Having looked around a bit for something a little more theologically substantial on the topic of so-called “intrusive thoughts” and not finding anything, I decided to get to work myself. I put forward here some of the principles and conclusions which guide my understanding of this phenomenon that affects so many. This is not meant to be an exhaustive description or prescription, but it will hopefully help those who struggle with these things, especially those whose minds are not satisfied with anecdotes, appeals to authority, or merely “psychological” approaches, though of course all of these have their place. I welcome clarifications or additions, especially from licensed psychologists or therapists who have experience treating OCD and related problems, as well as any seasoned confessors on their approaches to dealing with this in pastoral ministry. I would also appreciate corrections from other students of the Angelic Doctor and the Doctor of Detachment.
I will here treat of this phenomenon under three categories: the moral-anthropological, the psychological, and the spiritual. The first will examine the principles (or “parts”) of the soul that are involved in the phenomenon, as well as their relationship to the brain, and seek to categorize specific kinds of experiences with them and related kinds of thoughts into their proper place in the moral spectrum (namely, not-a-sin/only-a-temptation, venial sin, and mortal sin). The second will offer a brief synthesis of the prevailing doctrines in psychology on the matter, which will now have its role defined very well by the foregoing analysis. The third will explore what role intrusive thoughts have in the broader spiritual life as well as some more specific stages of growth, with the Carmelite vision providing the backdrop.
I will not be citing my sources very frequently, but most material comes directly or indirectly from St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John of the Cross, and their interpreters (particularly Garrigou-Lagrange).
Once again, more can be said on the topic than I will present here, in each of the three sections. However, for those who are pressed for time or are just looking for the most practical stuff, I will offer a “TLDR summary” at the bottom of each section. You’re welcome!
Intrusive thoughts are, in the simplest terms, thoughts that occur to you that you don’t want to have. They are also called “ego-dystonic” thoughts. It is easy to create the experience: for the next 10 seconds, don’t think of the color yellow…… Certainly, we need to form a conception of what not to think of, but that is not the “distress” that we experience in the following seconds when attempting such a difficult feat as trying to avoid a thought so consciously. What is it about it that is so difficult? What is the cause? Does it not resonate with us when told that in some way we DID want to think of it? What does that mean, and how does it work?
It’s simply academic with a trivial thought like an amorphous field of yellow occurring in our mind’s eye, but when we begin to look at things that matter, so too does the answer begin to matter.
A word before continuing – in the following paragraphs there may be many occasions of such thoughts that would cause the scrupulous among us to worry. There is no need… As we will show, there is no sin in the average intrusive thought, per se. And yes, yours are probably average.
What if I have sexual thoughts occur to me without willing it? Blasphemies or thoughts of sacrilege? Seemingly uncontrollable doubts of the faith? Violent thoughts against those I love? The list could go on, but we can roughly categorize all intrusive thoughts into the following categories, based on their content: desires of the flesh, malicious impulses, and beliefs. It is sometimes very difficult to know exactly the quality of a thought that we have, meaning, what exactly was that thought for, or of, and why was it at all? It can be very hard to describe. Here we will focus on trying to give a vocabulary for those who are interested in working these things out for themselves, and we will also attempt to describe some of the more common experiences of intrusive thoughts in these terms as well as providing a few suggestions on how to deal with them. I hope you will feel like someone understands you if you struggle with this!