Self-Esteem: What Modern Psychology Tells Us, What a Man With Some Common Sense Tells Us, and What The Catholic Faith Tells Us


The time will soon come when a modern philosopher who returns to common sense will be hailed as one of the most original thinkers of all time’ – Bishop Fulton Sheen (‘God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy’, published 1930) (1)

Modern psychology and Self-Esteem:

The primary focus of psychology and psychotherapy today is on increasing people’s self-esteem and helping them feel good about themselves.  Rather than try to figure out the truth about ourselves, psychologists and psychotherapists focus on superficial remedies that try to make people feel better about themselves. They focus on ‘reframing’ negative thinking and removing cognitive distortions. In previous articles I touched on some of the ways psychotherapists try to correct negative self-beliefs.  Psychotherapeutic and psychological approaches today mainly involve a rejection of reality, particularly the reality of sin, and the flattering of their clients. This is an absolute cocktail for disaster.

A Man with Some Common Sense and Self-Esteem:

Thankfully, not all psychologists have bought in to the idea that high self-esteem is the end goal of therapy.  One psychologist that has spoken more clearly and more sanely on self-esteem than his deluded colleagues is professor Jordan Peterson.  In this 4-minute clip on self-esteem (2) he rightly highlights how our opinions of ourselves must be based on an accurate view of ourselves.  In broadcasting his ideas, he is thrown a bit of common sense into the psychological field which had been slowly draining itself of any common sense that it was clinging onto over the last fifty years. For this, he has gained a massive following, especially amongst young men, who need to hear someone tell them firmly to tidy their room and be better than they currently are.  He has been a springboard for many men to face the reality about their lives and get themselves together rather than sit around complaining about the injustices and suffering of their lives.  He tells people that ‘if you confront the world forthrightly, if you speak the truth and you expose yourself courageously to those things that you’re afraid of that your life will improve.

Peterson’s words and work resonate with those who know that they are not all that they could or should be. His ideas resonate with those who are sick of being told that they are ‘good enough’ or who dislike being pampered by flatterers who tell them all sort of sweet and nice things about themselves when reality and their conscience tell them these things are far from the truth. The reaction to professor Peterson’s work has shown that there is a longing for the truth in people’s minds and souls. Some people have seen through the superficiality of modern therapy that attempts to make you think more positively while ignoring reality. They desire the truth even if it hurts.  

Towards the Truth…

To those who love the truth, professor Peterson’s work can act like a stepping stone away from the nonsense of modern psychological approaches and towards the truth about ourselves. People are not put off by Peterson’s insights into human failings. Rather, they know that he is saying many things that are true and this appeals to them.  In another video (3) critiquing those who glorify high self-esteem, he asks the question ‘what makes you think you should high self-esteem? And he answers, half in jest, ‘Maybe you are a miserable little worm? God only knows.’ And it is here, in this question, ‘maybe you are miserable little worm?’, that professor Peterson steps closer, than he probably even realises, to the Catholic and true understanding of self-esteem.

 The Catholic Faith and Self-Esteem:  

I have written elsewhere about the need for the Catholic Faith to be presented in all its splendour and glory to appeal to young people. It can then appeal to those generous souls who desire to be told the truth rather than ‘sweet little lies’ to placate and comfort them.  It needs to be presented truthfully indicating to people what they are and showing them what they should be. Over the last 60 years, largely due to the changes implemented at the Vatican II council, the Catholic faith is not presented in all its glorious truth to people. Church men of the post-Vatican II/conciliar/Novus Ordo church now flatter man and tell him he is ‘good enough’ or ‘not too bad’.  They have gotten with the times. In the excellent book, ‘The Burden of Belief’ (4), written in the 1930s, what effect this attempted softening of the faith has is clearly described:

Is it not characteristic of this development that the tendency today, largely encouraged by official piety, is to make the yoke easier to bear, to soften things down, grant dispensations, blunt the sharp edges? It is what is called meeting people half-way.  The Christian life must be made possible with a minimum of effort; it must be offered ‘with every modern comfort at moderate prices,’ and on no account must anyone be frightened off. In the endeavour to make it attractive, it has been dulcified with a bone-softening sweetness and given a sentimental appeal which is not so much child-like as childish…A tame, pretty-pretty, unadventurous Christianity such as this, which is diseased at the core, and lives on a lie, is its own speedy avenger, inasmuch as it destroys itself, it perishes of its own anaemia, it condemns itself to a continuous process of degeneration. It no longer produces men and women, but caricatures or actors…bona fide for all I care. It makes not appeal whatever to the best that is in us, to those magnanimous impulses that ask to be seized in a firm, bold grip and exploited for great and noble ends. It only appeals to our petty, cowardly, mendacious instincts for shuffling and playing for safety – and these fortunately are suicidal. It flowers in illusions, which life soon explodes, and a good thing too.

