Obsessive Compulsive Spirituality: an increasing danger?

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder [OCD] has a “spiritual” equivalent.

“OCD is an anxiety disorder, characterised by the presence of recurring intrusive and unwanted thoughts, images, or impulses – obsessions and repetitive behavioural and mental rituals – compulsions…Obsessions and compulsions are distressing, exhausting, take up a lot of time, and can significantly interfere with the person’s family and social relationships, daily routines, education or working life. Common obsessions include: fear or contamination from germs, dirt, for example; fears of harm to self or others; intrusive sexual thoughts or images; concerns with symmetry, illness or religious issues; an intense, irrational fear of everyday objects and situations (phobia). Common compulsions include: washing; cleaning; checking; hoarding; touching; counting; and repeating routine activities and actions.” https://www.sane.org/mental-health-and-illness/facts-and-guides/obsessive-compulsive-disorder

There are increasing indicators on-line, in blogs and on Facebook, of Obsessive Compulsive Spirituality: claims that “multiplicity” of “spiritual” practices is desirable, or even necessary. This is seen particularly with reference to the Jesus Prayer. Say, it repeat it, repeat it endlessly, as if mindless repetition can actually constitute prayer.

The Fathers and Elders who taught the Jesus Prayer sometimes expressed concerns about the danger involved in using it. How can a prayer be dangerous? Like any other repetitive technique (including prostration, and reciting the Psalms) it has the potential of becoming some sort of “mechanical”, superstitious, self-gratifying “magical” practice. Just doing it is sufficient, and will, somehow, bring about “spiritual” benefits, so that reciting the Jesus Prayer a hundred times will be more efficacious than reciting it ten time….how much better reciting it a thousand times!


This leads, inevitably, to the bizarre notion of the spiritual life as a system of accounting. Reciting ten Psalms and saying the Jesus Prayer fifty times is better than reciting five Psalms and saying the Jesus Prayer twenty times. Better still: reciting twenty Psalms and saying the Jesus Prayer a hundred times; prostrating fifteen times; reading the Hours in full every day; and attending the Liturgy daily. Somewhere there is obviously an accounting software program running that keeps records!

We are commanded to “pray without ceasing” [1 Thessalonians 5:17] but it is a very primitive, and superstitious, idea that “praying” is necessarily “saying words to God”. Prayer is not speaking, whether out loud or silently. It is a state of consciousness, a direction of mind and heart. Prayer requires attention and intention, not simply words (whether audible or inaudible) repeated. Some words may assist in the cultivation of a prayerful state, as may some practices (fasting, for example, or the use of icons), but the words themselves are not prayer.

At least one source of the obsessive compulsive need to “speak to God” would seem to be evangelical Protestantism, in which silence has often been equated with dubious, and dangerous, religious practices, even the heresy of Quietism. The last evangelical Protestant service I attended was essentially a talk-fest: most people in the congregation stood up and “talked at God”. The pastor “talked at God” at very considerable length.

It has often been noted in research into truly and deeply loving relationships, that both parties will identify comfort in “silent companionship” (not the phrase they normally use!) as a distinguishing characteristic. I recall an elderly couple saying to me: “You know, people think it’s strange, but we can simply sit for happy hours in each other’s presence without the need to say anything.”

Should not we hold a similar view of our relationship with God? I can be truly thankful without obsessively repeating “Thank you.” I can be truly penitent without obsessively repeating “I am sorry.”

Yesterday, I sat quietly in the park onto which The Hermitage backs. The trees were bursting with bright Spring growth; there were bushes covered in vividly coloured flowers; lively little birds were flitting from tree to tree singing loudly. The sky was bright blue and clear, and the sun was shining brightly. Children were busy playing, singing, laughing and running around in the play area. I was thankful for the beauty of creation, but had no need to “tell God”. My assumption was that He knew that I was grateful.

We need, often, to recall: “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.” [Matthew 6:7]


We need to beware of the dangers of Obsessive Compulsive Spirituality in which form replaces substance, compulsion supplants joy, and an unhealthy drive to engage in repetitive rituals suppresses a living faith. The practice of Faith becomes a rat-wheel in which running ever faster is the only goal, even though it leads nowhere.


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