Around St. Valentine’s Day, the human heart takes center stage. Children give little heart candies to their love interests, heart-themed cards are exchanged, and red and white hearts can be spied everywhere. The heart has become like the Easter Bunny or the Christmas Santa with regards to St. Valentine’s Day – the star of the show. Within this context, the heart has become synonymous with the word “love” in the sense of romantic affection: “I heart you.” In our culture, the heart is a bit mushy. One would certainly not run one’s life upon those emotions at play within romantic affection. It would be strange if we were asked to.
The heart also makes an appearance in slightly cheesy slogans: “Follow your heart. Follow your dreams.” Or it can be used within the context of a display of emotion: “She was brokenhearted and cried.” Moreover, the heart is often involved with “fairy tale” type stories – the Tin Woodman in the Wizard of Oz searching for his “missing heart.” All this is to say that the heart approaches us in any number of guises. But in the end, our scientific mentality knows that the heart is an essential organ of the body and is actually incapable of romance or emotion. No one in their right mind would run their life according to cheesiness, emotion or fairy tales, much less a major organ!
And herein lies the problem insofar as Jesus is all about this major organ.
There is a serious disconnect between “church speak” and “real life speak” concerning that by which we make decisions. In real life, that part of the self out of which we conduct our lives would be considered by most people to be the mind (or the brain or the intellect). Modern psychology reinforces this and most people simply take it for granted that this is true. More “spiritual” people might make references to the soul or spirit within the context of decision-making. But I rarely hear someone say: “I followed my heart.” And yet, the “church speak” we hear on Sunday simply assumes that the heart is the basic principle of direction in life.
When Jesus speaks of the core of a person, He almost always speaks in terms of “the heart.” Just for fun, here are some passages from the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus mentions the human heart (Remember, this is God speaking):
- “Blessed are the pure in heart” (Mt. 5:8)
- “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt. 5:28)
- “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Mt. 6:21)
- “Why do you think evil in your hearts?” (Mt 9:4)
- “For I am gentle and humble of heart” (Mt 11:29)
- “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Mt 12:34)
- “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander” (Mt 15:19)
- “If you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Mt 18:35)
- “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives. . .” (Mt 19:8)
- “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Mt 22:27)
Are you convinced that what goes on in our hearts is important to God?
But what is this “heart” of which Jesus speaks? Will the real heart please stand up! I would like to point out three characteristics of the heart. First of all, the Bible sees the heart as “the depths of one’s being, where the person decides for or against God” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 368). The heart is the core of our being – our inmost selves. This involves our ability to think and make decisions.
Secondly, the heart is the seat of our emotions. As such, our hearts are situated at the intersection point between body and soul: “The passions (or emotions) are natural components of the human psyche; they form the passageway and ensure the connection between the life of the senses (the body) and the life of the mind (part of the soul). Our Lord called man’s heart “the source from which the passions spring” (Catechism, n. 1764). Our hearts can “feel” pain and be wounded.
Finally, the heart is a type of repository or “storage tank”: “And his mother kept all these things in her heart” (Lk. 2:51). Our hearts bring all of our past experiences – our failures, anger, wounds, joys, loves and triumphs – into the present. The heart is not simply a cold, calculating machine. Rather, it has emotion and feeling and memory. In many ways, we are the contents of our hearts.
It is so important to be aware of what is going on in our hearts, “for it is the wellspring of life” (Pro 4:23). I would like to make a few important points regarding the human heart:
We can become disconnected from our hearts. The pain of life, abandonment, heartbreaks, unresolved grief – all of these things can tempt us to put our hearts on ice. We keep it in deep-freeze somewhere in the shed out back. It can seem easier to live out the mind and shut down our hearts – the source of our deepest feelings. Consider our prisons filled with fatherless men. Their hearts long for the fatherly love they never had. They carry deep within themselves feelings of abandonment, anger, loss and grief. It is far easier to live for the quick pleasures of the moment than to face the crushing pain within. While our “heart-wounds” might not have landed us in jail, we can still experience the gradual distancing from our hearts over the years – the cares of the world, the need to make money, forbidden sexual pleasure tasted. Our hearts are gradually strangled along the way until silenced. We become cold-hearted and calculating, living out of the logic of personal survival.
Our hearts are often wounded and in need of restoration. I finally realized that on the roadtrip to holiness, my directions (Catholic teaching) have been good, but the car (my heart) has been somewhat broken. My spiritual life has been stalled by a faulty vehicle. Often, we think that we can drive ourselves to holiness by sheer willpower if we have good directions. Nope. We must first fix the car before we can really move forward.
I was recently speaking with someone struggling with violent outbursts of anger – throwing-things-around-the-room anger. He was bewildered as to what was causing his rage. His past shouldn’t have any impact on the present, right? And yet, it is truly an obstacle in his life. He was the victim of serious verbal abuse from his father. While he knows this, he does not see the connection to his present anger. He does not understand the “woundedness” of his own heart. He needs to connect with his heart and then begin a journey of “heart healing.” He will have to prayerfully walk through all of the verbally abusive memories with Jesus, allowing the Holy Spirit to replace the deep pain in his memories with love. I am convinced that he will stop throwing things around if he does this. Do you have “heart wounds”? Would you be willing to walk with Jesus through the wounds of YOUR heart? People who have been prayed with for “heart healing” often experience a brand new wholeness, a deep joy and inner peace. This allows them to move forward in their lives with confidence.
Our hearts are in need of tending or maintenance. Once we have found healing for major wounds in our hearts (physical or sexual abuse, for example), smaller issues of concern begin to come into focus – they were hidden by the big issues and sometimes even caused by them. There are onion-skin layers of heart wounding that need to be addressed on the path to restoration and wholeness. Sometimes, it can take awhile. We have to exercise patience and let healing come in God’s good time. Often, a number of puzzle pieces must fall into place for this to occur. We begin to see our heart like a garden in need of care and maintenance. We need to truly care for our heart in order to better give of ourselves to others in day-to-day life. We also need to protect our hearts from the influence of people or things that will harm it (negative individuals or violent movies, for example). I would recommend that everyone seek out a type of spiritual director, spiritual mentor or even a wise friend who can assist you on your journey of wholeness and holiness.
Jesus wants to be King of our hearts. “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Mt. 6:21). Our hearts are easily led astray and we can put pastimes and interests other than God upon the throne of our hearts. I recently realized that I have allowed certain interests to creep in and take their place on the throne of my heart – pushing God aside. What is your deepest love or longing or passion? Where is your heart? Please take a good hard look and ask yourself if Jesus is on the throne of your heart. I have experienced such happiness after deliberately replacing God on the throne of my heart: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart. . .” (Mt 22:27).
In 1673, Jesus began to appear to a French woman named St. Margaret Mary Alacoque with the messages of His Sacred Heart that burns with love for us. As the heart is the deepest part of a person, Jesus desires that we approach His Heart in order to be drawn closer to Him. Alongside this, there have also has been a number of instances in which small pieces of bread consecrated at Mass (or the Eucharist) have actually turned into real human flesh in accordance with the words of Jesus: “This is my body” (cf. Mt 26:26). One of the places in which this Eucharistic miracle has occurred is in a small town named Lanciano in Italy. In this instance, the flesh has even been scientifically tested. The result: Human Cardiac Tissue. In the Eucharist, Jesus gives us His very Heart to restore, inflame and reign in our hearts with His love.
A special note of thanks to my editor, A.B.