Jordan Peterson has attempted to explode some of the illusions of modern psychology ‘and a good thing too‘. While the conciliar/Novus Ordo church ‘perishes of its own anaemia’ and ‘it condemns itself to a continuous process of degeneration’, men, like professor Peterson, sound more like Catholic leaders, than the bishops and pope that we have today.  Catholic leaders used to tell man what he really was. Today, the truth about the Catholic Faith has been dulcified by leaders in the post-Vatican II church ‘with a bone-softening sweetness’. It has become a religion for humanitarians and ‘in the eyes of the humanitarian, God is very much like the man whose sole office it would be to throw food to flocks of irresponsible fowls; to feed and to fatten is all that man is expected to do.’ (Fr Anscar Vonier, 1913) (5). Man is exalted and told to fatten up on the pleasures of this life.  God is told to buzz off and to stop making us feel bad about ourselves.  Previously the Catholic Church, particularly through her saints, told man what he really is. The language that they use makes professor Peterson’s words sound sweet in comparison.  Here are just a few examples from some of the Church’s greatest saints:

St Louis Marie de Montfort: ‘By nature, we are prouder than peacocks, more wedded to the earth than are the toads, fouler than goats, more odious than serpents, more gluttonous than pigs, fiercer than tigers, more slothful than tortoises, more feeble than reeds, and more fickle than weathercocks.’ (From: ‘True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin’, early 1700s) (6)

St. Bernard: “Remember what you were -corrupted seed; what you are – a body destined for decay; what you will be -food for worms.” (quoted in ‘True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin’)

St. Bonaventure, speaking to a nun about true humility and the spirit of poverty: The Highest God became as the least of all, and the immense God became a little creature, yet a filthy worm, a mere handmaid of Christ, ‘exalts and magnifies herself’ (Psalms 9:18)…Reflect then, whence you come and take it to heart that you are the slime of the earth.  You have wallowed in sin, and are an exile from the happy kingdom of Heaven.’ ‘It is a great, a heinous crime that a vile and contemptible worm, for whom the God of Majesty and Lord of All became poor, should desire to be rich.’ (From: ‘Holiness of Life’) (7).  

This language from these saints, who were all known for and wrote about their deep love of God and their neighbour, is far from the self-esteem promoting language of modern psychologists. One psychologist, Jordan Peterson, who maintains some level of common sense and sanity amidst the madness of his discipline, criticises his fellow psychologists’ theories and rejects their obsession with self-esteem.  But it is the Catholic Church, through her saints, that provides the proper response to self-esteem. In her wisdom she advises us to crush the snake that is self-esteem altogether. The saints point out what we really are so we can rid ourselves of this snake. Other Catholic writers and priests only emphasise this point further. ‘Whoever desires to honour the divine Majesty must rid himself of self-esteem and the desire of the esteem of others.’ (‘The Spiritual Combat’ by Fr Scupoli, written in 1589) (8). This ridding ourselves of self-esteem is painful. It is a battle and it involves taking up a cross. ‘Death and ill-health and accident and grief cannot be banished by any human formula, and the weaknesses attendant on human nature, sloth and self-indulgence, envy and hatred, can be eradicated only be each man taking up his cross and conquering himself.’ (Fr  M C D’Arcy, ‘Mirage and Truth’ (1935) (9).

While the words that the saints and wise Catholic priests speak are hard for man, especially modern man, to hear, they are most necessary today. The truth about ourselves must be faced. To a certain extent, this is something that professor Peterson captures. However, it appears he fails to realise that the truth has been spoken more clearly, more accurately, and more strongly by those who have come before him. To his credit, he is an exception to the flattering tongues that psychologists and psychotherapists have.  You will not hear the language of the saints or the Catholic Church in psychological services today. You will likely never meet a psychologist who questions the self-esteem craze and even when they, like professor Peterson do, they still fail to understand man is and what he needs. 

Clearly, a proper estimate of ourselves is necessarily a low estimate. Hence St Bernard rightly defines humility, as ‘a virtue which, giving a man a correct knowledge of self, makes him appear despicable in his own eyes’. – Fr R. J. Meyer (‘Science of the Saints’, 1902) (10)

The solutions to that gnawing conscience of yours, no matter how dimly you feel it, are not to be found in psychotherapists who do not understand what humility truly is. They do not give man a correct knowledge of self. Yet, many people fall into the charlatan’s web, which is psychotherapy, after making various attempts to overcome their misery and escape this correct knowledge of self, as Bishop Fulton Sheen (1949) (11) saw happening in his time, ‘They find that they are cloyed with what they thought would satisfy; they try to make up for each new disillusionment with a new attachment; they try to exorcise the old disgusts and shames with febrile new excitements…They are a burden to themselves, a bore to their friends, disgusted but never satiated, made more hungry but never satisfied; in the end they pay charlatans handsome fees to be told that there is no sin and that their sense of guilt is due to a father complex. But their moral cancer remains, even then; they feel it gnawing at their hearts.’ The world cannot satisfy the yearnings of the soul nor can it be satisfied by those who try to boost your self-esteem by telling you not to worry about sin or that you are ‘good enough’ as you are.  The road to happiness is built on truth and it is the Catholic Faith and her saints who show us this road and how to built these truthful foundations. 

The faithful desire to grow in the knowledge of God, to learn to serve and to love him better; they crave too, for self-knowledge that, by its light, they may humiliate and correct themselves, and so grow in virtue and in love.’ – ‘The Ideal of the Fervant Soul’ – Fr Auguste Saudreau (1927) (12)

The knowledge of God elevates the soul; knowledge of self keeps it humble. The former raises the soul to contemplate something of the depths of the divine perfections, the latter lowers it to the abyss of its own nothingness and sin.’ – ‘Spiritual Maxims’ – Fr Grou (1780s, republished in 1870’s) (13)

The Catholic faith does not ignore the reality of the miserable wretch that is man in our fallen state. However, in doing so, she also holds out the sublime reality of what man can and should be, i.e., a saint.  ‘The true knowledge of self is the source of humility, modesty, patience, and diffidence in self; and these are the conditions of true confidence in God. He only who does not build upon his own strength directs his glance straight to God. As upright humility, or the knowledge of the truth that God is all and the creature nothing, serves as a foundation to every virtue; so this humble and correct idea of ourselves makes the blooming of all virtues in our soul possible, and brings us into just relations with God, with men, and with salvation.’ ‘The Way of Interior Peace’ – Fr Von Lehen (1889) (14). 

