Emotional Worship

When I was studying script writing I came across a quote from a film script writer that could well apply to worship. He said, “I want to move the audience so much that they leave the cinema thinking.” He understood that emotions are what motivate most of us most of the time. In fact the words ’emotion’ and ‘motion’ and ‘motivate’ and ‘move’ are all from the same root. Whether we like to admit it or not, we are motivated most powerfully, not by our rational facilities, but by our emotions. Like the old Russian proverb says, “The heart moves the feet.”

In the best worship too, our hearts (like the Methodists) are strangely warmed. The heart moves toward the object of its real desire, and if the worship is emotional, then the movement of the heart toward God feels stronger and our passion for God is intensified. Those who plan and pray over the liturgy must be aware of the emotional dimension and not be afraid of it.

When I say emotion I am not simply referring to the more obviously emotional forms of worship like the charismatic. A simple daily Mass said reverently can be a very emotional experience as can a solemn high Mass. The emotion that is communicated is an important and valuable part of the whole experience.

It gets tricky, however, because one form of worship that may move my emotions may leave you cold, and what moves you may leave me cold. As a result we have to avoid a couple of pitfalls. One pitfall is believing that the worship that motivates and inspires me must necessarily motivate and inspire others to the same degree. We have to be prepared for the fact that the worship we like doesn’t touch others at all, and may even repel them. We also have to be prepared for the fact that the worship we don’t particularly like may be just the thing which really does inspire and motivate other people.

Another pitfall is imagining that worship is only about emotion in worship. If this is our main goal, then we will soon find ourselves church shopping for the right emotional kick, and if we don’t get it we’ll go somewhere else. In the same way, it is easy to be critical of the worship we are committed to, and if the homily or the hymns or the liturgy is just right, we can start criticizing it because we feel cheated, “It didn’t give us the emotional oomph we wanted…”

Then there are those who deny that emotion has anything at all to do with the way they worship. They simply believe that they are doing the ‘right’ thing and doing things the ‘right’ way, and emotion doesn’t enter into it. Indeed, any emotion at all in religion is suspect. These folks miss the obvious fact that there is a certain satisfying emotion in being ‘right’ and in getting things right which is just as emotionally pleasing as anything else. Sometimes those who deny that there should be any emotion in worship at all will experience the mosts intense inner emotions in worship although they are never outwardly expressed.

To seek only emotion in worship is imbalanced. We must also pay attention to the whole life of belief and worship in the church, and the subjective emotion in our worship must always be subject to the objective rule of faith and worship given to us by Holy Mother Church.

But the desire for emotion in worship is not a bad desire. The reason we long for emotion in our worship is because we know deep down that worship is about love, and love involves the deepest emotion and the deepest mystery. We cannot define the desire or identify the emotion, but we seek emotion in worship because underneath it all we are seeking to love and to be loved with that primal love that “moves the Sun and the other stars.”

"Catholicism has always defined the ideal but there are no limits on God's mercy and ..."

Tony Palmer: Is There Salvation Outside ..."
"With all due respect, Shaun, are you relegating the actual Faith to whatever the local ..."

Notes on Tony Palmer’s Funeral
"There are good parking valets and bad parking valets. There are good housesitters and bad ..."

The Case for Conversion to Catholicism
"did you vote for Bush Fr Longenecker? would you have?"

Understanding Iraq

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Anonymous

    What I have come to know over these 42 years I’ve been a Catholic is that good liturgy transports. I couldn’t honestly say it is an emotional experience (although perhaps I’m duping myself), but rather a glimpse of “where” our Lord resides and wishes me to be. I recently experienced this at a small, quiet, reverent, beautifully-done nuptial mass (Novus Ordo) in rural SC. My husband and I both used the same word, “transported”, at the conclusion. Likewise, I have experienced this at the Shrine of the Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, AL (replete with Latin), and even once in a more “new-agey” church (they actually don’t even have a Sanctuary yet) in GA. Again, perhaps I’m wrong but emotions didn’t seem to play a part in this experience. Beautiful music helps, of course, but can actually be a distracter; in one instance, even no music at all produced the same transcendent result. I have come to believe that the celebrant greatly influences such transcendence. At those liturgies I’ve mentioned, the celebrant’s personality doesn’t even seem to enter in. It is almost as if he has chosen to become transparent and simply allows Jesus to come through and re-present His sacrifice. Great humility and great piety seem to be the key. I dunno…does this make any sense at all to anyone else? I have to admit that this kind of liturgical experience doesn’t happen often in my neck of the woods, but when it does, it is truly “transporting”…Blessings, Jenny

  • boredoftheworld

    Love of course is not an emotion, it is an act of the will. There are emotions that certainly associate with love but they aren’t love… they’re emotions.Emotion comes from the glands… they’re biological not spiritual. This doesn’t make them evil but it does make them about as pertinent to worship as the opinion of the big toe.

