Action Alert!

The MOST Theological Collection: Our Father's Plan: God's Arrangements and Our Response

"Chapter 16: Help from Psychology"


Browse by Title
New Search
Table of Contents for this Work

We already know that love is a desire, a will for the happiness of another for the other's sake. When directed to other human beings, this means we want them to get and have the things needed to be well-off. When directed to God it means that we please Him by making it possible for Him to have the generous pleasure of giving to us, since we make ourselves open to Him, by following His instructions for doing that, His commandments.

Both in love of God and in love of human beings, love in itself is clearly basically spiritual, centered in the spiritual will. Yet everyone is convinced that, at least in the love of other people, there must be feeling. Many identify love with feeling. In fact, intercourse is often called "making love."

We already saw that love cannot really consist in or even strictly require feelings. If it did, Christ's command to love all men, even enemies, and to love God above all would be impossible. For obviously, we cannot always, or even often, have warm feelings toward every human being, still less for enemies. Nor can we usually have a warmer feeling toward God than for our dear ones. (We will see later about feelings in love of God.)

Yet there really is a role for feelings to play. Feelings are the somatic resonance to love, that is, the counterpart on the physical side, to what lies essentially in our spiritual soul.

A great psychologist, who pioneered almost a revolution in psychological thinking, in his last book1 helps us to understand this matter. He tells us of a patient who came to him for treatment when he was practising in Washington, D.C. The poor man was suffering from manic-depressive psychosis, a mental illness in which the sufferer runs from high excitement and elation down to deep black depression, without ever leveling off on a normal plane. One day the man came for treatment when he was in the deep black cycle, and complained to Dr. Moore that he was losing his religious faith. Moore reports in his book that that was not true. When the man moved up from his blackness, he did not need to be re-converted to faith. Moore explained that the process of his disease (he seems to have meant unfortunate biochemistry) was interfering with the somatic resonance to his faith.

It is easy to see the picture. There are, of course, two parts to a human, the spiritual soul and the physical body. Because these two are so closely united as to form but one person, it follows that for normal running there should be a parallel condition on one side to match the condition on the other side. That parallel condition is called a resonance. When the resonance is on the side of the body-the more usual situation-it is called somatic (from the Greek soma, body).

In Moore's patient, faith was, of course, on the spiritual side. The resonance would be on the bodily side. Lack of the somatic resonance would not expel faith, and so the patient did not really lose his faith. But the lack of somatic resonance can prevent faith from functioning normally. Hence it seemed to the sufferer that he was losing his faith.2

This concept of somatic resonance gives us numerous very helpful insights into things in the realm of the spiritual life. We will be seeing more of them. Right now we are going to explore the role of this resonance in love, and its relation to sex and human maturing.

If love is basically on the side of the spirit, as we know, then for normal running in human affairs, there should be a resonance on the bodily side. What is it? It is a feeling. A broad spectrum of feelings can serve-anything from the nonsexual response of parents to their own children to the explicitly sexual feelings of marriage partners.

This insight makes it possible for us to see that sex is a most beautiful and helpful thing, if it is used according to the plan of our Father. To see that, we are going to follow the various stages of human development, from birth to true maturity.

We all have a start in life that is in a way very poor: we are totally enclosed in a shell of self. If we may dramatize it, the new baby looks on the giants around him as being there to give him what he wants, when he wants it, as he wants it-if not, he will cry.

How does one get from the self-enclosed shell up to real maturity, to the state in which one can really have the fulfillment God intends life to have, a stage in which one can be sincerely interested and concerned with the happiness of another, without seeking self thereby? Our Father has designed a splendid process, in which sex, a resonance to love, plays a tremendous role.

When baby has grown enough to play with other little ones, there comes a day when he makes a horrifying (to him) discovery: Why that little fellow thinks he has some rights! I am the only one who has rights! Thus babies quarrel over a toy or other thing, each thinking only he has real claims. Here a start is made, slowly and painfully, towards getting out of the shell of self.

