As Christians, we’re often (and rightly) told of the importance of spiritual development and maturity, of fostering prayer, piety and other spiritual practices. However, rarely have I heard spiritual leaders address the importance of emotional maturity in our spiritual lives. Yet I would argue that in order to be spiritually mature we must also be emotionally mature. Let me explain.
Collaboration or Integration?
Over the past several decades, as fields related to psychology and mental health have helped us develop a much more solid understanding of how our emotions work and why they are important, a degree of collaboration between faith and psychology has become common. There is a stronger general awareness that faith alone does not solve all human struggles, and that professional support from counselors and therapists is also important. Some faith communities have lists of local counselors they refer people too, and a few even have a counselor or therapist on staff.
Still, there is a difference between collaboration and integration, between two things working alongside each other and two things truly coming together. I would like to suggest that, while there is great value in mutual respect and referrals between leaders of faith communities and mental health professionals, there is even greater value in leaders from both professions encouraging and guiding individuals to truly integrate emotional maturity and spirituality.
I have found healing, beauty and truth through my faith. I have also found healing, beauty and truth through developing a strong understanding of my human nature, particularly of my emotions. My strongest experiences of healing, beauty and truth began the moment I, as an individual, started discovering how to integrate my approach to faith and spirituality with my emotional intelligence and maturity.
The belief that faith could assist me in my approach to handling human brokenness and challenges wasn’t new. What surprised me was the personal discovery of just how strongly a deeper awareness and sensitivity to my own feelings could transform my spiritual life as well.
Truly and Fully Human
This intersection of my emotions and my spiritual life led to a fuller experience of what it means to be truly human, and the awareness that I am not only capable of bringing my entire self, whole and integrated, to all dimensions of my life, but that this is actually God’s plan for me.
We have been created for union with God: our spiritual life is important. We have been created in the image and likeness of God: our emotions are part of this reality, willed by God to help us be more fully present to ourselves, to the world around us, and to him. Our spirituality, our emotionality, our reason, and our will do not operate to their fullest extent in isolation, but when working together.
The idea that we can isolate our own faith and spiritual life from our human emotions and instincts is a philosophical fiction. There is no moment, as human persons, in which we are only thinking, or operating in the intellectual sphere, any more than there is a moment in which we are only feeling.
Reason alone has no way of knowing or perceiving reality. It is presented with valuable information through our physical senses. Our emotions present it with valuable information as well, regarding non-physical, but no less real dimensions of what is going on both inside us and around us.
Our emotions are also a way God can communicate with us from within. We believe that we are temples of the Holy Spirit, that the Holy Trinity dwells within us. If our emotions are able to put us more fully in touch with the core of our being, it makes sense that, in so doing, they are able to connect us more deeply with the God who dwells in us.
St. Ignatius of Loyola pioneered the integration of emotions and spirituality in the 1500s. He found that identifying and listening to our deepest feelings plays a key role in discovering God’s presence in our life and discerning life choices. Ignatius’ rules of discernment are nuanced to acknowledge the different ways good and evil work in the lives of people at different places in their own spiritual life, but the essential principle guiding his rules is that if we are able to be in touch with and rightly understand our feelings, they will provide us with needed insight into what aspects of our life are drawing us closer to God and what aspects are pulling us away from him. Over time, by fine tuning our ability to feel and understand our emotions, we can become increasing more adept and sensitive to the ways God reveals himself to us in daily life.
Steps to Integration
How can we bring about an integration of emotion and spirituality in our own life?
One way is to start by just being more aware of your emotions and letting yourself truly feel them. This means focusing on 1) how you are feeling 2) why you are feeling that way and 3) what your feelings are telling you about yourself, or about your perception of another person or situation. This is a simple way of becoming more in tune with your emotions, which can bring great insight.
An understanding and connectedness with our emotions can also transform the way we pray. Incorporating music, writing and art into our prayer can help integrate our emotions. So can exploring how our environment (images, sounds, places) influences our prayer experience. Timing matters too: praying in the morning can be a different experience from praying midday and praying at night. Understanding our emotions can help us discern when and where to pray, and identify what thoughts and desires to bring to prayer. Personalizing our prayer is not meant to replace liturgical worship or traditional formulated prayers, but to expand our prayer beyond set times of worship, remaining connected to God throughout our day and involving our entire selves in doing so.
St. Ignatius suggests that our posture is important too, and that we should pray “now kneeling, now prostrate on the ground, now lying face upwards, now seated, now standing, always being intent on what I desire” (Spiritual Exercises #73). I hesitated to try praying “lying face upwards” but decided to try it one time, and was amazed at the immediate effect it had: I instantly became intently aware of my own littleness and the vastness of God’s power. The problem that had seemed all consuming seemed much smaller in comparison.
There is also a strong connection between emotions and virtue. Emotions are neither good nor bad in themselves, but our response to them can take on a moral character. Emotions can become a significant source of positive motivation that encourages virtuous behavior. Wonder and awe before nature and other aspects of life can lead us to a greater sense of reverence for the God who created all. Dignity and a sense of repulsion at injustice can culminate in virtues of charity and mercy. Emotions of gratitude, satisfaction, fulfillment and peace can bring us to a greater awareness of God’s presence and action in our lives.
It would be impossible to develop an exhaustive list of ways in which our emotions can help us in our spiritual life. We are each unique, and God is infinite: the ways in which we can experience him, not only through creation, through the world and through the Church, but also through his presence within us and the nature he has given us are endless, and well worth discovering over and over again.