The clock read 1:35. I slipped out the car door, ambled past farm buildings and sodium lights, opened a door that weighed more than 300 pounds, and entered the Abbey of the Genesee. Words like massive or mammoth understate the feeling of the space I entered. The walls of granite were extraordinarily thick, and gigantic wood beams extended over 100 feet to the ceiling. A hand-carved crucifix, about 4 feet high, was suspended above the altar, its shadow distinct on the adjacent ceiling--a manifestation of Dismas, the Good Thief, perhaps?
I would be spending the rest of the night in the Abbey, through Vigils and Lauds, and was looking forward to my 7 a.m. appointment with former abbot John Eudes Bambergber. Trained as a physician and psychiatrist at Georgetown and a veteran of the United States Navy, Dom John was taught by Thomas Merton at Gethsemani, and worked with Merton for 18 years conducting mental health and spirituality assessments on the surge of applicants to the Trappists in the 1950s. Dom John also had the sad task of identifying Merton’s electrocuted body in Asia in 1968. Dom John and I had an appointment to dicuss Obsessive Compuslive Disorder and its religious manifestation, scrupulosity.
Despite the vigorous efforts of psychologists and psychiatrists, OCD remains difficult to treat. The standard treatments--cognitive behavior therapy and/or medication--show emerging but far from curative rates of healing. In light of these challenges, perhaps mental health professionals need to think outside the box, backwards instead of forwards, to better understand and heal this nettlesome affliction.
Dom John views treatment of OCD from a spiritual and philosophical rather than an empirical perspective. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, notes Eudes, and its underlying panic and anxiety, work through a prism of Platonic philosophy, where abstractions and concepts rather than reality remain central. “Will the house burn down if the gas isn’t checked 100 times?” “Will there be death by germs if the hands aren’t washed 50 times?” “Was that fleeting thought a mortal sin?” Such thinking is not reality-based but mercilessly drives the thinking and behaviors of the person with OCD.
“The problem with OCD,” John Eudes said, “is that it is too abstract, too narrow. God is life-giving, not a taskmaster or harsh judge of solitary behaviors, as OCD/scrupulosity suggests. To fight OCD, one has to develop other images, thoughts based on reality, and to savor these and go beyond them in a life of prayer. Our Lord didn’t choose a Greek princess to be his mother, he chose a young Hebrew girl who knew the real world of mysteries they communicate. We celebrate this mystery when we say the Magnificat: My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.”
“It is the Hebrew, and not the Greek way of thinking, that brings us to touch the immediacy of God--a reality revealed rather than an ideal to be grasped by the intellect alone. Modern science and OCD also share common characteristics: by trying to control things--whether outward events or inward images considered to be vile and foreign, both OCD and science neglect the implicit world that is not available to the senses. Even 21st century physicists now acknowledge ‘multiverses’--other universes that always influence our world. Their interactions are subtle, and they escape our observations or do not even register on our most carefully crafted scientific instruments.” (There is a good book on OCD/scrupulosity, one consistent with Dom John’s viewpoint and recommended by Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles as well as John Cardinal O’Connor.)
Spiritual direction can complement psychological and psychiatric treatments currently available for OCD. As a spiritual director, Gerald Blaszczak, S.J. points advisees toward direct awareness of the loving presence of God in their lives. “God has given us the gift of freedom,” said Blaszczak, “and he offers us this gift and experience of peace. God is the one who brings this freedom into our lives.”
Dom John Eudes, who guided both Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen in their spiritual lives, emphasizes making others aware “that Jesus is life and the Father is one of mercy and love. Those experiencing OCD don’t feel right or whole. The problem is not in the behaviors. Knowing the One-Who-Heals directly and immediately can help bring freedom from the burdens of OCD.” Perhaps a combination of spiritual direction and modern therapies is the most effective treatment available for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?
If you decide to go to Genesee, both Amtrak and major airlines serve Rochester, New York. For more information, contact Father Jerome, O.C.S.O., guestmaster.
William Van Ornum