The classical Christian understanding of the human person envisions us bridging two vastly different worlds. We are a body-soul unity, such that “I” am not my soul, nor am “I” my body, but we are, instead, incarnated souls as well as ensouled bodies.
This teaching is one of the fundamental tenets of Christianity and has so many concrete effects that we couldn’t even begin to name them. Suffice just one example: the popular slogan in defense of abortion “I can do what I want with my body.” Aside from the fact that the biology is erroneous (the baby’s body is certainly not the mother’s), the anthropology is also amiss. The slogan implies that the “I” is somehow a possessor of a body, which can be manipulated at will, with no real effects on the “I”. In fact, according to the Christian understanding, what is done to “my body” is actually done to me. My body (along with my soul) is me.
Stretched as we thus are across the worlds of spirit and flesh, we naturally have characteristics of both.
Body, Soul…and Heart?
Christian anthropology classically assigns two characteristics especially to our souls: the intellect and will. These elements mirror God’s own nature, as we are made in his image; animals do not have an intellect or a will in the sense that humans (and angels) do.
Other aspects of us pertain more specifically to our flesh — all of our bodily urges from hunger and thirst to tiredness, as well as mortality.
Yet somehow caught in the middle of this division is the mysterious feature of the “heart.” One’s heart is the core of the person, according to a scriptural understanding, and it is understood to encompass elements that can be considered both spiritual and corporal. Primary among these elements are the emotions.
Emotions are affected both by our higher faculties and our bodily realities. So when my intellect grasps some truth, I might feel a consequent emotion of elation or satisfaction. At the same time, when my stomach is retching with indigestion, I might feel the emotion of irritation or impatience. Emotions are thus both under our control, such that we can nourish and foster them with the choices we make, and entirely out of our control, affected by anything from a bad night’s sleep to a rainy day.
Emotions, of course, are given great importance in today’s culture. “Do what feels right” is basically the law of the land, proposed as the criteria for making decisions on relationships (with love understood as a feeling), to career plans, to everything else.
In opposition to the over-glorification of emotions in our culture, and because of the tendency of emotions to be beyond our control, Christians often relegate feelings to a role of little importance.
This is perhaps most seen in prayer: We pray not because we feel like it, or when we feel like it, but because we should pray. Period.
And that’s of course true. If we only do what we feel like doing, we’ll never get anywhere in our spiritual life or anywhere else.
But emotions shouldn’t be abandoned all together.
Emotions are an Essential Part of Humanity
Father Jacque Philippe, in his insightful little book Thirsting for Prayer, says that the human capacity to feel and have emotions is actually very valuable and that in the spiritual life, “it is absolutely indispensable that our feelings and emotions play their part.”
Springing from Psalm 34, which invites us to “taste and see that the Lord is good,” Father Philippe maintains that if we have never tasted God’s presence and tenderness, then we cannot have a real relationship with him. To taste God’s goodness, of course, is to feel it, to savor it, to experience it — not simply to know it with the coldness of reason.
Father Philippe goes so far as to say that we have the “right” to ask for “sense-perceptible graces,” because only in this way will the truths of our faith and the mystery of God make it into our lives “in a dynamic way.”
In Father Philippe’s estimation, churches are emptying because of celebrations that are “incapable of awakening any emotion other than boredom.”
He goes on to explain that feelings can’t be everything, that we will sometimes feel dry and unmotivated in prayer, and that in any case “what we taste of God is not yet God.” God is of course much greater than anything we could ever feel with our emotions (or understand with our reason, for that matter).
Still, it seems an important point as we resolve in the first weeks of the year to go deeper in our prayer lives. We can’t and shouldn’t discount our emotions entirely. They are part of what makes us human, and as such, should be embraced and welcomed.
The glory of God is, after all, man fully alive. And that means his emotions too.