Faith and Emotion

“I don’t feel anything when I pray.” “I am bored at Mass.” “When I talk to God, I do not sense that someone is listening.” These laments, experienced at one time or another by both the pious and the lost, rise from the very heart of Christian praxis. They express the natural human desire for vibrant emotion and feeling in prayer, a reality that many often lack, especially as the faith is lived over the years.

Emotion, as a reality of the human experience, has a role within the life of faith. The Scriptures themselves express the full pantheon of human sentiment: joy and sorrow, gratitude and jealousy, trust and doubt, hope and fear, love and hate are all part of the divine economy of salvation because they, in their different ways, bring us into contact with God. But it is critical for believers to understand their emotions as one aspect within the broader context of their faith and their relationship with God  not as constitutive of their faith.

Because of the prevalence and power of sentiment, there has always existed a temptation, often well intentioned, to reduce faith to emotion and experience. In the nineteenth century, Friedrich Schleiermacher declared, “faith is nothing other than the incipient experience of a satisfaction of that spiritual need by Christ.” Today “youth Masses” attempt to make Schleiermacher’s definition a reality among young people through excited cheering and contemporary music. Other Masses border on sentimentality with overly sappy hymns such as “Here I am Lord” and “You Are Mine.” We are then supposed to feel the presence of Christ and respond to Him in faith.

These personal experiences and feelings can indeed kindle faith, but they cannot be the sole pillars of our spiritual lives, because emotions are not the essence of faith. Rather faith rests upon a loving God who is not the product of our subjective longings, but a real independent being who calls us into union with Him through the revelation of His Son. Faith requires us to acknowledge and accept revelation. The response we make to God may be spurred and accompanied by an array of sentiments, but it is with the intellect that we assent to God and His will.

For this reason St. Thomas Aquinas classified faith as an intellectual virtue: “[T]o believe is an act of the intellect assenting to the truth at the command of the will.” The intellect has priority because it accepts what comes from God, yet it does so at the insistence of the will, which can be moved by the power of religious experiences. These experiences, when properly integrated within the contours of faith, can contribute to the further development of our relationship with God.

But because faith is the province of the intellect, we need not worry or doubt when emotion and religious sentiment ebb or even disappear from our lives, as they inevitably do. Spiritual aridity – the absence of feeling from the life of faith – is a normal occurrence in the spiritual life, and it can be temporary or prolonged. The saints, many of whom endured painful spiritual aridity for decades, teach us that the absence of religious feelings is God’s way of purifying our faith, which rests ultimately not on emotion, but on our trust in the authority of God’s word.

Often faith is stirred within us due to some profound experience that propels us forward joyfully in our relationship with God. But as the power of these experiences wanes over time, we are forced to trust that we remain in communion with God even as His presence seemingly vanishes. Our situation is akin to that of the apostles: for three years they experienced directly the presence of Christ, and the attendant joy and security that came with it. But after His death and resurrection, they learned, courtesy of Thomas, that it is not feeling but raw trust that constitutes faith. “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” (John 20:29)

Because God is real and not the product of our emotions, we know He hears our prayers and is present to us even if we do not “feel” Him. Our restless hearts must continue to reach toward God, knowing that He alone is their end and fulfillment.

Contrasts are often drawn between Catholics’ more stoic worship with the energy of certain Protestant services. The different styles are pathways to faith; religious feeling of itself neither constitutes nor measures the faith present within the community or the individual. Faith’s true vibrancy depends on the degree to which we trust in God and assent to His revelation. When our trust and assent is strong enough that we give ourselves wholly to God, then we have the love of God in our hearts. And love is not merely sentiment: it is action and commitment as well.

Carmelite Father Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen writes that “the enkindling of love does not consist in the joy the soul may experience, but rather in the firm determination of the will to give itself entirely to God.” Faith puts us in union with the love of God. We need not fret over lack of religious emotion in our lives, and we need not think our preferred religious experience should be shared by everyone else. True love withstands the flux of all emotions because it is anchored in the certain hope of the God who made us for Himself.

David G Bonagura, Jr.

David G Bonagura, Jr.

David G. Bonagura, Jr. teaches at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York.

  • Peter Northcott

    One of the strangest phenomena here, in England, is that many Traddies are going Charismaniac, and it looks awfully suspicious:
    Eucharistic adoration and pop music.

    These are the same people who will be wailing about guitars at mass and liturgical abuses…

    Would they do this hysterical stuff during Benediction? No. They’d think it was sacriledge.

    Is the Eucharist something – someone – different when ‘it’s’ not in a church building?

    To me, it’s Eucharistic Idolatry, driven by pure sentiment, just like the Golden Calf at Sinai.

  • Peter Northcott

    One of the strangest phenomena here, in England, is that many Traddies are going Charismaniac, and it looks awfully suspicious.

    These are the same people who will be wailing about guitars at mass and liturgical abuses…

    Would they do this hysterical stuff during Benediction? No. They’d think it was sacriledge.

    Is the Eucharist something – someone – different when ‘it’s’ not in a church building?

    To me, it’s Eucharistic Idolatry, driven by pure sentiment, just like the Golden Calf at Sinai.