  • Jenny, all these things are part of what I was terming ’emotion’. I share them with you.

  • boredofthe world: does this put you in the category of people I mentioned in paragraph 6?

  • Jennifer

    re: the emotion of “rightness”:I have found this to be very true. When I am confident of the genuineness of those present, and of the appropriateness of the liturgy or the worship experience (outside of Mass, for example), any liturgy can be powerfully moving. In contrast, if I suspect hypocrisy and rebellion, it is so much harder to think about God and focus on Him, and certainly the sense of communal worship is lost.[FYI to contentious fellow readers, those comments apply to any and all types of prayerful events, I’m not make veiled references to one end of the spectrum or another.]

  • boredoftheworld

    I hope it puts me in the category of people who believe precision is important. I don’t want to build up a froth of righteous indignation about this, but it’s rather fundamental to our understanding of God that love is not an emotion. I realize that may appear to be peripheral to your blog entry but it seems to me that if you work through your article with an accurate understanding of what love and emotions are then the point you’re trying to make doesn’t really work.Not that this invalidates everything you’re trying to say, even in my opinion.

  • I did not actually equate love with emotion.I would clarify by saying that love is not merely emotion, but neither can love exclude emotion, for love encompasses all.

  • Surely worship is about relationship—specifically, worship is an expression of our relationship with God (and his with us—I’m not trying to downplay the action of grace :-)). While emotion is certainly not the essential factor in a stable relationship, I don’t know a whole lot of married couples—or parents, for that matter—who’d say emotion is irrelevant.A stable relationship between people is built on a whole mutually-reinforcing matrix of things: will, emotion, duty, perhaps desire, usually social support, etc. It may be possible to identify will as the essential element—the one without which the others can’t function. But it’s simplistic, I believe, to treat that act of will in isolation from the matrix that supports it and makes it (non-heroically) sustainable. Most of us can only play Puddleglum for so long.Fr. Dwight’s point, if I understand him, is applying this same idea to worship. He is not claiming that will is inessential to worship, but rather that the emotional and aesthetic considerations are also active—indeed, they may be important motivators of that essential will.Did I misread?Peace,–Peter

  • Different

    boredoftheworld,Have you never loved another person in such a way that your heart leapt when he or she entered the room. When their laugh filled your heart with joy so much that you wanted to sing. When a sleeping child’s beauty made you breathless.These moments, these movements within the heart are NOT acts of the will, yet they are the movement of Love, who is God, within us. And these same moments of profound deep emotional beauty can happen in the Liturgy. Unfortunately, it is rare because we usually have so many anxieties and distractions, but when it happens, oh it is beautiful.

  • Please bear with me, I’m working this out in my own head as I go along…Worship is an act of specific love towards God, in my opinion. In worship, we are declaring ourselves to be devoted to Him, as both his children and His Bride. We choose to worship; one can be standing in a church and participating in the liturgy, or in my case, singing the worship songs, and not be actively involved in the worship from your heart. That’s “mouth/tongue worship”, and it does not please God at all. He wants us to worship Him in spirit and in truth. (John 4:21-24) By that, I infer that He wants us to be wholly focussed on Him, to be reverently letting Him know that we do love and adore Him, instead of wondering about the sale on over at the Wal-Mart on garden hoses or what-not during liturgy or worship.Sorry I took so long,Badger

  • The mass is described by some apologists as “a grand event.” Tradition has shaped it into something animates the senses and stirs the emotions. When properly celebrated, these elements turn the participant’s thoughts towards prayer. The mass itself thus becomes an act of prayer.I have occasionally recieved a class lecture about composing presentations and lessons. One oft repeated fact is that one should appeal to a variety of learning styles and engage one or more of the senses. Doing so greatly helps those attending in forming long term memory. The Mass does this more perfectly than anything else I have seen.Auditory- Music, bells, homily and spoken readings.Visual- Icons, vestments, symbols in the church, the gestures of the priest, missals.Kinesthetic- The postures at different points of the mass, incense, and the act of going to the altar to receive.Verbal- The responses and spoken prayers.Logical- The exegesis given in the sermon.Intrapersonal- Time for inner reflective.Interpersonal- The communal participation inherent to the mass.

