Women and Feelings (Part One) – Alice von Hildebrand


Painting by Edmund Blair Leighton 1852-1922

Part Two is here.

from The Privilege of Being a Woman by Alice von Hildebrand

Feelings are often denigrated in homilies and in spiritual direction. Women are told that spiritual life is based not on emotions, but on faith, will, and rational thought.

If by feelings we mean the flow of irrational emotions that, like flies, keep swarming around us, this advice should be taken very seriously. No doubt feelings can be dangerous and misleading.

But as my late husband has convincingly shown in his book The Heart, the word “feeling” is equivocal.

Failure to clarify such ambiguities will necessarily lead to a disparaging of feelings. Aristotle claimed that whereas intelligence and free will are human prerogatives, feelings are experiences that man shares with animals.

In claiming that feelings are shared by men and animals, Aristotle must have been thinking of localized physical sensations (such as pain and pleasure), which indeed man shares with animals.

Both men and animals can feel cold, hunger, thirst, fatigue; all of these experiences are related to the body and are located in the body. They are “voices of the body.”

A partial truth is not an error. But, when this partial truth is extended to include all types of feelings, it definitely becomes an error and a serious one.

The above-mentioned experiences share one common feature: they are unintentional, which—in the vocabulary of Husserl —means that no knowledge of their cause is necessary in order for these “feelings” to be experienced.  They are definitely nonspiritual, and man shares them with animals.

Feelings can refer secondarily to experiences which are very different from this first type: We are thinking of “psychic feelings” such as moods, depression (caused by a physical condition), the jolliness which most people experience when drinking alcoholic beverages, and so on. These feelings have no bodily location—as the first clearly do —but they share with the first their lack of intentionality. One need not know their cause in order to experience them.

Radically different are “spiritual feelings”, which have neither a bodily location nor lack intentionality. They cannot possibly arise in a man’s soul unless he has an awareness of what motivates these feelings.

One cannot love without knowing what or whom one loves, without realizing that this love is a response to a lovable object; one cannot hate without an awareness that this feeling arose as a response to something or somebody hateful.

One cannot be grateful without knowing what we are grateful for and to whom we are indebted. Chesterton does remark, however, that at one point in his early life, he found himself in the ludicrous situation of feeling grateful “…though I hardly knew to whom.”

These feelings share with intelligence and will the feature of intentionality; that is why they fully deserve to be called “spiritual.”

Our responses to the objects or persons motivating our feeling can be appropriate or not. Because of original sin, man is, alas, capable of giving wrong and distorted responses. One can hate what is lovable; one can rejoice over evil deeds; one can be saddened by the happiness of other persons, and be elated by their unhappiness.

In such cases, our illegitimate response creates a cacophony, a false note in the symphony of the universe. It should not be. But, with God’s grace, man is capable of transcending his narrow subjectivism, his tendency to look at events exclusively from the point of view of his interest, and give what my late husband called “a value response,” that is, to love what deserves to be loved, to love more what is higher, to love less what is lower.

Centuries ago, Plato wrote that one of the aims of education is to teach the child “…to hate what should be hated and to love what should be loved.” By hearkening to this message, man joins his humble voice to the symphony of the universe, proclaiming God’s greatness, beauty, and truth.

It is noteworthy that these spiritual responses not only share the features that intellect and will possess, (e.g., one cannot love without knowing the object of one’s love), but surpass them in richness and plenitude. In spiritual response, man’s intellect is fully activated.

The role of the will is also crucial, for our spiritual affective responses must be “sanctioned” by our will (in my husband’s terminology); this sanctioning makes them truly to become ours. All feelings which have not been “sealed” by our will, are likely to wither and die. Like the statues of Daedalus, they must be “nailed” to gain their full validity.

What a difference exists between a person feeling compassion and one strengthened by a will to be compassionate and, therefore, anxious to act compassionately when actions are called for.

The folly of claiming that one is compassionate and yet refusing to help has been ironically expressed in a play of Nestroy, an Austrian playwright:

A rich man witnessing the abject misery of a beggar orders his servants to “throw this beggar down the steps; his misery breaks my heart.”

What a difference there is between a feeling of contrition and the will to go to confession and ask for forgiveness.

Feelings are further viewed as “inferior” because they cannot be commanded. But this argument is unconvincing: Grace cannot be commanded by the will either, not because it is “inferior” but because it is “superior.” It is an unmerited gift. Those who have experienced moments of radiant spiritual joy and profound peace know that these feelings are “gifts” for which we should be grateful, and which God can take away from us when He so wishes.

