Reaching the Entire Person: Role of the Emotions (I)

In the Christian life, the intellect, will and emotions need to grow together, helping one another to advance. Hence the importance of guiding our feelings. First of a two-part article.

A Christian personality
Opus Dei - Reaching the Entire Person: Role of the Emotions (I)

Certainly, Jesus Christ is the love of our life: not the greatest among others, but the one who gives meaning to all our other loves, and to the interests, dreams, ambitions, jobs and initiatives that fill our days and our heart. Hence in our spiritual life we need to preserve the centrality of the Person of Jesus Christ.[1] He is the path to enter into communion with the Father in the Holy Spirit. In Him is revealed the mystery of “who man is”[2] and what we are called to. To walk with Christ means to grow in self-knowledge, and to enter more deeply into our own personal mystery. To allow Jesus to be the centre of our life leads, among other things, to rediscovering with new light the anthropological and Christian value of the various ascetical means; reaching the person in all of his or her integrity: intellect, will, heart, relations with others.[3]

The person we have to reach is first of all our own self, and then all those with whom we come in contact through our friendship and apostolate. The formation that we receive and that we impart should reach the intellect, the will and the emotions, with none of these elements being neglected or simply “subordinated” to the others.

Here we will concentrate primarily on forming each person’s emotional life, taking as given the need for solid intellectual formation as the foundation. The consideration of the importance of integral formation will allow us to “rediscover” the great truth contained in St Josemaría’s identification of “fidelity” with “happiness.”[4]

Being formed in accord with Christ’s heart

Some people, when they think of formation, tend to consider it as knowledge. Thus a person who has received good doctrinal, ascetical and professional information is considered to have good formation. But more than that is required. To reach the person in all of his or her integrity requires viewing formation as a way of being. Good professionals know the body of information and techniques required by their profession, but they have acquired something else as well. They have developed habits – ways of being – that enable them to apply that knowledge and those techniques successfully: habits of attention to others, concentration in work, punctuality, coping with successes and failures, perseverance, etc.

Similarly, being a good Christian doesn’t simply mean knowing – at a level appropriate to one’s situation in the Church and in society – the Church’s teaching on the sacraments or on prayer, or on general and professional moral norms. The goal is much higher: immersing ourselves in the mystery of Christ so as to grasp it in all its breadth and depth (cf. Eph 3:18), letting his Life enter into ours, and being able to say with St Paul, it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me (Gal 2:20). Thus it means being “alter Christus, ipse Christus,”[5] allowing grace to transform us gradually so as to configure us to Him.

Letting grace act is not something merely passive; it doesn’t mean simply not placing obstacles in the way, since the Holy Spirit doesn’t transform us into Christ without our free, voluntary cooperation. But neither is that enough. To give ourselves to our Lord, to give Him our life, is not simply to give Him our decisions, our actions; it is also to give Him our heart, our feelings, our spontaneity. To do so, we need to have a good intellectual and doctrinal formation that shapes our mind and influences our decisions, but this doctrine also has to sink in deeply and reach our heart. And this requires struggle, it requires time. In other words, it requires acquiring virtues, which is precisely what formation consists in.

It is not uncommon to meet people who fear that insisting on the virtues may end up leading to “voluntarism,” to giving primacy to a person’s will-power. Nothing could be further from the truth. Perhaps at the root of that confusion is an erroneous idea of virtue, which is seen as simply a supplement to will-power, enabling the person who possesses it to fulfil the moral law even when it goes against their own inclination. This is quite a widespread idea, and does in fact stem from voluntarism. Virtue is thus regarded as the capacity to go against the flow of one’s own inclinations when the moral law so requires.

There is of course some truth in this. But it is an incomplete vision, in which virtues are turned into cold qualities that would lead to rejecting in practice one’s own inclinations, interests and affections, and that would inevitably result in turning indifference into an ideal: as though the interior life and self-giving consisted in reaching the point where one doesn’t feel attracted by anything that might impede one’s own future decisions.

To regard formation in that way would make it impossible to reach the person in his or her integrity. The intellect, will and emotions would not be growing together, helping one another to advance. Rather one of these faculties would dominate and stifle the others. The correct development of the interior life, in contrast, requires integration, and certainly doesn’t lead to a diminishing or loss of our interests and emotions. Its aim is not that we aren’t affected by what happens, that we shouldn’t care about what is important, that we shouldn’t be hurt by what is hurtful, that we shouldn’t be concerned about what is concerning, that we shouldn’t be attracted by what is attractive. Quite the opposite. The interior life expands the heart and fills it with a great love, enabling us to view our emotions in a broader context that provides the means for tackling feelings that give rise to difficulties, and helps capture the positive and transcendent meaning of those that are pleasant.

The Gospels show us our Lord’s sincere concern for his disciples’ rest. And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest a while” (Mk 6:31). We also see how his heart reacts before the suffering of his friends, like Martha and Mary (cf. Jn 11:1-44). We cannot suppose that in those moments Jesus was simply “acting,” as though deep down, because of his union with his Father, whatever happened around him was a matter of indifference to him. Saint Josemaría often spoke about loving the world passionately.[6] He encouraged people to place their heart in God and, through Him, in others, in the work we are engaged in, in our efforts in the apostolate. “Our Lord does not want us to be dry and rigid, like inert matter.”[7]

Availability, for example, is not the disposition of a person who is indifferent to doing this or that because he has succeeded in losing interest in everything, perhaps in order to avoid suffering when something is asked of him which he doesn’t like. Rather it is the noble disposition of one who is able at a particular moment to do without something that is good and attractive, in order to concentrate on something else in which God is awaiting us, because living for God is our deepest desire. Such a person has a great heart, filled with interests and good ambitions that can be set aside whenever necessary, not because we reject them or try to avoid being affected by them, but because our interest in loving and serving God is much greater still. And not only is it greater; it is – it has been transformed into – what gives meaning to and embraces all other interests.

Rejoicing in practicing the virtues

Formation in the virtues requires struggle, overcoming one’s own inclination when this is opposed to good acts. This is the part of truth that is contained in the reductionist, “voluntaristic” concept of virtue referred to earlier. But virtue doesn’t consist in the capacity to oppose inclinations, but rather in the formation of our inclinations. The goal, then, is not that we should be capable of habitually setting our feelings aside so as to let ourselves be guided by an external rule, but rather to form those feelings in such a way that we are capable of rejoicing in the good achieved. Virtue consists precisely in this rejoicing in the good, in the formation, we might say, of “good taste”: [Blessed is the man whose] delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night (Ps 1:2). Thus virtue entails the formation of our feelings, and not the habit of systematically opposing them.

As long as virtue is unformed, our feelings and emotions can offer resistance to a good act, which needs to be overcome. But the aim is not simply to overcome the resistance, but rather to develop a “taste” for acting virtuously. When one possesses virtue, the good act may still be difficult, but it is performed with joy. Let us offer an example. To get up on time in the morning – “the heroic minute”[8] – will probably always be difficult; perhaps the day will never come when, on hearing the alarm, we don’t feel inclined to spend a little more time in bed. But if we habitually strive to overcome laziness out of love for God, a moment comes when to do so brings us joy, while to give in to comfort displeases us and leaves a bad taste in our mouth. Likewise, for someone who is honest, to take a product from the supermarket without paying for it is not only something prohibited; it is also ugly and disagreeable, opposed to that person’s dispositions, to their heart. This shaping of our feelings so that we experience joy at the good and displeasure at evil is not a collateral consequence of virtue, but rather an essential component. Hence virtue enables us to enjoy the good.

This is not a merely theoretical idea. It is of great practical importance for us to know, when we struggle, that we are not simply getting accustomed to putting up with annoyances, but we are learning to enjoy the good, even if for the moment it means we have to go against the grain.

Forming virtues makes the faculties and affections learn to focus on what truly satisfies our deepest aspirations, while attributing secondary importance – always subordinate to what is most important – to those things that are simply means to an end. In the final analysis, to be formed in the virtues is to learn how to be happy, to rejoice at and with what is truly great; it is, in short, to prepare for Heaven.

If being formed means growing in virtues, and the virtues consist in a certain order in our affectivity, in our feelings and emotions, we can conclude that all formation is the formation of affectivity. On reading this, someone may raise the objection that, in one’s effort to acquire virtues, the aim is operative rather than affective, perhaps even adding that we apply the name of virtues precisely to operative habits. This is true. But if the virtues help us to do good, it is because they help us to feel correctly. The human being always moves towards the good. The moral problem is, ultimately, why it is that what is not good appears to us – it presents itself to our eyes – as good, in a specific situation. That this happens is due to the disorder in our tendencies, which leads us to exaggerate the value of the good towards which one of those tendencies is directed, so that this good is considered more desirable in the particular situation than another good with which it is conflict, but which in fact has greater objective value because it corresponds to the person’s overall good.

