In Defense of Feelings
by Alice von Hildebrand
Anyone acquainted with the history of philosophy knows that many of the great thinkers have looked down upon feelings. Fleeting, unreliable, misleading, they’re fraught with danger and must be kept carefully in check.
Moreover, feelings are shared with animals. What characterizes man as man is his reason and will. Today, more than one respectable thinker wages war on emotions, considering them enemies that must be fought in order to liberate ourselves from their tyranny.
I challenge this view. Indeed, such a position is incompatible with the Catholic ethos as exemplified in the liturgy, the lives of the saints, and great Catholic literature.
One of the main sources of error in philosophy—and there are many—is equivocation. The word “feeling” is one major victim of this intellectual snare. When Aristotle writes that man shares feelings with animals, he’s clearly referring to bodily feelings—physical pleasure, pain, hunger, thirst, fatigue, etc.
This is but one valid meaning of the word “feeling,” characterized by the fact that it has a bodily location (I feel pain in my stomach) and that I need not know its cause in order to experience it. But more than that, knowing its cause (I have a headache because I have the flu) doesn’t alter the nature of the feeling. Put in philosophical terms, these experiences are “non-intentional.”
There are also, of course, psychic feelings, such as the jolliness people experience when they drink too much. We all know that parties usually start off low-key, only to get lively once drinks are generously distributed. These experiences have no bodily location; they’re psychic. But, like bodily feelings, they too are non-intentional. We don’t need to know their cause in order to experience them, nor does knowledge of the cause alter the nature of the experience.
The third meaning of “feeling”—and the one we’re most concerned with—is radically different from the other two. Here, we’re talking about spiritual feelings—affective responses that persons alone can give to objects. Joy is a response to something joyful; sorrow to something sad; gratitude responds to the kindness of a giver, etc. Not only can these feelings be experienced only by personal beings, but they cannot possibly arise in our souls unless we’re conscious of the fact that our response is motivated by an object to which we’re responding. They are, therefore, just as spiritual as an act of knowledge or an act of will. They are essentially intentional (it makes no sense, after all, to say “I feel compassionate, but I do not know toward whom”) (Dietrich von Hildebrand, ).
Here more distinctions are called for: Some of the responses we have alluded to are appropriate, that is in harmony with the object motivating them. But alas, just as man can misuse his reason and refuse to be convinced by convincing arguments, his affective response can be out of tune with the object motivating it. To be more concrete, it can be that a joyful event, such as the fact that a friend or acquaintance is happily married, triggers envy in one’s soul. (“Why should she be happy, while I am lonesome and miserable?”) It can be that we give a response of anger upon being the recipient of a perfectly justified criticism. Some people fly off the handle at the slightest blame; some people feel bitter when another receives a commendation that—in their minds—is due to them. That many such feelings can creep into the human soul, wounded by original sin, cannot be contested. It seems to justify the suspicion that reigns over the whole affective sphere.
Feelings are also exposed to other dangers. One of them is sentimentality, an unhealthy relishing of one’s own feelings, using their motivating object as a means to trigger these emotions. This explains why sentimental persons who luxuriate in their feelings can be both so hard-hearted and self-centered. The Austrian playwright Nestroy illustrates this in one of his comedies. A rich man viewing a miserable beggar on the steps of his palace (thereby forcing him to be affected by his misery) tells his servant: “Throw this beggar down the steps; his misery breaks my heart.”
Anyone reading the so-called Confessions of Jean Jacques Rousseau—a champion of sentimentality who forced his concubine to give an orphanage the five children he had sired—justified his conduct by stating that it would break his heart to have to raise them in poverty. It was well known at the time that the majority of children given to these state institutions were so shamefully neglected that most of them died soon afterward. Rousseau wallows in his own feelings and is likely to inculcate in alert readers a total distrust of this maudlin subjectivism and nauseating self-centeredness. He makes of himself and his emotions the center of the universe and the measure of what is praiseworthy or despicable. Needless to say, he keeps lamenting the fact of how unfairly he is treated and how unjust the world is toward him. He basks in self-pity.
