by Dr. Elizabeth Salas
What is the difference between an emotional encounter and a spiritual encounter? The saints explain.
Beyond just knowing about a person, encountering a person seems to be deeply intimate, even inexplicable. An encounter of the soul with Jesus may be yet more intense, since he knows us in our inmost being.
But to capture Christ, personally and deeply within us, requires a soul willing to mature in its encounter.
The Felt Encounter
Since we are embodied souls, we naturally seek an encounter with God that we can feelan emotional encounter. God created us like this; indeed, our faith is sacramental because our senses lead us to all the knowledge we are capable of acquiring. Because we delight in our senses, we want to taste, touch, and experience God bubbling within us. We want to cry holy tears, to feel inner joy.
Often, such an encounter is had when we receive unexpected mercy, unexpected welcome, or see God's providence at work starkly, suddenly. We feel God when, lonely in some hidden way, we realize we are in fact not alone.
Or, faced with a failing relationship, we realize God's arms are always open. God, who seems far off, comes down to our hearts. There is nothing more pleasurable to us than this feeling of God, and such an experience can be the door to a life that is lastingly spiritual.
However, we must not confuse an emotional encounter with a personal encounter. Because of concupiscence, our senses are greedy, turned inward. We want to
relish the felt encounter. We relish what we "get out of" spiritualitythe pleasure or coziness that spirituality produce—rather than the Giver himself.
Getting Beyond Emotions
When emotions run high, we tend to think we are quite close to God, even holy. Spirituality seems easy, and so all
intellectual work on our part seems superfluous. We come to the point where we can't read a long article, or hear a homily that is too philosophical or weighty in theological categories. But then the teachings of the Church and of the great scholar-saints cannot be communicated accurately to our souls, and we are actually distanced from God.
Moreover, emphasizing emotion tends to de-emphasize criticism and discernmentanything that would dampen fervorunder the pretext of receptivity or humility. Thus extraordinary phenomena, such as tongues, are generally accepted without criticism, making us spiritually vulnerable.
St. John of the Cross writes that, in such phenomena, the devil habitually meddles so freely, that I believe it impossible for a man not to be deceived in many of them unless he strive to reject them, such an appearance of truth and security does the devil give them (St. John of the Cross, Ascent of Mt. Carmel, II.27.6). The saint also cautions, In order to deceive the soul and to instill falsehoods into it, the devil first feeds it with truths and things that are probable in order to give it assurance and afterwards to deceive it (II.27.4).
That we get something out of such an encounter or that it works for us, therefore, is not an argument for its safety.
Settle for More than Crumbs
When emotions run low, we think God is absent. We then attempt to recycle previous emotional encounters. The song, the chapel, the book that stirred us, the prayer meeting, listening to so-and-so's talks: these we return to, hoping to squeeze from them another benefit. But since emotions are passivethey just happen to u—it is impossible to stir them up.
St. John of the Cross refers to this discontent as spiritual gluttony, and it is a roller coaster. We voraciously eat the crumbs under the table (created things) instead of the breadthe Creator himself.
Desire for these crumbs binds the soul to the mill of concupiscence, since crumbs never truly satisfy (Ascent, Book I, Ch. 7.2). We are mired in animalism, not exalted in mysticism. Searching for this kind of encounter, or promising it, can lead to despair, self-deception, and spiritual showmanship.
When a felt encounter is experienced, it is likely God's only way of reaching us because of our tender and weak souls. He often meets us in the midst of situations that are undesirable, sinful, or imperfect in themselves, not to affirm where we are at but in order not to lose us completely (Ascent II.21.2-3). He wants to lure us out, to a true personal encounter.
God is indeed our friend, but we need to learn that He is also Godto appreciate his transcendence.
The Spiritual Encounter
Truly to encounter God, we must break out of the exhausting and dangerous cycle of spiritual thrill-seeking; when we feel desolation, we must not recoil but embrace it. Like the Blessed Mother, we may know not how God can communicate himself to our souls in any other way, but we give our fiat anyway. We determine to focus on the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist, because we believe God is truly present in them.
By our choice to commit ourselves to God regardless of feelings, we show him how much we love and honor him, that we are truly his friend! We cannot be fooled by his apparent absence or disfavor.
Relying on faith, the assurance of things not seen, we are content to let God work secretly within us, holding still with our thoughts and desires so that God the artist can paint us (Dark Night of the Soul, 10.5.2). We choose to remain in a simple state of loving attention to God. Our prayer and sacramental life is characterized
by regularity, acceptance of aridity, solitude, patience, gradual growth and humility. Instead of becoming upset if there is no result, we pray and receive the sacraments with patience, knowing that we do not waste time.
When Darkness is Light
In 1959, after ten years of torturous spiritual desolation, St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta prays: Do with me as you wishas long as You wish, without a single glance at my feelings and pain . . . Your happiness is all that I want . . . please do not take the trouble to return soon.I am ready to wait for you for all eternity.
When we approach God more closely as he is, the darker that encounter will be for us. True encounter is a desert, not a tropical resort, this side of heaven.
But in the midst of it, St. John of the Cross describes an awareness of God's presence that is truly about God, not us. Mysteriously, as we endure aridity, our longing for God increases, and our emotions gradually take on a new character.
As St. John Paul II suggests, A love which has matured . . . frees itself from . . . anxiety by its choice of [the] person. The emotion becomes serene and confident, because it ceases to be absorbed entirely in itself and attaches itself instead . . . to the beloved person . . . [it] becomes simpler and soberer (Love and Responsibility).
A true, loving encounter with the transcendent God requires commitment, not fervor. However, in his time, that commitment will also brighten our hearts.
Dr. Elizabeth SalasDr. Elizabeth Salas is assistant professor of philosophy at Sacred Heart.