The Right Reaction to Sin

Death Comes to the Dinner Table‘ by Giovanni Martinelli

In the last blog, we established that having a sensitive nature is not a problem. It is how our sensitive nature responds to certain stimuli that may or may not be a problem. Judging whether or not our sensitive nature is reacting in the right way can be helped by assessing whether or not our reaction is aligned with the feelings of Our Lord.  Following on from this, this article examines the contrast between our reaction and Our Lord’s reaction to that most disturbing of horrors – sin.

            Societies of today, particularly in Western countries, are immersed in the most atrocious filth and garbage. We have sodomites as leaders of countries and we have just been through a month which takes ‘pride’ in the most scandalous, despicable and disordered of sinful behaviours, a sin which cries to Heaven for vengeance. We are deliberately surrounded by and exposed to talk and news of the most horrific scandals. Due to our innate sensitive nature, if we are not very careful, we gradually become soaked in this filth ourselves. The natural abhorrence towards certain vices, which God has planted in our souls, becomes diminished.  Surrounded by and immersed in the filth, we develop a numbed sensitivity to the horrors we are exposed to until eventually we either fail to react the way we should to these horrors or, due to our tendency toward evil, we start embracing and loving the filth itself. It is like death has arrived at our dinner table and we are not even shocked by his arrival as we are already half dead ourselves. Fr Ripperger highlights this desensitisation when speaking about fornication – ‘Culturally, in the past, fornication was looked down upon as a great moral and societal evil because of all the evil effects to the individual and society, one of which is the general erosion of morality within a society.  As fornication and sexual licence became more pervasive, the society began finding it difficult to judge fornication as morally evil and today it has virtually no evil connotation at all.  What started out as particular individual difficulties with respect to passions has affected, over the long haul, the universal judgement of society about the evil of fornication in general.’ (1). To combat this ‘erosion of morality’ and this societal acceptance of filth, there needs to be a re-educating about what sin really is coupled with a reawakening of the correct response to it. There is an ordered, healthy and sane reaction to sin.  This blog will highlight what this is and how we can cultivate this reaction in ourselves.

What Sin Is

            Sin is rebellious opposition to God’s will. It is either a turning away from God (venial sin) or the complete severing of friendship with God (mortal sin).  It is a ‘destructive, disruptive thing. It un-does, it uncreates.’ – Fr Steuart (2). It is a voluntary rejection of Him Who wills our eternal happiness. It is a rejection of Him who is Truth Himself. It is a prioritising of our self-love over reality and it can thus it has been described as the embracing of unreality – Fr Leen (3). ‘Every sin is a conscious disordered manifestation of self-centredness.’ – Fr Fahey (4). It a scorning of the Divine Plan for our souls:

‘When we commit sin we inconsiderately prefer a finite good to God, the infinite Good.  If our sin is mortal our minds despise God to that extent that they judge that finite good worthy of being our god, and as such decree it to be the final object of our existence. If our sin is venial our minds scorn the friendship of God to the extent we gratify our self-love…Sin is a revolt, an act of the basest contempt and the vilest ingratitude towards the God of infinite majesty and goodness; an act which renews the cause of the death of Jesus Christ…From a child of God and an heir to the kingdom of heaven it degrades him into a slave of Satan, and condemns him to the punishment of hell.’ – Fr Geiermann (5). 

            Sin is also a rejection of His infinite love. To capture some of the awfulness of sin vivid comparisons to physical sufferings were often used by wise Catholic priests/writers. As Fr Gerard (6) says:

Sin is like a disorder and confusion in the moral law. The human spirit is gifted with freedom. The fair and full use of that freedom, however, depends on the way in which it is adjusted to certain fore-ordained laws. The spirit, even as the body, is ruled by a legal system designed for its own goodness and beauty. It may fall in with its laws and act according to their guidance; or it may go against them and do violence to all their directive influence. The latter course is to bring on the leprosy of sin. To turn away from God the everlasting Good and to turn away from Him for the sake of some passing good is to throw order into chaos, to turn health into disease, and, instead of life without end, to produce death without end.

Or as Fr Leen (3) explains:

If we were to multiply that desolation [of the world wars] a thousand fold, and embrace the whole world, and countless numbers of possible worlds and conceive them swept by the same desolation, the picture of horror would be of appalling magnitude. Yet all that falls short – infinitely short – of the evil involved in one mortal sin. Because all that destruction of human work and human life is the ruin of something finite. But mortal sin is ‘the evil of God’, the ruin not of the Divine, but of something that borders on the Infinite…There is something Infinite in the evil of sin. Though committed by a finite creature, once committed it passes out of his control, it affronts God and has a quasi-infinite malice.’

But it is not just mortal sin but all sin that turns us away from Love:

‘Sin is un-love, and it is therefore dead and death-dealing like a corpse.  The least sin is a more devastating agent of dissolution and corruption to the soul of man than every plague in history has been to his body.  The Church does not use exaggeration when she says that no material disaster can be compared in magnitude of evil to the effect of one deliberate venial sin.’ – Fr Steuart (2).

