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

"Chapter 17: Feelings in Love of God?"


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Emotion or feeling is normal in human love. Is it also normal when we love God? We can see at once that the two situations will not be entirely parallel. We often get sensory pleasure from the sight of another human being. But God is not the object of our senses in any way. Further, as we saw, love of God is in practice identified with obedience to Him, as we know, in aligning our will with His. Clearly, that can be done without any feelings at all. In fact, when we hold strongly to His will even when things are most difficult, when pain instead of pleasure is at hand, then it is that our attachment to Him must either be very strong, or fail for the moment.

Even in love for human beings, emotion is not always present. In love for all, even persons we have never seen, and in love of enemies, feeling is normally absent.

Yet there is such a thing as feeling in love of God. There are two greatly different levels in it: the lower level, for those not very far advanced in the spiritual life; and the higher level of infused contemplation. On the lower level, when we have any sort of feelings or satisfaction in religious things, theologians call that consolation; the opposite, the lack of any feeling, or even the presence of positive distaste, is called dryness or aridity.

At the end of this chapter we will see something that is a satisfaction given by God, but not precisely an emotion. This comes as an abiding peace to those who are very strongly devoted to His will, no matter what that will may call for at the time.

On the higher level of infused contemplation, feelings may or may not be present. When they are, they are only the result of a sort of overflow of a phenomenon that really takes place deep in the spiritual part of a person. Contemplation with such an overflow is called sweet, without it, it is arid. (We will see more about this in chapter 22.) In this chapter we will speak only of the lower level. On that lower level, both consolations and dryness can be spiritually helpful, but they can also be harmful. In themselves, they are neutral.

It is obvious that consolations can be a great help to a soul in breaking with attachments to things of sense. They can encourage one to make good resolutions, to pray more, to be more generous in self-denial.

On the other hand, there is a subtle danger in consolations. For there is a real problem, when a soul is engulfed in them, of knowing precisely what it is that moves the soul. Is the person doing well because of the pleasure, or solely to please God, or part each way? St. John of the Cross speaks strongly on this: "Every soul that seeks to go on in sweetness and ease, and flees from the imitation of Christ-I would not consider this good."1

By fleeing from the imitation of Christ who is the way, St. John meant largely omitting self-denial. St. Paul, if we gather up and make a synthesis of many of his statements, presents the whole Christian life in this way: A person is saved and is made holy, precisely if, and to the extent that, he is a member of Christ and like Him. Now in the life of Christ there are two phases: first, a hard life, poverty, suffering, death; second, glorification. Of course we are still in that first phase, and so the more we are like Him in these things, the more shall we be like Him in glory. St. Francis de Sales follows up on the thought of St. John of the Cross:

From time to time we ought to make acts of renunciation of such feelings of sweetness, tenderness, and consolation, withdrawing our hearts from them, and insisting that, even though we accept them in humility, and love them because God sends them to us, and because they encourage us to love Him, yet it is not these things that we seek, but God and His holy love: we are not seeking the consolation, but the One who consoles.2

Really, we must add that not all consolations are from God. Satan himself sometimes produces pleasure in souls that pray. Why? Because he likes to "transfigure himself into an angel of light" (2 Cor 11:14). It means that Satan can well afford to give us a consolation, even to promote some short-term good, so long as in the end, he works more deviltry. He can by consolations try to make us attached to the pleasure, not to God. He can make us think we have arrived, that we are already saints-and there is no more deadly vice than spiritual pride. St. Teresa of Avila wrote: "The chief aim of the devil here [in this world] is to make us proud . . . tears, though good, are not perfect. In humility, mortification and detchment and other virtues there is more security."3 Satan can also try to lead a person to make good resolutions that go too far, more than the soul can really bear, more than are prudent for it at that stage. Then Satan knows that souls will not persevere in the good resolutions: they will soon give them up, and perhaps give up even more, so as to fall back to a point lower than that from which they thought they began to rise. A soul might even give up all serious attempts to grow spiritually.

Aridity too can be either helpful or harmful. It is obvious that Satan can promote aridity, to discourage us, to make us give up or slacken our attempts to please God. But God Himself commonly sends aridity at times. In fact, a quite normal pattern is this: when a person reaches what is sometimes called the "second conversion", that is, a point at which he resolves to be really in earnest and serious about pleasing God, then it is usual for God to send consolations to encourage that soul, to help it get into a pattern of breaking with attachments to things of sense. But if the consolations continued indefinitely, there would be the danger of which we spoke: one might serve God for pleasure, not for God's sake.

To guard against this danger God commonly sends aridity. St. John of the Cross aptly suggests4 that if a child is holding a sharp knife in his hand, we must not try to take it away forcefully-the child would get cut. So we need instead to dangle a toy in front of the child, get him interested in it, so he will drop the knife. Similarly, consolations are like toys, useful to help disengage us from attachments to the world. But one should eventually grow up, and learn to turn from danger without the need of toys.

