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Understanding Emotions (Part I of II)

Dear Father John, I'm not usually an emotional person. But sometimes, I can get very angry. And, sometimes I am so moved by something at Mass, it brings me to tears. I know we are not supposed to be attached to things. It seems that the more attached I am to something or someone, the more emotional I get. So, are these emotions bad? Can you help me understand these things called emotions?

JESUS SPECIFIES TWO innate powers of the human soul when he issues the great commandment: He commands us to love God with all our mind and all our strength. These correspond to the specifically spiritual powers of the soul–the intellect and will, our capacity to know and to choose. When he commands us to love God with all our soul, then, it is safe to assume that he is referring to the other powers of the soul. He is commanding us to align those with the core desire, with the heart that seeks God above all things, or that at least wants to seek God above all, because it knows and believes that “God alone suffices,” as St. Theresa of Avila once put it. His command to love God with all our soul is an invitation to integrate our emotions and passions, or psychic drives, into our friendship with him so that the friendship can reach new heights. How do we do that? What does that look like?

The Gift of Emotions

Emotions come from God. God created human nature, and emotions are part of human nature. When we come into contact with external realities, we often perceive that those realities can help or harm us. That perception produces a reaction in our soul, a feeling that moves us toward action. We were created to function that way. We have this internal dynamism that attracts us toward what seems good for us and repels us from what seems bad for us. This is our capacity for feelings or emotions (sometimes called passions). Their complexity and intensity contribute to making human experience as rich and wonderful as it is.

Categories of Emotion

Through the ages, philosophers have identified basic emotions. In modern times, psychologists have offered numerous other classifications. So far, no one has come up with a perfect synthesis of the wisdom of the philosophers and the science of the psychologists. In our effort to understand emotions, GirlFrownStare for post on understanding emotionswe will utilize insights from both sources. An unavoidable obstacle in this effort has to do with language. The words that describe emotions–which are simple reactions to stimuli, simple feelings that have no moral weight in themselves–are often the same words that can also describe moral actions, vices, or virtues. Anger, for example, can refer to the simple emotional reaction of feeling anger, something which is natural and good in itself. But the word anger can also refer to a capital sin, the sin of anger, of choosing to act unjustly, violently, and self-centeredly in response to the feeling of anger. This language problem has no easy solution, so keep in mind that this discussion of feelings will use words such as anger (and love, and hate, and desire) strictly as emotional descriptors, not as moral terms linked to virtue and vice.

Editor's Notes:

Art: Girl Frown Stare, Stephen Depolo, 13 May 2010, CCA, Wikimedia Commons.

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at RCSpirituality.org, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at SpiritualDirection.com.

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  • Michelle Marvian

    “So far, no one has come up with a perfect synthesis of the wisdom of the philosophers and the science of the psychologists.”

    Dear Father,
    I’m not sure about the perfect part, but are you familiar with the works of Dr Conrad W. Baars?

    “An exploration of man’s psyche, integrated with his spiritual dimension. Essentially this book integrates modern psychological discoveries with the psychology of St. Thomas Aquinas.” ~ Psychic Wholeness and Healing: Using ALL the Powers of the Human Psyche.

    The only reason I would have the audacity to ask is because unlike the asker, I am by nature a very emotionally sensitive person. When I read Feeling and Healing Your Emotions, I was changed forever. He goes into what you have said here with great understanding and practical ways to advance in healing. The fact that I could continue with my conversion process (always ongoing, of course) and integrate his knowledge was super important for me.

  • First of all, my heart went out to the questioner here. While I am not a psychologist (but was raised by one), I have a depth of study in the field and it is pretty clear to me that early familial experiences set the foundation for our futures. For example, if we are hurt or shamed, suffered a great loss or were raised by parents who were stoic or intolerant of emotions, we condition ourselves to shut down our feelings. It is sheer survival at work but the long-term repercussions can be devastating, especially for those who marry and cannot empathize with their spouses (and reach satisfying intimacy) or for those who have children and fail to model true love and vulnerability in their expressions. Lastly, I think it is also sad because if one is so completely distanced from his emotions, he cannot truly experience that heart-swelling, goose bump-creating, tear-jerking passionate and consuming love of God that is only possible when one is emotionally open. I recommend that the inquirer watch Fr. John’s Retreat Guide, “Fire and Thorns”. Jesus desperately wants our trust! He wants us to come to him with open hearts. We were created human in order to actually experience the vast array of feelings that help us grow in faith, love and charity. Consider those emotions as gifts and as indicators of what you truly desire and are willing to fight for. Imagine if Martin Luther King Jr. or Blessed Mother Theresa thought emotions were “bad”. Imagine how many marriages would endure if emotional intimacy wasn’t part of the equation. Imagine what our faith’s history would look like if Stoicism was more revered than Sainthood? I’m so happy you are crying in Mass. I cry all the time. Thank God for those tears and even for your anger, which points your true north to the passions of your life. Anger means you deeply care and maybe you are triggered or moved this way to express your upset (and thus your care) before it turns inward and into a fruitless depression. Fear not, my friend! You are experiencing a beautiful awakening to what it feels like to be fully human and fully alive. In the words of one of my great teachers, “You have to feel it to heal it, because what you resist persists.” As the most powerful person on the planet demonstrated on the Cross…vulnerability IS power. Imitate him and you will find your freedom.

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