The beautiful emotions God has given us work tremendous good in our lives when they are under the guidance of our rational and spiritual faculties. A child lives his life primarily on an emotional level, but to mature he must gradually bring his emotional life under the control of right reason and spiritual life. In this context it may be helpful to see our lives from this four-fold perspective:
1. Physical Life;
2. Emotional Life;
3. Rational Life; and
4. Spiritual Life
What is being urged upon us here is the proper management of our emotional life by the higher faculties of human reason and Divine grace. By spiritual life, then, I am referring to the life of grace given to us by God which flows to us by way of prayer and sacramental life. Recourse to prayer and the sacraments is a great aid in healing impaired emotional life.
We know very well that letting our emotions flow freely can be psychologically healing – as in sharing our emotions and feelings with a friend or in therapy. But in a different context unregulated emotional life can be very damaging. In this sense if emotional life is not brought under the control and guidance of rational and spiritual life it can become a tyrant – and as such inordinate anger or sadness can even lead to violence or other destructive conduct.
We see in the garden of Gethsemane Jesus seemingly crushed by the weight of sorrow and grief – yet he has the strength of mind and the strength of grace to complete his mission, saying to the apostles, “Arise, let us go” (Matthew 26:46). Jesus teaches us to place our emotional life under the guidance and strength of grace.
Once a person I knew quite well was suffering significant emotional turmoil and had clearly strayed from the light of right reason. His emotional life had simply engulfed his rational life. I told this person that he had always been a person of great common sense, and that this would be a good time for him to gather-up and make good use of the excellent common sense God had given him. He took my advice and within a few days he was doing much better.
Spiritual life can profoundly impact our emotional life for the better. Thus, if we are experiencing to a harmful degree the emotions of bitterness and resentment, we can take recourse to spiritual life in order to re-channel these vexing emotions into positive forces. By allowing the powerful spiritual virtues of meekness and gentleness to descend into our emotions, we can heal our emotions and make them occasions for acts of virtue and charity. Thus, what started out in the direction of hatred ends in the life-giving direction of charity! “The act of virtue,” Saint Thomas Aquinas says, “is even more meritorious when it makes good use of the passions [or emotions] in view of a virtuous end.” Therefore, “passions or emotions regulated…by right reason…are forces to be used in the service of virtue” (Fr. Garrigou-LaGrange). Here we see a fundamental insight of Saint Thomas: that grace builds upon nature.
Right reason involves not only a knowledge of the virtues but in addition the elimination of what psychologists call cognitive distortions (meaning erroneous ways of thinking). Becoming acquainted with the ten common distorted ways of thinking, and correcting the ones that pertain to you, is one of the most valuable things you can do for emotional health and well-being (see link below). Learning to recognize and correct defective thinking patterns is essentially curative.
Finally, spiritual life involves prayer and the sacraments. Suffice it to say in this short note that the Sacraments of Reconciliation, the Eucharist (including Eucharistic adoration), and the Anointing of the Sick are powerful means of healing grace. Moreover, as Father Padovani, a therapist, points out, we can bring our broken emotions to God freely in prayer. In prayer we approach God in faith and hope, theological virtues which in and of themselves are pathways to healing since they direct us towards God. In prayer we can ask God for the “ever-new graces” we need to heal distorted or impaired emotions. God can restore beauty and balance to our emotional life, or give us the grace to carry the crosses that no one can avoid on this earthly pilgrimage.
In short it is a great benefit simply to see that we need to place our emotional lives under the protection and guidance of our rational and spiritual lives. To see this necessity is already the beginning of the healing of emotional life.
Tom Mulcahy, M.A.
References. The book by Father Padovani is entitled: Healing Wounded Emotions. In Feeling and Healing Your Emotions it is psychiatrist C.W. Baars who mentions at page 55 that “a child lives predominantly on the emotional level….” However, for this note I am relying predominantly on Father Garrigou-LaGrange, a Thomist, who demonstrates how the theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas promotes emotional well-being through the proper ordering of emotional life to rational life and rational life to spiritual life. See The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Vol. 1, Chapter 23. Nothing in this note is meant to be a substitute for good and necessary medical and professional care.
Link: If you type in at Google, “Ten types of cognitive distortions,” numerous sites will bring up this important list. The list is very helpful; however, I can’t tell you about the recommendability of any particular site.
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