This week for the Fulfillment of All Desire book study, we read and discussed “Trials and Temptations.” As always, what stood out for me in private reflection was not necessarily what came up in the group discussion, so instead of having well thought-out considerations to strut out, I babbled something semi-coherent and jumbled. Thank you, God, for the lesson in humility. It wasn’t until after I got home that I realized the two points (private and public) actually had a common theme: feelings. (Nothing more than feeeeelings….)
1. The first point (my private reflection) came from a section of the chapter about St. Thérèse of Lisieux. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with her, in part because I often identify with her. As one example, reading between the lines, she struggled much of her life with being easily irritated by small things: someone clicking rosary beads while praying in the chapel, the sister who carelessly splashed her when they were working in the laundry. I so get that! But unlike me, Therese was able (rather early in her young life) to not only accept the irritations that came her way, but to be grateful for them. I should be inspired by this. Some days I am. Other days, she makes me want to grind my teeth, because it’s as though she’s silently asking, “What’s your excuse?” Get off my back!
There was a quote in the book on this subject which struck me (especially the bit I’ve underlined):
There is in the Community a Sister who has the faculty of displeasing me in everything, in her ways, her words, her character, everything seems very disagreeable to me. And still, she is a holy religious who must be very pleasing to God. Not wishing to give in to the natural antipathy I was experiencing I told myself that charity must not consist in feelings but in works; then I set myself to doing for this Sister what I would do for the person I loved the most.
We all encounter people in life who rub us the wrong way, intentionally or unintentionally. We all encounter people who are, at least on an emotional level, unloveable to us, even loathsome. Guess what? We’re called to love them anyway! Fortunately we have help. Here’s another quote from the often irritatingly correct St. Thérèse of Lisieux:
Lord, I know you don’t command the impossible. You know better than I do my weaknesses and imperfection; You know very well that never would I be able to love my Sisters as You love them, unless You, O my Jesus, loved them in me….
2. The second point, which came up during the group discussion: we can have a tendency to look for “consolations” in our prayer and religious experience. We want prayer or the Mass to make us feel good, feel happy, feel excited. We live in a society that makes this emotional fulfillment a primary focus for church families: people shop around, looking for churches that give them this charge. Feelings are made truth: if a church makes you feel good, it must be a good one, it must have the right message.
Compare this with the wisdom of the saints. St Francis de Sales:
I hold that devotion does not consist in the sweetness, delight, consolation, and sensible tenderness of heart that move us to tears and sighs and bring us a certain pleasant, relishful satisfaction when we perform various spiritual exercises….Many souls experience these tender, consoling feelings but still remain very vicious. Consequently, they do not have true love of God, much less true devotion.
He goes on a little later:
The good feelings they experience are no better than spiritual mushrooms. Not only are they not true devotion, but very often they are tricks played by the enemy….True devotion consists in a constant, resolute, prompt, and active will to do whatever we know is pleasing to God.
St. Thérèse again:
I do not hold in contempt beautiful thoughts which nourish the soul and unite it with God; but for a long time I have understood that we must not depend on them and even make perfection consist in receiving many spiritual lights. The most beautiful thoughts are nothing without good works.
If prayer on a given day lifts you to the heights, brings you to tears, makes you smile–that’s a grace. But on days when it doesn’t, when you feel bored or alone or distracted, it doesn’t mean your prayer is useless or that you are doing something wrong. It certainly doesn’t mean you should give up, decide you’re just not cut out for a close relationship with God. In fact, it could be that you don’t feel him because he’s pulled back a little in order to ready you for the next stage of the journey, like a parent who steps back so their child can learn to ride a bike without a guiding hand holding them up.
Feelings and emotions aren’t a bad thing. They are, after all, a big part of being human. There’s a reason so many sci-fi movies about robots and cyborgs make them one of the distinctions between a mere machine and a true artificial intelligence.
But we are–well, more than a feeling. Yes, there are days when everyone and everything tick me off, or when I feel like I’m ticking everyone and everything off. There are days when I feel blank or sad. There are days when I’m distracted. No matter where my moods are on a given day, I’m still called to love in Jesus, and through that love, to serve others and grow in my relationship with God.