This very statement suggests another way in which Satan can turn aridity to his own ends: he can make a soul in aridity think, "I do not need consolations, I am too strong, too holy for that now."

Aridity especially promotes distractions-though they can come in the midst of consolations too. When distractions come, if we resist them as soon as we notice them, they cannot harm the substantial value of our prayer. (We said "as soon as we notice them" for they can begin almost unnoticed, and unroll themselves like a movie until we wake up and see we should act to shake them off.) Really, prayer made at the expense of hard work in fighting temptations will please our Father more than one in which the soul is immersed in the pleasure of consolations.

We should not forget that consolation and aridity can be greatly affected by merely natural conditions, even by the state of our digestion, by how tired we are, how we feel in general, by preoccupation with our work or with our troubles. Suggestion too can bring on many things, including consolation leading to pride.

Of course sin and lack of meditation or lack of a spirit of recollection can bring on aridity too.

Bodily posture during prayer, as we indicated in chapter 16, can favor or hinder recollection, and thereby affect consolation and aridity. There is a strong tendency for our interior attitudes to follow our external conduct. So if one tries to pray in a slovenly posture, one that does not express reverence for God, it is not likely he will have much reverence. Conversely, if he adopts a respectful stance, especially kneeling or even prostration, humility is promoted. Muslims know this, and so make much use of bending low. Ancient Near Eastern Kings used to require proskynesis, that is, the subject was ordered to prostrate himself in front of the king as a sign of reverence-and it tended to produce interior respect at the same time.

Natural or national temperament can affect the presence or absence of consolations. St. Augustine, for example, seems to have often experienced various consolations in prayer, which reflects partly his individual temperament, partly the Latin temperament.5 In contrast, St. Thérèse of Lisieux wrote to one of her sisters after a retreat:

Do not think that I am swimming in consolations. No! My consolation is to have no consolations on this earth. Without showing Himself, without making His voice heard, Jesus instructs me in secret-not by means of books, for I do not understand what I read, but at times by a word such as that which I found at the end of a period of prayer (after resting in silence and in dryness): "Here is the master I have given you. He will teach you all that you should do. I want to cause you to read in the book of life, in which is contained the science of love."6

She was a Saint who seems to have had rather little consolation. She was pleased with the fact, seems to have felt safer without the dangers of deception that can come from consolations.7

Differences in spiritual attractions can also greatly affect consolations and aridity.8 To explain such differences, let us notice that there are two tiers or levels in the spiritual life. First, there is the level of the fundamental principles, which no one at all can ignore or violate without taking a spiritual loss. These fundamental rules are the same for absolutely all persons. But beyond them, on a secondary level, there is room for a marvelous variety. Here we find many differences in approach to spirituality.

A couple of examples will make this clear. We could compare St. Francis de Sales, refined enough to associate familiarly with the dandies of the French royal court, with St. Benedict Joseph Labré, living like a tramp in the ruins of ancient Rome, spending his days in the churches of Rome. One anecdote asserts that if one of the body lice he had would try to crawl out of his sleeve, he would push it back in again-for mortification.

Both of these Saints observed the same basic principles of the spiritual life-but what a difference on the secondary level!

Again let us think of St. Francis of Assisi, the outstanding specialist in following Lady Poverty. Many anecdotes are told about him, so that it is often hard to sift fact from fiction, but the total picture given fits that Saint very well indeed. It is clear, however,9 that he was reluctant to let his brothers have many books. In contrast, St. Thomas Aquinas spent his life immersed in books and in writing books. Both were great Saints-but how different in their approaches!

Again, St. Francis was a poetic type, and seems to have been prone to emotion-he loved to speak of various creatures as brothers and sisters. He found creatures helped lift his heart to God. The beauty of birds could lead him to give thanks to our Father, for the delicate kindness of giving us such charming creatures! In contrast, St. John of the Cross seems to have been little inclined to look at created things; what emotions he felt did not arise from that source. And St. Thomas Aquinas surely had some feelings in prayer, some emotions, but he does not show much of them, so that even his works on the Holy Eucharist seem to be a almost an intellectual exercise.

Failure to recognize differences like these can lead to great dangers. One of the worst is this: someone whose spiritual pattern involves much emotion may see another person whose dominant state is arid. The emotional perons may look down on the arid one, and call him a "dead Catholic." This could involve spiritual pride, the deadliest of all vices.

Some of these emotional people point to the Old Testament, e.g., they appeal to Psalm 47:2: "All you peoples clap your hands! Shout to God with a loud sound!" Then some of these persons will say to the unemotional types: See, you are not opposing us, you are opposing Scripture itself! At the same time, of course, a non-emotional type might regard himself as superior in spirituality, as we indicated before, because "he does not need" such emotional aids.

