I received an email from a friend last week, and I was surprised by my affective response. All day I was filled with delight. As I noticed my joy continue throughout the day, I referred back to the moment it began. My friend wrote to me to tell me that she had decided to enter a cloistered community of nuns. About four years earlier a friend and I had organized a pilgrimage for teens to have time to contemplate the unique purpose of our lives while walking through the streets and churches of Ohio. My friend made the pilgrimage with me, and has come to this deeper point of her contemplation five years later. My affective response was a “meaningful conscious relation” (1) to my friend’s decision. Affective responses can have effects on the mind, and so it was in my experience. I was in a delighted mood for the rest of the day even when not consciously thinking of my friend.
In The Heart, Dietrich von Hildebrand talks about the difference between spiritual and non-spiritual affectivity. He refers to the non-spiritual affectivity as psychic or bodily feelings. A bodily feeling is a feeling experienced in relation to the body. For example, having a headache. A psychic feeling is a non-bodily feeling which may be caused by our body, but are not the “voice” of our body. For example, the jolly mood connected with tipsiness or a case of depression (2).
Spiritual affections have a conscious relation to an object and the character of a response. Just as thought responses and the decisions we chose have a characteristic of intentionality, so do affective responses. For example, my friend comes and asks for forgiveness and I’m filled with joy, conscious of the value and beauty of her action. My joy is not connected merely to a bodily process or psychic drive, but to my consciousness of her repentance and the chance for forgiveness.
These intentional, spiritual affections are so good for us. They fill life with, well, life. Life without these affections would be numb. We see this numbness playing out in lives of family, friends and strangers who have closed their hearts. I want to help us see the distinction between spiritual and non-spiritual affectivity because I believe this distinction has the power to keep our hearts open. Hearts open leads to relationships and relationships require love. Loving allows us to be who we are.
Psychic states involve unreliability. Without distinguishing feelings, we see the depression we experience under the guise of a spiritual feeling and rightly want to close our hearts. For example, I feel depressed because of some bodily discomfort one day. Another day I feel sad because I’m reminded of the lose of a friend. Without making the distinction, I don’t experience the gift of grieving the loss of the friend and recognizing how much I loved her, and instead try to ignore the sadness. Without making a distinction, I equate this spiritual sadness to the valuelessness of fixating on the irritation of wet socks in class. Another example would be a man whose anger overpowers his rationality and will leading him to do something he regrets. He feels there is no hope in controlling his spiritual feelings, and he closes his heart.
It is possible to find freedom amidst psychic feelings. It is possible for the spirit to animate the body more tomorrow than it does today. There is room for growth.
The difficulty is that psychic feelings can present themselves as more than they are. We get confused and it becomes difficult to see that they aren’t spiritual affections, or that they don’t have a meaningful object connected to them, “which makes them illegitimate and noxious burdens in our spiritual life” (3).
Hildebrand states, “It is an important task in our spiritual and religious life to free ourselves from the rhythm of these psychic feelings, not only in our actions and decisions, but also in our hearts” (4). Our psychic feelings don’t have unlimited power. We can learn to address them intentionally. For example, a woman might lead a man on whom she has no intention of dating because of psychic feelings that arise when she’s with him. Out of love and respect for the man, this woman can become aware of her feelings and realize that they aren’t intentionally directed toward an object. She can think about what kind of relationship she would like to have with this man and chose ways that seem fitting. She can understand why these psychic feelings arise in her, but the more she is able to disengage them the more she trains her heart for love.
As I continue to think about my friend before she enters, as I become consciously aware of the self-gift she’s making for her faith, I am again filled with a spiritual joy so tangible. These feelings are a beautiful sign of our friendship, and proof that I have opened my heart to love. I can learn to intentionally direct this joy within the relationships I have at school. This joy, which springs from my friend’s self-gift, can be a force that lifts my spirit to my own self-gift. Today, I can grow, my spirit can animate my body, and I can experience the integrity of my personhood. This is the good truth of our emotions.
- Hildebrand, The Heart, 6.
- Hildebrand, The Heart, 5.
- Hildebrand, The Heart, 8.
- Hildebrand, The Heart, 8.