What’s the Difference Between Emotional and Spiritual Maturity?
Part II of II
In part I, we looked at the differences between emotional and spiritual maturity. Today, we will look at a follow-on question.
The next question naturally flows from this: Can someone who is immature emotionally attain spiritual maturity and perfection?
The answer to that is yes, no and maybe. Since maturity refers to a stage that is commensurate with age, it is entirely possible for a young child to display deep and even heroic virtue. Although their emotional life may not yet be fully developed and well guided by reason, their virtues and open disposition can allow the action of the Holy Spirit to infuse virtues that, due to their open and childlike disposition, perfects their immature emotions and their yet weaker will. We have the example of many child saints to look toward to see this.
But apart from special action of the Holy Spirit in some cases, for the average person, emotional immaturity may be an obstacle to spiritual growth. If their emotional life is not developed or they cannot yet effectively guide their emotions by their reason, as a person gets older, even with considerable work, prayer and study, they may have difficulty living by virtue as their immature emotions may usurp control. If there are emotional wounds that have not been healed, those wounds and any repression that may be in play, can keep them from freely guiding their emotions by reason or virtue. Working behind the scenes, the emotional wounds seeking redress, or a lack of authentic affirmation, may cause them to seek love at all costs and can impel them unconsciously toward meeting those needs without regard to reason or the tempering effects of virtue. After all, reason can only guide those emotions that the individual is aware of. Hence unconscious emotions and motivations would be inaccessible to the tempering effects of both reason and virtue.
But it’s important to note here that this is not always the case with every unaffirmed individual. Many, though they may struggle in their emotional life, because of their good will and childlike disposition, exhibit extraordinary holiness despite and actually through their suffering.
Sadly, though many well-educated and well meaning people within the church, who may have impressive theological knowledge and may “preach” a good game, are unable either to live authentically virtuous lives or to truly inspire virtue in others. Their own emotional immaturity or unhealed wounds may sabotage them and others to whom they minister. In many cases, people who were wounded by such adults as children may have a difficult time desiring or reconciling spiritual truth because the “truth” which was presented to them was actually distorted and may have induced fear or pain, rather than having the desired effect of liberating and inspiring them. Holiness is therefore not simply an act of the will, but the will working in concert with the emotions. In fact, when the emotional life is fully developed, as St. Thomas Aquinas taught, the emotions support the will in its choice of the good.
The good news, though, is that for those who have not adequately matured emotionally, it’s never too late. If someone comes from a difficult family background or has unhealed traumas that they have not worked through, healing is possible. It’s not simply an endeavor of the intellect however, but one that requires therapeutic assistance by someone well versed in an understanding of the emotional life and emotionally mature enough himself to be able to help such an individual in their journey into emotional adulthood. With a will disposed to the good and the added grace of a sacramental life of prayer, such individuals can experience amazing transformation and attain true happiness. It is truly worth the investment.
Art: Pearl of Grief,