Avoiding the Temptation to Over-Sentimentalize the Faith

There is a growing tendency in certain church circles—both Protestant and Catholic—to over-emphasize sentimentality. Sentimentality allows us to focus predominantly on our feelings. This can also come from a false sense of piety and an over-emphasis on personal devotions, which inevitably leave us spiritually dry. Our faith is true regardless of how we feel in a given situation. If we reduce everything to our feelings, we very often become indifferent to actual truth and wholly dependent on how we feel in a given situation. In this case, we worship ourselves and not the Living God.

Being Catholic is demanding. It requires our whole selves, not a small section of ourselves that we carve out for Christ. In relying on sentimentality, we become overly concerned with how we feel in our prayer lives, at Mass, or in working with other people. We also discard the true depth of our Catholic Tradition for clichés and dumb-downed slogans. There can be an abandonment of doctrine–such as Purgatory–in place of the heresy of moral therapeutic deism. We only have to be a “good” person. This means feeling “good” about ourselves. This idea is not grounded in anything outside of ourselves and it is a brainchild of relativism. We are called to be holy. We are called to be saints, not merely a subjective form of “good” which is defined by the feelings, thoughts, and ideas of each person.

As Catholics, we believe in concrete and objective truths that are grounded in the very person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man. We profess these truths each Sunday and at every Solemnity when we recite the Nicene Creed. Jesus calls each one of us to follow Him to the very end. That end is the Cross. The Resurrection does not happen before the Cross. Why should we think that our lives will be any different from Our Savior’s? Christ shows us the way by His example, and His example, is the laying down of His life for us all. He gives everything back to the Father. We are called to do the same. Any cursory reading of Scripture will quickly dispel a sentimental understanding of the Christian life.

There is nothing sentimental about the Beatitudes

During the Sermon on the Mount, Christ makes the Christian life very plain. He explains to those listening, and to those of us who meditate upon Scripture today, what we must do to gain everlasting life and find true happiness in this life and in the next.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land. Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:3-12

The Beatitudes are incredibly difficult, counter-intuitive, and pragmatic. We are blessed in periods of trial and suffering because it is when God draws us closer to Himself. It is through suffering that we learn to become entirely dependent on God. We are called to be courageous in the face of persecution. There is no shortage of persecution in this life. We are promised strife and struggle, but herein lies our joy as this life prepares us for the next. There is nothing sentimental about the Beatitudes. They are raw, gritty, and every single one of us fails to live up to them on a daily basis. They reach into the very depths of the human condition in all of our joys, misery, sorrow, struggles, sufferings, and weakness in order to show us the happiness God has in store for us. This is not a worldly happiness but an everlasting joy found in the Blessed Trinity.

If we turn the Beatitudes into something sentimental, or worse, an impossible ideal that should be abandoned, then we’ve missed out on Christ’s call for each one of us. It is through the Beatitudes that Christ upsets the world order and teaches us something radically different. It takes tremendous grace to be a peacemaker in a Fallen world. Grief and mourning can be intolerable to experience when a loved one dies, but God comforts us. Many of our brothers and sisters in Christ are persecuted daily even unto martyrdom. It is a struggle to maintain a pure of heart in a culture marred by hyper-sexualization and hedonism. The Beatitudes do not always make us feel good. They demand too much to be reduced to feeling warm and fuzzy inside.

The Cross is the antithesis of sentimentality

It can be easy in a post-Resurrection world to ignore the Cross in favor of a sole emphasis on the Resurrection. This is not the Catholic understanding. Our churches have—or at least should have—a crucifix on prominent display. It is the Cross that paves the way to the Resurrection. It is Christ dying on the Cross for our sins that opens up Heaven to us and the hope of salvation. Without the Cross, we would still be lost in sin and death. The Cross shows us our own path of total self-emptying love. We are called to lay down everything for God and others. We are called to give our very selves, our totality of self, to God. We cannot hold anything back, even if it means martyrdom.

The Cross’s call to each one of us destroys any temptation to over-sentimentalize the Faith. Our bloodied, beaten, and dead Savior on the Cross does not leave that open as an option. Instead He says to you and to me, ““Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it. What profit is there for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? What could one give in exchange for his life? Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this faithless and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:34-38) The Cross is the only way to eternal life and if we reduce our faith to sentimentality and feelings, we will miss the mark. That is the only mark we don’t want to miss in this life. We cannot progress in holiness without living the Cross. The Cross, more-often-than-not, does not feel “good” at all.

