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The MOST Theological Collection: Vatican II: Marian Council

"Chapter 14 - Feelings and love"


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Now that we know that full spiritual development consists in perfect love, or, to put it another way, in the absolute alignment of our wills with the will of God, we can easily see what to think about emotions or feelings in religious matters. Emotions are not love, as we know. So, they will be useful or harmful according as they tend to promote love, or to hinder it. They can do either thing, on varied occasions.

Since emotions or feelings are capable of being used well or badly, we can easily guess that they may originate in different ways, that is, some may come from God, aimed at good; others may come from the evil spirits, designed to lead us to evil. And some can come even from variations in merely natural conditions.

Emotions, or a feeling of satisfaction in religious matters, are often called consolations. The reverse, a lack of feeling and of satisfaction, is often called dryness.

God quite commonly sends consolations in spiritual things to those who are just beginning to break with attachments to earthly things, to encourage them to turn their eyes more to the things above. Such consolations obviously can be quite helpful. But there are dangers. The Evil One may try to persuade such persons that now that they are experiencing emotions over spiritual goods they must be well advanced in the spiritual life, that perhaps they are beginning to be Saints. Probably the most devastating of all vices is spiritual pride. If the devil can lead a person into it, he can turn all attempts at spiritual growth into poison. For this reason the devil himself sometimes stirs up emotions to induce a person to want to pray more to do more good things. The Evil One can well afford it if he simultaneously leads the same one into spiritual pride He has other tricks too. For example, he can lead someone into making overly ambitious resolutions for spiritual growth. Precisely because the man takes on too much, he will inevitably fall, and will be likely to give up future attempts.

But even if none of these things happen to one from consolations, there is a more subtle danger. St. Francis de Sales puts it well when he says1 that we could be led to love the consolations of God instead of the God of consolations. That is, our real stimulus to do what is spiritually good may be not purely love of God, but the pleasure we get from it. We have already seen that true perfection is the alignment of our wills with the will of God. We know too that faith, which is the total adherence of a man to God, grows strongest when it must work in the dark holding on when that seems humanly impossible. So we can now see equally that when we stand firm and try our best to please God in spite of dryness, the lack of any feeling, that we may be pleasing Him far more than when all seems to go smoothly. A prayer, such as the Rosary said with abundant distractions can be priceless. As long as we do our best to eject the distractions every time we notice them, we are exerting our wills to match the will of God, and we are doing it vigorously. We added the qualification "every time we notice them", because it is very possible for a sincere person to be swept along for considerable periods by distractions, so engrossed in them that he does not realize he is distracted. But if when, as it were, he comes to himself, he takes action, then he is growing spiritually.

We can see too what to think of the plea of many persons today that they have stopped going to Mass because it is not meaningful, it is irrelevant. They really mean: "I do not get any satisfaction out of it, so it is no good for me." The Evil One has really triumphed if he leads a man to say that the center of all grace is meaningless! He has compounded his victory by leading many into celebrating the renewal2 of the obedience of Christ by disobedience to the Church, on the grounds that they feel the liturgy is not meaningful unless they indulge in unending tinkering, constantly chasing an ever-receding rainbow of personal satisfaction, instead of simply trying to please God.

Of course Satan can inject a twist of another kind into dryness. He can lead a soul to be proud, to say: "Weaker souls need consolations, but I am strong!"

Sometimes too whether or not we experience emotion or feelings of satisfaction can be affected by merely natural conditions. If we are overly tired, internally sluggish, or even suffering from poor digestion, we will be less likely to have consolations. Is it true then that good vibrant health promotes consolations? Not necessarily. When this life is most pleasant, the things of eternity may seem less real to us. Further, in illness and other trials we are apt to meet with a higher kind of consolation. As we saw in chapter 11, since we human beings are made up of matter and spirit, with many levels, drives, and needs in each part, we can be in consolation on the highest level, while we are suffering on the lower levels. As such, we can be like a mountain so lofty that it pierces the clouds, on whose lower slopes, there is blackness and storm; while on the peak, the sun is always shining. We can be sure that even in the darkness of Calvary our Blessed Mother and her Son had this higher light, while at the same time, they suffered most bitterly.

