Forming Our Emotions (Part II of II)
Editor’s Note: In part I, we introduced the concept of educating or forming emotions and looked at the state of our emotions in the purgative way. Today, we will explore the differences in our emotions while we are in the two subsequent ways: the illuminative and unitive ways. Here is the question we are exploring:
Dear Father John, My reactions to things seem out of control. For example, when I am cut off in traffic by another driver, I often get “road rage.” And, I get very sad when people reject my good intentions. There doesn’t seem to be any basis for it, nothing in my childhood or upbringing or any physical reason. Is there any way to really get a handle on these things and bring these emotions under control, without stifling or “stuffing” my feelings?
Integrating Our Emotions
Too often Christians stop the formation of emotions there, at the level of discipline and self-denial. But that is an incomplete view of the role of feelings. The purgative way is only the first stage. Discipline creates parameters for full freedom, but it is not the equivalent of full freedom.When that wild horse learns to sit still under tight rein, it is learning discipline. But unless it is also taught to walk and run without tossing its rider, the discipline will not have achieved its full purpose.
In the second stage of the spiritual life, therefore, God invites and helps us to move beyond seeing our emotions as the enemy of spiritual progress. Now that we are not enslaved to their every whim, we can learn to value them and understand them more deeply. We can face our own emotional wounds and coping mechanisms; we can give ourselves permission to feel our feelings deeply without fearing that they will sabotage us by always leading to sin. The horse is learning to run with and for its rider; our emotional world is expanding and making its powerful contribution to our pursuit of holiness, not just standing still with blinders on.
In this illuminative phase we learn the difference between life-giving emotional discipline and deadening emotional repression. God also gradually reveals to us the depth of our emotional needs, and he shows us how we can meet those needs in healthy ways, without reverting to the dangerous self-absorption of emotional immaturity. As our emotions thus truly become integrated into our relationship with God and our mission of building up his kingdom, our personality matures in harmony with our growing faith, and we become stable, content, joyful Christians.
As our feelings enter more and more into the service of the truths of faith that are meant to govern our lives, as God teaches us to feel our feelings without letting them dictate our decisions, our emotional world gradually comes into almost perfect sync with our authentic good. This is what our feelings look like in the unitive way. Emotionally mature Christians feel not only a spiritual attraction to prayer and the sacraments and works of mercy, but also an emotional resonance with those and similar God-centered activities. Their feelings have learned to perceive a truly good object in actions that used to be emotionally dry.
Likewise, as our emotions are fully integrated with our faith, we find ourselves spontaneously repulsed by spiritually dangerous objects that used to appear attractive. The prospect of a shady but lucrative financial deal can be an agonizingly seductive temptation for someone still in the purgative stage. But when our emotions have been formed by faith and conformed to Christ’s own authentic desires for what is truly good and not just apparently good, an invitation to obvious material sin often elicits an emotional revulsion, regardless of the monetary benefits that it may proffer.
This was the experience of so many saints and martyrs–mature Christians who have cooperated generously with God’s grace and found themselves desiring with their whole being whatever God desired for them, even if it was a cross. And the most comforting thing of all is that those saints and martyrs started out just like us, fallen and wounded and spiritually immature. The grand partnership of God’s grace and their generous effort slowly but surely transformed them, just as it will do for us. Here’s how St. Paul described it, showing us that discipline (being crucified with Christ) led him to a mature faith (illuminative way) and an indescribable union of mutual love with the Lord. This is where God is leading all of us–to love him with all our soul:
I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me. (Galatians 2:19—20)
At the beginning of our journey, and sometimes in the middle of it, St. Paul’s words may not resonate with us–the discomfort caused by a feeling function in need of formation still predominates. But God is at work there, and every sacrifice and every small step we take at his side toward spiritual maturity will yield wildly disproportionate fruits: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (James 4:8).
Art: File graphic.