Intrusive Thoughts: A MEGAPOST!


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!


The Moral-Anthropological Order

The soul is immaterial, but it is not without different principles, or “parts,” which have their own distinctive role in governing the whole person. There is the intellect or understanding (divided into higher and lower parts), the will, the cogitation, the imagination, the memory, the appetitive or sensual part (concupiscible and irascible), the senses, and so on. All of these can play a role in an intrusive thought! It is therefore an incredibly complex event. We will here give, in broad strokes, what happens in the average intrusive thought. First though, with an eye to moral categorization, one must understand that sin must always be voluntary, and mortal sin must always be willful. Yes, there is a distinction – for the passions (or appetites) to “rise” does not require perfect consent, but it does at least require some consent implicitly, provided one is cognizant of himself in a sufficient degree. Put another way, any disordered movement of a passion that we could have stopped but didn’t is a sin. To take St. Thomas’s example, which is very much appropriate, if a man moves his mind away from some lustful thought to avoid sin and suddenly has a movement of pride (eg. look at how holy I am, I’m the best, etc.) he has committed a venial sin in that movement. It suffices, in Thomas’ view, that it would have been possible for the will to suppress that movement before it began (or, perhaps we could say, the instant it was possible for the will to suppress it, which could be after it began in some cases).

All then that we need to show here then is that intrusive thoughts with “sinful content” are not from the appetites/passions and are not from the will. Or, if there are such things, what are they and how do we distinguish them by the experience itself?

There can’t be an intrusive thought from the will. It is simply contrary to their nature. The willing of a thought, properly speaking, involves deliberation of that thought’s goodness. For example, a student considers whether to work on science or history or nothing at all. Then, he makes his decision and carries it out. There are in fact 12 distinct steps in such an action, going back and forth between the intellect and will. This is clearly not what we are speaking of here. However, over time, these thoughts can beat someone down to the point where he despairs of ever ridding himself of them and begins to engage in willful consent out of spite. This is something different.

The average intrusive thought, let’s say of blasphemous content, might take root in various ways through experiences and memories. The actual thought itself would “take place in” the imagination (which is the “subject,” or host of the action, like the hand is the subject of waving,) not in the understanding, the way some abstract consideration of principles would. The first experience one might have of these thoughts is on seeing some sacred thing, or thinking of some sacred thing, and then feeling distress as some string of profanities comes to their mind. What has happened is mostly dependent upon the relationship of the memory – which intimately involves the brain, far more than any other faculty we have mentioned – to the imagination. The intellect may have helped inform the memory and in some obscure way has certainly been involved in the triggering of the thought through the recollection/formation of “phantasms” (simply put, the “invisible images” we use when understanding anything, which first entered through our senses and into our soul), the will may have been a part the formation of the memory or even have contributed indirectly to its triggering, but neither is actively, directly causing the thought. It is a memory-imagination event primarily. However, this may explain some thoughts that come to us “from nowhere” or “for no reason,” as we might describe them, but it does not seem to explain adequately those thoughts that we obsessively try to avoid. Here, it seems, the will is involved. But how?

The Church speaks of the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity as “habits.” This is not to say that these are just things we “normally do,” or things that “follow a pattern,” but it is rather to say that these are things that are constantly ongoing in us whether we are aware of them or not, like our heartbeat. These three virtues involve the intellect but also the will – habitually. Why would “habitual willing” be restricted to these three acts? There is no reason… We can see that it is not. It makes sense to describe obsessive intrusive thoughts as partially the effect of a habitual will against having those thoughts. We do not need to be aware of our willing against having them, just as we do not need to be aware of our trust that God will make good on His promises in order to have the virtue of hope.


