The Right Use of Emotion


Education, which is worthy of the name, must expand all the human faculties with all their activities and properties…They must be such as will improve the memory, discipline the understanding, refine the feelings, cultivate the taste, form the manners.’
– Fr R J Meyer, ‘Science of the Saints’ (1)

The trials and difficulties of life hit our emotions hard at times. The violent peaks and troughs of our emotions can sometimes leave us feeling like we have just been on a rollercoaster ride.  We can be desperate to find some relief from our unruly passions. There are many ways that we try to ‘refine these feelings’. We may go to a doctor to help us find some way of balancing or controlling our emotions.  Often, we are given drugs that simply numb our sensitivity. For some, this appears to dull their conscience enough to keep them circling around on the rat wheel. For others, these drugs only cause agitation in their bodies, e.g., increased anxiety, with these toxic drugs often numbing them enough so that they can carry out crimes of the most disturbing and violent nature, e.g., homicidal and suicidal acts or tendencies.

At other times, we try to ‘discipline the understanding’ to try to change our emotional reactions.  We may go down the psychotherapeutic or counselling route in our efforts to help us to understand or control our emotions.  Depending on what psychotherapy we go to, the importance of emotions may be overrated, e.g., emotionally focused therapy, or underrated, e.g., rational emotive behaviour therapy. Whatever modern treatment we engage in there is no adequate solution to the problem of these pesky, volatile emotions.  Some short-term relief can be given by professionals who tell people that society and its traditional ‘prejudicies’, e.g., ‘homophobia’, sexism, are the cause of their niggling consciences, thus placating their consciences for a brief period. Yet, most of us realise, even if we only feel it dimly at times, that these modern approaches do not provide us with the solutions we crave, i.e., the peacefulness and happiness the depths of our souls desire. Soon enough, we get sick of being drugged up and numbed and that guilt or anxiety that we taught we could rationalise away soon comes back to haunt us. So, what to do about those emotions which won’t leave us at peace? 

‘Every theory which discredits the true nature of man or denies the need of a Divine Remedy is only intensifying the disease which it attempts to cure.  The psychopathic messes into which many tumble are due either to a want of a knowledge of human nature or to a want of a genuine religion.’ – Bishop Fulton Sheen (‘Peace of Soul’) (2)

Before we set out to answer this question, we must ground ourselves in reality. Various therapists and professionals will have different theories on emotion based on their beliefs about reality. In the rationalist world of today, professionals will try to come up with theories about emotion without recourse to the faith and, therefore, without an understanding of the reality of what man is, i.e., a body and soul created by God, destined for either eternal happiness or eternal misery. Without this understanding they fail to see the part that emotions play in this journey. As they do not have a clear understanding themselves of man’s ultimate destiny they only confuse their clients more and more. As Bishop Fulton Sheen notes, they only intensify the disease that they are seeking to cure. So, if the solution to getting a handle on our emotions is not to be found amidst the various branches of modern psychotherapy, where, then, can we receive the education we must desperately need to help us to find peace?

‘[Rationalists] see the world around them swayed by emotional propaganda – they have learned from tradition that youth is sentimental – and they conclude that the best thing they can do is to fortify the minds of young people against emotion. My own experience as a teacher tells an opposite tale. For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is not infallible protection against a soft head.’ – C S Lewis (‘The Abolition of Man’) (3)

There is no getting away from emotions. C S Lewis was right in outlining how the right defence against false sentiments is to ‘not to fortify the minds of young people against emotion’ but to ‘inculcate just sentiments’ into starving souls. In giving man both a body and a soul, God gave man a sensitive nature. Thus, we are bound by this sensitive nature. Today, like the times of C S Lewis, people are being swayed and manipulated by emotional propaganda. Yet, the solution remains the same – the inculcation or cultivation of just sentiments rather than the rejection or misunderstanding of sentiment and man’s sensitivity. 

In Defence of Sensitivity

Some of us have a more sensitive nature than others.  This is obvious from experience. Now, whether or not someone is more or less sensitive has no merit, in and of itself. Merit is bestowed based on how we use the gifts that God has given us.  Yet, in this rationalist and materialist age where normality is largely seen as clustering around the average results on some psychometric test developed by rationalist atheists and where any display of strong emotion is often ridiculed or scorned, there is a need to defend man’s innate sensitivity. The reason for this scorning of our sensitive nature appears to be due to the erratic and irrational behaviour we constantly see around us today. It also stems from our own frustrated inability to get a handle on our sensitive nature.  As a result, there is a temptation to mock our sensitive nature or try to rid ourselves of it. However, to control our sensitivity, the solution is not to reject sensitivity or crush it into oblivion. Instead, we must try to properly understand it and the part it plays in helping us toward peace and happiness.