In conclusion, let us ignore those who shout about the need for ‘high self-esteem’ Let us come to really know ourselves as we truly are. Let us avoid those who subtly deceive us and, as St Bernard once said to his wayward nephew, Robert, ‘Gird yourself, cast off your seducers, shut your eyes to flatterers, search your own heart’. (15).And having thrown the idol of self-esteem into the rubbish heap where it belongs, let us raise our hearts to God to know our real worth as ‘it is more to us to know what his Creator thinks of him, than to know what he is worth himself.’ (Fr Faber) (16).

May God bless us in our efforts to see through the flattery of the world and so come to true knowledge of ourselves.  And lest we wallow in our own misery, may God then turn our eyes toward Him who is Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Himself and guide us, His children, safely to Him.  

References:

  1. Bishop Sheen, F. S. (1930). God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy. New York: Longmans, Green & Co. Available here: https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.89276
  2. See here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GKoTa6omipE
  3. See here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9f3qyNNtpQk
  4. Coudenhove, I. F. (1934) The Burden of Belief. London: Sheed & Ward
  5. Fr Vonier, A. (1913). The Human Soul and Its Relation to Other Spirits. London: B. Herder Books. Available here: https://archive.org/details/humansoulitsrela00voni
  6. St. Louis Marie de Montfort (early 1700s). True Devotion to The Blessed Virgin. Available here: http://catholicapologetics.info/library/onlinelibrary/trued.htm
  7. St. Bonaventure (edition published in 1923). Holiness of Life. London: B. Herder Books. Available here: http://www.catholicapologetics.info/library/onlinelibrary/holiness.pdf
  8. Fr Scupoli (original 1589). The Spiritual Combat. Available here: https://archive.org/details/spiritualcombat02scupgoog
  9. Fr D’Arcy, M. C. (1935). Mirage and Truth. London: The Centenary Press.
  10. 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
  11. Bishop Sheen, F. S. (1949). Peace of Soul. New York: Whittlesey House. Preview available here: https://archive.org/details/peaceofsoul0000shee/mode/2up
  12. Fr Saudreau, A. (1927). The Ideal of the Fervant Soul, translated by Frances M. Bidwell. London: Burns, Oates & Washbourne
  13. Fr Grou (original 1780s). Spiritual Maxims. Available here: https://archive.org/details/spiritualmaximso00grou/page/n1/mode/2up
  14. Fr Von Lehen (1889). The Way of Interior Peace. Available here: https://archive.org/details/wayofinteriorpea00lehe
  15. Fr James, B. S. (1953) St Bernard of Clairvaux – As Seen Through His Selected Letters. Chicago: Henry Regnery Co. Preview available here: https://archive.org/details/stbernardofclair00bern/mode/2up
  16. Fr Faber, F. (published, 1955). Bethlehem. Baltimore: John Murphy Co.

Sanctity & Sanity (2/2)


Few would deny, however unsatisfactory their own lives, that to be a saint is the supreme expression of human life on earth.  We recognise in sanctity or great holiness the closest possible relationship between a man and God who is supreme Reality, the supreme Truth, Goodness and Beauty.’ – Introduction, ‘Francois de Sales’ – Michael de le Bedoyere

The last article on ‘Sanctity and Sanity’ spoke about the various modern proposals that are offered as ways of alleviating psychological distress.  These range from toxic legal and illegal drugs to dangerous new age practices.  But there is one solution to psychological distress that is guaranteed to work.  Now, this solution does not take away physical pain, nor does it take away suffering that life inevitably brings.  It offers a cross to carry.  This is its central symbol and message. To many, it does not appear to be a great solution yet its Founder asserts that it is the only path.  This solution is the road to sanctity through the Catholic Faith. Many reject this offer and Him who offers it, because they see this offer as unhelpful for their happiness and sanity as Fr Edward Leen (‘Why the Cross?’) explains,  ‘Men once killed the heir and thought that, by stifling his voice, the inheritance of earth would be theirs.  In all ages the same crime is repeated, instigated by the same idle expectations. Men, again and again, seek to slay Christ, living in His Church, and indulge the hope that, once they have silenced Him, they will be left in tranquil enjoyment of the earth and the fullness thereof.  They persist in regarding Christ, and Christ because of His Cross, as the great barrier to their happiness and well-being.’ Let us not despair at this offer. If it was solely the pain of the cross that was offered and promised to us, then we may have a right to feel aggrieved.  Yet, Christ also promised that this burden, if willingly taken up, would be light.  His life on earth and the examples of the saints only show us how infinitely good and generous God is in this supreme offer.  ‘God is infinite goodness.  Goodness seeks nothing except to give itself and to communicate the riches which it enjoys.’ (Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard, ‘The Soul of the Apostolate’). God seeks to enrich us with His happiness.  He implores us to take up His offer as He promises to satiate the desire for happiness in us.

