Monday, October 30, 2006

Reason and Emotion in Spiritual Life

Now there’s a subject that could fill a book. I’m continuing with Marko Rupnik’s book on discernment that I referred to in the last post. Here I’d simply like to present something of his basic framework for understanding the rather complicated psychological and spiritual dynamics in what he calls the first stage of discernment. This is about the basic orientation of our thoughts and feelings, and about how the Holy Spirit and the evil spirit try to influence them.

He starts with two basic types of people: those who are fundamentally oriented toward themselves and those who are fundamentally oriented toward God. For each of these he discusses what it means to have reason and emotion in harmony or in conflict, and then what happens under the influence of God and of the devil. Here we will begin with those basically oriented to themselves (perhaps we can identify better with such!), and we’ll continue in our next post with those oriented to God.

Discernment begins in the psychological sphere, with thoughts, feelings, and the general observation of our inner equilibrium (or lack thereof), and then goes deeper—into the spiritual dimensions of our inner life. First we have to discover if we are at peace—in this context it means whether or not our reason and emotions are focused on the same object. If our reason points us in one direction and our feelings draw us in another, there is inner turmoil or confusion or perhaps despondency.

Yet it is not enough merely to seek the peace which comes from bringing the thoughts and feelings into harmony, focused in the same direction—because it might be the wrong direction! Here is a point at which psychological approaches and spiritual ones may begin to part company. Rupnik writes: “Under the influence of psychology, in spiritual formation today there is a risk that the art of discernment will be lost because the spiritual struggle is being avoided. As soon as someone begins to feel badly, various psychological means are instantly applied to help that person get out of a mood and to feel better. There is always someone around to rescue others from feeling badly… However, such psychologically informed coping mechanisms cancel out the possibility of a ‘spiritual reading’ of a struggling person’s day…or even life.”

What he’s saying is that if we lack peace because of a conflict between our intellect and our desires, it may very well be that the Holy Spirit is behind it, trying to prevent a union of thought and feeling if the object of these is something sinful. In such a case, we should not try to feel good or have peace about it! So the goal is not just the psychological peace that comes from focusing the mind and heart in the same direction, but the authentic spiritual peace which comes from focusing them in the right direction—toward the will of God.

The person who is fundamentally oriented toward self is not one who merely manifests occasional instances of selfish behavior in daily life. The fundamentally selfish person is one who, in his whole world view and the depths of his soul is preoccupied with himself, what we would call self-seeking or self-absorbed, with only superficial attempts to act in a selfless or Christian manner, perhaps a kind of pharisaical veneer.

On such a person the devil acts first on the emotions, feeding the self-oriented person with sensual consolations or pleasures, making sure he feels good, comfortable, secure, untroubled. Meanwhile he acts on the person’s reason by providing excuses and justifications for his self-indulgence. He supplies motivations and confirmations for self-centeredness, even to the point of making the selfish person think all this is God’s blessing. In this way the devil succeeds in uniting thoughts and feelings—in the wrong direction, towards sin—thus creating an experience of peace which will prevent the selfish person from trying to change anything in his life. Why should he? He has no inner turmoil, no goad to change. So he blissfully advances toward perdition.

How does the Holy Spirit work on such a person? Mostly by working on the intellect in order to lead it in a different direction. The Holy Spirit doesn’t act much on the emotions at this point, since the satisfaction with sensual pleasures tends to close one off to spiritual ones. Rupnik says that if someone is satiated with junk food, he is not attracted by the menu of a fine restaurant. So the Spirit will not initially offer spiritual consolations to replace the sensual ones, but will attempt to separate the direction of the reason from that of the emotion, so that the person will understand that he is going in the wrong direction and begin to change his attitudes and behaviors. This rift between thought and feeling is bound to create some inner disturbance and discomfort, but so be it. God isn’t after peace at all costs but rather that the person discovers the truth and begins to center his life on it. So rather than let us lazily slumber in sin, his Spirit functions as an Alarm Clock!

It is the logic of the Gospel which will hopefully appeal to the mind and begin to turn it away from resting in self-indulgence and toward the true meaning of life in God. But the first wake-up call or bit of illumination may not be enough to bring the mind (not to mention the emotions) all the way around to God. One may go back and forth in this struggle, like a recovering addict relapsing into his former behavior, but if one is determined to follow the flashes of insight from the Spirit, little by little changes will be made that are lasting. One is now on the way to becoming both rationally and emotionally oriented toward God, for a new and deeper peace begins to be felt, one that results from mind and heart not only turned in the same direction, but turned together toward God.

“The feeling of consolation I experience when, for an instant, my feelings adhere to the new orientation and are in harmony with a new insight from the Gospel, is often the consolation of a sweet sadness that is very different from what was experienced shortly before, when my feelings were crying out for fear of losing their attachments… These brief flashes of spiritual consolation become the criteria helping us to welcome the new peace and, in doing so, to begin breaking away from the old peace that is now understood and felt to be false… [We are] deeply moved by the drama of God reaching out to us in love. Only the Savior’s passion consoles the person God touches and becomes the leverage that makes possible a grateful, free surrender.”

Next time we will see how the Good Spirit and the bad spirit influence a soul already oriented to God.