Some years later comes another stage, which many psychologists call the flight of the sexes. That is the time when little boys are disgusted with the silly, gangly, giggly sissies. And little girls have equal disdain for uncouth, not-very-clean boys. If the boys watch a western movie, and the hero takes time out for a bit of romance, they are impatient: better he should be out shooting the bad guys!

One summer when I was teaching swimming to children, there was only one boy, aged 9, in the adjoining class. The others were all girls. He stuck it out for some weeks, then told his mother he wanted to quit: he could not stand to be with all those girls. A year or two later things changed. His mother told me he was beginning to comb his hair.

This flight of the sexes, running away from each other, is part of our Father's plan, so that each group will strengthen their own characteristics to prepare for the next phase.

That begins when physical changes, changes in resonance have begun, that is biochemical changes, including new hormones. Then little boy looks at little girl, perhaps even one he has long rejected, and behold, she is no longer a gangly sissy. She is wonderful! Similar things happen, of course, to the girls.

If a boy says a girl is a good conversationalist, plays tennis well, does well in school-nothing has happened inside him yet. But if he has to resort to such words as wonderful, then chemistry has been at work, bringing new somatic resonance, that causes the boys and girls to see each other in a different, probably a rosy, light.

At precisely this point there comes a great opening for real love, both spiritual and emotional, if only the young people play the game as the Creator designed it. If not, it will backfire, as we shall see. But now love tends to develop, in two independent but parallel ways.

The first way is easy to see: in the framework of somatic resonance, if a condition is present on either one of the two sides, there is a tendency for the parallel condition to develop on the other side. That is: if emotion of the right kind is present, then there will be a tendency for love to develop in the spiritual will. (We recall there is a broad range of possibilities for somatic resonance to love, but here it will be sexual, at first latently, then clearly so.)3

To see the second way, we recall that there are three stages in the formation of love. First, a person sees something fine in another. That leads to the reaction we have already seen: "So fine a person-I hope he/she is happy and well-off, gets what is needed to be happy." Then, thirdly, if this desire is strong, the person will not be content with a mere wish, but will go into action, will postively try to bring about the happiness of the other. The stronger the desire, of course, the harder the person will try.4

Now if merely seeing another as good or fine can be a starter to love-what will happen if the other is seen as "wonderful", thanks to the powerful resonance of hormones?

It is easy to see, then that there are two powerful channels that tend to develop love, thanks to our Father's invention of sex.

But we have been saying over and over, and underscoring it, that all this tends to produce love. Why? Because it is quite possible to "foul up the machinery" that our Father has designed.

There are two ways to do this. First if a boy or girl uses sex alone, for private stimulation, this is a means not of getting out of the shell of self, but of pulling more deeply inside the old shell. It is obvious that this is the opposite of preparation for marriage, in which each must really go outwards in care for the other.

The second way to derail the providential process comes when a boy and girl, especially if they have been dating steadily5 over a long period, develop such an intensity of feeling that they lose control, and forget the plan of our Father, and then use each other for sensory stimulation. If one uses the other for sense pleasure, this is not the same as developing a sincere outgoing desire for the happiness and well-being of the other. It is closer to hate. For if they violate God's law gravely, and then-which is far from impossible-meet with an auto accident on the way back, each has put the other into such a spiritual state that the other will never be happy, will instead be miserable eternally. This, as we said, is closer to hate than to love, for it is using the other, thereby endangering the other's true eternal happiness.

Yet not a few couples, mistaking biochemistry, the resonance, for real love, fall into these things, and thereby fail to develop real love. Then they may marry, thinking and saying, "Never have two people been so deeply in love before!" But they really have no true love, just a biochemical jag. In a year to two years, that jag subsides. Each wakes up and finds him/herself yoked to someone he/she does not really love. Then trouble begins. This is a great reason for the frightening breakup rate for marriages today. (Later in chapter 20, we will see that a false modern spirituality is another great reason for marriage failures.)

