Catholicism, OCD, and the Greater Good

I’m in the midst of reading Xenocide by Orson Scott Card, who’s one of my favorite science fiction writers because he doesn’t shy away from questions of God. In this particular book, there’s a society in which a certain percentage of people display extreme OCD-like tendencies. But rather than being dismissed as “crazy,” they are revered as “God-spoken.” Why? Because they believe, as do the other people in their world, that the rituals they feel compelled to perform are direct instructions from their gods, intended for purification. Thus, when one of the God-spoken says or thinks something that she feels ashamed of, she finds it hard to resist the appropriate “purification” ritual — or compulsion.

When I was talking about the book with my fiance, I said, “And this is why I love science fiction — because it messes with your ideas about how the world could be.”

But this morning, I wondered if that world is really all that different from the one I inhabit after all. When I was growing up, my Catholicism had some decidedly OCD tendencies. My “ritual” of choice was the rosary. I used it as a talisman against dreadful things happening; I used it as proof of my devotion; I used it as penance when I felt guilty for a choice I’d made or a thought I’d had, usually related to sexuality, but sometimes related to thinking something unkind about someone else. Somehow, I felt that the rosary would serve as some sort of “intervention” between me and the “punishment” I deserved for whatever sin I may have committed; in fact, when I didn’t use the rosary, I would always find something “bad” that happened to me and directly tie it to the dreadful thought or act I’d convinced myself I’d performed. I had a rosary in my suitcase, a rosary in my pocket, and about three of them beside my bed. The need to use them could strike at any time.

Although I’ve moved away from this type of spirituality, I suspect I’m not the only Catholic whose religious rituals have resembled compulsions. What about the person who goes to confession twice a week because he needs to have that “clean” feeling again, or the one who sits out during communion because of a “sin” that was committed, in thought or deed, throughout the preceding week? Although I know this is in line with the teaching of the Church, I can’t help but notice that it’s not really in line with Jesus. At the last supper, did Jesus say, “This is my body, given up for those of you who haven’t sinned in the past week”? When did the Church decide that this must be what Jesus had actually meant?

In Xenocide, the rituals are used as a way, essentially, to keep the God-spoken down, to keep them too busy with their compulsions to enact any real change in the world. I can’t help but wonder if strict adherence to ritual in the Catholic Church is meant to perform the same function. Because it’s true: when you’re praying five rosaries a day, there’s not a lot of time left over for sinful thoughts, let alone sinful actions. But there’s not a lot of time left over to notice those who are hurting, or to reach out, or to explore what God might be calling you to do that doesn’t require you to stay stuck inside your own head. I realize now that there was a sort of self-centeredness to it all–I couldn’t see what others might need from me, because I was so busy examining my every thought and deed and practicing private acts of atonement accordingly.

I’m still introspective. I still find comfort in the rituals of Catholicism. But now that they no longer feel compulsory, I feel more love for myself and more love for everyone else. And that, ultimately, makes me a better person–more the person I feel God is calling me to be–than a thousand Hail Mary’s ever could.

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About Lacey Louwagie

I'm a feminist, a writer, an editor, and a seeker. I co-edited "Hungering and Thirsting for Justice: Real-Life Stories by Young Adult Catholics" (ACTA 2012) and authored "Where I First Met God" in "Unruly Catholic Women Writers II" (SUNY Press 2013). You can learn more about me at www.laceylouwagie.com.

5 thoughts on “Catholicism, OCD, and the Greater Good

  1. Pingback: Back on the YAC bandwagon « LL Word

  2. “Although I know this is in line with the teaching of the Church, I can’t help but notice that it’s not really in line with Jesus.”

    I was unaware there was necessarily a dichotomy. Or is it only so when one does not agree with the teaching? I’m sure opponents could proof text from Jesus as well.

    • I’m not saying that there is always a dichotomy between what the Church encourages and what Jesus said, did, or encouraged. There are a lot of practices in Catholicism that are directly biblically based, the Eucharist (without the accompanying rules and regulations) being one of them, as well as Baptism. I’m also not saying that I don’t understand why the Church discourages participation in Communion for those who have committed “mortal” sins. To me, “sitting it out” is essentially a sign of humility on the part of the parishioner. There’s nothing wrong with humility per se, and humility is in line with Jesus’ own teachings. So I’m not saying that there is no *reason* for what the Church teaches in this regard. I’m saying that they can’t claim that it’s what Jesus would have intended for the sacrament.

  3. Lacey- Thank you for such a thought-provoking piece. I remember clearly praying with such Rockwellian zeal, kneeling by the edge of my bed each night as a young child, wracking my young mind to be sure I included the names of each of my family members and friends in my petitions so that they wouldn’t experience sadness the next day! Even in high school and college I spent far too many nights alone by candlelight praying a rosary and privately bemoaning my sins. Now I say the rosary at night, as my grandmother taught me to, while falling asleep (“You need strong beads, Kevin, like the old ones, not these new plastic types, they fall apart after one night in the sheets”)! I hope and pray that I use my love of rituals as a call to action and social change within community rather than as a magical talisman of defense against depression and guilt.

    And to T. Ambrose, I believe the dichotomy is rather striking, at least if we take the Gospel as truth. Even if we only take this one diminutive example that Lacey cites, it is contrasted rather starkly by the Last Supper. Judas and Peter both eat with Jesus at the table and Judas is even revealed as the betrayer before the bread is broken. I love my Church and I know you do as well, but to deny that there is no discrepancy between the institution that has created it’s own rich, sovereign nation in Rome and the call of Christ to take nothing at all with you as you spread the good news on the road is bit of a stretch, in my opinion.

    Kevin

    • Thank you for your thoughtful reply. It sounds like you’ve been able to find a healthy balance in integrating Catholic ritual without letting them become tyrannical. I love what your grandmother says about the rosary — it’s true! I’ve had a few cheap rosaries fall apart in my bed. :)

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