These things I have spoken to you that My joy may be in you, and your joy may be filled,’ (John 15:11)

Man has an innate desire for happiness.  ‘The craving for happiness comes from the bottom of the human nature.’ (Dom Anscar Vonier, ‘The Human Soul and Its Relations with Other Spirits’).  This search for happiness is what drives man on.  But where is this happiness to be found? When modern man views the saints, what does he see?  Does he just see their poverty, their mortifications, their penances, their low worldly position, the eccentricities of their life story and character? Does he see, through worldly eyes, only the cross and the hardships of their exterior life? Or can he see deeper and see the beauty of their hearts and souls which were filled with joy, happiness and peace?  By just looking at the exterior, through worldly eyes, does he mistakenly believe that a miserable earthly life is the deal that needs to be made with God for eternal happiness in the next?  Surely this can not be the case and Fr Edward Leen (‘Why the Cross?’) highlights how this is not so, ‘To many, religion appears to demand actual misery as a condition of future well-being.  This is a totally mistaken view of things…God does not demand unhappiness as the price of happiness.  He plans happiness here as a prelude and foretaste of happiness hereafter.’ But where is the evidence that happiness in this life is given to those who follow the Catholic way?  It is to be found in those who truly embraced the cross. It is to be found in the saints that followed Christ’s example.

When we die to something, something comes alive within us. If we die to self, charity comes alive; if we die to pride, service comes alive; if we die to lust, reverence for personality comes alive; if we die to anger, love comes alive.’ – Bishop Fulton Sheen, ‘Peace of Soul’

You don’t need no ticket, And you don’t pay no fee’ – Mike Scott (The Waterboys), ‘This is the Sea’

The opportunity for true happiness and joy is offered to us all. Saints have come from every conceivable walk of life. Sanctity is not solely for those born into ‘privileged’ circumstances. In God’s infinite mercy and goodness and through His gratuitous grace everyone gets a shot at sanctity. Those who have responded faithfully to these graces are the saints.  They willingly took up their crosses and followed the path that Jesus had walked before them. 

As Jesus practiced and taught, man’s true greatness and his highest liberty consists in his complete independence of what is created and in his utter subjection to the Uncreated.  Detachment from creatures and loving submission to God alone give man the greatness and happiness he instinctively aspires to.  Sanctity, or greatness of character – for they are actually the same thing – does not consist in anything external nor does it depend on it: it is to be found entirely in the interior.  The presence of this world’s goods, good or evil fortune, easy circumstances or hardship, health or sickness, protection from or exposure to the unkindness of the elements, or the perverse wills of men, these things in themselves cannot take from or add to us.’ – Fr Edward Leen, ‘In the Likeness of Christ’

But yes, it must be admitted that the lives of many saints were often hard and yes, their sufferings could be immense. But can we see the peace and joy that flourished in their hearts and, from their hearts, out into the world? What a joy it must have been to behold the joy, happiness and peace that radiated from the likes of St Bernard or St Francis of Assisi or St Catherine of Sienna or St Francis de Sales!  Thank God, they have left us glimpses of this in the words they have written and in the biographies written about them.  They give us a glimmer of the happiness that comes when one completely surrenders one’s will to that of God’s.  As Fr Leen (‘In the Likeness of Christ’) rhetorically asks, ‘Was there ever a man who had completely surrendered his will to the will of God who could not confess that he was supremely happy?’  These were men and women who truly tasted the Lord and saw how sweet He is (Psalms 33:9).  These saints are not those who ‘dabble’ with the Catholic Faith, who are lukewarm and having got an incomplete and inaccurate sense of it, eventually drift away from it.  If truly living the Catholic Faith brings peace, happiness and joy in this life then we should look to those who truly lived it to the fullest for guidance. As Fr D’Arcy, described by Henry Sire as ‘the philosopher of Christian love’, points out in his book, ‘Mirage and Truth’, ‘The argument of those who have given up religion should receive little attention, unless they can claim with truth that they tried and tested it to the full. If we appeal to those who have gone the full distance and not fallen out with a broken wind we shall find invariably that they have experienced an incomparable joy and enjoyed a fullness of being which can only be called divine.

But if imitating Christ and the saints and following the Catholic Faith brings such joy why do we not see this in Irish society today?  Ireland still has many people who profess to be Catholic.  However, we all know Catholics who appear to be more miserable, irrational and more unbalanced than atheists we may know.  Too often it is bitterness, harshness and resentment, rather than joy, love and peace, that exudes from them.  The joy that Christ promised to His followers does not appear to be present in them and they provide no encouragement for taking up, what they propose to be, their beliefs. The young person who has been told that the Catholic Faith is the way to happiness may look away in disillusionment, if not disgust. Yet this is not the fault of the Catholic Faith but a problem in its application as Fr Leen (‘Why the Cross?’) explains, ‘If Christians in considerable numbers are not happy, it is not because they are followers of Jesus Christ, but because they follow Him very far off, very hesitatingly, and with many a start aside by the way. Happiness (not, however, unattended by suffering) is for those who ‘believe in’ Him, and of the many who subscribe to His teaching theoretically, there are relatively few that adhere to it practically.’  He explains how it is the saints who ‘understood Christianity to be what it actually is, a divinely fashioned instrument, made for the express purpose of transforming human nature.  Christianity guarantees this result – this divine transformation of humanity – if it be applied to the work…It does not guarantee this result if inadequately used, or if ill used; and ill used it must be, if not wholly accepted or if badly understood’ and he points out how it was the saints, through their application of the graces they received, that ‘became human beings – more human than the others, and yet human beings who diffused rays of the divinity.’  These saints inspired people around them.  People saw God in the saints.  It is to their lives that we must look if we are going to be as happy and peaceful as we can be in this life.  Society, especially in these times of mass apostasy from the Faith, may call this solution to psychological distress mad or foolish as they offer their modern ‘progressive’ and ‘enlightened’ approaches to distress, but as St Francis de Sales (‘The Devout Life’) said to those who received ridicule for aspiring to Christian perfection, if ‘the world considers us fools, let us consider it mad.’