A special comment is in order about emotion in relation to contrition. Contrition is basically a change in the attitude of our will toward God. The sinner looks back on what he has done and as it were says to himself: I see now I should not have done that. I wish I had not done that, I do not want to do that again. (The motive for this change of attitude may of course be either mere fear, or regret for offending God who is so good to me, or regret for offending God who is so good in Himself-we saw these possibilities in relation to love of God. The same apply in the matter of contrition.)

Whether or not feeling is present is not essential to contrition. A person may shed abundant tears and have no real contrition at all. Another may be completely dry-eyed, and have deep contrition. The same factors we already saw as affecting emotion in general apply here too.

We said earlier in this chapter that there are three possible sources for emotion or aridity in the spiritual life: God, ourselves, and Satan. It is not always important to determine from which source consolation comes, though that can be helpful. The chief thing is to know how to use both consolations and aridity, to recognize that neither one proves great sanctity or the lack thereof. The important thing is to use well whatever comes.

We mentioned earlier something that is really a form of consolation, but which in general does not involve emotion. To explain, let us think of a high mountain, 20,000 feet in elevation. It will often happen that the peak of the mountain projects above dark clouds and storms on the lower slopes, so that the peak is in calm. A plane rising above a storm gives the same effect.

Now we humans have in us, both in body and in soul, many different levels of operations. That is, we have many different drives and needs, each of them legitimate in itself. Yet each one operates automatically, blindly, seeking only the things it needs or likes, without any consideration for the other needs, or for the person as a whole. As a result of all these different levels, we can see that it is possible to have much distress on the lower slopes, and yet to have calm on the peak of the soul. St. Francis de Sales describes this well:

The soul is sometimes so pressed by afflictions within that all its faculties and powers are weighed down by deprivation of all that could give relief and by taking on the impression of all that can cause sadness . . . having nothing left but the fine point of the spirit, which, since it is attached to the heart and good pleasure of God, says in a very simple resignation: O Eternal Father, may always your will be done, not mine.10

St. Paul seems to have this great peace on the fine point of the soul in mind when he writes to the Philippians (4:4): "Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, rejoice." This deeper joy, as we saw, comes from God Himself. In deep trouble we can get some help towards it by meditating on two other lines of St. Paul (2 Cor. 4:17 and Rom. 8:18):

That which is light and momentary in our tribulations is producing for us, beyond measure, an eternal wealth of glory for us, as we look not to the things that are seen, but to those that are not seen. . . . I judge that the sufferings of the present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory that is to be revealed to us.

If the light and momentary can do this-what of that which is not light but heavy, not momentary but long-lasting! Yes, the troubles on the lower slopes are not worthy to be compared to what is to come, from the inexpressible goodness of our Father.


1 St. John of the Cross, Ascent 2. 7. 8. BAC edition, p. 621.
2 St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to a Devout Life 4. 13, Oeuvres, Annecy, 1893, 3. p. 324.
3 St. Teresa of Avila, Way of Perfection 17.3 & 4. BAC edition, p. 142. cf. St. Louis de Montfort, True Devotion, #214, saying the more one grows in Marian devotion and in her favor, "the more you act by pure faith . . . which will make you care hardly at all about sensible consolations."
4 St. John of the Cross, Ascent 3. 39. 1.
5 Cf. the emotion told of by St. Augustine in his retreat before baptism: Confessions 9. 4-5.
6 St. Thérèse de Lisieux, Manuscrits Autobiographiques, Carmel de Lisieux, 1957, p. 418.
7 Her aridity seems not to have excluded some satisfaction, without feeling, probably of the sort we will discuss at the end of this chapter, on the fine point of the soul.
8 Pius XII, Mediator Dei, #179: "As regards the different methods employed in these exercises, it is perfectly clear to all that in the Church on earth, no less than in the Church in heaven, there are many mansions; and that asceticism cannot be the monopoly of anyone. It is the same Spirit who breathes where He wills; and Who with differing gifts and in different ways enlightens and guides souls to sanctity. Let their freedom and the supernatural action of the Holy Spirit be so sacrosanct that no one presume to disturb or stifle them for any reason whatsoever." (Vatican Library Version). We add this: As a result of this diversity, what is best in itself is not always best for this particular soul. Further, there can be variations within the same soul at different stages in its spiritual development or progress. St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote in his Letter to St. Polycarp 1. 1 & 2. 1: "Speak to each one individually after the manner of God . . . not all wounds are healed by the same remedy." Cf. also St. Francis de Sales, Introduction 1. 3.
9 Cf. Thomas of Celano, Vita Secunda S. Francisci 32. 62, Analecta Franciscana X. p. 168.
10 St. Francis de Sales, Treatise on the Love of God 9. 3. Oeuvres Nierat, Annecy, 1894, V. 117.