Sensitive Men 

From a philosophical point of view, there appears to be a strong relationship between intellectual ability and sensitivity. For example, speaking of St. Thomas Aquinas, the greatest Doctor of the Church, Jacques Maritain notes that ‘his flesh…was the delicate and sensitive flesh which Aristotle says is peculiar to those endowed with great power of intellect’ and ‘he was so sensitive that the least bodily hurt gave him exquisite pain.’ (4). St. Thomas is an example of a sensitive man who used his sensitivity to give glory and honour to God.  However, the greatest example of how we should view sensitivity is given to us by God Himself. By being clothed in our human flesh when God became man Our Lord gives us insight into how we should view sensitivity. When He took on our sensitive nature, His sensitivity was far greater than that of any man, as Fr Faber, in his excellent book, ‘Bethlehem’ (5) explains: ‘He chose such a temperament of Body as should be able to endure the floods of glory he would pour into it. He chose one whose extreme sensitiveness might almost aid, rather than impede, the delicate operations of his magnificent Soul. He chose one whose beautiful texture caused it to be hereafter such an instrument of suffering as has never existed elsewhere amid all the immense capabilities of created life.’ AND ‘The tenderness of his Sacred Heart was perfect, in the fullest sense of the word. No one had ever been gifted with affections like his. There has never been a sensitiveness which could be thought of alongside of his. In their strength, in their depth, in their fidelity, in their delicacy, never had human affections been so divinely impassioned.’ These facts about one of the greatest saints and, more importantly, God Himself should help us to see that sensitivity, in and of itself, should not be scorned or ridiculed. While none of us are born with a sensitivity as sensitive as Our Lord’s and only some of us approach the sensitivity of St. Thomas, all of us are born with the ability to feel and experience sensations. So, what use should we make of our sensitivity? 

‘When God’s grace, which is always given in answer to prayer, imparts the power to bring home to oneself what Jesus felt, what thoughts traversed His mind, what emotions stirred His soul – in a word, when it is given one to realise in some measure how He humanly reacted to all the circumstances of His life, then one begins to walk with assured step on the road that leads to holiness.’ – Fr Edward Leen (‘In The Likeness of Christ’) (6)

Above, Fr Edward Leen gives us a short description of what effects contemplation on the sensations and emotions Our Lord experienced while in this world should have on us.  Fr Leen continues: ‘Strong in His resolve to tread the path marked out for Him by Divine Providence, He did not use His life, His energies or His talents to minister to His own satisfaction, or to gratify His egoism. Though his sensitive nature was wounded through and through by hostility, unkindness, ingratitude, and want of understanding, He allowed nothing that He suffered from others to modify in the least the perfection of His attitude towards them.  At all times He bore Himself with the same calm, unchanging, unbroken, undeviating fortitude.  He wasted no valuable time in repining or in self-pity; He wasted no energy in rebellion against circumstances; and He did not passively acquiesce to the inevitable with a gesture of indifference or despair. The whole attention of His great Soul was concentrated on the doing of the task that the occasion offered, never once reflecting on what it should mean to Himself in the eyes of men, satisfied that He, in the doing of it, should be approved of in the sight of God.’ (my emphasis). While we will never experience or feel, to the same extent, the pain inflicted on the gentle and sensitive Body of Our Lord, our sensitive nature will inevitably be wounded in this life. Unlike Him, we will, at times, respond to this wounding of our sensitive nature with self-pity and despair.  Due to Original Sin, our sensitive nature will rebel against the dictates of reason and faith. We can then start to begin to curse the feebleness and disobedience of our rebellious body.  We want to be rid of all emotion and sensation and we can often drown ourselves in drink or drugs to try to do so. At other times, we may try to combat life in a stoic way pretending that we are above and unaffected by the sways of emotion. Alternatively, we can contemplate Him Who, while not having any rebellious or disordered emotions, still felt the stirring of emotions within His soul.

The hearts of Jesus and Mary and Joseph were not insensible to any legitimate human feeling or emotion.’ – Fr Leen (‘In The Likeness of Christ’)

Just like Our Lord, the example of the Holy Family teaches us that the Christian life is not about ridding oneself of one’s feelings. The Catholic Faith teaches us to contemplate on and pray about the joys and sorrows of Our Lady and St. Joseph. These devotions give us a better understanding of the Christian way and the Life of Our Lord. While under the care of St. Joseph and Our Lady, Our Lord felt many emotions, Our Lord felt joy, Our Lord cried, Our Lord shivered, Our Lord suffered. When He had grown to Manhood, emotions, felt through His exquisitely sensitive Heart and Body, did not cease. He became intimately involved in the suffering of man and suffered out of love for us. In a world which often promotes the idea of stoic detachment from our own or our neighbour’s suffering Our Lord’s example shows how running away from suffering in this life is not an option. He took on our sensitive nature, not so we could escape from the suffering our sensitive nature inevitably causes us in this life, but so we would know how to use this sensitivity in the right way.