The will itself then becomes part of the triggering of these thoughts in a peculiar way. It has a tendency to intensify the thought that is taking place in the imagination. Perhaps we can here think of the lower soul (passions, imagination, etc.) as being like a balloon full of air and the will like hands it is in between, pushing on it trying to keep it still and contained. The normal way the will operates is to bat the balloon back into place when the wind begins to blow it, or perhaps sometimes to protect it from the wind all together. Here though, the will is pushing and squeezing and wrenching, even though there is no wind. After so much pressure, the balloon will find whatever space is weakest between the hands and pop. Our soul is disorderly like this as a result of the fall – this pattern of disobedience is simply the constitution of the soul now. Sometimes we can see that is about to happen and correct it with wider force, or perhaps more force here or there, etc. Other times we see that it is going to happen and realize we can’t do anything about it. Still other times we see it is going to pop and continue just as we were, and let it happen with a little joy that it popped because of the relief from keeping the hands pushing. And there are even occasions when we somewhat intentionally try to fill the balloon more than we ought, and it ends up popping. So here, we have a will-memory-imagination event.

In that second to last case, where we have joy at the relief of not pushing anymore, the passions might play a minor role. However, it is very difficult to say after some incident like this exactly what we were “feeling about.” Is it the content of the thought we were foreseeing occur? Probably not, but perhaps, out of some little movement of vanity or malice, it is, and this would be a venial sin, albeit usually a very minor one. Or, was it really about the simple pleasure of relief? Usually it is this, but not always.

In the last case, where we “fill the balloon,” the passions are directly playing a role. This is to say, if my intrusive thoughts are triggered by some movement of vanity, for instance, then there is venial sin. The sin is not primarily in the thought, it is in the trigger itself, just as the sin of thievery is only secondarily in the hand. This would not, however, include the passion of fear, which is actually partly a function of the will’s pressure on the imagination not to have certain thoughts due to their evil, and partly a habit that has become compulsory (viz., not voluntary and therefore completely free of sin). The compulsory nature is due to its root in brain chemistry, which will be discussed further on.

Also, some legitimately ordered movements of the soul can trigger disproportionate effects in the imagination. If I become justly angry at my coworker for carelessly spilling coffee all over me, maybe some awfully malicious thought occurs to me.

In any event, these thoughts are not willful, in the proper sense. There is never, therefore, mortal sin in them. Furthermore, any time a passion rises that the will is trying to suppress, there is not sin in the passion. That is very important: if you are fighting, you are winning!

There can be venial sin in thoughts of blasphemy if they begin with a passion, that is, one becomes truly angry at God and has a thought against His goodness. In this case, and in all cases, we can ask ourselves why we did not express that thought in speech: was it because it was simply not the right time or place, or was it because we disagree with the thought’s content (therefore emptying it of its potential harm)? It is the same with other thoughts. Most times, we can say the latter. In cases where such a thought did NOT begin with a passion, this is enough to excuse from sin. Another basic test of the moral status of these blasphemous thoughts is, very simply, “Did I mean it?” If you can say honestly, knowing very well the nature of the thought you just had, that you would not have been offended if someone had had such a thought about you then you probably have not offended God Almighty, Who is far less egotistical and petty than you and Who knows the meaning of your thoughts even better than you do. When language comes to the imagination, it awaits the intellect’s approval in order to be truly communicative in nature. Otherwise it’s simply reactive. We have reactive, non-intellectual discussions in dreams, for instance, where these lower faculties are at work, while the intellect is greatly inhibited. (The intellect can also be inhibited by certain kinds of distress, which we might experience during certain acute bouts of these kinds of thoughts, further lessening the possibility of sin.) These thoughts are normally, as it were, “for their own sake,” and not for the purpose which their content suggests, viz., harming God’s honor, for instance. The imagination can simulate many of the feelings that one has in deliberation and willing, which is also to be kept in mind when considering these things. One final test is this: if there had been two buttons to press, one indicating “say this blasphemous thing in my mind” and another “don’t say this blasphemous thing in my mind," which would you have pushed in that instant? This “spiritual algebra” will help to reveal the state of your will in that moment.

People may sometimes be afraid of “having meant it,” but usually they did not, strictly speaking. In some sense, they meant it, but only in a part of their soul, not with the higher part fully and freely partaking in it.


