Formation – The Role of Emotions

Put on the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 13:14). To make this desire of Saint Paul a reality means much more than simply putting on a new suit. It entails a conversion of the heart, a transformation of the entire person in response to the action of grace. It implies casting off the works of darkness and putting on the armor of light (cf. Rom 13:12). In other words, it requires a deep and integral formation.


In the preceding article we reflected on the fact that “reaching the person in all of his or her integrity” requires a formation that guides not only the intellect and will but also the emotions.[1] We also saw that forming the emotions—learning to enjoy what is truly good—requires the intervention of the will and consequently also of the intellect. Nevertheless, the will has only an indirect, “political” control over our feelings, and at times this control is exercised by trying to provoke a specific emotion.

But there is also another type of influence that is more long-term, and that comes about even without the person seeking it. This influence has greater importance for our considerations here. It results from the fact that voluntary acts can cause changes not only in the world around us, but also and above all within us. These acts help produce a connatural affective affinity with the good that the will seeks. Explaining exactly how this comes about is beyond the scope of these articles, but here we want to highlight two key points.

Wanting the good

The first is to note that the good towards which the will inclines—and by which this connatural affinity is produced—can be very different from what is perceived from the outside. Two people who carry out the same assignment can be doing two very different things. One may be totally absorbed in not appearing bad in the eyes of the person who has given him that assignment, while the other really wants to serve. This second person is forming a virtue while the first isn’t, since the good sought is ultimately that of not looking bad before someone with authority. It is true that this action can be a better step than simply refusing to do the task. But as long as it isn’t followed by a series of further steps, that person would not be growing in virtue no matter how many times the action is repeated. Hence it is very important to rectify, to constantly purify our intention in order to little by little embrace the reasons for which it is really worthwhile doing something, and thus to shape our emotions with them.

We all have our own experience or that of others on how limiting oneself to respecting certain rules easily ends up becoming a burden. The example of the older son in the parable warns us of this danger (cf. Lk15:29-30). While in contrast, sincerely seeking the good that these rules are meant to foster brings freedom and joy. Ultimately, we could say that we need to shape not so much our doing as our wanting. Not only what I do is important, but also what I want when I do it.[2] Freedom, thus, is the decisive factor. It is not sufficient to do something; we have to want to do it. We have to do it “because we want to, which is the most supernatural reason,”[3] because only thus we are growing in virtue, that is, we are learning to enjoy what is truly good. A mere fulfillment that leads to cumplo y miento, to fulfilling and lying,[4] doesn’t lead to freedom, nor to love and joy. But when we understand why this way of acting is truly great and worthwhile, and let ourselves be guided by these reasons in our actions, then we foster our freedom, and strengthen our love and joy.

Long-term formation

The second point to consider is that attaining connatural affinity with the good in our emotions is often a slow process. If virtue consisted merely in the capacity to overcome the resistance in our feelings to doing what is right, we could acquire it in a much shorter time. But we know that a virtue has not yet been solidly formed as long as the good being sought doesn’t have a positive echo in our emotions.[5] Hence we need to be patient in our struggle because it may take a long time, even years, to achieve certain worthwhile goals. The difficulty we may experience in pursuing the good during this time shouldn’t be interpreted as a failure or as a sign that our struggle is not sincere or decisive enough. We are dealing here with a progression in which every step may be so small that it isn’t easy to realize that progress is being made. Only after time has gone by can we look back and realize that we have travelled further than we had thought.

If, for example, we want to overcome our angry reactions, we will begin by making the effort to limit the external manifestations. Perhaps at first it may seem that we are not getting anywhere. But if we persist, the times when we control ourselves—perhaps very few at the beginning—will become more and more frequent, and after some time—perhaps a long time—we will gain habitual self-control. Still this is not enough, since our goal is not to repress the external manifestations but to shape our internal reaction, to become more gentle and peaceful. And then this calmer reaction will become engrained in our way of being. The struggle therefore may be longer, but who can deny that it will be more attractive, more liberating and more exciting? Its goal is to attain interior peace in seeking and doing God’s will, and not merely to “violently” suppress emotional reactions.

