Chapter Nine: Some Notes Concerning Scruples

As shown in the title of this section, Ignatius does not call the principles for scruples “rules”; rather, he calls them “notes.” As notes, he further defines them as “helps” to perceive and understand scruples as well as persuasions of the enemy.

Ignatius himself struggled with scruples while in Maresa after going through his several-month conversion. Thus, there is little doubt that these helps were first of great help to him as he worked through his thoughts and temptations from the evil one.

These notes will help spiritual directors, counsellors and confessors as they assist people who struggle with these tendencies. But they are especially useful for anyone who is seeking to wholeheartedly serve the will of God. It seems that those who have made the decision to radically and completely follow the will of God will have to endure certain particular struggles. 

Ignatius offers six notes on scruples to help a person work through this struggle.

First Note. The first: They commonly call a scruple what proceeds from our own judgment and freedom: that is to say, when I freely decide that that is sin which is not sin, as when it happens that after some one has accidentally stepped on a cross of straw, he decides with his own judgment that he has sinned.

This is properly an erroneous judgment and not a real scruple.

In the first note, Ignatius makes the very important distinction between an “erroneous judgment” and a “real scruple.” He notes that a person may conclude a particular action is a sin when it is not. Instead, it’s just an error of judgment. Therefore this is not, properly speaking, a scruple. This distinction is useful to understand, since an error of judgment, if it is believed as true, can do much damage to the spiritual life. In fact, an erroneous judgment may even do more damage than a scruple.

When you fall into an error of judgment, you may have a hard time admitting you were wrong because of pride. Thus, humility is an essential virtue if you are going to grow in the spiritual life. In this case, you must realize that, from time to time, you will in fact be in error. And that’s fine. Indeed, the discovery of an error of judgment is good because it allows you to correct that error.

Saint Ignatius gives the example of someone accidentally stepping on a straw cross and thinking it’s a sin. Obviously, accidents are never sins since there is no intention to the action. Therefore, the first note invites you to recognise that you most likely have fallen into error of judgment at times. Use this note to pause and think about any thoughts in your own life that may require you to reexamine your thinking and conclusions. To help discern whether one or more of your past events involved a true sin, ask a priest or read the catechism to help examine the situation.

Second Note. The second: After I have stepped on that cross, or after I have thought or said or done some other thing, there comes to me a thought from without that I have sinned, and on the other hand it appears to me that I have not sinned; still I feel disturbance in this; that is to say, in as much as I doubt and in as much as I do not doubt.

That is a real scruple and temptation which the enemy sets.

Here Ignatius gives clarity on what he calls a scruple. It’s the process of thinking, back and forth, on whether or not something is a sin. The conclusion is either right or wrong. The scruple, however, is the moving back and forth. The next note offers further clarity.

Third Note. Third: The first scruple—of the first note—is much to be abhorred, because it is all error; but the second—of the second note—for some space of time is of no little profit to the soul which is giving itself to spiritual exercises; rather in great manner it purifies and cleanses such a soul, separating it much from all appearance of sin: according to that saying of Gregory: “It belongs to good minds to see a fault where there is no fault.”

What a great lesson! Ignatius points out that an error of judgment is of no value. It is to be “abhorred.” This is because it is simply wrong. But he notes that, for those seeking perfection, for the one “giving itself to spiritual exercises,” there is actually some initial value in going through the exercise in the second note. In quoting Saint Gregory, Ignatius gives the general note that it is better to see sin where there is no sin rather than to see no sin where there is sin. Therefore, this is simply a practical guide for dealing with questions of whether something is a sin or not. In other words, don’t dismiss a question of sin too quickly. Prayerfully ponder it and make sure that you actually arrive at a good and accurate judgment.

Furthermore, Ignatius identifies something very useful here: “even the appearance of sin.” Thus, if something has enough of an “appearance” of sin, you should take it seriously enough to carefully discern whether or not it is a sin.

Fourth Note. The fourth: The enemy looks much if a soul is gross or delicate, and if it is delicate, he tries to make it more delicate in the extreme, to disturb and embarrass it more. For instance, if he sees that a soul does not consent to either mortal sin or venial or any appearance of deliberate sin, then the enemy, when he cannot make it fall into a thing that appears sin, aims at making it make out sin where there is not sin, as in a word or very small thought.

If the soul is gross, the enemy tries to make it more gross; for instance, if before it made no account of venial sins, he will try to have it make little account of mortal sins, and if before it made some account, he will try to have it now make much less or none.

