The Personalist Project

The word tenderness seems to be in the air lately.  It's clearly a favorite of our new Pope's.  He used it in some of his earliest remarks as Pope. "Do not be afraid of tenderness." He mentioned it again several times today, in reflections on the First Letter of St. John and the sacrament of confession.

"The Lord is tender towards those who fear, to those who come to Him "and with tenderness," He always understands us”. He wants to gift us the peace that only He gives. " "This is what happens in the Sacrament of Reconciliation" even though "many times we think that going to confession is like going to the dry cleaner" to clean the dirt from our clothes...

It came up, too, in the last two lectures of Jules' Person class, when he spoke of von Hildebrand's treatment of the heart, and affectivity.

Most of us in the west have been taught to think of our emotions as subrational and belonging to our "animal part"—needing to be firmly "controlled" by Reason and Will. Von HIldebrand shows that, on the contrary, "tender affectivity" is, in truth, the very height and center of man's spiritual life.

It is in the affective sphere, in the heart, that the treasures of man's most intimate life are stored. It is in the heart that the secret of the person is to be found; it is here that the most intimate word is spoken.

Not all affectivity, but specifically "tender affectivity."

Tender affectivity manifests itself in love in all its categories: filial and parental love, friendship, brotherly and sisterly love, conjugal love and love of neighbor.  It displays itself in "being moved," in enthusiasm, in deep authentic sorrow, in gratitude, in tears of grateful joy, or in contrition.  It is the type of affectivity which includes the capacity for a noble surrender, affectivity in which the heart is involved.

Tender affectivity is a specifically personal affectivity.  And it is specifically relational, involving an openness and responsiveness toward value—an another person perhaps, or a beautiful piece of music.

This capacity to be moved, to be touched, to be affected by another in our inmost being is something we naturally fear and dread, because it means making ourselves vulnerable to that other, and opening ourselves to the possibity of being hurt.  But, if fear causes us to close our hearts, we cut ourselves off from the real heights and depths of personal existence. Listening to a truly outstanding you tube talk by Jean Vanier the other day, I heard the word again.  He said [at 7:30 in the video] he asked a psychaitrist friend one day how he would define human maturity. The psychiatrist replied with one word, "Tenderness."

Comments (7)

Devra Torres

#1, May 7, 2013 6:07pm

Katie, this is great--I'm just working on a post about a book by Fr. Michel Esparza (author of Self-Esteem Without Selfishness) which touches on the same subject, with many references to von Hildebrand's The Heart.  As Esparza says:

In the Gospels, we see that Jesus avoids sentimentalism as well as insensitivity [or insensibility].  His affective dimension is free of any egotism or superficiality.   His affections are detached, but not therefore any less intense than our own.

He quotes von Hildebrand on how Jesus' "transfigured affectivity" is very different from what we experience on the natural level, but that the difference is not that He is less tender or affectionate.  

There's been so much theological emphasis on keeping emotions "under control"--and it fits in with everyone's experience of the trouble we get into when we fail to do so--that lots of people, when they try to imagine Jesus as "perfect man" end up thinking that He either has no affections or else has them so successfully "controlled" that there's no evidence of them.

I'm looking forward to listening to Jules' class--things promise to slow down here in a few days and then I get to catch up.

Jules van Schaijik

#2, May 7, 2013 8:08pm

I just read some things by Ratzinger that also emphasize the importance of the heart as an antidote to dry theology and mere moralism. The place of love and affectivity in Judaism and Christianity contrasts sharply with the God and religion of the philosophers. Ratzinger shows how this posed a difficulty for the early church:

For the Fathers, who were brought up with the moral ideal of the Stoa, the ideal of the wise man's impassivity, where insight and the will govern and master the irrational emotions, this was one of the places where it proved most difficult to achieve a synthesis of Greek inheritance and biblical faith. The God of the Old Testament, with his wrath, compassion and love, often seemed nearer to the gods of the obsolete religions than to the lofty concept of God of the ancient philosophy. [Jesus "who experiences anguish and anger, joy, hope and despair" presents a similar problem.]

Jules van Schaijik

#3, May 7, 2013 8:15pm

Two more short quotes from Ratzinger:

the heart is the epitome of the passions, without which there could have been no Passion on the part of the Son. 


there can be no Passion without passions: suffering presupposes the ability to suffer, it presupposes the faculty of the emotions.

These lines remind me of von Hildebrand's saying that the heart must sometimes speak a different "word" from the will and the intellect, and that if we overlook this fact, the "great and deep mission of the cross would be frustrated".

Marie Meaney

#4, May 8, 2013 4:48am

Tenderness, it seems to me, is also absolutely necessary in order to reach another person in her suffering; without it, even good will and good acts remain blunt and can easily cause new wounds in the suffering. Only tenderness, so it seems to me, can unlock the heart, and untie the knots which suffering (especially pent-up suffering) has created. It truly can transform hearts.

Father Esparza's distinction  - which Devra quotes - between tenderness and sentimentalism is excellent. Sentimentalism is ultimately only an enjoyment of one's own feelings and locks one up in them; it is profoundly egoistic though it can easily give the sentimental person the impression that she is being very tender-hearted. Rousseau was under the illusion that he was a warm-hearted individual because of this, though he hard-heartedly sent his five children to the orphanage (which was a death-sentence at the time). 

Katie van Schaijik

#5, May 8, 2013 3:52pm

Marie Meaney, May. 8 at 4:48am

Tenderness, it seems to me, is also absolutely necessary in order to reach another person in her suffering; without it, even good will and good acts remain blunt and can easily cause new wounds in the suffering. 

Marie, this is a crucial point that I would love to see developed in a separate post!  

Without tenderness, even sincere good acts can cause wounds.  It reminds me of your great talk on Embracing the Cross of Inferility. (Can we link that?)  I remember your saying that even obviously well meant questions and comments could be wounding, when there was a lack of due sensitivity.

I've experienced this often personally—I mean, people clearly trying to do me good, who in fact make matters worse, because they are acting, as it were, from their own ideas of me and my needs, rather than with tenderness toward the real me...

It's alienating.

As Jean Vanier put it in the talk I am commenting on at the Member Feed, tenderness involves, first of all, a listening, and a gentleness toward the suffering other.

Katie van Schaijik

#6, May 8, 2013 3:55pm

Thanks for those great Ratzinger quotes, Jules!  You make me want to really dig into his writings.

Alice Rowan

#7, Jun 2, 2013 7:49pm

Dear Katie, THANK YOU for this post and for this website, which I discovered a few days ago while researching Our Lady of Tenderness. Just listened to the Vanier talk, which is indeed outstanding. Thank you for that too! I'll be back!

Sign in to add a comment, or register first.

Forgot your password?