But they will say: "We really do have tender feelings for each other, we want each other to be happy." We reply: Do not make the deadly, life-ruining mistake of confusing chemistry with love. An example may help. A friend of mine was once taking a prescription medicine. At the same time he ran into a touch of flu, and so took some aspirn-taking both within an hour of each other near evening meal time. Then something entirely unforeseen happened: He began to be frightened. Of what? Of nothing in particular, just frightened in general. Fortunately, he was able to keep his mind clear, and so said to himself: "I know what this is, this is some bad chemistry. I will have to put up with this for a few hours, and then I will be all right." This is the way it was: He lived on a split level for three or four hours, with one side of him in constant fright, but the other side, his mind, quite calm and understanding, "I know what this is." The fright did wear off in a few hours, as the chemistry dissipated itself.6

In a parallel way, a large dose of sex hormones can give feelings of warmth and tenderness-but it may be only a chemical counterfeit of love.

How can one know if it really is love? The only real protection lies in playing the game the way the Manufacturer, our Father, designed it. Then this process of sex tends powerfully, by a double channel to produce real love. Otherwise it generates fakes, counterfeits, and one may spend a lifetime-if not eternity-paying for it.

But if the young people do follow our Father's plans, they will develop real concern for each other, and so really get out of the shell of self in which they began life. As a commercial for insurance said: "Their goals become your goals." So a beautiful maturity has come, which lets the partners enjoy this life as our Father planned that they should, and prepares them for the real enjoyment forever.

We can see how right Pope Paul VI was when he said: "Christian marriage and the Christian family demand a moral commitment. They are not on an easy way of Christian life, even though the most common, the one which the majority of the children of God are called to travel. Rather, it is a long path toward sanctification."7 For if the couple play the game the way our Father designed it, they are doing His will, becoming quite unselfish, and spiritually and psychologically mature, in the process.

Needless to say, the children in such a home are not going to be battered children. It is immature, childish parents who become indignant when babies are a chore: "Imagine the nerve of that little guy, interfering with my pleasure! Take that and that!"

It is also psychologically true that we tend to love those for whom we voluntarily accept hardship or even suffering-such as spouses and children. First, we accept it because we want to help the other, we feel for the other's needs. This is already love. Further if we took hardship for someone who did not deserve our efforts, we would have to think ourselves foolish. And since we do not want to think that, these efforts drive us to have a fine opinion of the other, which favors love. The reverse pattern also happens: if we have done evil to another, we are driven in the direction of thinking that the other is evil, otherwise we should not have done it. Tacitus the pagan Roman historian said it well: "It is characteristic of human nature to hate the one whom you have offended."8

We can hint here at something we will see more fully later: many today, following a false spirituality, think there is no benefit in giving anything up for a religious reason-there is no good in "negative mortification." To follow that spirituality9 is tragic. For marriage demands much give and take; male and female psychology are so different that each one can honestly say, even in a fine pairing: "I have to give in most of the time to make this work." But doing so pays off in this world as well as in the next. It is needed to make any marriage work.

All this spirit of generous self-sacrifice for the other is in itself objectively beautiful. It is a fulfillment of what is good in itself, the objective order, which the Holiness of our Father loves. He has therefore sugarcoated things, to get people to become generous-which will happen, again, only if they play the game the way He designed it. He loves goodness so much He is pleased to get it even if it takes what we called sugar-coating, the pleasure of sex. That pleasure is very strong, so strong that it can lead people into spiritual disaster. Yet it needs to be that strong to get the beautiful results we have described. Otherwise many people would not get started in the sanctifying process of sharing their lives completely with another.

Those who embrace a vow of celibacy/virginity do not have the help of the sugarcoating to get away from selfishness. Hence they will need to consciously work harder to make up for that lack. However, if they do reach an unselfish level they show a greater attachment to the will of our Father, precisely because it cost more effort. (We notice again, as we have noted many times before, that our Father's pursuit of what is good in itself runs parallel to our happiness, really brings about our happiness even in this life.)