Pope Francis in explaining his principle that time is greater than space,[6]points out that “giving priority to time means being concerned about initiating processes rather than possessing spaces.[7] In the interior life it is worthwhile to start realistic and generous processes. And we need to be ready to wait as long as required for them to produce fruit. “This principle enables us to work slowly but surely, without being obsessed with immediate results. It helps us patiently to endure difficult and adverse situations, or inevitable changes in our plans. It invites us to accept the tension between fullness and limitation.”[8] We need to try to ensure that the awareness of our limitations doesn’t paralyze our desire to reach the fullness God offers us. Just as we want to prevent this noble ambition from naively making us forget that we are limited.

To aim high in our formation, to strive not only to carry out good acts, but to be good, to have a good heart, will enable us to distinguish a virtuous act from what we might call an act that conforms to a virtue. The latter would be an act that corresponds to a virtue and contributes step by step to attaining it, but that since it does not yet stem from a mature habit, often still requires overcoming feelings that pull in the opposite direction. In contrast, a virtuous act is one that brings joy in accomplishing the good even when this requires effort. That is the goal.

An integral formation that shapes our emotional reactions is a slow process. Those who seek it won’t fall into the naive attempt to submit one’s feelings to the will, suppressing emotions one doesn’t like or trying to stir up those one wants to have. We come to understand that our struggle should be centered rather on the free decisions by which, in striving to fulfill God’s will, we respond to these feelings, accepting or rejecting the behavior they suggest to us. For it is these decisions that—indirectly and in the long run—lead to forming the intimate world within us from which these feelings stem.

An interior world

As we grow in virtue, we not only carry out a good act with greater naturalness and joy, but we also become better able to identify what this good act is. “In order to ‘prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect’ (Rom 12:2), knowledge of God’s law in general is certainly necessary, but it is not sufficient. What is essential is a sort of ‘connaturality’ between man and the true good (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 45, a. 2). Such a connaturality is rooted in and develops through the virtuous attitudes of the individual himself.”[9]

This is due in large part to the fact that our emotional response is the first voice we hear when evaluating the suitability of a particular way of acting. Even before our reason considers whether it is right or not to do something pleasurable, we have already sensed its appeal. Virtue, by making the good attractive to our feelings, endows the voice of our affective response with a certain moral evaluation (that is, a reference to the person’s overall good) of this act. Thus, for example, even though we are attracted by the possibility of looking good in another person’s eyes, we grasp how unpleasant it is to lie.

In an implicit but clear way, we find this expressed in a very brief point of The Way: “Why should you look around you, if you carry ‘your world’ within you?”[10] Saint Josemaria is contrasting looking at the exterior world with a person’s interior world. And it is this relationship that determines the value of the external look, which will be seen as appropriate or not according to one’s interior world. There is no need then to suppress as inappropriate this external look, since right from the start the interior world“my world”—rejects it. Saint Josemaria is telling us that if our interior world is rich, we will not only avoid what can do us harm, but it won’t even be a danger because we will find it repugnant. We will see it not only as bad, but also—and even beforehand—as ugly, unappealing, unfitting, out of place… Of course, it may be attractive in some way, but it is easy to reject that attraction because it destroys the beauty and harmony of our interior world. In contrast, if we don’t “carry our world within us,” avoiding that exterior look will entail considerable effort.


All this shows how growth in the virtues makes us ever more realistic in our approach to life. Some people have the idea—normally not expressed—that living according to the virtues implies closing one’s eyes to reality. And this for a very noble reason, because by acting in this way we turn our back on part of this world hoping for a reward in the next. On the contrary, living as Christ did, imitating his virtues, opens us to the real world and prevents our feelings from deceiving us when evaluating and deciding how to respond to it.

For example, poverty doesn’t mean failing to appreciate the value of material goods in light of eternal life. Rather only a person who lives with detachment truly appreciates material goods in the proper way. They aren’t seen as evil, nor are they given an importance they don’t have. On the other hand, a person who makes no effort to live this way will end up giving them a greater value than what they really have, and this will affect that person’s decisions. He will not be a realist even though he may appear to others as an authentic man of the world, who knows how to behave in wordly settings. A temperate person knows how to enjoy a good meal; while a person who lacks this virtue will give this pleasure an importance it objectively lacks. Something similar could be said about any other virtue. As Jesus told Nicodemus: He who does what is true comes to the light (Jn 3:21).

A “virtuous” circle

In the end, guiding our feelings by developing the virtues leads to purifying our sight. It is like taking our glasses and cleaning off the stains that original sin and our personal sins have left on them and that make it difficult for us to see the world as it really is. “Let us say it plainly: the unredeemed state of the world consists precisely in the failure to understand the meaning of creation, in the failure to recognize truth; as a result, the rule of pragmatism is imposed, by which the strong arm of the powerful becomes the god of this world.”[11]

A well-ordered affectivity helps our reason to understand creation, to recognize the truth, to identify what is truly good for us. Correct judgement on the part of our reason facilitates free choice. The good act that results from this choice helps to “connaturalize” us with the good we seek, and consequently to put order into our emotional responses. This produces an authentic “virtuous circle” that leads us to realize that we are progressively freer, masters of our own acts and hence able to truly give ourselves to God, since only a person who possesses himself can give himself.

Formation is integral only when it reaches all these levels. In other words, there is only true formation when the various faculties that intervene in human acts—reason, will, emotions—are integrated. These faculties shouldn’t fight with one another but rather work together. If we fail to properly mold our feelings, that is, if the virtues are understood as only an added force for our will that enables it to override our feelings, the moral norms and the struggle to try to live them will be repressive and will fail to lead to an authentic unity of life. For we would always feel within us powerful forces that try to pull us in the opposite direction and produce instability. We are well acquainted with this instability, since it is where we start from. But we are able to overcome it little by little, as we guide these forces progressively towards harmony. Then the moment will come when “because I want to,” which is the “most supernatural reason,” comes to mean because I like it, because it attracts me, because it accords with my way of being, because it fits with the interior world that I have formed for myself. And ultimately, because I have learned to make my own the sentiments of Christ Jesus.

Thus we make progress towards the attractive and exalted goal that Saint Paul sets out for us: Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus (Phil 2:5). And we realize that thus we are putting on the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Rom 13:14). “Christ’s life is our life … a Christian should live as Christ lived, making the affections of Christ his own, so that he can exclaim with Saint Paul: non vivo ego, vivit vero in me Christus (Gal 2:10), it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.[12] Fidelity consists precisely in this, in living, wanting, and feeling in accord with Christ—not because we “disguise ourselves” as Christ, but because this becomes our own way of being. Then in following God’s will, in being faithful, we are deeply free, because we do what we want, what we like, what we “feel like” doing. Deeply free and deeply faithful. Deeply faithful and deeply happy.

[1] Cf. Fernando Ocáriz, Pastoral Letter, 14 February 2017, 8.

[2] In reality, from a moral standpoint, what I do is precisely what I want when I do it. But for our purposes here there is no need to pause to explain why this is so.

[3]Saint Josemaria,Christ is Passing By, 17.

[4] Cf. Don Alvaro, Letter,September 1995, in Family Letters I, 8.

[5] It should be clear from the previous article that this doesn’t mean that the good requires no effort or, what amounts to the same, that evil no longer holds any attraction.

[6] Cf. Apostolic Exhortation Evangelium gaudium, 222-225.

[7] Ibid., 223. Italics in the original.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Saint John Paul II, Encyclical Veritatis Splendor, 6 August 1993, 64.

[10] Saint Josemaria, The Way, 184.

[11] Joseph Ratzinger – Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. II, 7, 3.

[12] Christ is Passing By, 103.

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