In any degree of the spiritual life, and even where there is no spiritual life at all, it can happen that a man will feel himself caught up in an emotional religious ferment in which he overflows with sensible, and even sentimental movements of love for God and other people.
If he is completely inexperienced he will get the idea that he is very holy because of the holy feelings that are teeming in his heart. All these things mean very little or nothing at all. They are a kind of sensible intoxication produced by some pleasure or other, and there is only an accidental difference between them and the tears that children sometimes shed when they go to the movies.
In themselves these movements of passion are indifferent. They can be used for good or evil, and for beginners in the spiritual life they are generally necessary.
But even a beginner would be foolish to depend on them, because sooner or later he will have to do without them. In fact, his spiritual life will not really begin until he has learned in some measure to get along without the stimulus of emotion.
Even when we enter into the contemplative life we still carry our passions and our sensible nature along with us like a store of unprotected gasoline. And sometimes the sparks that fly in the pure darkness of contemplation get into that fuel by accident and start a blaze in the emotions and the senses. The whole spirit is rocked and reels in an explosion of drunken joy or a storm of compunction which may be good and healthy, but which is still more or less animal, even though the spark that started the fire may have had a supernatural origin. This blaze flares up and burns out in a few moments, or a half an hour. While it lasts, you taste an intense pleasure which is sometimes deceptively lofty. But this joy occasionally betrays itself by a certain heaviness that belongs to the sensual level and marks it for what it is: crude emotion.
Sometimes it may even produce a good natural effect. A burst of spiritual exuberance can tone you up on a feast day, after weeks of struggle and labor. But generally the effect of this commotion is no better than natural. When it is all over you have no more profit than you might have got from a couple of glasses of champagne or a good swim.
So to that extent it is a good thing. But the danger is that you will attach the wrong kind of importance to these manifestations of religious emotion. Really they are not important at all, and although sometimes they are unavoidable, it does not seem prudent to desire them. And as a matter of fact, everyone who has received any kind of training in the interior life knows that it is not considered good sense to go after these consolations with too heavy an intensity of purpose.
For anyone who is really called to infused contemplation this taste for “experiences” can be one of the most dangerous obstacles in his interior life. It is the rock on which many who might have become contemplatives have ended in shipwreck. And it is all the more dangerous because even in the houses of contemplative orders people do not always clearly understand the difference between mystical contemplation in the proper sense and all these accidentals, these experiences, these manifestations and curiosities, which may or may not be supernatural, and which have no essential connection with sanctity or with the pure love which is at the heart of true contemplation.
Passion and emotion certainly have their place in the life of prayer—but they must be purified, ordered, brought into submission to the highest love. Then they too can share in the spirit’s joy and even, in their own small way, contribute to it. But until they are spiritually mature the passions must be treated firmly and with reserve, even in the “consolations” of prayer. When are they spiritually mature? When they are pure, clean, gentle, quiet, nonviolent, forgetful of themselves, detached and above all when they are humble and obedient to reason and to grace.
From Thomas Merton, “New Seeda of Contemplation”