If this is the type of emotivity that critics have in mind, their caveat is justified. The reservation that some have toward the charismatic movement is to be explained by the fact that some of their members overindulge in their feelings and “inspirations.” Our society is plagued by subjectivism, but this disease is not limited to the affective sphere.
In one chapter of Transformation in Christ entitled “Holy Sobriety,” Dietrich von Hildebrand etches some of the key dangers to which emotivity is exposed. He warns us to beware of “illuminations” that have not been approved by a spiritual director. How easily we are prone to believe that genuine enthusiasm for a virtue guarantees the possession of that virtue. Some can speak with ardor about the beauty of obedience—the ABCs of which they’re not even acquainted with.
Yet von Hildebrand was also the great apostle of true affectivity, the type of affectivity that we find in the God-man, in the Holy Virgin, and in the saints and mystics. In his Journal, John XXIII writes that his “poor heart [was] ravished and moved by these splendors,” and he certainly had his feet on the ground.
Original sin, however, has not only affected man’s feelings. Both his reason (intelligence) and his free will have also fallen victim to man’s revolt against God. The woes afflicting humanity are not only due to illegitimate emotivity. They can often be traced back to a misuse of reason. The history of philosophy parallels the history of the world: The latter is a cemetery of injustices and brutalities; the former is strewn with errors. Materialism, skepticism, subjectivism, utilitarianism, empiricism, idealism, Marxism, and many more isms have always threatened to poison the human mind and distort man’s view of the meaning of life and of his destiny. A proud mind is definitely a tyrant, and a most dangerous one. These errors have affected not only those who (to quote Plato in his Laws) “preferred themselves to truth,” but also those who sincerely believe that they long for truth. Let us recall Augustine who, aged 19, after having read Cicero’s Hortensius, exclaimed: “Truth, truth, how did the very marrow of my bones long for thee” (Confessions, III, 4). Yet, it is the very same Augustine who, soon afterward, fell into the traps of Manicheism, and, as he himself humbly acknowledges, swallowed its errant nonsense. Let me quote the Confessions: “Little by little, I was led on to such follies as to believe that a fig weeps when it is plucked.... If some ‘saint’ ate this fig—proving, forsooth, that it was picked not by his but by another’s sinful hand, then he would digest it in his stomach, and from it he would breathe forth angels!” (III, 10) If Augustine could fall into such a trap, we should remember that we are not Augustine and most probably do worse.
Should the fact that man’s mind can so gravely err make us despise reason? Obviously not. It is only a clarion call to put our talents humbly at the service of truth. Our awareness of the greatness of man’s mind should go hand in hand with a keen consciousness of its limits and weakness. Most errors are not to be traced back to stupidity but to pride. In Romans 1:18, St. Paul makes it clear that man’s pride is allergic to truth. The punishment was that those in the grips of this cardinal sin fell “into shameful passions.” The disease started in their minds and led to abject deeds. Blindness is a punishment for sin.
It is St. Augustine once again who warns us in his book Free Will how easily man’s reason, poisoned by pride, can lose its footing and suffer from intellectual dizziness that prevents him from distinguishing truth from error. He writes, “Now approving and even de-fending what is false as though it were true, now disapproving what it previously defended, and rushing on to other falsities; now refusing assent and fearing clear reasoning; now despairing of fully discovering the truth and clinging to the deep obscurities of stupidity; now struggling into the light of under- standing and falling back again from weariness” (I, 10). Augustine knew these intellectual temptations and warns us that, ultimately, it is pride that is responsible for the derailment of man’s intellectual faculties.
Humility is a divine vaccine against intellectual aberrations. But Augustine is also aware of the role of our free will, tragically capable of rejecting truth—that is, refusing to be convinced by convincing arguments, because the conclusions offered are not palatable to us. Light can be offered to us, and yet we prefer darkness.
