“We take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5)
Sensitivity can be like a virtue, as in a mature sensitivity to sin, or as in sensitivity to those in need of emotional or material help. A sensitivity to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit is a pathway to great holiness. But in this note we are addressing over-sensitivity as a hindrance to spiritual growth and well-being. We are talking primarily about superficial wounds that should have been healed a long time ago, but wounded feelings gave a seemingly small hurt a much longer life than it deserved as it was magnified, day in and day out, completely out of proportion to the harm it should have caused. Hopefully, we will find a remedy to this problem!
Oh those wounded feelings – we give such power to them to become much more than they ever should have been! A great spiritual writer of keen psychological insight, F.W. Faber, states that oversensitivity manifested in wounded feelings “is the secret cause of one-half of the disedifying inconsistencies of religious people. It rules us more powerfully than any of our passions. It absorbs our character into itself, until it alone almost becomes our character.” He adds: “We behold every day into what depths of incalculable meanness it can plunge” otherwise “affectionate hearts” (Spiritual Conferences, p.230, as edited).
“Thus the mortification of it becomes one of the primary duties of the spiritual life; and the intense suffering which this causes is the ladder by which we climb higher” (p. 232). The “mortification of sensitiveness is a peculiar process. It is not a blunting…or putting to death of sensitiveness, as it is with vices. But it is a brave making use of the torture of our wounded feelings to get nearer God and kinder to men.”
“Sensitiveness affects us in various ways. We imagine offense has been intended where it was never dreamed of. It constructs entire imaginary histories upon what is often no foundation at all . It magnifies and exaggerates things. It puts the wildest construction upon innocent actions. It throws a monstrous significance into a catch phrase, and then broods upon it for years. Our mind is crowded with suspicions. We are hardly able to distinguish between what is shadow and what is substance. We forget God. We give shadows the power to harm us. We grow moody and bitter. Now, what grace, what conceivable Christ-like thing, can grow in such an atmosphere as this” (pages 233-34, as edited)?
This “morose brooding” over our wounded feelings can become “almost incurable.” The judgment is “burned into our mind” that this person has been so unkind that we simply cannot forgive him. “We have now gone very far. We have come in sight of hatred. It is possible now for us to hate. These “ugly developments of our sensitiveness” must be overcome. We must get this “ruin out of the way” (pages 234-35, as edited).
Because of all the harm oversensitivity can cause to our life in general, and to our spiritual progress, it is ALL-IMPORTANT that we find the grace and strength to overcome it. Contance Hull relates that Saint Therese became overly sensitive at a very earl age secondary to her sister’s death. “She became overly-sensitive and cried easily. This would be her battle for ten years, when at fourteen, she found the grace and strength to overcome this oversensitivity and truly began to live her journey of spiritual freedom.”
The first step toward the healing of oversensitivity would seem to be an honest recognition of all the harm oversensitivity is causing in our life, together with a strong desire to overcome it (or to moderate it). In modern psychology the recognition of distorted thinking patterns is essentially curative. Our conscious thoughts, when exaggerated or magnified, become distorted and this can become the source of much unhappiness – especially for an oversensitive soul. When we learn to check these distortions, essentially keeping them down so to speak, we are on the road to recovery! This proper management of our thoughts, this “cognitive therapy,” is very helpful.
Father Faber, who lived well before the advent of cognitive behavioral therapy but seemingly anticipated its value, urges us to suffer bravely in this mortification of oversensitivity. He says: “There is abundance to mortify in all this. We must be very unsparing of ourselves. A touch will not cure the matter. We must hold the caustic firmly, and press it hard, and keep it long on the place….” We must overcome “the quickness to feel an unkindness” and the “subtlety which causes us to fancy unkind intentions when there were none.” Further, “we must check ourselves sharply whenever we have caught ourselves brooding on the matter [in our mind]” (pages 236-37, as edited).
Now in the spiritual life mortification of oversensitivity is aided by prayer and sacramental life. The call of the spiritual life is toward the love of God and neighbor. When we keep this primary call in mind – that we are under a profound obligation to love God and neighbor – it brings a proper perspective not only to all our relationships but also to all our thoughts. If to fulfill this duty we must thicken our skin a bit, and mortify our unkind thoughts, and keep a forgiving heart, all of these acts are supernaturally meritorious, causing us to grow in holiness. Let us therefore contemplate, as Faber says, “the magnificent fruits of wounded feelings when they are consecrated by grace.”
Thomas L. Mulcahy, M.A.
References: I am relying primarily on Father Faber’s essay, “Wounded Feelings,” in Spiritual Conferences (TAN Books). The essay is about thirteen pages long.
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