All these descriptions are designed to give us a true understanding of sin and help us to see the horror that it is and the destruction it causes.

Along with the vivid descriptions above, we have Fr Faber’s (7) outline of Our Lord’s hatred and abhorrence of sin, keenly felt and experienced through His Sacred Humanity:

‘As the soul is to the body, so was the sensitiveness and sympathy of our Lord’s Soul to the delicacy and susceptibility of his Body. Even to us, with our common gift of faith, the word sin is a real terror. It expresses a whole world of darkness. It is the negation of all that is bright, hopeful, desirable, or attractive. The possibility of our sinning is a thought to make us tremble. The likelihood of our sinning is our deepest fear; and our actual sin is by far our most real unhappiness. Yet we can scarcely understand the shrinking heavenly-mindedness which caused saints to fade away at the bare mention of the name of sin. Such a fact is an index to us of sublimities of love and of union with God which are to us little better than terms of mystical theology, respectfully believed in, but out of the range, not only of our experience, but of our comprehension also. How far then are we from being able to fathom our Lord’s horror of sin! The uncreated sanctity of his Divine Person had communicated to his Human Soul an unspeakable spotlessness, together with such a tenderness regarding the honour and purity of God as it is impossible for us to picture to ourselves, except in the most inadequate manner. If we might venture to think of disease as an emblem of a thing so holy, we might say that the wretched and unclean world was to our Lord’s shrinking Soul what the meridian beam of the sun would be to a wounded eye. It was something intolerable. It was a spiritual agony, seemingly unendurable for a moment, yet actually endured his whole life long.’

            Now, when we read the descriptions of sin from these Catholic priests above do we really feel what they are trying to tell us about the horror of sin? When we read Fr Faber’s description of Our Lord’s disgust at sin, do we begin to realise how non-reactive and indifferent we are to the sin that surrounds us? Do we really sense what sin actually is? Honest answers to these questions show us that we have become numb to the reality of sin. Our constant exposure to the filth and disorder of the world and our lack of understanding of the infinite goodness of God who is Love Himself has darkened our minds and dampened our natural abhorrence to certain vices.  Because we don’t understand the toxicity of sin, including venial sin, we start out on the slippery and almost imperceptible downward slope to mortal sin and eternal damnation. ‘It is simply a psychological law that repeated venial sin, committed with all due deliberation, must of necessity lessen in the soul the horror for sin and evil generally. It must deprive it of that delicacy of conscience which is the soul’s greatest safeguard. The removal of these safeguards makes the soul an easy prey to serious moral transgression.’ – Fr Vonier (8). Eventually, if we continue to slide into further sin, our conscience will become seared. A conscience barely reacting to the most heinous of sins severely reduces the chances of recovery from this disease, as Fr Meyer (9) explains,

‘Will they acquire again that delicacy of conscience which they have forfeited? Without a miracle of grace, such a change of heart seems impossible.  And who will dare look for a miracle in favour of those who have made themselves unworthy even of the ordinary aids of grace? It is possible, no doubt, because ‘with God are all things possible.’ But no one, certainly, that is in his sober senses, would stake his own salvation upon it.’

            So, let us be honest and acknowledge that we do not have the right idea or reaction to the horror that sin is. God cannot err nor sin as He is infinite Truth and Goodness. He has created us in His image so that we may know, honour, and love Him and, by doing so, we gain eternal happiness with Him in Heaven. He does not force us to accept His invitation as He has given us free will. We decide on the route we wish to take. By sinning, we scorn this most loving of invitations and, if we die unrepentant, we condemn ourselves to eternal misery. What madness to do so! Yet, this is the madness that many choose. Now, one of the keys for choosing the right path is developing the right understanding and reaction to sin. This involves a healthy dose of education about the reality of sin and the fortification of our minds in this reality, which is especially necessary in these times of moral depravity. We must detox our minds from the mires into which they have sunk. We must avoid frivolous relations with sin or light talk of it. The advice of Fr Leen (3) to missionary nuns applies equally to us today, as it is in our own countries where we are in daily contact with sin:

‘School yourselves never to speak lightly of what is mortal sin, of deeds which imply violation of God’s law. Never speak without horror of disregard for, or violation of, God’s law. That warning is not an idle one. You are going to a foreign country to combat sin; you will be brought up against it daily, and it could easily happen that your feelings could become blunted to the awfulness of sin. That is what happens to us priests if we do not stir up our faith often.

        Even here at home if you read of crimes in the newspapers, murders, sins of pride, perjury, etc., do not think lightly of it. Always remember that these things are mortal sins, and mortal sin is an appalling calamity, no matter by whom it is committed.’