Thoughts that have the appearance of doubt might involve the cogitation, which is our “instinctive judgment,” as it were, which then begins a cycle of imagination and fear (which is a passion, but basically an excessively active one here in this scenario) which keeps one free of sins against faith, provided one doesn’t give up the fight. The lower intellect might even be involved, while the highest, “driest” part of the soul, the higher intellect, maintains that habit of faith perfectly untouched. All this does, however, prove very distressing, and therefore very tempting to give in to. There would be venial sin in the truly intellectual misapprehension of some article of faith (or perhaps contingent doctrines if one has enough knowledge of them), such as grasping what the resurrection of the dead truly is and means and then actually, spontaneously denying it. Further deliberation would call one’s attention to its status as a revealed doctrine built upon the authority of the Church, confirmed by miracles, etc. Persisting in its denial, or persisting in the willful suspension of judgment (doubt), or even the persistence in mere opinion (“it’s only probably true that xyz”) would certainly no longer be intrusive and actually is mortal sin. One must, however, keep in mind the principle of the habitual will, as described above. It would play a part in a situation where someone feels incredibly confused and is afraid he does not believe but is putting forth enormous effort. This is a massively difficult temptation, which has been experienced by many great saints for long periods, including St. Jane Frances de Chantal, St. Vincent de Paul, and Bl. Henry Suso. The remedy is also similar, which we will get to.

Perhaps the most popular intrusive thoughts involve desires of the flesh. Once again, we can make a distinction between thoughts brought on by a passion (lust in this case) and thoughts that come about for any other reason that would present only a temptation. They do, however, really present a temptation. Once the passions begin to rise, there is sin, unless the will had already begun to try to prevent such passions from acting. (For the record, lust is generally felt in the throat, lower chest, stomach, and between the legs, before possibly spreading to the extremities. Feelings in the head, when confronted with this kind of a thought, are usually something else, perhaps some kind of fear or apprehension, perhaps some kind of joy at the thought of pleasures which could possibly come by what has entered the mind.) There is also sin in dwelling on these thoughts, of course, but it is venial unless actually desired to be put into action in the real world. Any deliberate attempt (which involves a consideration, implying some substantial time passing) to use such thoughts to influence oneself in a physical, sexual way would be mortal sin.

Violent or malicious intrusive thoughts would follow a similar pattern. Did you mean it? How would you feel if someone had had that same exact kind of thought against you, knowing how it is that that thought came to you? Etc. The habitual willing of avoidance, together with the spontaneous reactions of the memory and imagination, exacerbated by fear, all make it totally without sin, provided it did not really begin with an authentic passion, like anger. Remember, as was noted above, the imagination can also induce a simulated anger (or other passions), not only in an explicitly hypothetical way, but in a real way that seems like a bracketing exercise one can’t escape.

What is the remedy for these thoughts? How do we rid ourselves of them? Without remedy, they can beat a person down into absolute paranoia and utter despair to the point where he might become so spiteful that he gives into them. Or, more commonly, he begins to think this is “who I really am,” and the existential tides of the zeitgeist snatch his soul from Heaven while he gleefully “finds himself.” Yes, Esau is really in our womb, he is really born first, he is really supposed to get the birthright, but Jacob needs to overtake him. Let Esau have his stew, Jacob will have the glory. He will need to be clever, he will need to run, he will eventually need to contend with the forces of Heaven, but in the end it will go well for him.

There are two ways to battle against any temptation: directly, by suppressing it with the will, or by avoiding it altogether. Pride, for instance, calls for the first method. Intrusive thoughts call for the second.

We need to take the pressure off the balloon. It’s not supposed to be held that tightly for that long. You have not been thinking of the color yellow for the past 5 minutes because you stopped trying not to think of it. The will must relax its efforts, and the lower soul will calm down. Part of this is knowing that no, there is not serious sin here, and the venial sin is completely beside the thoughts themselves. This section has hopefully helped bring that home. The other components deal mainly with the physical symptoms which help perpetuate the cycle, namely a habitual fear, like was mentioned before. This will be treated in the section below on psychology.

One final note on this topic will bring it to a close. It is sometimes posited that these thoughts are the result of some kind of demonic activity. Some are, some aren’t. It is safer to assume that it is not. Confide in a regular director.

**TLDR summary: **These thoughts are rooted in the memory and brought on by the will indirectly, fear indirectly, and various other triggers from outside and from within. If you felt something authentically and voluntarily evil that provoked your thought, it’s a venial sin. If you were trying so hard not to have that thought, even habitually (i.e. without awareness, a little like how you are breathing right now without being aware of it), then there is no sin. Relaxing the efforts to combat these thoughts is a major remedy to them.


The Psychological Order

This section will be much shorter because I am far less read in psychology, there are already many good resources available, and there is not much left for psychology to say after the moral-anthropological discussion other than a few notes about the physiology and possible treatments.

A quick Google search will reveal all kinds of resources. Check them out!

We can simply state that there are physical factors involved with this cycle of fear and imagination. As noted above, it deals with the way the “memory” works, which would possibly be broad enough of a category to include what more contemporary thinkers would call the “subconscious.” The scholastics did not seem to have much notion of it, as far as I can tell. They certainly did not have any idea about neuroplasticity!

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is usually involved in these cases, or at least some kind of anxiety disorder. Depression-like symptoms can also frequently accompany, though it is not necessarily clinical depression. If you have odd perfectionist habits, like setting your table “just right,” even though you’re eating alone, or you have to look both ways exactly three times before crossing the street, or if you have to step on the cracks in the sidewalk the same way with each foot, etc… You probably have OCD. You are much more likely to develop a habit of these kinds of thoughts.

OCD is also a forerunner to a spiritual condition called “scrupulosity.” More on that later.

There is hope! All this can be overcome.

**TLDR summary: **There are physical factors involved with habitual intrusive thoughts. You probably have OCD. Talk to a doctor about treatment. It could be as simple as doing some breathing exercises or eating right.


The Spiritual Order

Intrusive thoughts are a heavy cross. As noted, they often come with a range of other issues (anxiety, melancholy, OCD, scrupulosity). Many times, the greatest burden is the fear that one has consented to these thoughts, which may be against chastity, piety, charity, faith, or any virtue, really.

God is greatly pleased by those who enter into this narrow path with generosity, faith, and perseverance. Just as the Divine nature of Christ was eminently pleased while the human nature writhed on the Cross, so too is the relationship between the higher and lower soul in an individual who has committed to push through such trials for the sake of the glory of God and the salvation of his own soul. In the spiritual life, it is the higher soul that matters… It is all about the will, the intellect, and their activities. Our sensitive feelings and all the actions of the lower soul and body are important only inasmuch as they are a help or a hindrance to what our higher soul is doing. Many times what looks like a help is actually a hindrance and vice versa. This is part of why God puts us through such trials, and yes, in these kinds of things it is often Him acting directly upon us in some way. While having intrusive thoughts certainly does not mean that one is being afflicted in the ways in which I am about to describe, it is possible. This should be discerned with an experienced spiritual director.

A great theme of the spiritual masters is that there are usually three “conversions” of the interior life, each with their own fruits. Each comes through some act of God that brings the soul closer to Him through purifications: first of the soul in a general sense, next of the lower soul, and finally of the higher soul.

The first conversion, which is a break from mortal sin and entrance into the life of the spirit, may involve some pains and trials but is, by and large, normally rather emotionally pleasant. The heart swells in prayer, the mind is overcome by the truth of the Gospel, harsh penances seem to be a breeze. And yet all these feelings, as St. John of the Cross points out, can be an enormous distraction from real spirituality. Eventually, if the “novice” is to progress into proficiency, the life of consolation and joy that he has henceforth led must be totally dried up, and not just for a moment, but for a considerable period of time. The lower soul’s faculties become practically useless in prayer, and it is distressing to attempt to use them to meditate. This path opens us to the gift of “infused contemplation,” which is a great treasure whereby we begin to love God in a higher way.

Signs of being in this period are the feeling of being forsaken by God, the inability to meditate (systematic recollection and thought on a topic or reality of faith, like through the slow recitation of the Our Father), and a draw to silent, non-discursive prayer. St. John speaks of three “spirits” that can accompany this period (especially if the individual is to pass into the third conversion later on). The three spirits are “blasphemy, fornication, and confusion.” All three of these are possible culprits of the cause of intrusive thoughts. (We will not investigate here exactly what is meant by “spirit” in the sanjuanist literature. It is incorrect to think he means “demonic possession,” although he arguably means “demonic obsession,” which is a far more common phenomenon in which some evil spirit persistently inclines the immaterial soul to certain kinds of thoughts.)

The third conversion, which brings the proficient into a state of mastery of the spiritual life (which is simply as complete a union with God as can be had in this life), is an absolutely horrible experience which must last “some years if it is to have a real effect,” says St. John. For St. Catherine of Siena, we can see that this period was about 18 years long. But the fruits of a third conversion borne well are utterly glorious. It is rare that God wills to make someone go through this phase of conversion in this life (it is usually a path one travels in purgatory, albeit without meriting, since we can only earn merit while on earth), but those names raised to the dignity of the altar who did not die in youth have almost certainly gone through this experience. (One could possibly pass through such purification in a different way, perhaps through an act of extraordinarily heroic charity, like martyrdom. But the three conversions are the normal means of attaining sanctity in this life.)


St. John says in Book I of “The Dark Night of the Soul” that the aforementioned spirit of confusion closely simulates the third conversion experience. The soul is thrown into disarray, not understanding itself or the world, let alone the Divine, on account of the “eyes of the soul” being introduced to a brighter light, which hurts them. This increase of light is what causes the conversion to be difficult in the first place, but he makes it clear that this “spiritus vertiginis” is something “extra” that helps create confusion and fear. The third conversion then could absolutely be full of intrusive thoughts occasioned by that confusion. Especially persistent would be various interior temptations against the theological virtues. For more discussion on this, please take a look at Garrigou-Lagrange’s phenomenal work, “The Three Ages of the Interior Life,” available online here:

We do not need to belabor the point. Intrusive thoughts can be an integral part of the experience of coming closer to God. He wants us to push through them, primarily by remaining away from them as we are able, such as a rash is to be dealt with refraining from scratching. The soul must always be returning to a state of motionlessness, calm, peace, and mildness. Engaging with these thoughts quickly ruins that state. Ignoring these temptations can be agonizing, but experience shows that it is more agonizing to engage them! There are a few methods, however, that may help. Some are listed below.

The first has hopefully been accomplished in reading this - that is, coming to an understanding of the phenomenon itself. The occasional recollection of one’s guiltlessness in such thoughts and the honor of being chosen for such a trial may bring some peace.

The second is to make general acts of the will against the nature of the content of an evil thought. This is not to be done each and every time but only when the walls of the intellect seem nearly breached by sin after a long siege… In such unbearable moments, one may say something to himself that contradicts the spirit of the thought. It is unwise to address the content directly and specifically. Rather, one experiencing a thought of physically harming someone he loves might say, “I would suffer much for him if necessary.” This recalls the deeper position of one’s will in the matter, revealing a habit of charity. This hidden part is the reality of the soul, and it is therefore what matters in the eyes of God.

Laughter may also prove helpful. Laughter is a function of rationality. Making a rational judgment, therefore, that such thoughts are absurd, one might laugh at them as he would at other ridiculous things. It will also help to put the afflicted soul in a lighter mood.

Generally, any means by which a soul may be distracted by these thoughts is helpful, provided it is not sinful and does not contradict the growth of the soul according to its state (which will be explained below). Remaining occupied with one’s work is a wonderful remedy. For thoughts against chastity, fasting and exercise are particularly effective distractions, as is laughter (about anything).

