Editor’s Note: In Part I, we looked at the variability of emotions, today we’ll get to the heart of the issue at hand: why we have emotions. We’ll also talk about the unruliness of emotions. Here is the question we are examining:
Dear Father John, my very emotional nature often gets me in trouble. Why do we have emotions in the first place? What’s the purpose of them?
All this wonderful complexity helps explain why navigating our feelings is often so difficult. Yet it doesn’t change the basic purpose of feelings, a purpose invented by God and built into our human nature. Knowing this purpose frees us to engage our feelings in our Christian adventure, not simply to suppress them.
Emotions construct a bridge between the outside, material world and our inner, spiritual world. As human beings, we are both spiritual and material. Our spiritual vocation to know and love what is true and good is given to us and unfolds in this material world. Our access to a greater knowledge and love of God is through our experience of this world. Our senses put us in contact with the realities around us, our intelligence and our will are meant to interpret those realities, and our emotions are meant to give us the energy we need to act in this world, to pursue what is good and avoid what is evil. Here’s how the Catechism explains it:
Feelings or passions are emotions or movements of the sensitive appetite that incline us to act or not to act in regard to something felt or imagined to be good or evil….The passions are natural components of the human psyche; they form the passageway and ensure the connection between the life of the senses and the life of the mind. (CCC, paragraphs 1763—1764)
Angels, as purely spiritual beings, have direct access to spiritual realities. They are emotionless. They don’t laugh, and they don’t cry. Their soul is intelligent, but solely spiritual–not nutritive (like the souls of plants) and not sensitive (like the souls of animals). They are moved to action by the pure and immediate perception of the objects they may choose. But we are not angels. Our access to the spiritual realities that alone will fulfill our yearning for happiness (infinite truth and infinite goodness) is given through the mediation of this material world. Our emotional reactions are meant to give us the fuel we need to pursue what is good and true and to resist what is evil and false.
The Unruliness of Emotions
Yet, unfortunately, in our fallen human nature this feeling function has been damaged. Our natural emotional reactions to the world around us are not in perfect harmony with God’s plan for our full spiritual maturity. This is why our emotional experience so often seems to contribute to the stresses that plague the human predicament.
Our feelings often seem to have a mind of their own, independent of what we know to be true by reason or by faith. At times, for example, I feel drawn to things that my conscience deems wrong and damaging but my emotions deem desirable (like sleeping in when I have important work to do, or spending money that I don’t have just to keep up appearances). At other times, I feel repulsed by things that my reason or my faith tells me are good and important but my emotions label as undesirable (like taking time out of my busy schedule to simply sit with the Lord and pray, or making a difficult but necessary phone call).
At still other times, the intensity of my emotions seems to have no basis in reality, and my moods swing wildly up and down, making life turbulent and chaotic (as when I take out my internal frustrations on someone I love, someone who has nothing to do with the real cause of those frustrations).
Yet, in spite of being so complex by nature and so off-kilter because of original sin, emotions remain an essential element of the human experience, and as such, they are a crucial factor in growing to spiritual maturity. This is why Jesus singled them out, commanding us to learn “to love the Lord your God with…all your soul” (Luke 10:27, RSV).
Editor’s Note: This is another excerpt from Father John Bartunek’s new book “Seeking First the Kingdom” filled with “practical examples and down-to-earth wisdom which will show you how to bring Christ into each facet of your life”. Click here to learn more about the book…or if you wish to get it for a friend or relative who doesn’t read on line.
Art: Old Man with His Head in His Hands (“At Eternity’s Gate”), Vincent van Gogh, 1882, PD-US, Wikimedia Commons.