Book VIII of St. Augustine’s Confessions is the most important document that we possess on this subject apart from the Bible. Augustine’s mind was convinced of the truth of Catholicism; his will still resisted until finally he was joyfully defeated by grace. This is true freedom: our free will conquered by grace.
In his Holy Rule, St. Benedict orders his monks to hate their own will: “volutatem propriam odire.” Any authentic religious formation wages a relentless war against one’s own will: Is it too pessimistic to claim that most of us are slaves of our own will? One needs much grace to pray honestly, “Not my will, but Thy will be done.” And yet who would deny that free will is an awesome gift that God has given us, taking the risk of enabling His creature to rebel against Him? Self-will is a ruthless tyrant that destroys everything that lies in the path of its decisions.
Are we then to despise human reason because it can fall into the traps of rationalism? Are we to condemn the will as intrinsically evil because it can cold-bloodedly choose evil, as St. Augustine has shown in his Confessions? Clearly not. And so feelings deserve the same credit we all award our mind and will. Granted that they lead man astray, this certainly does not apply to feelings that arise in us as valid responses to truth, beauty, goodness, and, most of all, to the glory of God.
Granted that we don’t have the same control over our emotions that we have over our will, for I will what I will, this is no reason for relegating feelings into the domain of the irrational. The fact that the feelings that are examined are intentional proves their spirituality. Pascal wrote the famous words: “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing,” clearly referring to the fact that this center of affectivity has treasures to offer that our limited reason—constantly threatened by rationalism—does not perceive. Sentimentalism is despicable; so is rationalism. The fact that we condemn Rousseau would in no way justify our endorsing the rationalism of a Spinoza who claimed that “he had as clear an idea of God as he had of a triangle” (Copleston, History of Philosophy).
Some very great things are (thank God) not under our control. The amount of grace we receive isn’t something subordinate to our will. God reminds us thereby that we are creatures, and that it’s a privilege to cooperate with Him and achieve what we could never do on our own. Man constantly needs to be reminded that “without Me, you can do nothing.” Holiness is perfect collaboration with God. The lives of saints show eloquently that they had to keep begging for certain graces, which God in His infinite wisdom and love refused to grant them to teach them humility and patience. St. Thérèse of Lisieux relates that from the age of four until a few days before her 13th birthday, she was a cry-baby, and calls herself “unbearable.” Every remark—however harmless—addressed to her could trigger a torrent of inappropriate tears. Hard as she tried, her will was incapable of controlling her touchiness. For nine years she begged God to liberate her from this infirmity. When the grace was granted to her, she knew it was a grace; she could not command it, but she could will to beg for it. All that God had requested was her good will to be healed.
Are feelings to be denigrated because they cannot be willed? Spiritual masters teach us that true as it is that we cannot will or not will our feelings (we all experience feelings of envy, jealousy, anger—feelings that we would prefer not to experience), nevertheless there’s a great deal we can do and that most of us do not do. First of all, our will can and should sanction our valid feelings, feelings of mercy, compassion, gratitude, tenderness, contrition, and love (Dietrich von Hildebrand, Ethics). By sanctioning them with our free will, we give these feelings their full validity: They praise God who does not despise “a contrite and humbled heart” (Miserere). Contrition is definitely a feeling and one for which we should pray daily.
We can and should also disavow our evil feelings (I feel jealous, but I should recognize that this is illegitimate and refuse to endorse it as my valid position toward another person). There is also a great deal that we can do indirectly. The movies that we watch, the books that we read, the people whom we see—all these experiences will affect our emotional life. Someone prone to temptations of the flesh who subscribes to Playboy and watches pornographic films should not be surprised that lustful feelings plague him constantly. Modern dietitians tell you that you are what you eat. It is also true to say that what we read, what we see, and what we hear will influence our spiritual, intellectual, and emotional development. Many a modern child is the victim of the brutal, coarse, and impure shows that he sees on television.
Against this background we can now turn to the beauty and importance of noble feelings in man’s soul—feelings that not only totally transcend the animal realm but are the finest blossoms of spiritual life. This will become luminous if we turn to spiritual writers and to the lives of the saints.