The Christian idea of perfection, of completion, is, in part, in every humanism; the idea of self-surrender is in every mystic; the idea of love is in every human heart. And is there not in the various forms of socialism and communism, in the mutualism of the modern humanists, some hint of that idea which is in the Church herself, that union which transcends altruism and is so much more personal, more living, than any form of communism, that communion of saints which is also the communion of us ordinary sinners, for in it are included all those who own Christ for their head?’ I am the true vine, ye are the branches’ – it is a member of the mystical Body of Christ that the Christian sees the face of his birth, God’s ideal of what manner of man he should be.’ –Coudenhove, ‘Burden of Belief’

The solution to one’s psychological battles is not to be found in convoluted modern psychological theories.  They are not to be found in non-Catholic mystics, gurus and shamans who make a living from Westerners who had the Truth at one stage and who appear desperate to find it again. They are not to be found in the falsehoods of psychiatry nor are they to be found in the deluded utopian visions of humanists, sociologists and communists. They are to be found in willingly picking up one’s cross and following the example of those happy holy Catholic souls that have come before us.

Now, the road to sanctity is narrow.  Obstacles, temptations and sufferings will be encountered along the way. But there is a choice to be made.  The grace that opens one’s eyes to the reality of this choice can come with its own challenges for those who have grown accustomed to their own way of viewing the world as Ida Friederike Coudenhove (‘The Burden of Belief’) outlines, ‘It is perfectly true…that on the purely natural plane, something, even a great deal, may be destroyed through the irruption of Grace as a consciously life-forming principle. It really is an irruption, where the individual has shut himself up in his right little, tight little world; it shatters the clear security he enjoys in the order of visible, calculable things, and exposes him to all the storms of the infinite. Now he is torn in two, and his way lies through night and conflict, through the struggles and tension of inward transformation, through the unspeakably long, dark agony of dying to be born again: everything that you have read behind the smiling countenance of the saints.’ This straight and narrow path, which involves inward transformation, is the only true way to happiness.  It is a far more joyful route than the route that the world offers with its fleeting pleasures, vanities and vicious snares.  This path of virtue is the route that makes the saints smile and which finds them radiating their happiness and joy to others.  It is open to everyone. 

Finally, let us respond to the prayer of St Paul who prays that ‘You may be able to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth, and length, and height, and depth: To know also the charity of Christ, which surpasseth all knowledge, that you may be filled unto all the fulness of God.’ (Eph 3:18-19).  Essentially, may you be a saint.

Am I Too Sensitive?

This is a question that many people ask themselves.  It is a subject that comes up with many individuals in counselling sessions.  I have written elsewhere about ‘validating emotions’ but here I would like to talk more about a related topic, ‘sensitivity’.  This is, excuse the pun, a sensitive and slightly nuanced topic so one must get back to fundamentals about human nature to understand it.  A great place to start for understanding these fundamentals is Aristotle who some have referred to as ‘the father of psychology’ (1). 

The Merits of Sensitivity:

Aristotle noted that those with a high degree of sensitivity also tended to be highly intelligent.  To perceive, respond to and organise sensory information in the world in a quick and logical fashion requires heightened senses. In this life, we are reliant on our body, i.e. our sense organs, to gather sensory information from the world, while the intellect, i.e. a faculty of the soul, organises and makes sense of this information.  Some people’s bodies are more responsive to information coming in through the senses.  These people are more likely to feel bodily pain more intensely and be more susceptible to information overload. It is more likely that those who are highly sensitive will end up going to see a mental health professional. Now, while some of us may bemoan our sensitivity, being highly sensitive is not necessarily a bad thing. It is linked to higher intelligence and sensitivity also has some higher endorsements than this. Our Lord, Jesus Christ, had the most sensitive skin, as emphasised by many Doctors of the Church, e.g. St Bonaventure, and due to this, He was subject to the most painful and excruciating physical pain in His passion.  Our Lord’s example shows us that having a high degree of sensitivity is not a bad thing. Many of the saints also had a high degree of sensitivity.  This includes the likes of St Francis Xavier, who has been described as ‘vibrantly sensitive’ (2) and St Terese of Lisieux, who has been described as ‘super sensitive’ (3). As I have argued elsewhere, sanctity and insanity are incompatible, and the model of the saint should be our model for normal.  Many saints were able to combine a high degree of sensitivity with a high degree of sanctity.  The temptation today, when we feel overwhelmed by life, is to try to numb the sensitivity of our body.  As Carol Robinson points out in ‘My Life with Thomas Aquinas’ (4), this can be particularly tempting for Catholics who know and love the Faith and see how much our societies are rejecting Christ and His teachings: ‘There is that wide gap between religion and daily life…which is creating a terrific tension in our lives.  This is probably the root reason why lay Catholics have mental breakdowns. The more penetrating and sensitive they are the more sharply they feel the contrast between the nobility of their religion and the sordidness of the economic aspirations; between the intensity of their spiritual life and the dullness of mechanical work and play.’  The toxicity of the world can get in at individuals, especially sensitive ones.  There are many substances which can take some of the sensitivity away, e.g. alcohol, drugs, psychiatric drugs/medications.  These drugs can have a numbing effect on our senses.  These can be useful at times to ‘take the edge off’ and help us to relax or unwind but these substances are not long-term solutions to our sensitivity.  So, what is the solution?  Well, before we look for solutions, we must make sure we have an accurate diagnosis.  This is where the great Angelic Doctor of the Church and most sensitive of men, St Thomas Aquinas, whose ‘flesh, according to William of Tocco, was the delicate and sensitive flesh which Aristotle says is peculiar to those endowed with great power of intellect’ (5), comes in. 