Some say that emotion plays a considerable role in a new movement, called Pentecostalism, in which many claim to have received the gifts of tongues, of healing, of prophecy, after a special Baptism in the Spirit. In the first century of the Church such gifts were quite common. On the first Pentecost, when the apostles were assembled with Mary the Mother of Jesus, the Spirit came upon all in the form of fiery tongues, and they began to speak in various languages, so that Jews then visiting in Jerusalem for the great feast each understood them speaking in his own native tongue. Somewhat later, St. Paul, in his first letter to Corinth, devotes three chapters3 to gifts that may have been of the same sort as those recorded on the first Pentecost. However, St. Paul makes several distinctions. First, he points out that not every seeming instance of such gifts is really from the good Spirit: some are from the Evil One.4 He goes on to speak of the relative value of the gifts. Tongues is the least of them, to be used in Church services only if there is someone who can translate:5 otherwise, the one having such a gift is to be silent. Prophecy, he says, is to be more highly regarded, for it is the gift of giving a moving exhortation to the community (the word as St. Paul uses it need not imply ability to foretell the future). But then, at the end of chapter 12 and the start of the beautiful chapter 13, Paul advises the Corinthians: "Be eager for the better gifts. And now I show you the way par excellence! If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, yet do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal." The reason is that there are two categories of graces. The first is that sort of grace which makes one holy by the very fact that he has it. Included in this irst class is love of God and neighbour, or, what is inseparable from them, sanctifying grace. Actual graces, which God sends to lead us to do His will are closely allied to this first group. The second group, charismatic graces, consists of those favours which do not automatically make the recipient holy: they are aimed at other ends, at special benefits for the Church:6 "First, apostles, second, prophets, third, teachers, then, wonder-workers, then, gifts of healing, helpers of the poor, administrators, kinds of tongues." We note that St. Paul puts the grace of apostleship first, that of tongues last. Apostolic graces do not seem miraculous or extraordinary, as tongues do, yet they are more important for the Church. Paul fears his friends are being childish about tongues:7 "Brothers, don't be children mentally, but be children in regard to malice." He wants them to put chief emphasis on love and union with God. The charismatic gifts are desirable and good, but not to be compared with the graces that automatically make men holy.

These gifts became rare in the mainline church after the first century. From then on, it was only heretical sects that claimed to have them in profusion. Of course, that does not mean today's Pentecostals are heretical. But neither has it been proved just which spirit is at work in each case.

We say "in each case" since each instance needs to be evaluated separately. Many Pentecostals seem content to say that the manifestations match the description given by St. Paul: therefore they are from the good Spirit. But we need evidence that these things are really the same, not just apparently the same. They then plead: by their fruits you shall know them. Pentecostalism, they say, leads men to greater love of God, charity to neighbour, love of Scripture, and to many other good things. So, they assert, we are not just placing stress on charismatic favours to the detriment of the main line things.

These things, again, seem true, but need further examination. For the Evil One could well afford to promote some apparent good, even to tolerate some real good, for some times, as long as he ,would gain in the long run. Now, as we said, not all cases of Pentecostalism today are the same. Some leave room for suspicion: even though certain persons do seem to bear fine spiritual fruits, yet the same ones give up the basic principles of religious life, following instead the new spirituality.8 One can afford to be cautious over such cases. Others, however, show no such deviation. In fact, some explicitly reject the new spirituality, and follow all, not just some, of the solid rules of the spiritual life. Some are persons who before entering the Pentecostal movement had almost given up the practice of their faith. Of such cases we may ask: in the first century, God gave such gifts to help establish the faith for the first time; perhaps now He judges the use of the same gifts needed to restore lost faith in an age in which faith is decaying?

At least we can be certain of this: all Pentecostals have special reason to carefully apply the principles we have reviewed on the right use of emotion in religion.

Did Mary have the Pentecostal gifts, or consolations? We know from the Acts of the Apostles that she was in the group upon whom the Holy Spirit descended in the form of fiery tongues. As to consolations, we can only surmise. Some, such as St. Therese of Lisieux,9 have liked to think she enjoyed but little of such favours, that she always walked in the darkness of faith. Others have thought that since she was so specially favoured by God in other ways, she must have had these favours too. Of course, the argument does not hold: feelings, as we have seen, can be helpful, but can also be harmful. It all depends on our use of them. We can only be sure that hers was a magnificent faith, that on the occasions of the greatest mysteries of her Son had to hold on strongly in the dark. Whether or not she enjoyed pleasurable feelings at other times, we simply do not know, other than that, as we said, in the "peak of the soul", she must have had that higher form of peace and consolation which no storm could ever destroy.


1 Introduction to a Devout Life 4,13.
2 Cf. Vatican II, On the Liturgy ยง 10.
3 1 Cor. Chapters 12-14.
4 1 Cor. 12,1-3.
5 1 Cor. 14,28.
6 1 Cor. 12,28.
7 1 Cor. 14,20.
8 Cf. Chap. 10 above.
9 She liked to think that Mary had worked the path of dryness, with no special manifestations. Cf. Novissima Verba: The Last Confidences of St. Therese (Kenedy, N.Y., 1952) pp. 109-11

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