)

  • the prayer of the child of God, of the forgiven sinner who agrees to welcome the love by which he is loved and who wants to respond to it by loving even more (CCC, 2712)

  • gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus… [and] on the mysteries of the life of Christ (CCC, 2715)

  • hearing the Word of God” (CCC, 2716)

  • participat[ion] in the "Yes" of the Son become servant and the Fiat of God's lowly handmaid (CCC, 2716)

  • silence (CCC, 2717)

  • a union with the prayer of Christ (CCC, 2718)

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Is Mindfulness for Catholics?
Catholic Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a popular concept today in mental health, psychological research, and pop psychology. In those contexts, it is usually presented as value-neutral, and unconnected to any belief system. In reality, it is a concept borrowed from eastern religious practices. It is especially associated with Buddhism. Even when the religious aspects of mindfulness are not emphasized, mindfulness is nonetheless infused with an eastern worldview.

Many western practitioners of mindfulness fail to appreciate the connection between their meditation routine and the eastern religions which inspired it. Some of this misunderstanding is rooted in an ignorance of eastern religion, and how mindfulness mediation supports it.

In mindfulness meditation, persons are asked to observe their thoughts, feelings, and sensations from a distance and without judgement. If thoughts arise, they are to be acknowledged and then let go. The ultimate goal of mindfulness meditation is detachment.

The purpose behind this goal is closely connected to the eastern concepts of samsara, karma, and nirvana. Samsara (sanskrit for wandering) refers to the cycle of death and reincarnation in which life is trapped. According to eastern belief, this undesirable state is driven by the accumulation of karma (work), both good and bad. To escape this cycle, one must cultivate detachment and reduce the accumulation of all karma over many lifetimes. The goal is nirvana (to be blown out), and an end to this cycle. In Hinduism, nirvana accompanies the realization that atman (the soul) and brahman (ultimate reality) are one. In Buddhism, nirvana accompanies the realization that the soul does not exist (anatman).

Hindu and Buddhist practitioners of mindfulness mediation believe such practice advance their religious goals in several ways. First, it reduces the accumulation of karma, both good and bad (because you aren’t doing or thinking about anything). Second, it cultivates detachment from this world and the things in it. Third, it can help one attain the realization that the self is an illusion (in Buddhism) or that the soul and ultimate reality are one (in Hinduism).

For persons who do not practice Buddhism, Hinduism, or related eastern religions these goals are likely not desirable. For Catholics, these goals contradict religious belief, scripture, and church teaching.

Catholic Meditation

Good, moral deeds are encouraged, and have no negative consequences. Catholics are not concerned with an accumulation of karma, but with living a virtuous life. Detachment itself is not a virtue; rather, one should be attached to the good things that come from God. Catholics believe God is wholly separate from the created universe, and reject identifying creatures and creation with God, affirm the existence and immortality of the soul.

Mindfulness asks practitioners to turn inward, and contemplate nothingness. In Contemplative prayer, practitioners turn outward and contemplate God. In the next article, we will explore this Catholic alternative to mindfulness meditation.

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Who is Saint Dymphna?
Who is Saint Dymphna?

Saint Dymphna is the patroness saint of mental disorders, anxiety, depression, neurological disorders, and of psychologists, psychiatrists, and neurologists.

Saint Dymphna was born in 7th century Ireland. Her father was a pagan king, ruling the small territory of Oriel in northeast Ireland. According to tradition, her mother was a Christian who secretly had Dymphna baptized as an infant. When she was fourteen, Dymphna took a vow of chastity. Shortly before or after this event, her mother died. The King was driven mad by grief, sought out a new wife who looked like Dymphna’s mother. His advisors suggested he marry Dymphna, his own daughter, and he agreed.

Dymphna, aided by her priest-confessor, fled Ireland and settled in the modern Belgium city of Geel. There, she opened a hospice to care for the poor, sick, and mentally ill.

Patron Saint of Mental Illness

Her high profile and use of foreign coins allowed her father to track her down. The King ordered her priest companion killed, and, when she refused to return to wed him, he beheaded her. This occurred sometimes around the year 620 AD.