Saint Teresa of Avila writes emphatically that spiritual joy should not be “sought” and pursued. When received, they call for gratitude. But our heart should not rest in them and lose its peace when they are taken away.

The crucial role played, however, by the will and spiritual feelings are strikingly expressed in both the ceremony of marriage and the taking of religious vows: The bride, the bridegroom, or the novice makes a solemn declaration that gives to their 1ove of each other or of God its full validity.

The fiancés love each other; the postulant loves God. Now they ardently want to formalize this feeling, and give its full weight and plenitude by declaring solemnly that even though their feeling of love for each other or for God may wane (due to the frailty of human nature, due to physiological conditions, due to periods of trial), they know that these feelings (which may be hidden from them in the mystery of their souls) are still fully (super actually) present and valid, because they are ratified by their wills.

This remains fully true even though the joy of experiencing love has momentarily been taken away from them. Love will continue to manifest itself in acts of kindness, faithfulness, and prayer in moments of total aridity. These are periods of trial during which one can prove one’s faithfulness (fides means both “belief” and “faithfulness”).

How many saints have gone through a period of intense dryness during which they no longer “felt” that they loved God, but persevered at His service with heroic courage. Very often, this cross was taken from them shortly before death. Saint John of the Cross has described more eloquently than anyone else “the dark night of the soul.” The crucial point is that “love” is still there, but no longer experienced, no longer a source of delight.

The saint then walks in the darkness of faith. But it is a sign of man’s greatness how freely he can deny himself the freedom to change his mind: This is the very essence of vows.

Therefore the traditional suspicion that many religiously minded people have had toward feelings is unwarranted. True, our feelings must be purified, but this is equally true of our intellect and of our will. Kierkegaard wrote that the sins of the intellect are often worse than the sins of passions (de-railed affectivity): “Oh! The sins of the passions and of the heart, how much nearer to salvation than the sins of reason.”

In his powerful novel Oblomov, Goncharov puts the following words in the mouth of his heroine: “…it is a bad habit with men to be ashamed of their heart. That is false pride. They had better be sometimes ashamed of their intellect – it goes astray more often.”

The point is that it is our heart which is vulnerable and, therefore, makes us realize our weakness, which is distasteful to masculine pride.

It was the heart of Christ that was pierced by the soldier’s spear. Because our spiritual feelings come from our heart, and because man’s heart must be transformed from a heart of stone into a heart of flesh, it is clear that purification of spiritual feelings is crucial in the process of man’s sanctification.

The heart (the tabernacle of affectivity) symbolizes the whole person. When one falls in love, one says to the beloved, “I give you my heart.” It would be strange indeed if one said “I give you my intellect, or my will, or my memory.”

It is written in the Bible: “Give me your heart.”

But it is also true that the human heart can incarnate wickedness and corruption. It therefore symbolizes the best and the worst in man.

Man’s daily prayer should be “make my heart like unto Yours.” In the saints and in the wise, intellect, will, and heart are fully purified.

The nobility of right feelings and their importance in spiritual life is powerfully illustrated in the autobiographies of both Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint Therese of Lisieux. How often they use the word “feeling,” yet, hopefully, no one would dare accuse them of subjectivism and illusionism.

When asked by her confessor how she knew that it was Christ that was present to her, the great Spanish mystic answered that she “felt it”. She was right, for He truly was present to her.

But she also was fully aware, from having to deal with many nuns, that feelings can be the fruits of self-centeredness, sentimentality, emotionalism, or over-susceptibility, so she waged a relentless war against these crippling dangers. She knew that we can “feel” offended or deeply hurt, or wounded because we have been justly criticized.


“Never forget that it is God’s will that the parents should be the ones to teach the child to pray, as Mary and Joseph helped the boy Jesus to advance in wisdom and grace.” -A Dominican Nun, 1954

Make a statement with this lovely and graceful “Mother” handcrafted apron….fully lined….made with care. Aprons tell a beautiful story…..a story of love and sacrifice….of baking bread and mopping floors, of planting seeds and household chores. Sadly, many women have tossed the aprons aside and donned their business attire. Wear your apron with joy….it is a symbol of Femininity….”Finer” Femininity! 🌺 💗

Available here.

This post contains affiliate links. Thank you for your support.


%d bloggers like this: