Saints alive! St. Theresa died in 1897, but she's still sending roses.


Beware the Scruples
An overindulgence in religious guilt can make fools of us all–even those with PhDs.

Part I of "The Deborah Trilogy."

By Mary Beth Crain

I’ve always been one to assume that religious fanaticism and a low intelligence quotient went hand in hand. Sort of like love and marriage and the horse and carriage—you can’t have one without the other. I thought this was particularly true of those Catholics still marching to the beat of the pre-Vatican II drummer, yearning for the good old days of blind obedience. Who but glaring ignoramuses or certified morons would wax nostalgic for incomprehensible Latin masses delivered by the backsides of priests, or a superstitious utopia where the toenail of St. Vibiana will cure your bunions, a novena to St. Theresa will bring your dream man to your door, and a couple dozen Hail Marys will cancel out even the most obnoxious act against your fellow man?

I was proven wrong, however, by two women I know who, although they’ve never met, could be twins separated at birth. Both are 58 and still single. Both have higher degrees and are successful professionals. Both have neurotic little dogs, both hate men and sex, and both are Catholic fanatics with an inordinate fondness for confession and other forms of self-purification/flagellation. Despite the fact that these ladies are extremely articulate and boast highly respectable IQ’s, when it comes to critical thinking in the area of religion, they might as well be peasants in medieval Russia.

Gail is a court reporter with an MA in Fine Arts. She’s very funny and has a wicked sense of humor. But she can’t find a satisfactory relationship because, in her own words, “my mother and the Church made sure I got royally fucked up about sex.” Gail can’t stand to have a man touch her and feels genuinely sorry for her ex-husband, who stuck with her for 20 unfathomable years until he found a woman who actually enjoyed—gasp—getting laid. Gail spends a lot of time in the confessional, which, curiously enough, doesn’t seem to improve her outlook. Rather, confessing serves as a kind of spiritual dialysis—its only function is to help her survive, not make her well.

Deborah is a licensed therapist with a PhD in psychology. She would probably be diagnosed as completely mad. Like Gail, Deborah is totally screwed up about sex, but for different reasons. She’s a lesbian who, although she didn’t grow up Catholic, feels so guilty about her sexual preference that when she found out about the practice of confession, she immediately became a convert so that she could spend every spare moment driving the priests crazy with what the Catholics call “the scruples” and we Jews call a good case of “mishegas.” Deborah is so terrified of sinning that once she asked me if I thought Jesus was watching her when she did evil things like eating Haagen-Dazs ice cream and spitting it out in the sink, and picking the raisins out of oatmeal cookies. She also worried that Jesus was peering in when she indulged in a nervous nighttime habit she’d had since childhood, of twirling her pubic hair. I replied that I thought Jesus had a big enough to-do list, including wars, famines, and pestilences, that probably limited his ability to spend all his time with her.

Gail’s sex phobia went off the charts on the day she went to have her hair colored and her stylist, a big, fat slob in his 50s, pulled his pants down right in front of her to show her a scar on his thigh. He wasn’t wearing underwear. “I didn’t mean to look at, well, it,” she assured me, “but it was just so unexpected, you know? But I didn’t get aroused or anything. I mean, you could hardly even see it under his big belly!”

Just to be on the safe side, however, Gail went directly from her hair appointment to confession. “I told the priest all about it,” she reported to me later.

“What did he say?” I asked.

“Oh, he cracked up!” she laughed.

Yeah, I thought. He cracked up, and you’re cracked! “Listen, Gail,” I said. “You didn’t commit any sin. Your hairdresser’s the one who should have been confessing!”

“Oh, well,” she replied. “I’m one of those ‘just in case’ Catholics. You know, maybe I did get a little excited and wasn’t even aware of it. So confessing is just like insurance. You might never need it, but it’s there when you do.”

Uh huh.

Deborah’s shining moment of Catholic fanaticism occurred a few years ago, when she was mad at God for not sending her Mr. Right. Of course, she tended to dismiss the fact that she was gay and hated penises as merely a slight detail.

“Deborah,” I tried to reason with her. “You’re gay.”

“No, I’m not,” she insisted. “I’m bi. I’ve slept with men and women.”

“But you prefer women.”

“That’s where God comes in. I know He doesn’t want me to be gay. So He has to send me my perfect man.”

“But you hate penises! You know they tend to come with the package.”

“If God wants me to have a man, He’ll fix that too,” was her sensible reply.

So anyway, one happy day Deborah discovered the Catholic practice of novenas, in particular the Novena to St. Theresa, a.k.a. the “Little Flower.”

“I’m so excited!” she gurgled over the phone. “Today I started the Novena to St. Theresa!”

“And what is that?” I asked.

“Before she died, St. Theresa declared that anyone who prayed to her with a pure heart and soul would receive a rose if it was God’s will that their prayer was to be granted. There’s this novena that you say for 21 days, three times a day, to her. And if you get a rose anytime in the 21 days, your prayer will be answered!”

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is a PhD in psychology talking.

So, for three weeks, Deborah faithfully said her little prayer to the Little Flower, three times a day. She would probably have been better off taking a regular dose of Ex Lax, which brings me to my favorite joke, what do you get when you mix holy water with Castor Oil? Answer: A religious movement!

As the days passed and no rose appeared from the celestial florists, Deborah grew more and more agitated. She went to visit her aunt in Seattle and phoned me bright and early one morning, as maniacs tend to do, to tell me that she woke up to discover all these roses in the wallpaper of the guest bedroom, and did I think they counted? She phoned me a couple of days later from a nursery, to report that a man had just gone past her pushing a cart full of roses, and did I think that counted?

Finally,  on the 21st and final day of the novena, Deborah called me in tears.

“I hate God!” she sobbed. “I’ve done nothing but be pure, and try to serve Him. And He won’t send me my perfect partner! I hate St. Theresa too!”

“Now, Deborah,” I said patiently, as if I were talking to a three-year-old. “We musn’t say things like that. Remember, St. Theresa said that if you didn’t get a rose, your prayer wasn’t meant to be granted, and that God has something better for you. Besides, it’s only 11 a.m. The novena isn’t officially concluded until midnight. As St. Yogi Berra said, it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”

So, at around 10 o’clock that night, I got a frantic call from Deborah.

“I just did something really bad,” she wailed.


“Well, I got so frustrated and discouraged that I took my St. Theresa novena card, the one with her picture on it, and flushed it down the toilet!”

“You flushed St. Theresa down the toilet?” I burst out laughing.

“Don’t laugh!” Deborah hissed. “It’s not funny. But that’s not the worst part. She wouldn’t go down! She came back up and was floating around the bowl, staring up at me, as if reproaching me for not waiting until midnight!”

Well, there you go. When I told this story to a nun friend of mine, Sr. Janet, who is as sensible and down-to-earth as Deborah is raving crazy, she laughed so hard she fell off the couch.

“I’ve had lots of people call me with scruples to get off their chests,” she reflected, in between gasps for breath. “But poor Deborah takes the cake!”

How, with people like Gail and Deborah banging on your door every five minutes, can you be a religious with a straight face, I asked her.

“Oh, we take it in stride. It’s part of the job. Besides, we have to remember that people like Deborah are good souls. They’re just a little misguided. God loves them, and we have to as well.”

Well, I have to say that I have some trouble in that regard. I still tend to dismiss the Deborahs and Gails of the world as nut cases who should know better. But then, I’m not a nun, or a priest, or God. As for St. Theresa, I’m sure she forgave Deborah, after she dried off. The irony of that incident was that when all was said and done, Deborah was the one who was all wet.


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Mary Beth Crain is's contributing editor. Read Part II of “The Deborah Trilogy” here and Part III here.

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