‘[The Church] does not deny emotions, any more than it denies hunger; the Church only asks that, when a man sits at table, he shall not eat like a pig.’ – Bishop Fulton Sheen (‘Peace of Soul’)

Christ does not expect us to be emotionless or stoic. His life in this world is proof of this. However, He does ask us, through His perfect example, to strive to do the will of God. To do this, He asks us to order our passions accordingly so we do not eat like pigs.  He tells us not to allow our unruly passions to make us beastlike. He also shows us that we should not stoically pretend that we are purely spiritual beings who are immune from the sensations we experience in this life. We are men and we cannot escape this reality. Our Lord solely asks us to be virtuous men who strive manfully to do the will of God. He shows us how to do so. He leads the way in showing us how to use our sensitive nature. This nature God has given us can be an ally in helping us to imitate Him or we can use our sensitivity while working toward our own demise. As the great theologian of the 20th century, Garrigou-Lagrange, notes: ‘Whereas in the souls of saints, of missioners, and of martyrs, a perfectly ordered passion is a power that manifests and serves the love of God and neighbour; in the soul of a criminal, it manifests and serves unbridled self-love.’ (7)

Conclusion:

‘St Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought.’ – C S Lewis (‘The Abolition of Man’)

Just as it is better that man should both will good and do it in his external act; so also does it belong to the perfection of moral good, that man should be moved unto good, not only in respect of his will, but also in respect of his sensitive appetite; according to Ps. 83:3: “My heart and my flesh have rejoiced in the living God”: where by “heart” we are to understand the intellectual appetite, and by “flesh” the sensitive appetite.’ – St Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica, FS, Q24, Art. 3, A[3]) (8)

Trying to numb our emotions, following the false stoic way, allowing our passions to have complete free reign over us, or using our sensitive nature to do bad are not the answers.  Our emotions must be directed by us so that eventually they can aid rather than hinder us in our quest for peace and happiness. As St. Augustine and Aristotle note, we must train our emotions to react in the right way. Following on from this, St Thomas notes that it is good and a sign of perfection if our emotions help us do good.  It is a sign that we are beginning to imitate Christ, Who made perfect use of His sensitive nature in carrying out the will of God. It is a sign of entry into the illuminative way as described by Archbishop Goodier: ‘One learns to see things as God sees them, to feel about things as God feels about them, and to judge life accordingly.’ (9) (my emphasis)

Where Emotional Satisfaction is Found

When we go to Holy Communion, we feel something extraordinary, a well-being which runs through the whole body from head to foot. What is this well-being? It is our Lord, who imparts himself to every part of our body, making it thrill with joy. We are compelled to say, like St. John, It is the Lord! Those who feel nothing at all are much to be pitied! When you have had the happiness of receiving the good God, you feel for some time a gladness, a balm in your heart…Pure souls are always like that; and this union is their strength and happiness.’ – St. John Vianney (10) (my emphasis)

While our emotions are rebellious at times and not always under our control, through prayer and penance and ultimately by the grace of God, we can gain much mastery over them (7). It is through the Faith, the Sacraments, and especially the Holy Eucharist, where the good God imparts the most joy to those souls who have devoutly prepared themselves for Him. How sad it is for those who do not know or feel this! By giving us His body and blood as our strength and happiness He gives us strength so our emotions begin to serve us as allies, rather than opponents, in our efforts to do good. This is the right use of emotion. It is the Catholic response. It is the only response that gives true joy to mind, body, and soul and it is the only one that will give us the strength to carry the crosses life brings without trying to numb ourselves to or run from the pain of it all.    

Finally, may God grant us the grace to be able to gain mastery over our rebellious nature and, for the fight we put up, may our sensitive nature be rewarded with eternal balm in our hearts .