If these feelings serve as a resonance to love, what would be the resonance to hatred? Obviously, feelings of aversion. Yet it is important to notice that these feelings are not in themselves hatred-they are only the resonance to hatred. Real hatred is the opposite of love, and lies in the spiritual will. To love means to will good to another for the other's sake. To hate means to will evil to the other, so it may be evil to him.10

We can see it is important to try to get rid of feelings of aversion, for they can tend to develop an attitude of hatred or something close to it, for somatic resonance already present tends to pull our spiritual side into line with it.

Sometimes we can put our finger on the reasons for an aversion. At other times we cannot. Then the aversion is irrational. It is as if someone said: "That person over there-I just don't like him." If another would ask why, the reply might be: "I don't know, I just don't like him." This reminds us of an old joke: "That person-I have only supernatural love for him." That is: I will pray for him, but I surely do not like him.

What do we do about such feelings? Obviously, we do not foster them or cultivate them. But most directly, we do well to pray extra for the object of our aversions-for that is real love. Love and hate cannot coexist, so this doing good to the other tends to remove the feelings of aversion. At least, it makes the feelings definitely involuntary. To work against these feelings it is a help to realize that no one does evil precisely as evil; he always does it because it registers on him as some kind of a good, even if the notion is perverse. Even terrorists think they have a good motive. And of course, we always have greatest difficulty in knowing the interior of another person-we do not even find it easy to know our own interior!11

In some cases-not always-people report that if they deliberately go out of their way to cultivate, to be kind to the one for whom they have an irrational aversion, they find that person to be quite nice.

There are other cases, cases in which we can name the reason for an aversion, e.g., we find that the other party always holds views opposite to our own. Not always, but sometimes, one can laugh about it and say to the other in a friendly way: "I always know what you are thinking. I just look inside to see my own view, find the opposite, and that is what you think!"

At the end of chapter 15 we raised the question: Could I, by making an act of complete acceptance of the will of God, become perfect instantly? Now we see more clearly why the answer is no. Part of the reason, again, is that I cannot at one time foresee everything that His will may ask me to accept during the rest of my life. But now we see a more basic reason: somatic resonance. Precisely because somatic resonance lies in a condition on the side of the body, it must follow the laws of bodily things. Now all bodies grow in spurts. That is, if we were to make a graph of the growth of a plant of animal, it would not be a straight or curved line steadily rising. It would be a step graph-small rises, with long flat plateaus in between. Coaches of athletes know this well: the performance of their young people necessarily follows such a pattern. The coaches inform the athletes of this, else they might get discouraged and quit when they are on one of the long plateaus.

The result is this: Our spiritual perfection does indeed consist in the alignment of our will with the will of God, but to really carry that out requires a parallel development in somatic resonance, which has to grow according to the law of the growth of bodies.12

Are there times when we can make a large leap up, as it were, in the spiritual life? Not ordinarily, but yet, if we encounter something terribly difficult to accept as the will of God, and then do embrace it heartily, our somatic resonance can be so shaken by the very difficulty as to be close to being in a flux-this permits a large sharp rise at the moment. We can see a hint here relative to the importance of certain kinds of mortification. (More on that in chapter 20.)

We mentioned before that according to the best psychologists, our will is not like a muscle that grows strong with exercise, flabby without it. No, it is more comparable to an electric contact, which either makes or breaks. However, in view of what we now know of somatic resonance, we can see that even though the will is not precisely like a muscle, yet something similar to the growth of muscles can be found. In other words, we can and should develop our somatic resonance to hard things, for this confers a certain facility in accepting them. For example, let us think of a man who all his life has been very devoted to the will of God, but who yet has never experienced a difficult illness. But now he falls into a painful stretch in the hospital. His usual dedication to the will of God will still tend to persevere-but he will find he must fight hard to fully accept God's will. For his somatic resonance has never been much developed in this sector. Indeed, this is the probable way to explain the mysterious line in Hebrews 5:8 which says that Jesus "learned obedience from the things He suffered."13 In any case, note that in time the man in the hospital may become more accustomed to his pain, and find it far easier to maintain his acceptance of the will of God.

Somatic resonance is part of the explanation of a crisis of faith that many experience starting around the last year of high school. This is a time when great bodily changes are starting, especially in the area of sex. These changes put somatic resonance into a flux, as it were. The result is that many previously held ideas will waver; young people tend to lose their belief that their parents know much of anything, and their religious faith comes into doubt. If only they can be brought to see what is the reason, while it will not cure their troubles, it will help them to stand outside themselves and look on themselves objectively.14

St. Francis of Assisi, in his genius for helpful expressions, liked to call things brother or sister. He called his body "brother ass."15 (He meant the long-eared kind.) Such an ass never goes over to another ass and says: "Brother, you have lived longer than I, help me to understand." No, an ass learns not from others, but only from his own experience-preferably a hard experience, such as a swiftly moving boot at his south end. The brother ass pattern often shows in our lives. If someone gets a temptation to rob a bank, he might reason himself out of it-thinking of the danger from armed guards, and the fact he must give it back if the sin is ever to be forgiven. But imagine a young man viewing a pornographic magazine. He is looking at the centerfold, and getting, literally, worked up at it. Then brother mind speaks: "See here, brother ass, why get excited? That is just a piece of paper with ink on it. So why get excited?" Is brother ass likely to be calmed? Hardly. This is probably the reason that St. Paul told the Corinthians (1 Cor 6:18): "Flee from sexual looseness." He did not say: Talk yourself out of it. Brother ass just does not and really cannot listen to brother mind. Instead, brother ass, with his powerful somatic resonance in such a case, will try to pull brother mind into going along.

St. Paul too, after a great vision (2 Cor 12:7-8), was given "a thorn to the flesh", some kind of powerful temptation, to keep him humble.16 St. Paul's mind knew well he should not be proud. It knew all the good he was and had and did was God's gift to him (cf. chapter 18 on Phil 2:13). But his bodily side, brother ass, had to learn it by hard experience-the only way it could learn. The trial caused St. Paul to realize his need of God: "Power is made perfect in weakness." (See 2 Cor 12:8-10: four times in these verses Paul speaks of weakness, glories in it.) The feeling of weakness he experienced was part of the somatic resonance to humility, which is essential to make one open to God. If one lacks humility, in effect he thinks or implies he creates the good he is or has or does. Only God creates. So when humility is present, our Father, finding a soul open, happily grants His richest graces.

Similarly, if we have difficulties or trials from creatures or from other people, it helps our somatic side to realize that the things of this world are not the final and essential goods. Hence, as even pagan Greeks and Romans knew, simplicity and even austerity in one's way of life makes it easier to see the great truths. (Chapter 18 will add another dimension to this point.) Conversely, material affluence makes a whole civilization lose interest in God and religion.17

We can use somatic resonance to help in other ways too: for example, if our outward behavior is reverent, that tends to pull our interior attitudes into accord. Or, if we are tempted to rush during prayer, forcing ourselves to go even more slowly than usual tames brother ass, and brings our interior into an attitude of greater reverence. To hurry amounts to feeling: "Let's get this over with, and get on with the real business of the day." But, prayer, especially Mass, is the most important part of any day-the part during which we are most open to our Father's gifts.


1 Cf. Thomas Verner Moore, Heroic Sanctity and Insanity, Grune & Stratton, NY, 1959, p. 102 n.
2 Cf. Aristotle, Psychology 1. 1 & 4.
3 In cultures where marriages are arranged, not the result of romance, the partners can learn to develop love in the spiritual soul, with the help of the somatic resonance to that love in sex. Since its use is then legitimate, the providential arrangement normally does produce love.
4 We know that love is the desire or will in the spiritual will for the well-being and happiness of another for the other's sake. If this desire is strong, it will want to act for that happiness. But if love is stopped in its course by a small obstacle, the love is small; if it takes a great obstacle to stop it, love is great; and so on. What must be the love of the Father for us, when even the tremendous obstacle of the horrible death of the God-man did not deter him. Hence St. Paul said (Rom 5:8) "God proved His love. . . ."
5 Humans have a breaking point, different for each person of course: but no one can stand unremitting pressures. Beyond that point composure and coping will break down. Repeated pleasurable experiences in steady dating tend to build up the pressure to go farther. Therefore, it is good judgment to avoid steady dating until reasonably close to the time of marriage.
6 An infusion of lactate into the blood can trigger anxiety, especially in those prone to anxiety: Science News-hereafter SN-Oct. 9, 197l, p. 249. Biochemistry can explain anxiety: SN July 16, 1983, pp. 45-46. High or low levels of certain trace elements can predispose to violent behavior: SN August 20, 1983, pp. 122-25. (This does not mean that in most cases free will is taken away, only that pressures can be great in the wrong direction, with a diminishing of responsibility-to a degree only God can judge.) Scientific American, February 1974, pp. 84-91 reports that low levels of the neurotransmitter Serotonin in the brain can greatly incline a person to sex and to insomnia. Raised levels have the opposite effect. (Interestingly, a pasta meal without meat tends to raise Serotonin.) There are countless other instances of the effect of biochemistry, as somatic resonance, to interior states of the soul.
7 Paul VI, To 13th National Congress of the Italian Feminine Center, Feb. 12, 1966. The Pope Speaks 11, 1966, p. 10.
8 Tacitus, Agricola 42.
9 Cf. chapter 20 for reasons why this modern spirituality is wrong.
10 To will evil to another so it may be evil to him is the opposite of love; it is desire for revenge. This differs from desire that the objective order may be rebalanced-a thing God Himself wills.
11 If quarrels develop, St. Paul's advice is excellent: 1 Cor 13:5 says: "Love does not keep a record of evils." (The Greek logizetai does permit this translation.) When two are in a quarrel and have used up the immediate reasons they have on hand, they will tend to escalate the conflict in two ways: (1) one will recite the whole list of past injuries by the other party, (2) one will generalize as if to say "You are mean in general, not just on this occasion." The hurt from these things is deep, and hard to heal unless there is a very sincere deep and explicit apology.
12 Cf. A. Tanquerey, The Spiritual Life, tr. H. Brandeis, St. Mary's Seminary, Baltimore, 2nd ed. 1930 #1092.
13 Cf. W. Most, "On Jesus Learning Obedience: Hebrews 5:8" in Faith & Reason 3 (1977) pp. 6-16.
14 There is another reason for the crisis: When we are little, we merely believe things because older people said so-all that can be done at an early age. But we should reach the point at which we can, as 1 Pet 3:15 urges: "Be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks of you a reason for the hope that is in you." That is, we should learn the rational basis that precedes faith itself. When one has completed the passage, he can be stable and comfortable. Out in the middle, he is neither fish nor fowl, and wavers much. On the process itself, cf. W. Most, Catholic Apologetics Today.
15 Cf. St. Bonaventure Legenda Maior S. Francisci 5. 6, In Analecta Franciscana X, Quaracchi, 1926-1941.
16 Commentators differ on what the trial was: 1) Persecutions-but St. Paul welcomed them; 2) sickness-but would he pray so earnestly to be rid of it when the suffering could make him more like Christ? 3) violent sexual temptations-these do promote a humble opinion of self, for after a long and hard siege, even a good person may wonder: "Did I really hold out fully?" Cf. A. Poulain, The Graces of Interior Prayer, tr. L. Smith, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1949, pp. 409, 447-48.
17 Socrates over and over again insists that the true philosopher, to attain truth, and to become as much as possible like to God (Republic 613), should have as little as possible to do with things of the body: Phaedo 65, 66, 82-83, Republic 485-86, 519. Pagan Romans up to about 200 B. C. actually lived the ideal of frugalitas, a sparing way of life, and thought themselves happier that way. Later they recognized the ideal, but did not on the whole live up to it. Livy attributes decline of Roman strength to luxury: 23. 45;30. 14;30. 44;38. 17;39. 6. The Greek Historian Polybius insists on the same: 6. 57; 18. 35; 32. 11. Cf. also Tacitus, Agricola 21. 3; Histories, 2. 69. Cf. also St. Augustine, City of God 1. 8.

To Most Collection home page