            These efforts to avoid the contamination of sin require mortification of our curiosity, vigilance and perseverance but it is by these efforts that our happiness, even in this life, is increased rather than hindered, as Fr Faber (10) explains:

‘The soul of sadness is self-love. We are sad because we are weary of well-doing and of strict living.  The great secret of our cheerfulness was our anxiety and diligence to avoid venial sins, and our ingenious industry to root them out. We have now become negligent on that very point, and therefore we are sad. If indeed we still try, as much as we did before, to avoid actual venial sins, we have lost the courage to keep ourselves away from many pleasant times and places which we know to be to us occasions of venial sin. We content ourselves with an indistinct self-confidence that we shall not fall; and at once the light of God’s countenance becomes indistinct also, and the fountain of inward joy ceases to flow.’

            Most importantly, we need supernatural grace to give us the strength to combat and understand sin.  A sincere, humble, and well-prepared for confession is where this strength and understanding is to be found. ‘You will find a great alleviation of soul, you will find a great refreshment and above all you will receive that special grace of the Sacrament of Penance – a great strengthening against the evil tendencies in yourself, because you receive some of God’s own horror and aversion for sin and everything leading to it.’ – Fr Leen (3). It is here where Our Lord through His representative, the priest, provides the means for cleansing our souls. But, it is up to us to prepare for this cleansing.  Through the Sacrament of Penance we are offered the graces to die to self and live for God as Fr Leen (11) explains:

‘To live to God we must die to sin, and this death to sin cannot be achieved without its own passion. It was through the Cross that the world was redeemed – it remains that by the Cross and the Cross only, personally borne and endured, each individual enters fully into the redemption and is sanctified.  Self must die in order that God may reign in undisputed sway in us.’

So let us be horrified by the slightest sight and sound of sin. Let us rid our lives of sin and not look back on it with fondness or pleasure but instead remind ourselves how offensive it is to God.  ‘It behoves us to kindle our contrition and repentance as much as we possibly can, so that it may reach even to the very smallest appearance of sin. Thus it was that the Magdalen, when converted, so entirely lost all taste for her past sin and its pleasures, that she never again cast back one thought upon them; and David declared that he hated not only sin itself, but every path and way which led thereto.’ – St Francis de Sales (12). As Fr Geiermann (5) notes, ‘The spirit of compunction (‘the habitual grief of the soul arising from a constant remembrance of our own sinfulness’) prompts us to do violence to ourselves for the kingdom of heaven.’ Our weakness is always something we must keep in mind. And let us remember that, due to the effects of Original Sin, we ‘are more susceptible to occasions of sin than snow is to fire.’ – Fr Scupoli (13). 

This battle against sin is one we all must face and one, where only the strong, wise, humble, and persevering, will be victorious. Let us cultivate the right attitude and reaction to sin. Finally, ‘unless we keep the Christian ideal and the evil of sin vividly before our minds, they will gradually fade away, and, in proportion as they do, will they be replaced by worldly-mindedness and selfishness of heart.’ – Fr Geiermann (5). So let us keep the final goal of sanctity, the Christian ideal, and Heaven in our minds so that we will fly from all occasions of sin. And lest we feel overcome with the extent of our sinfulness and we fear that we are completely lost in the mire let us remember the mercy and goodness of Our Father who lovingly embraces the prodigal son on his return. As we run from sin let us run into the arms of Our Loving Father as:

The essence of Christian perfection consists in union with God by charity…In other words, charity is the force uniting man to God, and sin the force drawing him away.’ – Fr Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen

God bless you in your efforts to cultivate the right attitude and reaction to sin and by the grace of God, may this article be of some help in aiding you to do so.

References:

  1. Fr Ripperger, C. (2013). Introduction to the Science of Mental Health. Lincoln: Sensus Traditionis Press
  2. Fr Steuart, R. H. J. (1934). World Intangible. London: Longmans, Green & Co.
  3. Fr Leen, E. (1958). My Last Retreat. Cork: Mercier Press.
  4. Fr Fahey, D. (1945). The Mystical Body of Christ and the Reorganisation of Society. Palmdale, California: Christian Book Club of America.
  5. Fr Geiermann, P. (1914). The Narrow Way’. New York: Benziger Brothers. Available here: https://archive.org/details/narrowwaybriefcl00geie
  6. Fr Gerard, T. J. (1908). The Cords of Adam. Republished by SSPX Press, Kansas.
  7. Fr Faber, F. W. (republished, 1955). Bethlehem. Baltimore: John Murphy Co.
  8. Fr Vonier, A. (1913). The Human Soul and Its Relation to Other Spirits. London: B. Herder Books. Available here: https://archive.org/details/humansoulitsrela00voni
  9. 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
  10. Fr Faber, F. W. (republished, 1960). Growth in Holiness. London: Thomas Richardson & Son. Available here: https://archive.org/details/GrowthInHoliness/page/n7/mode/2up
  11. Fr Leen, E. (1944). In The Likeness of Christ. New York: Sheed & Ward. Available for online borrowing here: https://archive.org/details/inlikenessofchri0000leen/mode/2up
  12. St. Francis de Sales, (original 1600’s). The Devout Life. Copy available here: https://www.catholicspiritualdirection.org/devoutlife.pdf
  13. Fr Gabriel of St. Margaret Mary (1964). Divine Intimacy. New York: Desclee Co.

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

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