God bless

Footnotes and references:

  1. Fr Meyer, R. J. (1906). Science of the Saints. St. Louis: B. Herder Books. Available here: https://archive.org/details/scienceofsaints01meyeuoft/page/n5/mode/2up
  2. Bishop Sheen, F. S. (1949). Peace of Soul. New York: Whittlesey House. Preview available here: https://archive.org/details/peaceofsoul0000shee/mode/2up
  3. Available here: https://archive.org/details/TheAbolitionOfMan_229/mode/2up
  4. Maritain, J. (1947). St Thomas Aquinas. London: The Catholic Book Club.
  5. Fr Faber, F. (published, 1955). Bethlehem. Baltimore: John Murphy Co.
  6. Extended quote: ‘When God’s grace, which is always given in answer to prayer, imparts the power to bring home to oneself what Jesus felt, what thoughts traversed His mind, what emotions stirred His soul – in a word, when it is given one to realise in some measure how He humanly reacted to all the circumstances of His life, then one begins to walk with assured step on the road that leads to holiness.  This study reveals a wonderful similarity and a still more striking dissimilarity between Him and ourselves.  We discover with delight that He was affected by things much in the same way as we ourselves are. He was hurt by misunderstanding; He was wounded by insult; he delighted in candour and innocence; He was revolted by hypocrisy; He was won by straightforwardness and simplicity; He hated lying and irreverence; He was fearless in the vindication of truth; His heart was deeply touched by those who showed faith and confidence in Him, and finally, He gave Himself without reserve to those who yielded Him their loyalty and their affection.  But just as it dawns on us that in many things our experiences are very like what His must have been, and we discover, too, a profound contrast Him and us.  There is a marked difference presented between the perfection of the manner in which He controlled the stirring of His feelings and guided their expression, and the imperfection and weakness exhibited by us at each moment in the direction of our thoughts, our feelings and our activities, i.e. in the direction of our whole internal and external life. We see that His life was perfectly human and still humanly perfect: and we are obliged to confess that all the movements of our being, feelings, emotions, judgements, speech, attitude of mind and body, though bearing the stamp of humanity, are far short of the human perfection discernible in everything pertaining to the Sacred Humanity of Our Lord.  The realisation of this contrast causes in us a pain and a sorrow which partakes more of the nature of love than grief…The study of Him excites in us the desire to become like Him as Man. And then when our life and our acts bear a resemblance to those of Jesus, God comes and pours His Divinity into our souls in abundance, lavishes on them the gifts of His Grace, and gradually breaking down the barriers that exist between creature and Creator, initiates souls into the happiness that accompanies union with the Divinity.  Great happiness results from this union, even in the imperfect mode of it that belongs to the condition of our state of exile on earth.  This is the whole theory of sanctity.’ – Fr Edward Leen (‘In the Likeness of Christ’), p. 197-199.  (This book is an excellent source for coming to know Our Lord’s Humanity). Available to borrow here: https://archive.org/details/inlikenessofchri0000leen/mode/2up
  7. In Volume 1 of the ‘Three Ages of the Interior Life’, Garrigou-Lagrange offers an excellent outline of the means of gaining mastery over our disobedient. This includes spiritual reading, spiritual direction, prayer, mortification and the Sacraments. See here: https://archive.org/details/threeagesofinter0001garr/mode/2up
  8. Summa Theologica available at: http://summa-theologiae.org/question/14303.htm
  9. Archbishop Goodier (1938). An Introduction to the Study of Ascetical and Mystical Theology. London: Burns & Oates. Available to borrow here: https://archive.org/details/introductiontost0000good_s5s0
  10. Convert, A. H (1923). ‘Eucharistic Meditations – Extracts from the Writings and Instructions of St. John Vianney’

Note: The article above is mainly a defence of sensitivity as sensitivity is often misunderstood or abused today. However, an excerpt is posted below from the book, ‘Cords of Adam’ by Fr Thomas J. Gerard (published: 1908), so it is understood that sentiment and sensitivity to emotion can serve as an aid or a hindrance to true devotion and happiness. Fr Gerard makes many similar points to the ones made above about the emotional nature of man but it also outlines the dangers associated with sentiment which are worth being aware. We may taste the sweetness of the Lord (Psalms 33:9) at times, especially after Holy Communion as St. John Vianney notes, but lest this serve as a means to ensnare us in spiritual pride the following piece is worth taking onboard :

 ‘The abuse of emotion in religion has been stigmatised as sentimentalism. But the abuse of this abuse may easily lead to another equally great mistake, namely, that of undervaluing the use of emotion in religion. Man is a rational animal and much more. He is also a volitional and emotional animal. Since human nature then is as it is, the emotions must ever have their proper place assigned to them in the life of devotion.’ – p. 60

‘There is a middle way between a cold passionless religion and a religion which is all sighs and ejaculations. The correct measure of sentiment is the measure in which it leads to right action and conduct.

