The faith chronicles

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


Religious neuroses

The Filipinos’ devotion to the Black Nazarene in Quiapo Church, Manila, is quite a phenomenon even for a practicing Catholic in the Philippines (which is to say invariably zealous and devout). In fact, not a few Catholic Filipinos view it as extreme, to the point of idolatrous, superstitious, and even scandalous (due to the ensuing violence sometimes). It especially embarrasses those with a charismatic bent, whose newfound spirituality emphasizes the resurrected Christ and has quite absorbed a little of that Protestant (Pentecostal strain) abhorrence for religious iconography, i.e., mistaking veneration (latria, dulia, and hyperdulia) for devilish worship (or worship of Baal). Is the devotion to the Black Nazarene indeed a zealous devotion to Jesus Christ in his hour of passion, or just a religious neurosis in another guise?

Religion, to frame the tired Marxist accusation in more psychological terms, can easily be used by people afflicted with a form of neurosis to prop up a needy ego, one wrongly perceived by the egotistical as damaged or entirely missing or nonexistent. Psychologists call this mild sickness of the mind “religious neurosis.”

It’s quite easy to spot religious neurosis for the trained eye, but not for the layman. The secret clues (psychologists would kill me for this) are almost always a degree of irrationality, strange excessiveness, or sometimes an inappropriate lack or deficiency, coupled with angry defensiveness when confronted as well as a noticeable amount of impulsiveness or compulsion. To the observant, these are quite a common combination of traits manifesting in various ways and degrees in people from all walks of life, as neuroses do not discriminate, unlike humans.

Good boy/good girl complex/Spiritual pride

Sometimes, a person may exhibit an attachment to religion as a coping mechanism, as a projection of a false identity of perfection and holiness (the good boy syndrome), which inevitably is accompanied by the reverse (acts of debauchery) outside the rituals of devotion. This results in a deep and disturbing conflict inside the person, who is naturally bothered by shame, guilt and anger at the ensuing disconnect -- in other words, 'hypocrisy.' This 'complex' is often accompanied by a facade of perfectionism in adulthood as well as spiritual pride, i.e., looking down on the less devout as spiritually inferior.

Self-flagellation and masochism

Another person may abuse the Catholic rituals of penance to atone for one’s horrific sins, as though one were himself the Christ walking with brown feet, as in the case of Holy Week penitents: flagellants and crucifixion volunteers during Lent in Pampanga, Bataan and elsewhere. These people are often suspected (wrongly or rightly) as being murderers or thieves the rest of the year. Self-flagellation, of course, is roundly and routinely condemned by the institutional Church because of bad theology: it reduces Christianity as police bribery, contradicting the unconditionality of divine love. The penitents allegedly misunderstand the purpose of penance: to show one’s resolve to change, one’s readiness for metanoia, not to be the new messiah or the new sacrifice lamb, returning what is owed to God measure for measure. The latter is thought to insult Jesus’ one-time act (and continuing?) of sacrifice to save mankind, an action deemed more than enough for the whole world, the whole point of the popular “3 O’Clock Habit” that originated from the diary of the Polish nun and mystic Sr. Faustina Kowalska. (I personally have a reservation here, however, because true conversion and pure intentions are possible in this case.)

Projection and sublimation

Because anything can be abused to hysterical lengths, someone pointed out how certain ‘cofradias’ of fashion designers can use Catholic icons as dolls as a projection (or sublimation?) of the wish to dress up as such but can't, a possibly unconscious gesture mixed up with the purer intents of the devotion. Imagine the image of the Sto. Niño or Virgin Mary dressed up like dolls in modeling ramp fashion or -- heaven forbid -- a cosplay character and other questionable characters (Sto. Niño as a gambler?)!

Speaking of projection, Feuerbach's old accusation against Christians comes to mind, which is not invalid in cases of religious neuroses like the ones discussed above. Worshipful paroxysms of "power! honor! praise! glory!" may, in fact, signify an un-Christian desire for all these, again, an unconscious gesture revelatory of self-centeredness. The more profane prefer to call this 'dickiness.'