Understanding the Passions:

In St Thomas’ treatise on the passions in his masterpiece, ‘Summa Theologica’ (6), he provides the fundamental foundation for understanding and evaluating whether passions, i.e. the sensitive appetites, are right or wrong in their expression.  In this treatise, St Thomas challenges the philosophy of both Cicero and the Stoics who saw the passions as ‘diseases’ and ‘disturbances’.  St Thomas notes that their philosophy is built on a misunderstanding of passions. (Note: St Thomas says that ‘passions are not called “diseases” or “disturbances” of the soul, save when they are not controlled by reason.’  For further insight into St Thomas’ refutation of Cicero’s and the Stoic’s interpretation of the passions, see: http://summa-theologiae.org/question/14302.htm). While St Thomas acknowledges the dangers of the passions he also notes how, in and of themselves, the passions are neither good nor bad.  He acknowledges how passions are bad if they are not in accordance with reason and good if they are in accordance with reason.  For example, hating God, who is the supreme good, is against reason, while loving God is in accordance with reason.  St Thomas acknowledges that passions can lead one astray.  Reason must be their master. ‘The passions of the soul, in so far as they are contrary to the order of reason, incline us to sin: but in so far as they are controlled by reason, they pertain to virtue.’  He goes on further to show how passions that are controlled by reason and rejoice in the things of God are a sign of moral perfection. ‘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.’ 

Saintly Examples:

Many examples of this perfection of moral good are apparent in the lives of the saints and holy men.  For example, St John Vianney sorrowed at offences against God: ‘He was a saint, that is to say, he loved God with all his soul, and they scarcely told him of anything except offences committed against God.  This lacerated his heart, and in his most intimate conversations he could not repress the grief it caused him. ‘Ah! It is here one must come, to know all the harm that sin of Adam has done to us’, he repeated time after time. ‘My God!’, he exclaimed one day, ‘how weary I am of sinners! When shall I be with saints!’ And another day: ‘The good God is as much sinned against, that one is almost tempted to ask for the end of the world.  If there were not, here and there, some beautiful souls to repose the heart, and solace the eyes for all the evil that one sees and hears, we could not tolerate each other in this life.’ While sorrowing at the offences against God, he rejoiced in the honour given to Him: ‘When he preached from the altar, his eyes never rested on the Tabernacle without his being seized with a kind of breathless transport. He never spoke of the Mass without being moved to tears ‘Oh, my friend,’ he said one day to a seminarist, who was speaking of the grandeur of the priesthood, ‘when I carry the Blessed Sacrament to the right, It remains there, I carry it to the left and it remains there also. One will never understand the happiness there is in saying Mass until one is in heaven.’ (7). 

Another remarkable saint, St Dominic, showed how his heart and his flesh grieved at offences against God: ‘Day and night he was in the church, praying as it were without ceasing, God gave him the grace to weep for sinners and for the afflicted; he bore their sorrows in an inner sanctuary of holy compassion, and so this loving compassion which pressed on his heart flowed out and escaped in tears. It was his custom to spend the night in prayer, and to speak to God with his door shut. But often there might be heard the voice of his groans and sighs, which burst from him against his will.’ (8).

The following piece on the saintly Cardinal Merry del Val, Secretary of State to St Pius X, shows how sensitive a truly pious and God loving soul reacts to offences against God:  ‘Free at last from diplomacy and politics, in his solitary and silent home of Santa Marta, he could give full freedom to the longings of his holy soul: to that delicate and sensitive piety which made him suffer when he saw God’s law broken.  To hear any profane language on the street used to horrify him, and even upset him physically. Once, in a country town, he saw some porters loading sacks of grain on to a waggon; one of these was torn, so that the contents ran out on to the road; the porter broke out into the vilest language, even in the presence of some boys.  The Cardinal was affected for the whole day, and in the evening, in addition to his usual visit to the Blessed Sacrament, he made another and a long one.  Going out for a walk one day, he met a carriage-driver in the piazza, who was uttering blasphemous words against Our Lady. He went up to him, reproved him, and, taking his number, said that he would report him, all the more that the offence was punishable by law; he was only prevented from so doing by the man’s entreaties and promises.  The same delicate sensitiveness made him feel for dumb animals, which he could not bear to see ill-treated, and more than once he intervened to hinder such treatment, or cause it to cease.’ (9). These passages illustrate how great men in the Church were highly sensitive. They also show how their hearts and flesh rejoiced in the goodness of Our Lord and sorrowed at offences against Him and His creatures.

An Objective Standard:

So, where does this leave us in relation to evaluating whether somebody is ‘overly sensitive’?  First, we must recognise that to judge whether somebody is ‘overly sensitive’ we require examples and an objective and rational standard to base this off.  Where do we find these examples? There is no better place to look to than the examples of Our Lord and His saints.  These provide Divine and holy examples of sensitive reactions.  They show us how to direct and manage our sensitivity. Where do we find an objective and rational standard to evaluate sensitivity? For those who wish to have a sound scientific footing for understanding sensitivity and the passions, there is no better place to look than St Thomas Aquinas.