  • Don’t go along too much with this emotional thing…things that have put me off as you mention charismatic type of prayer….In Miles Jesu we’re given formation in prayer including meditation. But we’re taught ‘feelings are not facts’. So our prayer can’t be based on ‘how we feel’, particularly since we can feel pretty c**p, but still be on the right path. In fact one can have emotional breakdowns & still be close to God..not that one would ‘feel’ this closeness but would know it by Faith..

  • Good comments all. Thanks.

  • Jackie, I think I addressed your rightful concerns in the penultimate paragraph of the post?

  • James

    Dear Father,Well it’s a great pleasure, at last, to be able to agree with you fully and warmly!And well said, too, if I may say so.Emotion can be an uncertain and even unreliable guide but it is still an essential part of the human make-up and we need it in our worship.As to what moves some but not others, there is really only one answer to that admitted problem and that is for us to teach ourselves to learn the kind of worship that God Himself wants to be worshipped by, since we can be sure that it will also be the kind of worship that will also strongly move and excite us.I believe that the reason for the appearance of the Charismatic movement was that much parish worship had become wordy, in a lecture-hall idiom and dry as dust and I do not blame Charismatics for wanting more.However, as must by now be clear, I believe that the traditional rites (all – not just the Roman rite), properly done, provide the fullest measure of emotional, intellectual and spiritual satisfaction that a form of worship can give us and that is because it is the way that the Holy Spirit has taught us to worship Him down the centuries.But we cannot evaluate this compelling and transporting worship if we do not properly experience it.Have any of you heard the Miserere of Gregorio Allegri sung during Tenebrae of the Easter Triduum in a beautfiul darkened Basilica after the reading of those marvellous passages of the Old Testament and Psalms that bespeak the yearning of Israel for the Messias and of His prophesied and coming sufferings?The words, the music, the surroundings are truly transporting and overpowering and there is little on earth to compare with it. More than powerful – piercing. Words are inadequate to describe it. You must experience it.Come and see that the Lord is good.James.

  • So, where do Life Teen masses fit in? My experience has been that they are largely evangelical rock concerts with, oh yeah, that mass thing going on. My concern is that it’s forming an entire generation of young Catholics to be liturgically illiterate. They will have no worship vocabulary beyond “let’s put our hands together and welcome the Lord into our hearts.” Of course, I could be entirely off base, and in fact it will be Life Teen that saves the Catholic Church for generations of believers. Just a thought.

  • This is where my own preferences become pretty unusual. I am with James all the way in enjoying the sublime experiences of classical Catholic worship. (Although they are not Catholic) I have experienced Allegri’s Misere (and other fantastic music) sung in fine liturgical settings at Kings College Cambridge. One of my most memorable experiences was attending a solemn High Mass as St Mark’s in Venice with a choir hidden high in the clerestory. Out of the clouds of incense came the strains of a Mass by Monteverdi. But, you know, I have also sensed the presence of the Lord in a most wonderful way at Charismatic Masses, Youth2000 Masses and at a Life Teen Mass.I am therefore not inclined to dismiss Life Teen. I accept that objectively speaking Palestrina is ‘better’ than pop, but added to these objective standards are things like the spirit of the people who are worshiping, whether the priest and people are humbly submitting themselves to the Mass given by the Church, and whether or not a real spirit of prayer is present.I have been to some Masses that were beautifully celebrated with the most exquisite music in the most sublime settings, and spiritually they felt dead. Likewise, I have been to Masses where, sadly, the celebration was casual and the music execrable, but the love and devotion of the people carried us along.I am not saying therefore that all worship standards are subjective and emotional…not at all. Only saying that the subjective and emotional is one dimension of it all, and that this often helps to determine how we experience the objective facts of worship.