Fervid, angry defense of one's faith also often means the reverse: a projection of secret doubt, instead of real zeal. It may also mean an unconscious act of compensating for a failure to defend one's faith in the past, etc.

Hyperspirituality/Spiritual addiction

Charismatics who pursue spiritual high due to depression, or who get addicted to the spiritual high only to be frustrated or get angry with God when ‘let down’ in prayer or when the going gets tough, are also potential candidates for possible irrational compensatory behavior.

I remember how Filipino theologian Jake Yap, a product of Catholic charismatic spirituality, reportedly balked at worship songs dominated by "I" and "I want," as in "I want to worship you..." The dominant or domineering "I," he allegedly lectured, was very telling, drawing the focus away from the bigger "I" or "Thou" (God). The zeal is enviable, but misplaced.

I still cringe whenever I recall this woman guest (incidentally a born-again Christian) at the local TV talk show Mel & Jay who stunned me, an unsuspecting audience, with a statement like this: "I told God, 'Take him (her erring husband) away, Lord!'," as though the Deity was her paid maidservant.

Religious fanaticism

Marian devotions that result in deifing Mary, for example, by devotees religiously attending Baclaran Church Wednesday masses but neglecting Sunday obligations, are a similarly questionable matter and require some psychological probing.

Excessive zeal or devotion to repair a past hurt, as in the case of having a rebellious, atheist, or apostate father figure and resolving to being his total opposite, is also worth examining in this sense.

In its extreme form, religious fanaticism leads to the wanton, if ridiculous, violation of the basic precepts of the faith in the name of the same faith. To the religious fanatic, fighting for his faith to death is a matter of fighting for the missing self, not God.

Hypertraditionalism/Spiritual rigidity/Overscrupulousness/Pharisaicism

Other people inhabit the other extreme, characterized by a wall of non-spontaneity or adamantine reservation and extreme rigidity, as though to say, “Stay where you are, as I stay inside the dividing line I have drawn between us on the ground – not just because I am holier than thou but because I don’t want to get hurt again.” Excessive attachment to tradition, for example, one that says "The slightest deviation from the norms and rubrics is from Belzeebul," may be a candidate for religious neurotic behavior. This complex also results in spiritual haughtiness.


Using the priesthood, monastery, convent, etc. as a place to hide or isolate oneself from a 'hurtful' world may be worth probing deeper. The negative family dynamics the person witnessed growing up may have given rise to the need for an imagined sanctuary, an imagined ivory tower. Unfortunately, or fortunately, religious houses are also places where one's character is constantly probed and purified, as though in a crucible. This hopefully weeds out the ones with questionable motivations.

Messianic Complex and Atlas Complex

Bearing the weight of the sins or burdens of the world on one's shoulders is an unhealthy assumption of one's identity. Presumption of superhuman strength and power is implied in this kind of neurosis. Playing God or Jesus is not among God's commandments. (I personally wonder whether the Lenten flagellants and crucifixion volunteers belong to this category as well.)

The all-consuming desire to save the world may also imply hidden terror at facing one's own inner turmoil. This results in the need to project one's need to solve problems and 'caretake' on a grand scale. The compensation/tradeoff derived from it is in the form of less hurt due to the indirectness or the lack of faceoff/confrontation with one's own demon. The fact, however, is that the tradeoff is even more harmful, because escapist, in the long run. The repressed material is bound to build up in time until it manifests in physically, as in disorders.


The variety of religious neuroses is endless, as various as man is capable of the most bizarre coping behavior or defense mechanism. Learning their lesson, seminaries and other religious houses have become stricter nowadays, so as to screen out potential neuroticism among candidates, and this inevitably has hurt those who perceive themselves to have been rejected, people who are ironically most prone to such a predisposition. Instead of seeing the good motive behind (protection of an institution and the faithful), a focus is made on the bad (the mistaken belief of rejection of one’s person). (I have a little bit of objection here, however, knowing how certain saints struggled with their various neuroses while wearing the cassock or the habit; I believe God's call, not man’s (sometimes faulty) psychological assessment, is paramount in this case. God has this well-known habit of calling those who are unqualified in the eyes of the world; and people who appear perfect can sometimes be the ones in greater trouble.)

