Rather frequently, I hear people make arguments about aspects of the spiritual life, the Church, morality, or relationships that are predicated upon a particular individual’s feelings. Some will complain that the Mass doesn’t make them “feel” good or the Church’s teaching doesn’t cause a flood of the emotions they are looking for in their lives. I’ve had friends tell me that their relationship with Jesus requires them to “feel good” on some level.
The problem is, our emotions or “feelings” — as we call them colloquially — are an unruly taskmaster and a dangerous guide in the spiritual life. It is true that our emotions are an aspect of being a human person, but they are in no way meant to overrule our intellect or our will. It is not uncommon for our emotions to lead us into temptation and take us down paths that are destructive.
When an individual tells me how essential it is for them to “feel” the presence of God or to experience Him subjectively in the Mass or in prayer, I tend to ask them some questions. First, I ask them how many times a day they experience an emotion? Do those emotions always comport with what is going on in reality? Do our bodies impact our emotional state e.g. level of sleep, stress, even what we’ve eaten? Is God our emotions? Does God cease to love us if we don’t “feel” good on a given day? What about the very real dark night experiences of some of the holiest souls in our Tradition? Can our emotions be impacted by our encounters with other people? There are a lot of other questions that should and can be considered when it comes to deciphering how much our emotions can impede our ability to understand reality, love and serve God properly, love our neighbor as we ought, and progress in holiness.
Part of the spiritual life is learning to temper, control, or discard our emotional states. We can’t always control our emotions, so at times we are called to endure until an emotional state passes. Much of the time an emotion we experience in a given situation is irrelevant to what is actually happening outside of ourselves. The Mass is a good example.
The celebration of the Mass — through which we offer right praise to God and participate in the eucharistic sacrifice as a priestly people through the ministerial priesthood — is an objective reality outside of ourselves. Heaven and earth meet and Our Lord is made bodily present to His people whether we “feel” it or not. The Mass is not meant to give us warm-fuzzy feelings. That’s not what it is designed for. If that is what we want out of the Mass (and if we must have that experience), then we are not seeking to worship God, we are seeking an emotional high. That doesn’t mean we won’t experience powerful feelings from time-to-time at Mass, but it does mean that we can’t be overly dependent on how we feel at Mass. We praise God regardless of our emotional state.
Many of the great spiritual masters of the Church note that as we progress in holiness, God seeks to free us of those things we depend upon outside of Him. One of these dependencies is our emotions. There will be periods, especially after consolations, in which God will seem to withdraw from us and we will no longer “feel” His presence. In fact, St. Ignatius of Loyola points out that we are in desolation more often than consolation in this life. We may experience aridity, darkness, numbness, and confusion. It is not that God has abandoned us, rather, He is seeking to purify our love for Him. We are not meant to rely on the good feelings that can come from a consolation or an experience of Him at an emotional level. If we constantly seek an emotional response to God, we often become trapped in a type of idolatry in which we worship our feelings over God.
The question we must ask ourselves in the spiritual life is: Who do I want? Do I want God or do I want me? If we want God, then we must learn to temper, control, and discard our emotional states and no longer remain dependent upon them. When we learn to recognize our emotional responses to situations we can see very quickly how our emotions can entangle us in temptations and lead us to sin. This is a prevalent issue in our culture and it is something we have to fight against by the grace extended to us through the Sacraments and regular prayer.
The mantra of our culture is, “If it feels good, then do it.” This is problematic and destructive in the spiritual life. It leads us to justify and commit sinful behavior. We can quickly become enslaved by alcohol, drugs, gambling, wrath, food, greed, pornography, or other forms of lust. Often adultery is predicated upon the notion that a person “feels” romantic love, attraction, or attachment to someone other than their spouse. We cannot truly love someone through sin and having an emotional response to another human being does not mean we should act upon it. What is required of us is to properly order that emotion to what is good, holy, and true. This is true of every aspect of our lives. A lot of people use their emotions and the argument that God wants them to be “happy” in order to indulge in sinful behavior. God wants us to become saints and our happiness can only come from living in accordance with His designs.
We are meant to move past our emotions as the starting point of our faith journey. They serve their purpose in the beginning by moving us towards God, but they are the shallow end. We are meant to swim into the great depths of God’s mystery and love through the gift of faith and our use of reason. We can’t truly come to know God and allow Him to live within us fully if we would rather worship our good feelings over Him. Christ doesn’t promise that the spiritual life will be rainbows and sunshine. He promises that it will be blessed and lead us to the ultimate happiness we are made for at the end of the journey. In fact, there will be very dark valleys that we must walk through.
We can’t persevere if we don’t understand that our spiritual life isn’t reliant upon feeling good. It is wholly dependent on Jesus Christ and our willingness to move forward in faith following Him no matter what. There will be much that we are asked to endure, some of which will be brutal, but our hope is in Him, not how we feel about what is asked of us. The greatest joy, the deepest peace, and the most intense love is found in the Holy Trinity and we enter into the communion of the Divine Persons when we let go of our counterfeits and embrace reality Itself. In order to do so, we must be willing to accept that our emotions are not God and that our faith journey is not dependent upon how we feel.