Finally, a general aspiration to remain calm and recollected is indispensable. With these temptations, one must always fly like a bird to take refuge the desert, and allow himself to be set upon a rock to high to be reached, as the Psalmist says. There the soul will find its peace and contentment, while the storm rages beneath it.


It is worth noting three methods which one might be inclined to use but could be harmful.

The first is positive asceticism specifically as a means to combat this particular affliction, with the foregoing comments about unchaste thoughts being excluded. For instance, one might decide to carry a thumbtack and squeeze it every time he has a poor thought. This is inadvisable… Not only will he look like a pinchushion in no time, this will simply not work. General positive asceticism may be useful since it can help to crush the lower soul’s disorders, but it should be done under a director.

The second is frequent lawful indulgences in sensual things when intended as a remedy, especially if one is undergoing the second or third conversions (in which there should be stricter fasts and penances). This might at first satiate the lower soul and provide a rest, but when one makes his normal remedy to be food, drink, music, or other things that entice the senses, he should expect trouble… Those things will become triggers for his problems, and he will likely be tempted then to exceed moderation because he will find sadness in being unfulfilled by his indulgence; his remedy has become a tool of the Evil One to push him further into darkness. St. John of the Cross calls it a “double bitterness,” because while one experiences bitterness prior to succumbing to such vanity, even more bitterness comes upon falling into it. Peter chose to warm himself by the fire, putting his soul in the awful position of blindness to the importance of fidelity to the Lord. Meanwhile, John is safe with Him in the prison, even though the Lord seems to have lost all authority, promise, and power.

The third is to make a serious charge to eradicate the thoughts entirely by some direct application of psychic force. This will only frustrate the individual, as was explained with the balloon analogy. Earlier in the evening, Peter had swung a sword, and this was not pleasing to Christ. We must go sit with Him in prison, since to do that is the grace we have been given in this situation, though it may not be to our tasts. Many of us would rather “exceed grace” with indiscreet devotions and heroic attempts at evangelization or ministerial activity that will fall flat due to a lack of Divine inspiration, and trying to overcome these thoughts directly can be similar. It will also prove to be antithetical, as has been explained already.

The last is frequent prayer that this affliction is removed by God. Praying once, twice, or three times, as St. Paul did to try to remove whatever it was that tormented him, is fine. Our Lord prayed three times that the Cross would be removed - even though He knew this was impossible. However, eventually one must accept that this is the will of God, that this cross has come from the venerable hands of the Savior Himself, and that therefore it is for one’s own greater good, since it is the means specially chosen by God for that person to glorify Him and store up glory for oneself in Heaven. When St. John Vianney underwent his own interior trials, which included that mercurial feeling of despair that is so familiar to those who have begun to make some progress in the spiritual life, he noted that once he began praying for a love of crosses he became happy. This echoes the counsel of St. Teresa of Avila on the matter. On the other hand, that eminently peaceful saint of the Haute-Savoie, Francis de Sales, after having suffered such anxiety over his own salvation such as to be bedridden, made a pilgrimage, prayed a Memorare for relief, and was released. “Our God is in the Heavens, He does whatever He wills,” as the psalm goes.

The larger lessons are detachment from the world and abandonment into the hands of God in His loving Providence.

One final note. These kinds of thoughts are often accompanied by an intense scrupulosity. This is another aspect of the third conversion (and sometimes of the second conversion), and it is a popular affliction even apart from those phenomena. Indeed, they spiral downward together into anxiety, such that one is anxious about being anxious, and having scruples over his intrusive thoughts about being scrupulous about his intrusive thoughts! This is not the Gospel. Our Lord is not looking for an excuse to throw our souls into Hell, it is actually the other way around. Let us choose Him and be on our way.

TLDR summary: Intrusive thoughts may be occasioned by a number of spiritual phenomena. They are to be run away from and ignored, and when they become absolutely terrible one may take a “pot shot” at them by some kind of general dismissal of the spirit of the content. That must suffice. The goal is to keep the soul in a state of peace and to be pleased with God’s decision to give you this trial. Have no fear, and push onward.


