Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Spiritual Lives of the Temperaments: The Melancholic

“Wake me when it’s over…”

Of all the posts I’ve done on the topic of the temperaments, this one is going to be the hardest for me. Why? Because it’s my primary temperament! The ironic thing is this: Though we should all be experts when it comes to our own temperament, the topic that most every human being is blind to is, without a doubt,… themselves. So, here goes nothing!...

The very word “melancholic” conjures up images of its evil twin “melancholy.” Introversion, moodiness, brooding, self-deprecation and an innate ability to “feel” with an almost unnatural depth and intensity are all unique traits of this temperament. I would venture to say that most of us who are blessed (that’s right, “blessed!”) with this temperament spend most of our day in our heads. We are aware of our surroundings, but only lightly so. We are often so immersed in our thoughts that we miss a great deal of what goes on around us. This ability to think deeply and intensely can be a great gift; it is an ability responsible for some of the most beautiful works of art, music and literature that have ever graced the world. But, as with all things, the enemy knows how to twist this ability and use it to destroy the individual and everyone around him.

What, then, does the melancholic need to watch out for in the spiritual life? In the last post on the phlegmatic, we saw that the phlegmatic temperament shared a unique trait with the sanguine – a lack of follow-through. This trait that is shared by both of these temperaments makes the cure of their ills relatively the same. The same can be said when one compares the melancholic with the choleric. He shares with the choleric that “sin of sins”, the sin that is responsible for all other sins… Pride.

At first glance, the idea that Pride is at the root of the introverted melancholic’s self-abasement can come as a shock. But, once one understands what drives the melancholic, it all makes perfect sense.

The Bennett’s explain the situation this way:

“Pride, in the melancholic, does not usually manifest itself as an attempt to gain recognition or honor, as it might in a choleric. The melancholic does not seek overt praise or commendation. However, the melancholic does fear failure! Thus, his pride shows up in his desire to be perfect and in his fear of disgrace (emphases mine).” [1]

The reality is, behind all the melancholic’s self-abasement, worrying, scrupulous confessions, severe penances, and “high-ideals” for himself and others there lies a fear of disgrace cloaked in false-humility; a desire to be more than what he really is but knows desperately and acutely that he is not.

The desire for perfection is not necessarily bad. It is the trinity of “the good, the true and the beautiful” that ultimately drives the melancholic. But the melancholic, more than any other temperament, has a longing for perfection that he and the world around him just don’t live up to. So the melancholic, if left to his own to his own devices, easily falls into a downward spiral of brooding and critiquing in an attempt to make himself and his world “perfect.”

The cure for the melancholic, then, is very similar to that of the choleric. The melancholic needs the direction of others. Due to his high-ideals, the melancholic’s perception of himself, others and the world around him is often distorted and unrealistic. He needs a good spiritual guide who will “hold the mirror” up to him and pull him back to reality.

Along with this guidance, the most important part of the melancholic’s spiritual life will involve cultivating optimism and supernatural joy. These two traits that are innate in the choleric and sanguine temperaments are sorely underdeveloped in those with melancholic temperaments. He needs to learn to “look at the bright side,” go easy on himself and his fellow man and put his focus on that which really is perfect: Christ. Since he is so hyper-aware of the flaws and potential disasters that life is wrought with, he needs more than any other temperament to cultivate a trust in God’s Providence and paternal care. He needs to take his thoughts away from his own sins and failures and the failures of others and replace these with thoughts of peace, kindness, generosity and the like. This supernatural joy is the only antidote to the melancholic’s anxieties about life. Frequent prayer, reception of the sacraments and meditation on the scriptures – especially the Psalms and other scriptures that emphasize God’s mercy – are essential. In this way the melancholic can experience in his daily life an adequate taste of what he craves the most in the midst of life’s bittersweet symphony… “Heaven.”


Throughout these posts there has been one underlying theme common to all of them: that of finding “rest in God.” Though each temperament has different approaches to getting there, the goal is always the same. The only true cure for man’s ills, regardless of temperament, is rest in God and His Will.

In upcoming posts, I’ll discuss in more depth some of the adverse effects caused by untrained temperaments as well as a more defined and specific “battle plan” as to how one can bring themselves into that union with God that is the ultimate goal of everyone. See you then!

God Bless,

[1] (Bennett, 237)