Author: Fr. William Most

Rev. William G. Most


What is the role of emotions or feelings in our spiritual lives? First, let us be clear on what emotion is. According to modern psychology it has two elements: 1) bodily changes, chiefly in biochemistry; 2) mental interpretation. For example, the chemistry in fear and in anger are much the same. So it is the mental interpretation that decides which it is. If we see something outrageous before us, that registers as anger. If we see something highly dangerous, it registers as fear.

Emotion by its very nature is neutral, neither good nor bad. (Hence the emotion that some say they must feel in the basically Lutheran error of just taking Christ as their Savior is necessary for salvation is a foolish error). For example, Our Lord had anger when He drove out the sellers. So anger then was good. It provided a chemical lift, adrenalin, that made it easier for Him to carry our what was needed. But if anger is more than what the situation on hand calls for then, it is wrong. Since we are humanly weak, it usually does go a bit beyond what is proper. A bit beyond is venially sinful. It would have to be something exceedingly great, so that a person is almost out of his mind, to make it mortal. (Also, a real desire - not just a passing thought - for some notable revenge can be mortal).

Similarly, in the spiritual life, feelings or emotions can be helpful or harmful.

Pleasant emotions in religious things are called consolations; the opposite, aridity. Realization of spiritual truths is not the same as consolation.

There are chiefly three sources for feelings in religion: ourselves, a good spirit( or God) and the evil spirit.

First, they can come from ourselves. Some, on reading the life of a saint, may as it were identify with the saint, and imagine themselves saintly, especially if they happen to have a calm mood in prayer. They may practically contemplate themselves as they pray, and think selves holy. Some races of humans are more prone to emotion than others. So something written by such a one may speak of high emotion. For example, St. Augustine, in his Confessions, after His conversion, in his retreat before baptism, describes emotional highs from reciting Psalm 4. Most people would not find that the case.

The state of our health and body in general can affect our response in feeling. Sluggish bowels can tend to dampen or hold down emotions. If we watch ourselves - which is even amusing to do - we will find that our reactions and attitudes can readily change with any change in our body chemistry. Women in general are more inclined to feelings than men. Further, their completely natural hormonal cycles can bring a constantly shifting landscape, as it were, before their eyes.

Sins, and even imperfections, even attachments to earthly things can predispose one to aridity. To understand attachments, we think of the words of Our Lord in Mt. 6. 21: "Where your treasure is, there is your heart also." In a narrow sense, that might he a box of coins hidden under the floor for safekeeping. Such a stash would tend to pulls the owner's thoughts and heart toward it: he would enjoy thinking on it. But we can put our treasure in just anything: in huge meals, in gourmet meals, in sex, in travel, in study, even in the study of Scripture and theology. All these things are lower than God Himself, some much lower than others. So they can, in different degrees, tend to hold down our thoughts and hearts. But there is a second factor: How strongly does a person let self be pulled by these things? The least pull would result only in imperfection, less than venial sin. The next level would be occasional venial sin - then habitual venial sin - then occasional mortal sin - then habitual mortal sin. One who falls into habitual mortal sin will find it hard for his thoughts, feelings, and heart to rise to the divine level.

There is a thing called affection to venial sin. It means this: it is as if a person were to say to himself: I do not intend to commit mortal sins, or even every venial sin that offers itself. But I have some reservations. If it gets too hard to keep up a conversation without some detraction, I will do it. Or if it is too hard to stick to the truth, I will lie. In general a person will not so openly speak to himself, as it were, about the attitudes we have described. But they can be there at least subconsciously, and can do much damage. Such attachments keep one not only from fully receiving a plenary indulgence, but from any further spiritual progress at all. It is as if the person puts a clamp around his heart: it can expand just so far, no farther. It is sad to see some persons going in for so many devotions, but yet making no gain, since they harbor - perhaps without realizing it - one of these affections. This is something to check on. During a retreat is a good time to scour our consciousness for these things. (Cf. St. John of the Cross, Ascent of Mt. Carmel 1. 11. 4 - for his comparison of a bird on a string).

God or a good spirit can send either consolations or aridity. When a person reaches the second conversion - the point where he decides to get serious about pleasing God - then God often sends consolations, to help detach the soul from things of this world. But if these feelings were to run longterm, there would be danger of attachment to them. St. Francis de Sales says we might come to love the consolations of God more than the God of consolations. St. John of the Cross (Ascent of Mt. Carmel 3. 39. 1) compares such things to toys. If a baby picks up a sharp knife, we do not try to take it from him. No, we dangle a toy before him, so he will let go of the knife. The toys are such consolations.

There is only one free thing in us, our free will. So in a situation where our will must hold onto carrying out the will of God in spite of aridity, even in darkness, i.e., when it seems impossible to do so - then the soul must either make a large gain, or fall. We think of Abraham, told to sacrifice his son, even though he had to believe God would make him the father of a great nation through that Isaac. Abraham could have respectfully asked God: I know I must believe this, but now you tell me to kill him. I am willing to do either, but cannot do both. But Abraham did not ask any question: he just went ahead. And God did provide.

Blessed Mother had to hold on in the dark many times, e.g., at Cana, where the reply of her Son seemed to be rejection. Yet she believed, and told the waiters: Do whatever He tells you. That brought His first miracle, ahead of His planned schedule.

In John 6 Our Lord insisted they must eat His flesh. That sounded like cannibalism to the crowd, or backbiting. He did not explain, just insisted, even though many drifted away. He even told the Apostles: Are you going to leave too? No, you have the words of eternal life. He wanted them to hold on in the dark and so to make great gain.