Granted that our intellect is the foundation of our spiritual and intellectual life and is presupposed for other spiritual functions (nihil volitum, nisi cogitatum—it is not possible to will unless we know what is willed), it’s also true that spiritual feelings (whether legitimate or illegitimate) cannot arise in us unless we know what motivates them; they presuppose our intelligence. But moreover, unless our will sanctions our legitimate feelings, and disavows our illegitimate ones, they’ll either evaporate (if they are noble and good) or poison us if they are evil. On the other hand, if they are fully sanctioned by the will, they’ll ornate the soul with spiritual flowers. There should be a marriage between appropriate spiritual feelings and our will. They truly become ours. In other words, spiritual feelings presuppose both our intelligence and our will; they are as spiritual as our intellect and will. Love of God presupposes a knowledge of the Creator, a will to serve and obey Him; His beauty “wounds” our hearts, and makes us say with St. Thomas: “quia te contemplans totum deficit.” The contemplans is intellectual; the deficit is affective.
For those acquainted with great Christian literature, it’s difficult to understand that many thinkers can either reduce the heart (the tabernacle of spiritual feelings) to the will, or denigrate both the heart and feelings as being “enemies” upon which we must wage a relentless war.
How can one read the Song of Songs without being moved by its deep affectivity, the delight that the Bridegroom gives to the Bride, her joy at contemplating His beauty? This is not sentimentality but the expression of the deepest stirrings of a heart wounded by love. One only need look at a concordance to see how often the word “heart” is used, the word “love,” the word “joy”—and always in a positive sense. We should beg God to change our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh. When one loves, one gives one’s heart to the beloved.
The Gospels often refer to the divine affectivity of the God-man: “In that hour he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said: ‘I thank thee, Father, Lord of Heaven and earth, that Thou has hidden these things from the wise and understanding, and revealed them to babes...” (Luke 10:21). Let us recall His grief (and grief is definitely a feeling) at Lazarus’s tomb, even though He knew He would raise him from the dead, or the holy tears He shed over Jerusalem. These are not acts of His divine will, but expressions of His holy affectivity backed up by His will. Granted once again that we cannot control these feelings, is it a reason for denigrating them?
God does permit that the ecstasy of love that He sometimes grants to His most faithful disciples can give way to feelings of abandonment and sorrow—feelings experienced by those going through the dark night of the soul. The dark night is felt as a severe trial. The fact that the joy of love is no longer experienced does not entitle us to draw the conclusion that the soul no longer loves. The experience of this love is no longer felt; it is slumbering in our souls and will reawaken in God’s own good time. This love will continue to manifest itself in one’s faithfulness to one’s religious life—in darkness and sorrow or in light. St. Thérèse of Lisieux, when feeling “abandoned,” uses an enlightening comparison: She is His “ball,” and then He sleeps and neglects to play with it, but the loving soul will not wake Him up. To eliminate spiritual feelings from our spiritual life would be to dehumanize man in a tragic sense. The God-man—identical to us, except for sin—experienced joy, mirth, anguish, dread, sorrow. Who would dare say that these feelings—experienced by the Holy One—are inferior to the divine intellect and the divine will when they presuppose both? This is why we have a Litany of the Sacred Heart, “fornax ardens caritatis.”
There are spiritual directors (and quite a few men) who—on principle—distrust female responses to sensitivity. When Mary Magdalene told the Apostles that Christ was no longer in the tomb, hinting clearly at the fact that He had risen from the dead, they refused to believe her and rejected her message as “woman’s talk.” She was right; they were wrong by interpreting her joy as unfounded. I would suggest that the enemies of affectivity read the lives of great saints and great mystics and pay attention to how often a St. Teresa of Jesus uses the word “feeling.” Asked by her spiritual director, who prudently doubted the validity of her visions, how she could be certain that Christ was speaking to her, she answered: “lo sentia” (Vida, Chapter 27). Several times in her autobiography she mentions the fact that her testimony was questioned or rejected as dreams or illusions. She had to go through many trials before her mystical experiences were finally recognized as authentic.