Soon after, pilgrims began seeking the site of Dymphna’s martyrdom. By 1349, there was a large church built in her honor in Geel where many came to seek healing. A church still exists on the same site, along with a hospital for hundreds of persons seeking treatment for mental illness.

Some of St. Dymphna’s remains can be found at the National Shrine to St. Dymphna in Massillon, Ohio. Her feast day is May 15th in the current liturgical calendar, and May 30 in the Roman Martyrology.


Prayer to Saint Dymphna

Good Saint Dymphna, great wonder-worker in every affliction of mind and body, I humbly implore your powerful intercession with Jesus through Mary, the Health of the Sick, in my present need.

Saint Dymphna, martyr of purity, patroness of those who suffer with nervous and mental afflictions, beloved child of Jesus and Mary, pray to Them for me and obtain my request.

Saint Dymphna, Virgin and Martyr, pray for us.

What is Scrupulosity?

Scrupulosity is an obsessive concern with issues of guilt and sin. Many mental health professionals, both Catholic and non-catholic, conceptualize scrupulosity as a form or subtype of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

What is OCD?

What is Scrupulosity

OCD is in the anxiety-disorder family. It is characterized by two things: obsessions, and compulsions. Obsessions are unwanted, intrusive, and upsetting or disturbing thoughts. They seem to arise spontaneously as persons go about their lives. Some common obsessions include fear of harm befalling one’s self or loves ones, concerns about germs and cleanliness, disturbing sexual or violent images, and fear of “losing control” and performing some terrible act. Compulsions are acts that persons people compelled to perform over and over again, which they have difficulty stopping. The compulsions are usually intended to reduce or stop the obsessive thoughts, though the connection is not always clear. Common obsessions include compulsively washing hands or cleaning, “checking” things (and often repeatedly turning off or closing things such as light switches or door locks), and hoarding (collecting items or refusing to throw things away).

How is Scrupulosity Like OCD?

With scrupulosity, the scrupulous person struggles with compulsive thoughts concerning issues of sin and morality. The scrupulous persons may obsess over sins, and they often struggle with confusing non-sinful and sinful acts. The scrupulous Catholic often engages in compulsions related to the sacrament of confession, prayer, and they may rely on sacramentals, rosaries, sacred art and other religious items for comfort.

It can be difficult to assess scrupulosity, because regular confession and religious items can also signs of a healthy spiritual life. Many people turn to prayer or find comfort in the sacred when faced with difficult times. The difference depends on their purpose, and the relationship of the person to those things. The scrupulous person is caught in an unhealthy, distorted cycle of guilt, and uses such things to reduce their anxiety. Their guilt is generally misplaced, and often based on errors about the nature of sin and forgiveness.

Many persons will have periods of more or less scrupulosity. For example, after conversion one may struggle with feelings of scrupulosity until they learn more about their new faith, address sinful behaviors, develop a healthy prayer life and regularly receive the sacraments. Others may struggle with scrupulosity after a period of moral growth, or if they come to realize past sinful behavior has damaged their relationship with God. Others experience scrupulosity after a life transition, such as moving away to college, getting married, or separating from one’s spouse. Still others seem to struggle with scrupulosity throughout their lives, unrelated to life events. Even for such persons, the issue tend to alternate between periods of mild and high distress.

If we turn away from evil out of fear of punishment, we are in the position of slaves. If we pursue the enticement of wages… we resemble mercenaries. Finally, if we obey for the sake of the good itself and out of love for Him who commands… we are in the position of children.
— St. Basil the Great

Scrupulosity and Religious Error

Many scrupulous persons hold, or seem to hold, beliefs which conflict with Catholic teaching. Examples include:

Doubting God’s forgiveness: The scrupulous person sometimes struggles with the idea that they could be forgiven by God. They may feel themselves to be sinful in a unique way, or that they have failed to adequately “earn” forgiveness. It can be noted that final despair (an act of will that one is condemned and beyond all hope of salvation) is a mortal sin, but fleeting thoughts of despair or anxiety about the state of one’s soul are not sinful.