Our Blessed Mother at the Cross had to believe that this wretched failure was really the salvation of the world. She did, she even had to positively will that He die, die then, die so horribly - for when any soul knows what God positively wills, that soul should positively will what He wills. And she did this in direct clash with her love, so great that Pius IX in 1854 said it was so great that, "none greater under God can be thought of, and no one but God can comprehend it." (The Pope spoke of holiness, which in practice is interchangeable with love).

St. John of the Cross tells us that there are three signs that a soul, already far advanced, is going to receive infused contemplation. One is a total aridity, everything material, everything spiritual, brings no consolation at all.

The evil one can send consolations, to make a soul try to take on spiritual projects too great: he can afford to promote some temporary gain in return for long term loss to that soul. He can also send consolations to make us think we are saintly, we have arrived. And of course the devil can promote aridity to urge us to give up or to let up. And in aridity he can tell a soul that it is a strong soul, and does not need consolations. Devilish!

So we return to the thought we mentioned in passing above: there is only one free thing in us, our free will. If we could make that completely match the will of God, that would be perfection. Of course we cannot get that in one quick action, like instant coffee. No, we cannot foresee at this moment all that God will ask us for before the end of our lives.

Even more important: even though spiritual progress lies in the will, it is tied to what is called somatic resonance. Since we are made of matter and spirit and the two are tied so closely as to form one person, the result is that if we have a condition on either side, body or spirit, then for normal running there should be a parallel on the other side. That is called a resonance. When it falls on the side of the body (most usual) it is labeled somatic. For example, a man in deep black depression may think he is losing his faith. The truth is that the bad chemistry that causes his depression is interfering with the somatic resonance to faith - that resonance is found in biochemistry. Hence it seems to him he has no faith. But when he comes out the blackness, there is no need to make him a convert again. His faith was there all the time.

Now somatic resonance, precisely since it is bodily, follows the laws of the way a body grows - plants, animals, children all grow in a step graph. There are long plateaus, and in between small rises. Our spiritual growth follows such a pattern. Can we help make the rises larger? Yes, when we do something that is hard on what St. Francis of Assisi called Brother Ass, his body, then the somatic resonance can be shaken up enough to support a larger rise. And when - most people meet such things once or more in a lifetime - we meet something terribly hard to accept as the will of God (permitted or positively sent), then if we not only refrain from growling, but even thank Him for that as means of likeness to Christ - then we can make a large gain at such a point. We think again of Our Lady at the foot of the Cross.

There is a diversity in spiritual patterns too. There as it were two levels of tiers in the principles of the spiritual life. On the basic level, no one can break the rules without taking a loss. But on the secondary level there is room for much variation. St. Francis of Assisi took much pleasure in birds and flowers, and that led him to praise God greatly. St. John of the Cross probably reacted in the opposite way. St. Francis de Sales was refined gentleman. St. Benedict Joseph Labre was like a filthy tramp living the ruins of Rome. He must have had body lice. One story says if one of them tried to crawl out of his sleeve, he would push it back again.

We owe Him everything - for making us out of nothing - and all over again, for redeeming us. So we go to Mass not to enjoy ourselves - that is indifferent whether or not we enjoy it - but to please Him by joining our resolve of obedience to that of the obedience of the heart of His Son, as He lies on the altar, and to that of His Mother, who still joins with Him in each Mass, as she once did at the Cross (cf. John Paul II in St. Peter's Square on Sunday Feb 12, 1984 said: "Every liturgical action... is an occasion of communion... and in a particular way with Mary. Because the Liturgy is the action of Christ and of the Church... she is inseparable from one and the other... . . Mary is present in the memorial - the liturgical action - because she was present at the saving event, faithful with her whole being to the Father's plan, at the historical salvific occasion of Christ's death." Her will is still united with His, the flesh and blood on the altar came from her).

We might even take a few moments before a Mass: What have I done in obeying the Father since the last Mass? If well, I can join that; if some times I did badly, then I should express regrets).

Here are some passages from Saints who had much aridity, but profited from it:

1. St. Therese of Lisieux, Autobiography (Cap 13, p. 196, Kenedy edition):"Do not think that I am overwhelmed with consolations. Far from it! My joy consists in being deprived of all joy here on earth. Jesus does not guide me openly: I neither see nor hear Him."

2. St. Therese of Lisieux, Poem: "I know that at Nazareth, Virgin full of graces/ You lived in great poverty, not wishing anything more; No raptures, no miracles, no ecstasies/ embellished your life, O Queen of the elect. / The number of little ones is very great upon the earth. / They can, without trembling, lift up their eyes to you. /It pleases you to walk among the common way, / Incomparable Mother, to guide them to the heavens."

3. St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle 6. 9: "I will only warn you that, when you learn or hear that God is granting souls these graces [visions etc], you must never beseech or desire Him to lead you along this road. Even if you think it is a very good one, and to be greatly prized and reverenced, there are certain reasons why such a course is not wise." She adds: it shows a lack of humility, one leaves self open to great danger since the devil will take any opening, there is also danger of autosuggestion; it is presumption to want to choose one's own path; very heavy trials usually go with such favors and, "There are many saintly people who have never known what it is to receive a favor of this kind, and there are others who receive such favors, although they are not saintly... . It is true that to have these favors must be the greatest help towards attaining a high degree of perfection in the virtues; but anyone who has attained the virtues at the cost of his own toil has earned much more merit."

4. St. Francis de Sales, Letter 764 to St. Jane de Chantal: "It is the height of holy disinterestedness to be content with naked, dry, and insensible acts carried out in the higher will alone. You have told me well about your suffering and there is nothing to do to help it but what you are doing: affirming to our Lord, sometimes out loud and sometimes in song, that you even will to live and to eat as the dead do, without taste, feeling or knowledge. In the end, the Savior wants us to be His so perfectly that nothing else is left for us, and to abandon ourselves entirely to the mercy of His providence without reservation."