St. Marguerite Marie Alacoque did not fare much better. The nuns viewed her as definitely odd and distrusted her. She had a taste of the Crucifixion until she met the Rev. Père Claude de la Colombière who understood that God had truly given her the mission of spreading the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Christ. What she experienced truly came from above.
It is worth noting that—as related by St. Teresa of Jesus—many more women than men receive mystical graces. As it is possibly true that more women than men are prone to illusions, spiritual directors are more likely to receive with great re-serve a woman’s claim that she has been favored with mystical experiences that are mostly affective in nature. He is less likely to distrust a man who makes similar claims. A priest needs a grace called “the discernment of spirit” and a deep spiritual life in order to be able to guide these privileged souls. The devil can and does disguise himself as an angel of light, and no doubt there are many more “false” mystics and unauthentic visionaries than true ones. Before acknowledging visions as authentic, the Church, in her wisdom, takes her time. Before giving a final judgment, she uses “testing keys” such as the humility of the visionary, his or her faithfulness to the teaching of the Church, her spirit of obedience, her distrust of herself—that is, her humility.
Rereading the life of the Little Flower, I made a point of underlying the phrase “je sens” every time she used it. On one page, it appears six times: “I feel that I have many other vocations; I feel the vocation of a warrior, of a priest, of an apostle, of a doctor, or a martyr; I feel the need, the desire to accomplish for you, Jesus, the most heroic deeds.... I feel in my soul the courage of a crusader, of a pontifical zouave.... I feel in me the vocation of the priesthood....” This is definitely not an act of will; otherwise all of us could duplicate it. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that when the Holy Virgin healed her of a dreadful sickness by appearing to her and smiling at her, later, when talking to the Carmelites about it, she was tortured by the thought that she had possibly lied. Being plagued by scruples, she suffered tortures until, while in Paris on her way to Rome, she visited the Rue du Bac. There she was given the grace of “feeling” with absolute conviction that it was the Holy Virgin who had cured her. >From that moment on, she had peace. When she discovered that her vocation was “to love,” she tells us that she will suffer through love and even enjoy through love. These few instances teach any careful reader of The Story of a Soul that there are holy feelings. Are we to discard this emotivity as expressions of female weakness, instead of viewing it as flowing of a heart transformed by love? Again, it was the Little Flower who laments the fact that women are looked down upon. Yet, she tells us, more women than men love Christ. They accompanied Him to Calvary. By granting them this humiliating position, He is blessing them, for He too was a man of sorrow.
A final brief remark is called for on the role of affectivity in artistic appreciation. Why do music, poetry, and visual arts move people so deeply? Let us recall Cardinal Newman’s deep appreciation of music, the profound emotion we experience when contemplating a sublime sunset, the tears that run down our faces upon hearing Bach’s Passion according to Saint Matthew. These responses to beauty—these “deep stirrings of the heart” (Cardinal Newman)—are definitively affective in nature and, as he writes, are messages coming from above that draw us closer to Him who is Beauty itself.
In his newly published book An American Conversion, Deal Hudson relates that when he was teaching a class of musical appreciation in a penitentiary in the South, “Some of them [the prisoners] were so overcome that they put their heads down on the desk and wept.” To make hard-hearted criminals weep was achieved not by arguments but by “feeling” beauty.
It is sad indeed when distinguished thinkers are blind to the role and mission of affectivity in spiritual life. The notion that “feelings are indifferent to holiness” is belied by a liturgical prayer that most Catholics today are probably not acquainted with, but which formulates what I have been trying to express:
Almighty and most gentle God, who didst cause a fountain of living water to gush from the rock in order to quench the thirst of Thy people; draw from our hardened hearts tears of compunction, that we may be able to mourn for our sins, and merit their forgiveness from Thy mercy. Through Christ our Lord. [Tridentine Missal, emphasis mine]
May God grant us the grace that while feeling the sharpness of a crown of thorns, we respond with “Thy will be done.”
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