Few people today think of excitement as something that needs a cure. At the same time, we all know how it feels to be carried along by the currents of our emotions. They are powerful forces capable of leading us astray, if we allow them to do so. Robert Frost once wrote, “More than once I should have lost my soul to radicalism if it had been the originality it was mistaken for by its young converts.” We, too, can be caught up in our emotions and later find ourselves lost. Looking to the epistle of St. James, St. John Henry Newman explains how worship, particularly public worship, is capable of channeling our emotions and directing us to God.
Emotions or passions are neither good nor evil in and of themselves, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us. They are inclinations natural to being human, and they help us act “in regard to something felt or imagined to be good or evil.” But they have become disordered through original sin, and must be “governed by reason,” aided by grace. Anger is rightly felt toward evil, fear toward danger, joy toward good things. But many times we allow the passions to dictate our choices and states of mind. When we get caught up in our passions or excitements, we need something to return us to a peaceful state of mind fixed on God. These powerful inclinations can become an “indisposition of the soul” as Newman puts it.
To remedy this indisposition, St. James recommends prayer and praise: “Is any one among you suffering? Let him pray. Is any one cheerful? Let him sing praise.” Newman helps us understand how this remedy works for two types of excitements: secular and religious.
Secular excitements include “. . . The pursuit of gain, or of power, or of distinction. Amusements are excitements; the applause of a crowd, emulations, hopes, risks, quarrels, contests, disappointments, successes. In such cases the object pursued naturally absorbs the mind, and excludes all thoughts but those relating to itself. Thus a man is sold over into bondage to this world. He has one idea, and one only before him, which becomes his idol.” Newman identifies the pursuit of gain as the most common in his country (England) in his day, and this seems to be only more true of our country in our day. Captivated by this excitement, we forget about God, heaven, hell – the fundamental supernatural world around us and our place in it.
What can prayer and praise do in this circumstance? Newman explains: “Here we see one very momentous use of prayer and praise to all of us; it breaks the current of worldly thoughts. And this is the singular benefit of stated worship, that it statedly interferes with the urgency of worldly excitements.” Public worship especially, like attending Mass, has the power to free us. Regular prayer is essential to the life of a Christian, but how easily it can be intruded upon! “. . . A man, amid the business of life, is often tempted to defraud himself of his private devotions by the pressure of engagements. He has not many minutes to give to them; and if by accident they are broken in upon, the season is gone and lost. But the public Service is of a certain length, and cannot be interrupted; and it is long enough to calm and steady the mind. Scripture must be read, psalms must be sung, prayers must be offered; every thing comes in course.”
In such a feverous, workaholic culture such as our own, it feels as if every minute must be spent productively and efficiently. Weekends and holidays have increasingly lost their ability to force us to rest. As a result, many remain caught in their excitements and drift every so slightly farther and farther from our Lord. We need to take hold of our leisure with a firm grip.
Religious excitements can be equally dangerous. Newman recalls the Philippian jailor whom Sts. Paul and Silas lead to Christ. “The jailor, who for the first time heard the news of salvation through Christ, gave evident signs of transport. This certainly is natural and right; still it is a state of excitement, and, if I might say it, all states of excitement have dangerous tendencies.” In the course of our lives, we will meet those souls who quickly catch the fire of the Holy Spirit and are ready to give themselves wholly to our Lord, but who then get carried off in the wrong direction. Some leave the Church as their excitement fades; others want an increasingly radical and intense devotion to God that sometimes leads them to heretical sects. These we must pray for, but we must also watch for the same excitements in ourselves.
At times of great excitement, let’s remember what God asks of us: a contrite heart that is ready to say “yes” to Him in the most ordinary of things. Newman shows us that just such communion with God in the ordinary course of our day is more powerful than we can imagine: “Did you give your body to be burned, and all your goods to feed the poor, you could not do so much as by continual intercession. Few are rich, few can suffer for Christ; all may pray.”
This season of Lent is a special time given to us to purify and order the passions. Are you afflicted by excitement – either secular or religious? Now is the time to find your remedy in prayer and praise, perhaps at daily Mass, and allow our Lord to keep you close to His Sacred Heart.