The Solution to this Sensitive Topic:

If mental health professionals are to help people cope with life, they must understand what a human being is and what an ordered life looks like.  To define ‘disorder’ one must know what order looks like first.  Our Lord provides the Divine example of a perfectly ordered life and His saints provide holy examples for us to intimate.  St Thomas provides the philosophical foundation for the understanding of psychological order.  Since Protestants detached themselves from the infallible guide that is the Catholic Church in the 16th century and since scholastic philosophy, e.g. St Thomas, has been ridiculed and rejected by many in the 19th and 20th century, the mental health ‘experts’, i.e. psychologists, psychiatrists and psychotherapists, have come up with their own subjective understandings of what a disorder is.  In our modern times, there is much more understanding of the neurology of the brain and increased awareness of the biological processes operating throughout our body that affect our senses than there was during the times of St Thomas. For example, we know more about the essential vitamins and minerals that are necessary for the healthy functioning of the senses.  However, more importantly at a deeper philosophical and theological level, there is less understanding about what one should do with one’s sensitivity.  There is even less understanding about one should be sensitive to.  We live in a time where we can fix many sensory issues or problems that we may have, e.g. glasses for eyes, hearing aids for ears, yet, many of us have no idea of how we should use the senses God has given us. Today’s apparent ‘experts’ on these matters seem even less enlightened than the average citizen with many encouraging or condoning the use of the senses in activities that are offensive to God, e.g. abortion, contraception, fornication, homosexual behaviour, etc.  If placating guilty consciences does not work, oftentimes, the reaction of mental health professionals and apparent mental health ‘experts’ to particularly sensitive individuals is to sedate and numb them with drugs. 

It is no wonder that sensitive individuals, who fail to find answers from modern mental health professionals/experts, struggle to understand and cope with their sensitivity and engage in various means to numb their sensitivity, e.g. drink, drugs, or try get a hold of them of their sensitivity, e.g. New Age practices, yoga, mindfulness, or try to satisfy their sensitive appetites, e.g. fornication, food, sentimental religious practices such as the Charismatic/Pentecostal movements.  None of these will provide the answers people are looking for.  The solution to one’s sensitivity is not a bemoaning of one’s sensitivity as you try to numb it or a glorification of one’s sensitivity as you try to feed its insatiable appetite.  Nor is it a flight to New Age gurus who pose as peaceful enlightened beings. It is a return to what St Thomas and the Catholic Faith teaches us. It is a mastering of one’s sensitivity and a habitual training of one’s passions so that they rejoice in that which is virtuous and true and sorrow over vice and toxic falsehoods. There are natural methods, e.g. fasting, exercise, penances, that help one to master one’s sensitivity.  All these efforts must be directed by love of God, who is Truth, Goodness and Beauty Himself. Ultimately, grace, through the Holy Ghost, is the most powerful force for ordering oneself and one’s sensitivity in the right manner so that, through this ordering, one can experience the spirit of liberty that St Paul speaks about (‘Now the Lord is a Spirit. And where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty’ – 2 Corinthians 3:17) and that Our Lord promises to those who follow Him (‘And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’ – John 8:32).

So for 2020, may God bless you in your efforts to find peace, freedom and happiness. May He take a hold of your heart as well as your flesh and may your heart and flesh both rejoice in Him.  

References:

  1. For example, see: https://intelltheory.com/aristotle.shtml
  2. ‘C. C. Martindale, S. J. (1934), ‘What are Saints?’ – Sheed & Ward: London
  3. Amabel Du Coeur de Jesus (1953) ‘To Love and To Suffer’. Newman Press
  4. Carol Robinson (reprinted – 1992). ‘My Life with Thomas Aquinas’, Angelus Press: Kansas.
  5. Maritain, J. (1947) ‘St Thomas Aquinas’, The Catholic Book Club: London.
  6. See: http://summa-theologiae.org/T13.htm
  7. Vianney, Joseph (1906) ‘The Blessed John Vianney’
  8. Drane, A. T. (1891) ‘Life of St Dominic’
  9. Monsignor Dalpiaz, V. (1937). ‘Cardinal Merry del Val’ Burns, Oates & Washbourne: London

Spiritual ‘Zombieness’

In St Catherine of Siena’s biography by Blessed Raymond of Capua, Blessed Raymond outlines how St Catherine was gifted with the grace of being able to see the health of people’s souls.  He explains how St Catherine was able to see past exterior appearances and obtain vivid insights into the interior life of the people she met.  This was an extraordinary grace that God had given to St Catherine due to her extraordinary sanctity.  Other saints, such as St John Vianney, were also blessed with this grace as shown by his ability to see what sins were lingering in people’s soul before they disclosed them to him.  These two saints, who were fountains of charity and who existed in far more Christian times than our own, were well aware of the darkness of people’s souls due to sin and they dedicated their lives to saving souls from this darkness.

About two weeks ago, a priest gave a graphic and hard hitting description of the state of people’s souls in Ireland today.  He explained how ‘many of those around us are physically alive but spiritually dead, morally rotten or at least infected’ going on to use the analogy of zombies to describe some of the behaviour he is seeing.  He went on to propose solutions, which some of the congregation found offensive. For trying to wake people up from this spiritual ‘zombieness’, he was shut down and his bishop and his Order apologised for his remarks.  These apologies were given as the remarks that Fr Forde made may have ‘hurt the feelings’ of some people.  Now, it can be argued that some of what he said may have been imprudent but the real questions are: How accurate was Fr Forde’s description? and was he charitable in saying what he said?

Was he accurate?

