The role of the emotions in the spiritual life is often misunderstood. There are two extremes that people fall into when considering the emotions. The first is an exaltation of the emotions. If what I am doing or planning on doing makes me feel good, then this acts as a kind of license for my actions. The other extreme is a deep suspicion of the emotions that tends to idolize a kind of rigid calm.
To begin with, we should understand that our emotions are surface and passing. This does not mean that they are insignificant. Often they can provide valuable insights about our environment and the people around us. But we should have caution. We can feel both attraction and discomfort with the same things depending on the circumstances. There are ways of accounting for the emotions in the human person, but to keep this article simple, I will present a rather strait forward point.
We are called to master our emotions. Due to the effects of concupiscence (i.e. original sin/ the fall) our emotions are disordered. This does not mean that they are evil, but rather they are of need of purification and direction. Mastery of our emotions doesn’t involve repressing them nor does it mean that we should follow every tendency that comes from them. Mastery is a middle ground in which we learn to sort through our interior life and discover what to reject and what to accept.
I will explain this idea of mastery of our emotions using two analogies. The first is dog training. Like our emotional life, there are two extremes to dog training. The first is a kind of permissive style in which the dog lacks boundaries or training. These dogs are unruly and are often very disobedient. The other extreme is an abusive style in which the dog is beaten into submission. Although the dog may be obedient to the master, it comes at a cost. These dogs tend to be violent and aggressive. These dogs are as imbalanced as the other extreme, but it gets expressed in different ways. The best method is in the middle. Using different techniques, a person can harness the dog so that it is both submissive and balanced. Think of professional dogs that do their work with a kind of ease and gentleness.
Another example would be sailing. Imagine a little sailboat with a single sail. In order to harness the power of the wind, the sailor must learn to work with the wind and is in sense limited by the direction of the wind. I think this second example helps clarify the distinction between mastery and repression. We can’t force ourselves to feel different. In many circumstances our emotions are not completely voluntary. Despite this, however, we can still have mastery of our emotions. Someone might make us an angry, but through mastery we learn to accept this and to move on. As we progress in the spiritual life, we learn how to sort through our emotions and discover what to accept and what to reject.
By no means am I suggesting this is easy or simple. In theory it seems so clear cut, but in practice it takes time, patience, and God’s grace. There are many different techniques and methods by which a person learns mastery of self. Meditation often helps in this regard as well as some of the insights of psychology. The important thing is to realize that mastery doesn’t happen overnight.