Folk historian's take

Going back: Is the devotion to Señor Nazareno a religious neurosis? Off the batt, I’d say it depends on the devotee. Jose Alain Austria, a La Salle Filipino folk history professor and artist (a trained iconographer), says the devotion evolved from a woman's undertaking to a mainly male devotion down to being a male initiation rite, much like the reverse of the Legionnaires of Mary, which devolved into purely a manangs' (old wives') club from its militaristic background (care of Ignatius and Xavier, if I'm not mistaken). The devotion to the mysterious ebony-black Señor, it turns out, is not just a spiritual one but also a matter of gender affirmation, the affirmation of the warrior side of men or the need for male aggression, an apparent requirement in this frightful barefooted, maroon-clad procession snaking down the streets of Manila. See this account, for example: by Austria.

If the devotion is a panata or vow, it is a good sign -- it means a promise of life-long devotion out of gratitude to God for an answered prayer or a miracle; and how can anyone argue with gratitude and miracle? The devotion could also mean a preventative, to avert future disasters. I won't find a cause for quarrel there, as I won't object to a devotion that requests for divine favor, even if it is seen by some religious as childish (I believe in God as a Father who loves to bestow unmerited favors to His children).

I’d wager that the devotee knows the answer (to the question) in his heart, even if he might not be aware of the complexity of the mechanics of neurosis, particularly the need to compensate for something (rightly or wrongly interpreted as) missing in one’s ego or something traumatically hurtful in the past, resulting in the seemingly mysterious and pressing ‘need’ to make up for the lack.

Since only God has an X-ray or 20/20 vision when it comes to reading the hearts of men, it is best to withhold judgment when confronted with gray areas. In the case of this devotion, it is not appropriate for me to judge when I’ve never been in the devotee’s shoes. Regrettably, I’ve twice rebuffed invites to write on this subject by joining it, for cowardly fear of fainting in the heat and the possibility of being squished in a stampede. Surely, I’ve visited the Quiapo Church to have a glimpse of the Mexico-sourced statuary and its devotees a  dozen of times, but only in the safety and normalcy of the day-to-day, never in the heat of the moment: the frightful Fridays of devotion which I studiously avoid due to the ensuing human-vehicular traffic.

It is much easier to view the devotion as a function of poverty, for poor people need God more, obviously. But the most integrated view, in my opinion, is the perspective from a much broader form of poverty, spiritual poverty and human suffering in general, in union with Christ's own passion or paschal mystery, as reflected upon in Austria's article. From this perspective, the devotion takes on a more mystical turn, as the devotee sees his earthly suffering as being one with the suffering divinity, an aspect of the Christian belief that is very difficult to explain to the nonbeliever.

Tell-tale signs

But one can have a clue to the answer to the title question because one can, with effort, distinguish between the autosuggestive and the Spirit-led. The first is selfish, egotistical; the second is other-directed. The other dichotomous clues are:

- rash, rushed, compulsive, impulsive vs patient, high-EQ (emotional quotient)
- excessive, irrational, emotional vs calm and collected
- driven from within vs driven by outside forces
- manipulative, controlling, guarded vs non-manipulative, free, transparent
- defensive, angry, hypersensitive to criticism/onion-skinned vs laughingly dismissive of (often insufferably stupid) criticism
- abrasive in character, if not overly nice vs balanced

The first set of attributes, needless to say, is a vice, a folly; the second, a virtue, a calling. In the first, the religious high may be manufactured; in the second, the religious high is spontaneous, sudden/unplanned, as though conferred from on high.

Furthermore, there’s this other thing to consider: Sometimes, there’s a thin line between zealotry and zeal, between fanaticism and Christian fervor/passion, as in the case of the recovering/struggling/reforming neurotic, who understandably needs to fortify the 'broken self' in his quest for wholeness. This is a long-winding process that is replete with confusion and incompletion in terms of self-awareness.

Ascertaining whether a Nazareno devotee is a fanatic or not is, therefore, not an easy task, if the observer is not equipped with the right knowledge of human behavior. Making fun of what one does not understand is a lot easier.

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