            There is a tendency in this northern climate of ours to undervalue the use of emotion in religion. I question very much whether that prayer in the Missal is often used, the prayer for the gift of tears. Simpering in an Englishman or an American would probably be accounted to him as softness if not something worse. Still there is that in most men which in an Italian is represented by tears. There is some tremulant emotion, however slight, a kind of wincing at the thought of sin committed, a feeling of horror at the thought of having offended God. Well, this feeling, wincing or tremulant emotion is valuable and to be encouraged just in so far as it tends to real purpose of amendment; and in so far as it does not it must be reckoned as worthless.  The absence of feeling in those who are living the spiritual life seriously has been considered a recognised phase in the process of spiritual development. It is a trial intended to test the firmness of the will. The will that can go in spite of the absence of all sensible devotion may content itself that it is fairly well flourishing in spiritual growth. Indeed so valuable is this test that it is spoken of as a ‘dark night,’ and at the same time a ‘night more lovely than the dawn,’ a light guiding me ‘more surely than the noon-day sun.’ This absence, however, derives its value from the contrast to the presence. The presence of emotion, therefore, is to be valued as providing a breathing time against the coming absence. The absence is to be valued as providing a test of the efficacious firmness of the will. There may be souls who are habitually dry. But they are not normal cases. The constant absence of all emotion may be a sign of carelessness and want of interest in the spiritual life, although not necessarily so. It is certainly, however, a sign that the conscience needs examination.  If the result of examination shows that the ordinary means are being taken to promote interest in spiritual matters, then the dryness may be considered as an exercise in will-power; but if it shows that these means are not being taken, then the dryness must be considered as a sign of danger.

            Opposed to the occasional and constant absence of emotion is the constant presence of it. This equally affords a reason for self-examination. The value of the constant presence is more easily weighed than the value of the constant absence. It has an art and a music and a literature all to itself. These are almost entirely devoid of any solid intellectual characteristic. They affect rather loud clashing colour, sensual emasculated tone and senseless incoherent ejaculation. The life of Our Lord is read greedily in the visions of the saints, whilst that in the gospels is found dry and uninteresting. Not that he descriptions of St. Gertrude and Blessed Margaret Mary and Sister Catherine Emmerich do not give us wondrous insights into the spirit of the life of Christ, but that the soul which interests itself in nothing but sensible devotion misses the whole of that spirit and contents itself with the letter through which the spirit is meant to be conveyed. The altogether emotional devotion has its own peculiar sins too. These are the secret sins of spiritual pride and self-righteousness and the one predominant open sin of talking of the faults of others.

            The remedy for all these vagaries is a return to the standard of the gospel. Christ will be served as He wishes and not as we wish. He has given us affections and emotions to help us in that service. His one business on earth is to do the will of His Heavenly Father, to save souls by the undoing and by the hindrance of sin. In so far then as emotion and affection draw us nearer to Him and keep us away from sin, they are being rightly used. In so far as they are made an end or a pleasure in themselves they are being used wrongly. To love Christ because of his obvious kindness and gentleness is good in its way, but not precisely what He wants. What He desires is practical sympathy which will do and live for His cause, the salvation of souls.  The women who met Him on His way to crucifixion had a gift of tears, but not exactly the gift of tears which He preferred. ‘Weep not for Me,’ He said, ‘but for yourselves and your children: not for My sufferings, but for your sins which cause them.’

            So also was it when Our Lady found Him in the temple. The mother and father had sought the Child sorrowing. Their affection, however, although of the purest and best, needed to be directed to a higher service than their natural satisfaction. ‘Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?’ How much more direction than does affection need which in comparison is so gross and carnal? The true test of right cultivation is the fruit which the emotions bring forth. ‘Not every one that saith to Me Lord, Lord, shall enter in to the kingdom of heaven; but he that doth the will of My Father who is in heaven, he shall enter into the kingdom of heaven.’ – p. 62-5

The Desire for Perfection


There is nothing so sad as the sight of those who once pressed forward to the goal of perfection frittering away the days and the hours in silly preoccupation about things that are futile, transient and unsubstantial.’  – Fr Edward Leen, ‘In the Likeness of Christ’

There is a distinct, though often faint, voice within us that tells us we could be so much more than we currently are.  It provokes an inner restlessness that is not easy to shake off.  There are moments in our lives where this voice seems to overwhelm us. We are flattened by the disappointment we feel when we look at who we are and what we have done with our lives.  There springs into our consciousness the thought that our lives are not all that they could or should have been.

