What does it mean to be spiritually free when life is an emotional roller coaster? Am I free when I’m able to tamp down any emotions that disrupt the flow of my work or relationships? Am I free when I have permission to express any and all emotion? Am I free if I don’t experience any emotion to an extreme degree but keep things more tempered and even? Am I free when I experience mostly the positive emotions such as bliss or peace rather than the negative ones such as anger or anxiety?
What do emotions have to do with spiritual freedom, or do they have anything to do with it?
St. Ignatius of Loyola was a pioneer of sorts in the area of spiritual direction. When he was developing his Spiritual Exercises, he encouraged people to be open to their emotions and to learn how to attend to them and understand what they meant. Ignatius was an ex-soldier and by his own admission had always possessed a strong ego. As a man’s man, he would have been taught to value reason and self-control and rational planning. Yet his own experiences of spiritual awakening introduced him to a deeper awareness of the interior life with all of its facets and nuances.
The Spiritual Exercises encourage full engagement—with the physical senses, with spiritual devotion, with what we would generally call intuition, with deep-down desires, and with any interior “movements,” including emotions. You might say that Ignatius of Loyola was getting in touch with “feminine” qualities centuries before psychologist Carl Jung came along to name and explain them.
I bring up St. Ignatius because interior freedom—spiritual freedom—requires the kind of engagement that is the focus of his Spiritual Exercises. Freedom asks that we learn how to discern our personal interior movements of soul. If we want to be truly free, we will have to acknowledge our emotions, receive them, feel them, and reflect on them. Emotions are powerful tools in the spiritual life; they are indicators of what is happening within us. And if we learn to accept them as gifts in the human experience, we can begin to work with them in spiritually healthy ways.
This week, consider how you have dealt with your emotions—how others taught you to deal with them, how you have in fact worked with them, or how you have avoided working with them. Most of us have lived a combination of engagement and avoidance in the area of emotions. Try to identify your own patterns.