What’s the Difference Between Emotional and Spiritual Maturity?
Part I of II
What’s the difference between emotional and spiritual maturity?
That’s an interesting question and one that I think warrants definition. As a therapist, I deal with the emotional life of my clients and how those emotions intersect and interact with their thought life. As a specifically Catholic therapist there’s an added dimension of integrating their spiritual life and spiritual principles and practices into the process.
So what’s the difference? Is there a difference?
Well yes, there is a difference, but they do overlap at times.
Emotional Maturity: First let’s discuss emotional maturity. Eminent Catholic psychiatrists Dr. Anna Terruwe and Dr. Conrad Baars, who based their work on the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas, wrote extensively about the emotional life. They defined emotions as “psychological motors, designed to move us toward all that’s good, beautiful and true and away from what’s not.” They further taught that by nature our emotions want to and need to be guided by reason, but that reason serves the heart, or the emotional life–not the other way around.
In this modern age where much emphasis is given to reason and intellectual pursuit, even in many Catholic circles, this teaching is very important to understand. God communicates with us in our hearts, making spiritual maturity not only an endeavor of the intellect–knowing right and wrong, but one of the heart–developing a “listening ear” so to speak, and responding to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
The emotionally mature individual is one who has a greater sensitivity and keen appreciation for all that is good, beautiful and true and is able to experience joy and to develop warm and intimate relationships. They place less emphasis on “doing” and more on being, thanks to the greater harmony between their emotional and intellectual life.
Another important component of emotional maturity involves effectively guiding our emotions by reason. For example, a toddler who gets angry may hit his brother. An adult who may be similarly enraged is expected to use reason to find more socially acceptable solutions. He experiences feeling angry, is aware of it and uses reason to guide if or how he expresses it. Being aware of his anger and understanding whatever provoked it, he can then also use the anger to move him to attempt to address whatever injustice made him angry in the first place.
Now naturally reason, to do its job effectively, needs to be informed, which includes proper conscience formation, or the understanding of right and wrong. The first formers of conscience are the parents. But this is also where catechesis comes in, and where the lack of effective catechesis these last few decades has had a devastating impact. The human person, by nature, is always seeking after happiness, but often in wrong ways that can never truly satisfy him. Many, because they misunderstand or do not even know what Holy Mother Church teaches, may have limited culpability but this can impede their spiritual maturity and may even sabotage true emotional maturity as well. For how can reason effectively guide the emotions toward their natural end of all that’s good, beautiful and true if it is misinformed as to what actually constitutes authentic goodness, beauty and truth?
Spiritual Maturity: Spiritual maturity on the other hand is measured by our conformity to and relationship with God. An individual grows in their knowledge of God through study of scripture, and spiritual reading. They grow in their relationship and intimacy with God through prayer. As an individual matures spiritually they are drawn into a deeper relationship with God and should also gain a greater discernment of God’s particular call on their life.
Spiritual maturity is not simply intellectual knowledge of God or warm emotional feelings toward Him, but is characterized by growth in virtue. As someone grows in virtue, they become more steadfast in the truth and less swayed by public opinion, emotional arguments or even their own willfulness or disordered passions. The hallmark virtue of the spiritually mature is humility. With true humility a person sees his own place in relation to God and gives God the credit due His glory as they recognize any virtues within themselves or any accomplishments they have achieved. Growing spiritually impels them with a greater desire to grow in perfection with the understanding and acceptance that they will never completely attain it in this life.
Just as we understand emotional maturity as the ability to experience warmth and affection and to guide our emotions effectively by reason, spiritual maturity can then be understood as growth in a loving and warm relationship with Christ and the effective guidance of both our reason and our emotions by virtue.
In part II, we will look at the next question that naturally flows from this discussion: whether someone emotionally immature can attain spiritual maturity and perfection?
Art: Inbidia haurrak 001 (Envy and anger between children), , September 16, 2013, CC by SA, Wikimedia Commons.