The first line of this note points out that the enemy looks attentively to see if the person has a gross (also translated as “lax”) or a delicate conscience. It is the conscience that is the focus in this note. A gross or lax conscience is one that fails to see sin where there is sin. A delicate conscience is one that seems to see sin where there is no sin.

Take, for example, an action of Jesus Himself. Recall how Jesus said to the Canaanite woman, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Matthew 15:26, RSV-CE). She had come to him, begging for mercy for her daughter who was severely possessed by a demon. At first, Jesus ignored her. Then, when she knelt before him and begged Him, He made that statement. Now, of course Jesus did not sin. He said this to the woman to allow her to manifest her faith for all to see. And in the end, Jesus did cry out, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire” (Matthew 15:28, RSV-CE).

When this happened, because our divine Lord was perfect, you can be certain that he did not suffer from any form of scruple. But imagine if you were there and heard this. Then, later, you were discussing it and you said to others, “Jesus was wrong. He was way too harsh on her.” But then you felt confused and were not sure if what you said was right, etc.

The simple truth is that, at times, especially when you are faced with the deepest mysteries of our faith, you may second-guess yourself and even our divine Lord. This displays a delicate conscience at work. And, if you have a delicate or sensitive conscience, then the evil one will try to confuse you by making your conscience even more sensitive. This leads to the confusion that comes from scrupulosity.

On the other hand, if you have a lax conscience and, for example, criticize someone unjustly, you may tend to shrug it off later on as if it were no big deal, as if the person deserved it. In this case, the evil one will work to make your conscience even more lax, suggesting thoughts that weaken the sensitivity of your conscience even more.

The key lesson here is to get to know yourself and understand which tendency you struggle with the most. Do you tend to be more lax—or more sensitive? When you understand your tendency, then you will be in a better position to combat the subtle and deceptive trickery of the evil one in your life. 

Fifth Note. The fifth: The soul which desires to benefit itself in the spiritual life, ought always to proceed the contrary way to what the enemy proceeds; that is to say, if the enemy wants to make the soul gross, let it aim at making itself delicate. Likewise, if the enemy tries to draw it out to extreme fineness, let the soul try to establish itself in the mean, in order to quiet itself in everything.

The goal is to seek the middle way. Do not allow yourself to become too lax, and do not allow yourself to become too sensitive. The middle way, the “moderate course,” is the right way and the place in which you will find true peace of mind and heart.

Sixth Note. The sixth: When such good soul wants to speak or do something within the Church, within the understanding of our Superiors, and which should be for the glory of God our Lord, and there comes to him a thought or temptation from without that he should neither say nor do that thing—bringing to him apparent reasons of vainglory or of another thing, etc.—then he ought to raise his understanding to his Creator and Lord, and if he sees that it is His due service, or at the least not contrary to it, he ought to act diametrically against such temptation, according to St. Bernard, answering the same: “Neither for thee did I begin, nor for thee will I stop.”

This final note deals with the irrational temptation toward vainglory or pride. It is especially a scruple that you may fall into if you have a more sensitive or delicate conscience. For example, God may inspire you to act in some way for His glory. In that case, the action should be done. But the evil one may tempt you to not act, by suggesting to you that you are only doing the action out of your own vanity and need for recognition. And being a sensitive person, one with a delicate conscience, you may begin to believe this lie. Thus, Ignatius says to pause and examine your action. If you believe that it was truly inspired by God, then move forward with it in confidence, rejecting the temptation the evil one spews out. Humbly, honestly, courageously and confidently doing the will of God is never vanity. Though vanity could arise when you fail to do all for the glory of God, you should not allow this fear of vanity to be the cause of inaction. Serve God, seek to fulfill His will, surrender any struggles of vanity over to Him, and continue down the road of service with confidence.

Use these notes as a general guide for any way that you struggle with the temptation to see sin where it is not or to see virtue where it is not. Examine your conscience each day, follow your well-informed conscience and do so with confidence. If you are in error, and if you are humbly open each day to the voice of God, He will show you your error.

In some ways, the methods of regular examination and discernment of spirits of Saint Ignatius can lend themselves to producing the struggle of scrupulosity. But if you keep this in mind, and if you remain sincere and humble in your desire to serve the will of God and to give Him the greatest glory you can with your life, then you can be assured that our Lord will continue to bring you down the right path of virtue and holiness.

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Chapter Ten: Rules for Thinking with the Church

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