The experience of fighting against intrusive thoughts can be extremely challenging and one might feel alone in the struggle. Know that there are others and that there is hope! Through coming to an intellectual understanding of the phenomenon, knowing that one is generally without guilt, and taking the proper means to remedy the situation, this can be overcome and even enjoyed while it must take place.

Hopefully this has been helpful to someone. This is an introduction to the discussion… Much more can be said. So, say it!


(I will re-post a post I posted before about general aspects)


All sorts of thoughts can happen to us out of the blue…(not sought etc)

Be they impure, against God etc

The fact that a thought happened to one- does not mean per se there was* any *sin.

And for mortal sin one needs not only grave matter, full knowledge and deliberate (complete) consent…

Just cause a thought happened to you does not mean there was any sin. Let alone mortal sin.

Just* calmly t*urn to something good…


For the next few moments --try real hard NOT to think of an Apple.

then scroll down.

What did you think of?

An apple.

Even though your will was against it (you did not want to think of an apple!)

Now back to unwanted thoughts…

The more you fear and try hard not to have them…the more they will likely come and bother you.

The best thing to do with such thoughts is not to fight them directly --not fear that they will come—simply do not consent and simply and calmly turn to something else…(or it may be best to keep doing the good thing one is doing…like they come out of the blue when your at work …keep working…keep praying …etc)

There is a story from the desert of the early Centuries of the Church where a younger hermit when to an older one with the problems of thoughts happening to him all the time…the older hermit told him to go outside open his cloak and catch the wind.

The younger hermit said such is not possible…

the older hermit replied --neither is it possible to stop all the thoughts that can come to you…(then basically he said his task was not to consent…if they should happen…hence I would add one would turn to something else that is good…).

Ignore such unwanted thoughts* like one would ignore a hissing goose or a barking dog. One does not stop to argue with a hissing goose or a barking dog does one?* No one keeps on walking…

(as noted above the image there comes from a Carthusian Monk from centuries ago…)

Ignore such unwanted thoughts and do not fear them…just calmly turn to something good.


Voluntary distraction is, of course, blameworthy. Especially when it means a complete turning of our mind away from God and from what we are doing…

Involuntary distractions are quite different. Unless they proceed from our antecedent and deliberate carelessness, such as a lack of a proper effort to fix our attention at the beginning of our prayer, there is, certainly, no blame attached to them. Even with the best will in the world, they cannot be avoided. Thought evokes thought, image invokes image; the very nature of our mind and imagination is such that they tend to wander. Until we advert to such wandering, there is no question of fault on our part. When we do advert to the distraction, some effort must be made to renew our attention. Sometimes one can easily get rid of the distraction; at other times, it is so persistent that the best plan is to leave it alone and “look over its shoulder” at God. To renew our attention is not always easy, and there are times when our prayer seems to be nothing but one long series of distractions, combated it is true, but with no sign of success. It is well to remember that such a prayer can be very pleasing to God. Each attempt to restore our attention is an “elevation of the mind” to Him made under difficulty, and therefore is very pleasing to Him as a prayer - whether it be successful or not as an effort to banish distractions.

Dom Eugene Boylan, O.C.R - This Tremendous Lover, Chapter 8, Seeking Christ in Prayer


A few years back my intrusive thoughts were in the form of an accidental viewing on tv
for example watching a movie that was quite nice and appropriate then suddenly a bad scene that stripped away innocence.Like an assault.Or hearing something horrible on the news .These things would out of the blue pop into my mind and I realized we can accumulate mentally stored rubbish over the duration of our life time.Especially now I think more than ever we are being assaulted and one of the most precious gifts in life is being attacked-our purity.The assaults are all around us.
For me praying to the Holy Spirit puts up a mental block , saying the prayer as soon as the intrusive thoughts begin.The feeling of purity and severing those past thoughts through Divine Mercy is indescribable.I want to hang onto that for as long as I can.And to some how share it.


Here is what all this boils down to: You can’t stop the birds from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from building nests in your hair.


Fr. Michael Scanlan…:slight_smile:


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