For example: in a given situation we may find ourselves torn between telling the truth or not. The natural tendency we have towards the truth presents it to us as a good. But we also have a natural tendency to want the esteem of others, which in this particular case, if we think the truth is going to end up making us look bad, will present lying as appropriate. These two tendencies enter into conflict. Which of them will prevail? It will depend on which of the two goods is more important for us, and in this assessment our affectivity plays a decisive role. If it is well ordered, it will help the reason to see that the truth is very precious and that the esteem of others is not desirable if it makes us forsake the truth. This love for the truth over other goods that also attract us is precisely what we call sincerity. But if the desire to look good is stronger than the attraction of truth, it is easy for the reason to be deceived, and even though it knows that it isn’t good, it judges that it is appropriate to lie. Although we know perfectly well that it is wrong to lie, we consider that in this specific situation it is appropriate to do so.

A well-ordered emotional life helps us do good because it helps us to grasp it as good beforehand. Hence the importance of forming our emotions correctly. How can this be done? We will try to set out a few ideas in the next article, but here we will simply point out something it is good to be aware of before tackling this topic.

The will and our feelings

We have just stated that a well-ordered affectivity helps us to act well. The reverse is also true: to act well helps us to put order in our affectivity.

We know from experience (and it is good not to forget it if we want to avoid easily falling into frustration and discouragement) that we cannot directly control our feelings. If we fall prey to discouragement, we cannot resolve the problem simply by deciding to feel happy. The same applies if at a given moment we want to feel more daring, or less timid, or if we don’t want to feel afraid or ashamed, or to feel the sensible attraction of something we judge to be disordered. At other times, we would like to get along easily with someone we find off-putting for reasons that we recognise are trivial but that we don’t manage to overcome, and we realise that simply trying to treat that person in a natural way doesn’t resolve the difficulty.

In short, a voluntary decision to make our feelings correspond to our desires is not enough. However, the fact that the will doesn’t directly control our feelings doesn’t mean that it has no influence over them.

In ethics, the control that the will can exercise over the feelings is called “political,” because it is similar to that which a ruler has over his subjects; he cannot control them directly, since they are free. But he can take certain measures – for example, reducing taxes – in the hope that these will produce specific results – for example, increased consumption or investment – through the free will of the citizens. We too can perform certain acts which we hope will give rise to specific feelings. For example, we can stop to consider the good that will be done by an apostolic undertaking for which we are seeking help, as a way of feeling more daring when asking for a donation to help get that undertaking started. We can consider our divine filiation in the hope that a professional setback will have less of an impact on us at the level of our feelings. Again, we know that to imbibe a certain amount of alcohol can provoke a transitory state of euphoria; and that if we deliberately let our minds dwell on some bad treatment we may have received, we will provoke reactions of anger. These are a few examples of the influence – in each case indirect – that the will can exercise in the short term over our feelings.

Much more important, however, is the long-term influence that the will exercises over our affectivity, since this influence is precisely what allows it to give it form, to form it. As we reflect on this process we see clearly the unity of the human person, and that formation only achieves its goal if it reaches the intellect, the will and the emotions. We will deal with this in the second part of this article.

[1] Fernando Ocáriz, Pastoral Letter, 14 February 2017, 8.

[2] Cf. Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes (7 December 1965), 22.

[3] Fernando Ocáriz, Pastoral Letter, 14 February 2017, 8.

[4] In Spanish: “fidelidad” and “felicidad.” Cf. Saint Josemaria, Furrow, 84: “Your steadfastness in faith, purity and the way God has marked out for you is the measure of your happiness on earth.” Cf. also, for example, Instruction, May1935/14 September 1950, 60; Instruction 8 December 1941, 61; Saint Josemaria, Friends of God, 189.

[5] Saint Josemaria, Christ is Passing By, 96.

[6] Suffice it to mention, by way of example, the title of the homily Passionately Loving the World, in Conversations, 113-123.

[7] Friends of God, 183.

[8] Saint Josemaria, The Way, 206.