Thursday, October 4, 2012

A Harmony Beyond Catharsis

I don't trust emotions.

No, I'm not a Vulcan who thinks that emotions are evil and must be purged. I just don't trust them.

Perhaps I have gotten too old, but the more I look back on the mistakes of my youth and not-so-youth, I can see how often I was led astray by my feelings. As a teacher in high school I am surrounded by those whose world view is firmly planted in the passions. The heart wants what the heart wants, and consequences be damned. That is the wonderful awfulness of youth: the heart feels so strongly the thrills and the pains of life and we are too naïve not to act on them.

There are some who can trusts their hearts. I have known many good men and women who listen to their inner intuition to great effect. I am not one of those people. In my heart, there is always a jumble of intersecting and contradictory emotions that I don't know which way is up.

Lets say I hear about a friend of mine who is going through a horrible disease. Do I reach out to them more or is that too intrusive when they want space? Do I try to get them to talk about their feelings or do I keep everything light and superficial to distract them? Do I take this as an opportunity to share with them the comforts of the faith or do I shut up and hope that being nice is enough of an example?

Some of you may have read the above and been perplexed because you know intuitively how you should behave. I do not.

But that is not the real problem. These specifics can bog anyone down. I'm talking about letting my emotions lead me to a place that I don't want to go.

When I was younger I once told a girl that I loved her when I really didn't. That may not seem like a big deal to you, but it is something that has haunted me. Love means something to me. And saying it something special. I didn't love her, but I wanted her to think I did. I was caught up in the exhilaration of emotion and I “listened to my heart.” But when the cold light of reason and time took hold, I was disgusted.

I remember years later looking back at my journal entry from that time (yes I kept a journal like a loser Emo kid and yes it is full of bad poetry). I looked back on this stupid kid who didn't think, but said things that weren't true because it was how he felt at the time.

And that's the thing about feelings: they come and go. You can't build anything on that house of sand. A relationship based on feeling is one that is doomed to failure, because if feeling is your foundation, then it supported only by a shadow.

This distrust of feeling is something I have applied to much of my religious life. I used to run after any parish that had uplifting music or to devote myself to any supposed apparition of the Blessed Virgin here or there. This was especially true after my conversion experience.

I was 17 years old when I made a retreat called Teens Encounter Christ. There I met 3 people who changed my life. I will write about them in a moment, but I observed something very interesting from my time there. All of us had a very intense, emotional weekend. I have since worked many different retreats and so often people get that “retreat high.” For those unfamiliar, its when someone spends a weekend marinating in feelings of love and it makes them feel over the moon for weeks.

But then life continues on and much of the world has not changed simply because you had an emotional weekend. What I observed was that even though many of us had our heart-strings pulled, the emotional echo of the retreat became fainter and fainter. As a result, all of the great epiphanies of the weekend began to lose there luster and dim out of sight. Fewer and fewer people would return to TEC and continue on the path that it laid out for them. If the spiritual awakening they had was emotional, then they drifted off to spiritual slumber when the feelings faded.

Now I will be the first to admit that I may wrong in this observation. Maybe I just lost contact with them, but they continued to make great spiritual strides without my knowledge. But that is not the impression I received It seemed to me that all TEC was for many of us was a personal catharsis that exercised and exorcized many of our emotions locked in the deepest recesses of the heart. Like going to see Titanic or Schindler's List, we feel very deeply for what we see and then we move on with no change in our life after wallowing in our tears.

Since then I have been very distrustful of emotions, especially in religion. As I said earlier, I do not trust my heart to keep me from going astray.

This is one of the reasons I gravitate to writers like CS Lewis and St. Thomas Aquinas. Thomas is especially appealing to me because of his lack of passion. It's not that he wasn't deeply in love with the Lord or that he was an unfeeling robot. But his great work, the Summa Theologiae, is a series of explanations and arguments for the faith that are drained of all rhetoric that is meant to stir your passions. Thomas wants you to agree with him not because he can turn a pretty phrase. He wants you to agree with him because he's right. As Peter Kreeft said of the Summa “There is light, but no heat.”

As a philosophical student of Socrates, I find this approach appealing. Let's not let our desires and our fears cloud the light of pure reason. Divorcing feeling from rational thought can be very liberating.

But something was missing.

Last week I attended a meeting at a local parish where we watched a video by Catholic speaker Christopher West. He was speaking about John Paul II's the Theology of the Body. As someone who wants to learn more, I came prepared to take notes and apply his ideas to the classroom. At first I wasn't all that impressed. He wasn't bad, but I was mentally critiquing his speaking style and thinking of ways to improve.

And then it happened.

As he spoke I felt something.

Something familiar.

And it was something that I have rarely felt since I made my TEC.

It wasn't simply the stirring of my emotions. It was something else. I began to listen to his words and I intuitively understood that I was listening to truth. And hearing that truth, it then struck a chord with my heart. And my head and my heart were dancing together in perfect rhythm.

This was a heart-fire nestled in the solid hearth of reason. And I remembered the 3 people I met at TEC who had this same effect on me.

The first was Fr. Larry Richards. I could go on and on about this man and what he has done for me. But the thing that strikes me about him is that he has the sharpest mind and the most passionate heart. I have never met a man so in love. And the love of his life is God Almighty. His emotions are always on his sleeve but he does not rely on them. When he spoke on that weekend, he rationally demolished every one of my objections to the faith and he lit a fire in my heart too.

The second person I met was my wife. We didn't speak much that weekend, but afterwards we soon became friends. Then we became best friends. And then we started dating. I told her from the beginning that I did not have feelings for her in the same way she had for me. But that poor girl accepted where I was at emotionally and continued to date me. As friends, I already loved her. She was important to me and I would gladly lay down my life for her. But I didn't feel that spark of passion. Until I did. And when I did, the loyalty that was already resolved in my will broke open the floodgates of blissful romance in my heart. To this day I shake with giddiness when I drive home from work because I am so excited to see my wife again. And I know that this joy is not planted on my transitory feelings but on the deeper commitments of the soul.

The final person I met, and by far the most important, was Jesus.

I had been Catholic all my life, but I had never encountered Christ the way I did that weekend. I'll get into the specifics in a later post, but suffice to say that I had a real meeting with the Lord. And I think back to the Gospels. Jesus was the greatest teacher who ever lived. But He did not make only cold-analytic observations. He cried and yelled and embraced and loved the people around Him. The stories from the Gospels are the most stirring in human history.

And yet Jesus was not a slave to the passions. When the people wanted to carry Him off to be a king, He fled. He was not the leader of a mindless mob but of free men and women who freely chose Him to be their Savior. He argued with logic and evidence. He pointed to the Scriptures constantly to prove His points. He spoke with whomever would listen.

After the Resurrection on the way to Emmaues, Jesus appeared unrecognized to two disciples. He then explained to them step by step the reason for His Passion and Resurrection. When the two disciples spoke of this teaching, they did not discuss how intellectually stimulating it was. They said “Were not our hearts burning within us?” (Lk 24:32) Jesus wasn't simply feeding their brains. Nor was He only giving them a cathartic emotional reflection.

He was giving them a truth that lifted their hearts and minds out of themselves and made them dance together in harmony beyond catharsis.

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