  • Jack,CT

    WOW…..Another Fantastic Article!

    This Article ties well into your last and

    equally good,thx

  • Adeodatus

    Great article. Faith is certainly more than a feeling, and many parishes would do well to understand this. Too often, CCD programs appeal to the kids’ throbbing emotions, and not to their developing intellects. I think this accounts for the eventual attrition that happens after they receive their sacraments; the feeling goes away and they lack the knowledge that would anchor them in the faith. A similar thing happens with the adults as well.

    Pope Benedict had something to say about religious entertainment, and how it subverts the liturgy. When people start clapping at the end of Mass, or they start swaying with the hymns, something’s wrong. They make the wrong associations with church and will grow tired of it in this capacity, as they would with any form of entertainment. One doesn’t watch the same show, or movie, or listen to the same bands or composers their whole life. Thus, we shouldn’t let Mass become just another option in the spectrum of distractions.

  • Mark

    Emotions teach us things of God that reason never can. How does reason help us to fathom the depths of the shortest sentence in scripture? “Jesus wept.”

    Reason gives us Aquinas. Emotion gives us Francis.

  • Sam Schmitt

    @Mark –
    Emotions by themselves cannot teach us about God, though they can help us to realize certain truths with more depth. But it is very clear from many saints that simply “feeling” close to God, or “feeling” that this course of action is God’s will, does not at all mean that we actually are close to God or doing his will- in fact, the opposite is often the case.

    I think you may be confusing the “emotion” with “the heart” – the heart referring to the whole man – body and soul – reason, will, emotions. St. Thomas was no more a unfeeling thinking machine than Pope Francis is a big glob of emotion. It usually takes both head and heart.

    And what if you have faith without emotion, as we know Blessed Mother Teresa did for many decades? I would guess that she understood better than almost anybody what it meant for Jesus to weep.

  • bill bannon

    I’m with Mark. Something is missing. We don’t even have rhetorical color, pauses, volume changes etc. in the way we read the gospel or the readings which presently is like the way one would read the phone book. The things we criticize in liturgical trends are often praised in Scripture:

    2 Samuel 6:14….” And David danced before the LORD with all his might…”

    Face it. White men can’t dance…therefore we look down on African liturgies which are closer to David’s behaviour for which Michal, his wife, looked down on him. And that’s after he paid Saul 200 Philistine foreskins for her. Where’s the gratitude?

  • Maggie Louise

    Emotion is all about “me”. Faith is all about God. In the modern hymns, one has only to count the number of times the variations of “I” are mentioned to know whose praises are being sung, where one’s thoughts are really centered. Everyone loves those warm and fuzzies experienced at a prayer meeting, but there was nothing warm and fuzzy on Calvary, and it takes more than warm and fuzzies to get one over the bad times.

  • Walt

    “Nothing is desired that is not known”. St Thomas

  • Guest

    Great article. There used to be something called the “heresy” of feelings. Emotions must be ruled by the intellect. People think emotions are automatically evidence one is correct but why is that not true when the emotion is to kick someone?

  • Pam H.

    @Peter Northcott: I can understand some concern, but not “Eucharistic idolatry”. Is the Eucharist truly the God of Heaven and earth, or not? We Catholics believe that it is. Not to say everything is appropriate.

  • Pam H.

    @ Bill Bannon: I have been to quite a few Masses with “performances”, and never seen one where the focus wasn’t on the performers, instead of on God. Not to say appropriate Eucharistic dance, etc., doesn’t exist; maybe in Africa, it does. But I’ve never seen it in America. I would think the reasons for wanting these things in America are quite different from the Africans’ reasons for wanting them.

  • Howard Kainz

    On the other hand, many of the multiple references of Jesus to faith in the Gospels do not seem to involve specifically intellectual assent — e.g., when Jesus encourages Peter to walk on water (Mt. 14:29), or says that faith can move mountains (Mt. 17:20.

  • william manley

    This is the best essay yet published on this site. As a man spending his 65th year on the planet, the most important lesson I have learned in that time is that most of the mistakes I have made have come from decisions based in emotions, and most of the successes I have enjoyed have come from decisions based in the intellect. What is the “Word” that John refers to in his Gospel? It is the Divine Intellect. It seems logical to me that the best way to connect with the Divine Intellect is through our God given human intellects. Don’t trust your emotions when it comes to religion…they most likely will lead you into heresy and then into disillusionment.

  • Avery Tödesuhl

    We should trust neither our πάθεια or ευπάyθεια, nor our human νοῦς. We can only trust Jesus Christ and the Roman Catholic Church that he instituted for the salvation of human souls.

  • Jim M

    Thanks, David, and thank you, Maggie Louise. The Self is one of the great golden calves of our day. We have to be reminded that the Mass is not about my “prayer experience”, nor is it about the priest, my marriage and my relationship to my children is not about my satisfaction, and so on.St. Ignatius of Loyola spent a lot of time and prayer working out the relationship of emotions to the will and intellect: he taught that we should take the emotions seriously, but subordinate them to the will guided by the intellect. Not bad advice. Oh, and Mark, how well do you know Thomas Aquinas?
    -Jim M