  • Anonymous

    I’ll try to be succinct. Father, I believe I understand truly where you are going with this. And it makes sense. However…Let me use an analogy to hopefully clarify – has something bad ever happened to you that was not your fault where you had a ‘normal’ emotional response in your heart? A close family member dies, a friend betrays you, You get fired from your job. You found yourself angry, sad, dejected, etc. But sometimes you immediately realize, (sometimes it takes longer)’Hey, I can be happy even as this objectively wrong thing happens (is happening, etc.) to me.’ And you also realize you were sad because you chose to be, angry because you chose to be, etc. You chose not consciously, but out of habit. And the choice to find joy in all of those things, to focus on the silver lining was ALWAYS available to you. You can choose to change your emotion either in response to an outside action or in support of an action you are taking. This is a small insight into the reality that emotional responses are very subjective and easily manipulated, not only by the person but by others. With this in mind, we have to realize that emotions must be mastered to support that which is True. Once we have discerned the Truth, adding the emotional support is called Conviction. You are right in that emotions are what push us. But emotions are tools that we have full control of and must control only to push us to the Truth. That is why it is very dangerous to allow emotions to influence HOW we decide. It is WHAT we decide that should influence our emotions. And please don’t mistake this as being cold or callous. Quite the opposite – I choose to love my wife and my children and part of my love for them is that they know they get all of me – head, heart, body, and soul! The love my children need involves a lot of hugs, kisses and smiles. My wife gets the same and add to that a lot of conversation. Emotionally, my habit is to think of a lot of these things: ‘BOOOORRRRRINNNG!” but I know that a simple control of emotion turns it from being a chore into some of the most rewarding moments of my life. A perfect example – I avoid praying the Rosary like the plague. It is long, repetitive, and difficult. So emotionally I’m out. But my wife loves to pray the Rosary and I do it. By the third Hail Mary, my emotions are wilting and now I am receiving the spiritual benefits of controlling my emotions. Thoughts anyone?

  • Yes Fr i agree with what you were saying …i suggest the man who doesn’t pray the Rosary prays your healing light meditations on the Holy Rosary….

  • Anonymous

    Hey all,I just found this on the Prince of Peace Catholic Church website. “Ask and ye shall receive.” I must have not been the only one.-anonymous”The 11AM Mass Sunday 16 SeptemberTo Be Celebrated inThe Extraordinary Form ofThe Roman MissalOn 7 July 2007, Pope Benedict XVI issued the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum asking all pastors to generously respond to those who request Holy Mass according to the ancient Roman Missal. In response to our Holy Father’s request and the growing interest in the traditional Latin Mass at Prince of Peace, the 11AM Solemn Mass on the following Sundays will be celebrated according to the Roman Missal of Blessed John XXIII for a trial basis of three months: 16 September, 14 October, 28 October, 18 November, and 2 December. (This will replace the 5PM Mass on the first Sundays of the month.)”

  • Nothing wrong with emotion. It should be present in worship, but there’s no need to wallow in it. It should be a by-product, not a goal. Love may not be limited to emotion, but if the emotion’s absent, something’s not quite right.

  • Anonymous

    RE: Love not being an emotion and only an act of the will…I don’t know what place you give to Scripture, but if I read them correctly. John 3:16 states that God so “felt” something towards the world that He “did” something for the world. In addition in John 17:24 Jesus says to the Father, “…You loved Me befoe the foundation of the world.” Surely this was not some cold, unfeeling, intellectual choice on the part of the Father. It was rather a passion that burned like fire. Sometimes the head gets in way of the heart.

  • James

    Dear Father,Yes, I’ll settle for that. As I said Charismatic worship is better than the dry as dust “going through the motions” mass that occurs too often in too many modern parishes.I also agree that it is the devotion of the people as much as anything that adds the really key “ingredient” to any liturgy.The awesome splendour of Solemn mass in a big Basilica, the piercing beauty of Tenebrae and the Sacred Triduum in even a small Church can often be overshadowed by the simplest Low Mass said in a barn or a shack, with but a few people, in some remote location, and can be where the presence of God is sometimes most clearly felt.I think of Bl Damien of Molokai saying the Mass in his little, tumbledown shack surrounded by abandoned, dying and deformed lepers, himself soon to contract the fatal disease, his ramshackle choir singing off-key and badly but with the utmost faith and love doing their poor best to do justice to the chants of Holy Church.That would have been a liturgy like no other and surely the most pleasing of all to God!James.