These moments can be short-lived. Most of us do not pay too much attention to them. We return to the daily grind and distractions where we forget our own mediocrity. Some people around us might notice that we have lost some of our youthful vitality that once drove us forward, now seeing us ‘frittering away the days and the hours in silly preoccupation about things that are futile, transient and unsubstantial’. Sometimes they may let us know what they see but most of the time nothing is said, and we feel relieved by friends and family members that tell us, ‘Don’t be so hard on yourself’. Yet, for some, that lingering sense that we are not all that we should be does not dissipate and it is not easily blocked out. Fr Martin D’Arcy, former Master of Campion Hall, Oxford University, captures this angst: ‘We are haunted by perfection, and we all long to for some golden occasion when we can exhibit our strength, write down for all time what we are and could be and so wipe out the long array of petty deeds which go under our name.’ (‘Mirage and Truth’). This sense of being ‘haunted’ leads to some seeking answers for this desire for perfection from various mental health professionals who claim to be experts or, at least, to be knowledgeable about the solutions to this angst. But what do these ‘experts’ tell us about this desire for perfection? (Footnote 1)

A Rejection of Perfection:

At one of the most popular psychological websites, Psychology Today, one of these ‘experts’, Mel Schwartz, will tell us that ‘[The construct of perfection] remains rooted in an outmoded worldview and constrains our happiness. Shifting our beliefs about perfection can permit the burden that it imposes to lift.’  And he will also tell us that ‘If someone ever could achieve this impossible state of perfection, it’s likely that very few people would tolerate him or her. For the perfect individual would be a constant reminder to all others of their shortcomings. Not to mention that they probably wouldn’t be much fun to be with. Who would really tolerate, let alone enjoy being with, someone who was perfect?’  Mel here is telling the person who desires perfection that perfection is an ‘outmoded worldview’ or outdated concept, that we should really not tolerate anyone who is perfect, and that the concept of perfection needs to be got rid of so we can be truly happy.  The pharisees would be proud!

‘There Is No Finish Line’:

Another modern ‘life and relationship expert’, Anne Cohen, tells us that ‘It’s important to love and embrace your life and enjoy the moment as you strive towards your goals, and not just patiently or impatiently long for the end result, and assume that you’ll feel happy at that point. You won’t be. The truth is, there is no end result or finish line in life. The only finish line in life is when we’re dead. It’s important to enjoy our journey, and not to be so hard on ourselves.’ Basically, it is ‘let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall die’ which St. Paul (Corinthians, chapter 15) responds to by saying ‘Be not seduced: Evil communications corrupt good manners. Awake, ye just, and sin not.’ The argument of Anne Cohen was already refuted by ancient Greek philosophers, such as Aristotle, before Christ, and it was torn apart by the historical reality of the Resurrection and the preaching of the Apostles.  Yet, almost 2’000 years later these arguments that try to do away with perfection or twist it into one’s own formula persist.    

These are just two examples of the senseless nonsense that it is to be found from modern gurus who claim to lead people to happiness. Elsewhere I have outlined how professional psychologists give the completely wrong answers to those who are ‘haunted by perfection’.  So, if modern psychology cannot provide the answers, where is one to find the answer to this desire for perfection?

‘Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matthew 5:48)

These are the ground shattering words that rock the foundations of those who have settled in the comfortable home of mediocrity. For those who do not know the heavenly Father or who already think they are perfect these words will be ridiculed and scorned. For those who have come up with elaborate, sophisticated, and proud ways of justifying their imperfections they will mean little. This is how the pharisees and scribes responded and is exemplified today in the writings of Mel Schwarz above. For those who would rather enjoy the hedonistic pleasures of this life than aim at the higher path, Our Lord’s words fall on deaf ears. 

But for those who do have some idea of the heavenly Father’s power, beauty and goodness and know something of their own inadequacy and mediocrity these words are like a thunderbolt.  For these humble, generous souls who realise that they are sinners like the publican, these words send shockwaves through them. They may respond with some skepticism: ‘Me, how can I be ‘perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect?’ ‘This saying is hard, and who can hear it?’ (John 6: 61). These challenging words can rock us as much today as they did then. Like Mel Schwartz, we can reject this Man who claims to be perfect and tells us all to aspire to perfection – this Man who is a ‘constant reminder to all others of their shortcomings’.  Or we can take Him and His words seriously despite how overwhelmed we may feel when hearing them. It may initially appear to us to be incredibly difficult to follow this path of perfection when we look at the example set before us. And to top it all, we now know, unlike those listening to the sermon on the mount almost two thousand years ago, that the Speaker’s life was one of suffering and hardship, resulting ultimately in His crucifixion. And he tells us to follow in His example!  This is not the road to happiness that Mel Schwartz, Anne Cohen, psychologists, therapists, counsellors, psychiatrists, and countless others posing as enlightened guides advise! Yet we know that there is something within our soul that tells us that this is the route we must take:

It is dimly felt that though the cross came to Christ only because He permitted it, the cross must come to the Christian of a necessity and the Christian is not free to evade it if his life is to reflect, in some degree, the perfection of the life of the Son of God on earth.  Christ had perfection of soul without the cross: there is a secret instinct which tells the Christian that he cannot have perfection of soul without the crossIt is this obscure but intimate realisation that the Passion is not a mere historical contingent fact, affecting one man, but a theory of life applicable to all men, that stirs uneasiness and a species of discomfort in the heart of the thoughtful and honest Christian in face of the Passion and death of Christ.’ (Fr Edward Leen, ‘In the Likeness of Christ’, my emphasis)

‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me’ (Luke 9:23)

The Catholic Faith teaches us that there is no way to perfection except through the picking up of our cross daily.  There is no getting away from it. No matter how many elaborate psychological theories and professional associations try to twist this message the cross still remains there to be picked up. To reach perfection this is the offer that is put before us. It is not for the fainthearted and great saints do not sugar-coat the hard work and effort that we must put in on this path.  For example, St Bernard speaks to his wayward nephew, Robert, ‘Arouse yourself, gird your loins, put aside idleness, grasp the nettle, and do some hard work.’ (‘St Bernard of Clairvaux – As Seen Through His Selected Letters’) St. Bonaventure, the Seraphic Doctor, is even more direct while writing to a nun who aspired after perfection, says: ‘The spouse of Christ who longs to become perfect must begin with her own self.  She must put aside, forget everything else, and enter into the secrecy of her own heart.  When she has done this, let her sift narrowly all her weaknesses, habits, affections, actions and sins.  She must weigh everything carefully, and make a thorough examination of past and present.  Should she discover even the least imperfection, let her weep in the bitterness of her heart.’ (‘Holiness of Life’) And St Therese of Lisieux, who is often depicted in modern times as nothing but sweetness and roses, says that when we commit a fault, ‘we must not attribute it to a physical cause, such as illness or the weather, but we must attribute it our own lack of perfection…Occasions do not make man weak, but they do show him what he is.’ (‘Counsels and Souvenirs’) (See footnote 2).

The saints know man. They know our distance from God and the effort that needs to be made to try to shorten this distance. If we are to set out on the road to perfection, we must humble ourselves and acknowledge how far from perfection we really are. Yet, this is nothing more than acknowledging reality. It is establishing our starting point upon the map before we set out for our destination. Once the destination is determined, we can set out. On this journey, there will be slips, mishaps, falls, and, perhaps, moments of despair as we begin to truly understand ourselves and our distance from God. But we must be determined to keep on this path as St Teresa of Avila tells us, ‘Everything depends on people having a great and a most resolute determination never to halt until they reach their journey’s end, happen what may, whatever the consequences are, cost what it will, let who will blame them, whether they reach the goal or die on the road, or lose heart to bear the trials they encounter, or the earth falls to pieces beneath their feet.’ (‘The Way of Perfection’). This path towards perfection is the only path to take as the alternative route only leads to misery both in this life and the next. It is the reality that a true understanding of the one true Faith holds out to us.

But what about the objections that claim that it is too hard or unrealistic or unpractical and idealistic to speak in this way about perfection? Well, the Faith has the answers to these complaints through the example and words of Our Lord, ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light’ and through the example of all the saints who followed in His footsteps whose spirits were more free and lives happier than the world will ever know (see here and here for two blogs on this).

It is a great thing to realise that each one of us is meant for sanctity and that God will not allow us to lead a mediocre life. Christ takes us seriously and when we have the hardihood to put ourselves in His path and show ourselves ready to obey Him, He expects us to rise to the ideal He has traced for us, every one according to her own form. That is a dread thought. But He is prepared to give us the means of achieving what He asks of us…We cannot fall back. We have to face reality.’ – Fr Edward Leen, ‘My Last Retreat’ (See footnote 3)

Let us not languish in the errors and fables about perfection offered by modern psychology and its various proud and foolish gurus. ‘Christ takes us seriously’. Let us take Him seriously and ‘face reality’. Perfection is possible and the path He has led out before us is the only path that will bring this about.  We know that to reach our destination serious effort must be put in. However, lest we despair with the thoughts of what is laid before us, ‘fall back’, and start considering whether modern psychological answers may be right after all, let us finish with a quote from Fr Eugene Boylan describing the spiritual teachings of St Therese of Lisieux:

The perfect picture that St. Teresa of Lisieux has drawn of the spiritual life will help to give us courage.  She sees it as a stairway to be climbed, at the top of which God is waiting, looking down in Fatherly love at His child’s efforts to surmount the first step.  The child, who represents ourselves, fails to manage to climb even the first step; it can only keep on lifting up its tiny little foot. Sooner or later God takes pity on it, and comes down and sweeps the child right up to the top in His arms; but – and St. Teresa insists on this as much as she insists on God’s loving kindness – we must keep on lifting up our foot.  The soul must never be discouraged by the fruitlessness of its repeated efforts. It seems to be a law of the spiritual life that, since all progress ultimately depends on God, He lets us first learn our complete helplessness by long and weary efforts that come to naught.  But we have His word: ‘I Myself will come and save you!’ (‘Difficulties in Mental Prayer’)

So, keep making efforts towards perfection and may Our Lady guide you and God bless you in your endeavours

Footnote 1:

These two articles are the first and fourth results after a duckduckgo.com search with the terms ‘desire for perfection’.  They are a general representation of the dangerous nonsense written about psychological matters that is to be found in our world.

Footnote 2:

Lest the wrong impression is given that the saints were all harshness and extremely demanding towards one’s neighbour we must keep in mind that these were saints who imitated Christ in their words and behaviour. This is how Fr Edward Leen describes Our Lord: ‘He is very tender towards the imperfect, but relentless towards imperfection.’ (‘Why the Cross?’).  The above quotes show the relentless of St Bernard, St Bonaventure, St Therese of Lisieux and St Teresa of Avila towards imperfection while the following quotes show their tenderness towards the imperfect:

St Bernard wrote extensively on Divine love writing, ‘The measure of love is love without measure.’ He also pleaded with popes on behalf of those who showed the slightest sign of repentance, humility and good will as he did for Bishop of Salamanca, writing to Pope Innocent II:

When the man told me the whole story of his tragedy as it had happened, I had nothing but praise for the judge and approval for the judgement; but I must tell you, I was moved by pity for the judged.  The whole theme of his story was those words of the Prophet: ‘I have been lifted up only to be cast down and left bewildered’, and ‘so low hast thou brought me who didst once lift me up on high’. When I thought of your justice and your strong character, which I used to know so well, I thought at the same time of your great mercy which I have experienced on so many occasions…I found grounds for hope, confidence for my petition, a reason for my pity, in that I saw the man did not, as is usual in such cases, turn away in fury, and return to his native land, there to stir up scandals and foment schisms; but that he gave place to wrath, adopted an attitude of meekness, and turned his steps towards your monks of Cluny there to throw himself at the knees of the humble monks and fortify himself with their intercession, as with powerful arms from God.’ (‘St Bernard of Clairvaux – As Seen Through His Selected Letters’)

St Bonaventure on love of God and his neighbour:Give me, O Lord, such great fervour and immense love that I shall see no difference between this or that life, this or that state, person, time, or place, but shall do what is most pleasing to You, whatever or wherever it may be, tending always to You by the affection of my soul. Grant that I may see all things in You, and nothing but You in them, ever eager and anxious to serve You in all things; and that, all on fire and burning with love, I may not take into consideration what is easiest and most agreeable for me, but only what is most pleasing to You.

     Grant, O Lord, that I may imitate the angelic spirits who, although they are with us, never interrupt their divine contemplation. May I treat and serve my brethren by seeing and enjoying You in them, and may I always assist my neighbour, offering my heart to You.’ (cited in ‘Divine Intimacy’)

St Therese of Lisieux on patience and tenderness towards the imperfect: ‘Perfect love means putting up with other people’s shortcomings, feeling no surprise at their weaknesses, finding encouragement even in the slightest evidence of good qualities in them.’ (‘The Autobiography of a Soul’)

St Teresa of Avila on compassion towards one’s neighbour: “For at times it happens that some trifle will cause as much suffering to one as a great trial will to another; little things can bring much distress to persons who have sensitive natures. If you are not like them, do not fail to be compassionate.” (‘The Way of Perfection’)

Footnote 3:

The Irish priest and scholar, Fr Edward Leen, has been quoted a number of times in this blog. It is highly recommended to readers that they check out his inspirational books such as ‘Why the Cross?’, ‘In the Likeness of Christ’ or ‘My Last Retreat’.  See here for a sample of his writing from another of his books, ‘Progress Through Mental Prayer’. These books are very helpful for inspiring and encouraging the desire for true perfection in ourselves.