Mistaking venial sins for mortal sins, and non-sins for sins: While a venial sin damages a person’s relationship with God, it does not sever it. In contrast, mortal sin “turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him.” CCC 1855. For a sin to be mortal, there are three requirements. An act must a) concerns a grave matter, b) performed with full knowledge, and c) full consent. If any condition is not met, the act is not a mortal sin. For example, lying is not a mortal sin if it does not concern a grave matter. Lying about a surprise party is not sinful. Performing an act without full knowledge may turn what would otherwise be a mortal sin into a non-sin. Taking an item that you incorrectly believe to be yours is not stealing, ethically or legally. Finally, one must consent, and intend to perform an act, for it to be a mortal sin. Intrusive thoughts cannot be sinful, unless they are entertained. Lustful thoughts that arise spontaneously, if ignored, and not acted or dwelled upon, are not sinful. Ironically, having a forceful reaction, such as getting upset and attempting to push such thoughts away, actually may make such thought arise more often.

Confusing feelings of guilt with condemnation: One can feel guilt over non-sins, or continue to feel guilt over forgiven sins. The scrupulous person may feel compelling to re-confess sins that have happened in the past, and already been forgiven. They still harbor guilt over the sin. This feeling of guilt may be normal- a serious sin, such as murder, may be felt for years, or for the rest of one’s life. The effects of the sin may persist, serving as a reminder of the act. However, subjective feelings of guilt and God’s forgiveness are unrelated. One should certainly attempt to forgive oneself, after confessing a sin, and performing proper restitution. However, even if you cannot, that does not mean that God does not.

Dear little sister, receive Communion often, very often. . . . That is the only remedy if you want to be healed, and Jesus hasn’t placed this attraction in your soul for nothing.
— St. Thérèse of Lisieux to her sister, on scrupulosity

Treating Scrupulosity

If Scrupulosity is a type of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, then it can be treated in much the same manner as other types of OCD. One type of therapy with strong research support is called Exposure and Response Prevention.

Sacred Heart

The idea behind this therapy method is simple: by always pushing away anxiety provoking thoughts, and avoiding anxiety provoking situations, we actually dramatically increase our fear. Treatment involves experiencing the anxiety provoking thoughts and situations while preventing the use of the compulsions one to avoid negative feelings. Over time, level fear and physiological arousal falls. Once the emotional response is reduced, one can examine an issue with greater effectiveness and detachment.

However, when treating scrupulosity, it is important to address the spiritual dimension, along with the psychological. It can be invaluable if the treating therapist is able to incorporate some of the following activities into treatment:

Prayer: In conversational prayer, and can, developing trust in God, and ask for healing. Others may find relief through prayers such as the rosary, the Liturgy of the Hours, contemplative prayer, and other forms of prayer.

Study of the Scriptures: The scrupulous person often focuses on certain passages at the expense of others, and tends to distort the meaning of passages they do read to fit they way they feel. Reflecting upon passages concerning God’s love and mercy can be very helpful. Many find the systematic, prayerful reading of the bible found in Lectio Divina to be very fruitful.

Study of Church Teachings: What does the Church say about sin? When should we go to confession? Study of the Catechism can help correct misconceptions.

Following the Example of the Saints: Many saints experienced periods of great suffering, such as St. John of the Cross, and St. Teresa of Calcutta. Some of them experienced what today we might call scrupulosity, including St. Thérèse of Lisieux and St. Ignatius of Loyola. The inspiration of their strength and faith, and the encouragement and practical advice they offer, can be very helpful.

Spiritual Direction: This should generally be provided by someone beside the therapist. Every pastor should be able to refer those in their parish to a suitable spiritual director. The director should be able to provide spiritual guidance, guide the scrupulous toward appropriate readings, and answer questions about the faith. Was this action a mortal sin? How often should I go to confession? Which biblical passage may be helpful in this situation? A spiritual director can answer these types of direct, practical questions.

Eternal God, in whom mercy is endless and the treasury of compassion — inexhaustible, look kindly upon us and increase Your mercy in us, that in difficult moments we might not despair nor become despondent, but with great confidence submit ourselves to Your holy will, which is Love and Mercy itself.
— From the Divine Mercy Chaplet