Feelings change constantly

We experience a wide variety of emotions throughout our day. We may feel happy one minute and angry the next. Outside influences, as well as material aspects of being an “embodied spirit” can greatly influence our moods. If we are tired, hungry, stressed out, or sick then our emotional state may seem more like a roller coaster than a serene lake. Given this knowledge, it should be apparent as to why our emotions cannot be our guide on the path to holiness. If we only want to feel “good” all of the time, then Christianity is not for us. The Beatitudes and the Cross reveal to us that we will not feel “good” most of the time. This includes at Mass. If our attendance at Mass is predicated upon our feelings, then it will be easy to leave the fullness of faith and the Real Presence in the Eucharist for the catchy mega-church down the street. If, however, we understand that Mass is not about us per say, it is about giving right praise and glory to God, then we will be able to more fully participate in the Mass and receive the graces that flow from that participation. The Mass teaches us self-emptying love by drawing us into the Divine Life.

There is nothing greater that can be offered to us on this side of eternity than the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Our Savior, Jesus Christ given to us in the Blessed Sacrament. God nourishes us in body and spirit through the Holy Eucharist. He reaches us in our material and immaterial reality in order to draw us closer to Him. Watch the priest’s actions closely during the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Every movement and word brings us into a deeper reality. It is astonishingly material and gloriously divine. Focus on Christ during Mass, not feelings and emotions. The reduction of our Faith to sentimentality leads quickly to indifference and irrelevance. We all must work hard to avoid this temptation.

We need to avoid the tendency towards sentimentality that is so popular today. This is not to say that sentimentality is a bad thing, but it is meant to be employed in limited cases. Our faith is not sentimental. It is grounded in the Cross of Our Savior who endured torture and death to set us free. We are called to pick up our own Cross in order to follow God. This means giving ourselves completely over to God and loving our neighbor fully. It is to give everything. The path to holiness is not walked in a sentimental flourish. It is arduous, difficult, and tainted by our weakness. Most of the time we do not feel “good” as we continue to persevere by God’s grace, in fact, the opposite may be the case. Instead, we keep our eyes firmly fixed on Christ and ask Him to help us to bear our Crosses well so that we may enter into the deep realities of God.

By

Constance T. Hull is a wife, mother, homeschooler, and a graduate student theologian with an emphasis in philosophy.  Her desire is to live the wonder so passionately preached in the works of G.K. Chesterton and to share that with her daughter and others. While you can frequently find her head inside of a great work of theology or philosophy, she considers her husband and daughter to be her greatest teachers. She is passionate about beauty, working towards holiness, the Sacraments, and all things Catholic. She is also published at The Federalist, Public Discourse, and blogs frequently at Swimming the Depths (www.swimmingthedepths.com).

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  • Thanks for sharing this, but why aren’t we hearing this from the pulpit? I am not discounting your writing as it is very good and words I need to hear but we are getting far to much sentimentality from the pulpit, that is a large part of the problem.

  • Constance Hull

    I think you’ve highlighted a problem in certain parishes. My husband and I are pretty careful about our parish and the priests we go to for Confession (when possible). There are pockets in my Diocese that are problematic. The last few parish priests we’ve had in this area have been very good about highlighting the Cross and the radical call of the Beatitudes.

    At Confession this past Saturday I was told to meditate once more on the Cross and pray for faith in the Cross of my husband’s illness.

    I also live in the same diocese as Charlottesville and our priest chose to do a Mass for justice and peace that focused on the call to the Beatitudes. It wasn’t sentimental, rather, it was a reminder that God calls us to live counter to our Fallen nature’s inclinations towards disorder, anger, and violence.

    I think priests can struggle with sentimentalism just as much as the rest of us. Thankfully, many seminaries have returned to rigorous philosophical and theological study which balances faith and reason. This helps combat the trap of sentimentalism.

  • Therese

    You have written a beautiful and timely article. Your words have also given me a beautiful insight into part of the unfathomable mystery of the cross. I was struck by your comment about Jesus’ total self-giving on the cross. I know I will never comprehend the full meaning of the need for His Passion and death this side of heaven, but you have given me a glimpse of His actions as a role model for me in giving of myself as I live each moment of each day.

  • In my diocese it is a very different situation, it seems that the priests are all giving sermons were trained in the what ever else you do, don’t ever offend anybody by preaching anything but pablum! I am sorry but that is the way it feels. The miracle of the loaves and fishes was about everybody sharing etc, that kind of stuff. I miss the kind of preaching where you get called to improve yourself and where miracles weren’t explained away. Am I that much of a dinosaur?

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