If St Catherine or St John Vianney were meeting individuals who are committing all types of sinful behavior in our modern society , what would they see?  In all probability they would see what Fr Forde referred to, i.e. people going around like zombies.  When looking at the souls of people today, they would probably see even darker and more disturbing images than this. They would be able to penetrate exterior facades and see the walking dead who have lost the light of God’s grace as they grope about in the darkness and misery of their lives.  They would be able to see how much damage these people are doing to their souls.  Due to their love of God, they would probably weep bitterly over this as St John Vianney did in his time, confiding to a friend -‘When one thinks of the ingratitude of man towards the good God, one is tempted to escape to the other side of the world so as not to see it any more. It is dreadful! And would be dreadful in any case, even if the good God were not so good! But He is so good!’ And whilst speaking thus, his face was bathed in tears.’ (From ‘Blessed John Vianney’ by Joseph Vianney)

Fr Forde seemed to want to wake his congregation up to this reality but a vocal minority in the congregation could not bear to hear how corrupt, blind and zombie-like people in Ireland had become or they could not bear to look at their own reflection. Instead of reflecting on and considering the words he spoke, they decided to shoot the messenger.  The bishop and his Order, by apologizing, added more bullets.  The messenger was shot and his message was discarded.   

It is rare that people are given the grace to be able to see spiritual realities. We can not normally see the spiritual warfare that is happening around us.  Fr Forde had a certain glimpse of this and he decided to share this with his congregation.  For warning souls of the peril they are in he was silenced and lambasted.  For speaking the truth and explaining the current situation in Ireland accurately, Fr Forde was given a taste of what it means to be hated by the world.  Hopefully he will take solace in St John’s advice, ‘Marvel, not brethren, if the world hate you.’ (1 John 3:13)

Was he charitable?

There are people like Fr Forde who are trying to wake people up to the truth and the reality of life.  For this, they are being silenced, persecuted and ridiculed.  (Israel Folau’s experience with Rugby Australia is just another recent example of this). In Fr Forde’s case, this silencing was done by the very people who are meant to defend the Truth, i.e. Catholic bishops.  Due to bishops and priests abandoning the divine mission they have been given by Christ, people are not hearing the message about how toxic sin is and how damaging it is. In his masterpiece, Summa Theologica, St Thomas Aquinas outlines how sin leads to loss of human dignity and liberty: ‘1) that by sinning, man departs from the order of right reason and thereby falls away from his human dignity; and that 2) he thus loses his right to a certain liberty’ or as Pope Leo XIII explains in his encyclical, Immortale Dei, If the mind assents to false opinions, and the will chooses and follows after what is wrong, neither can attain its native fullness, but both must fall from their native dignity into an abyss of corruption.

In our current age, individuals are slipping more and more into sinful behavior and rotting their souls. This is leading to increased cases of psychological distress, anguish and despair as sin has a devastating impact on people’s psychological health.  Sin is an enemy of mental well being and it leads to zombie like behavior. As Fr Ripperger states, ‘No psychological theory which condones sin can ever be one that contributes to the mental health of individuals or a society.’ (‘Introduction to the Science of Mental Health’).  One of the most serious consequences of sin is its ability to blind people to their behavior and bind them to the urging of their passions rather than reason.  As Professor Charles A. Dubray outlines, ‘[Passions] race towards their goal so furiously that they are exclusively led by lust and pleasure without seeking the advice of reason.’ (‘Introductory Philosophy’).  Once engaged in mortal sin and once you have removed yourself from the grace of God, a person’s intellect becomes darkened, his will becomes weak and his passions and lusts take control.  One is unable to see clearly.  One is unable to control one’s actions as easily as one can do when living a life of grace.  Like zombies, one stumbles around as one’s mind is darkened and damaged. If one only chases after carnal pleasures, e.g. fornication, homosexual acts, one will die spiritually, as St Paul tells us, ‘For if you live according to the flesh, you shall die: but if by the Spirit you mortify the deeds of the flesh, you shall live.’ (Romans 9:13).

Sinful behavior also carries a threat of contamination.  Just as the alcoholic needs to avoid certain places or people to avoid relapsing, if one is truly determined to avoid sinning one must avoid certain places or people who are committing grave sins.  St Paul warns us about the need to be careful and to separate ourselves out from those who persist in immorality: ‘Bear not the yoke with unbelievers. For what participation hath justice with injustice? Or what fellowship hath light with darkness?…  Wherefore, Go out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing.’ (2 Cor 6: 14-17).  In many ways, Fr Forde was only repeating the words of St Paul and attempting to give an example to a modern-day audience who are familiar with the concept of zombies.   The advice he gives is not only essential for one’s salvation but has a direct impact on one’s mental health as well.

Fr Forde’s remarks about ‘shooting or stabbing zombies in the brain’ seems to have caused most of the uproar and accusations of hate speech.  However, even the Irish Independent, atheist journalist, Ian O’Doherty, (who is no fan of the Catholic Church) recognized that it is ridiculous to interpret these words literally.  Fr Forde went on to assert that the only cure for spiritual death and zombie-like behavior was to be obedient to Christ.  This remains the only cure when one is hooked on sin, i.e. obedience to Christ and His Church.  Highlighting the problem accurately and offering effective solutions is an excellent form of charity. It is one that psychologists and any other mental health professionals should be giving when one sees zombie-like behavior in people as a result of sinful behavior.  

May those who are groping around irrationally in the dark be led by the grace of God into the light and may God bless Fr Forde in his charitable efforts to save people’s souls!