It is incredible to realize that in our age we have travelled to the ends of the earth, flown through outer space and probed the secrets of the material universe, plunged into the depths of the sea, walked on the moon, hiked to the highest peaks, and circumnavigated the earth. Yet in spite of these accomplishments, there seems to be an ever-greater restlessness in the human heart. Why is it that we would sooner travel to the deep hidden regions of the earth than seek what lies within our very beings? Through the ages, the inner world has been a mystery and a place of questioning. In the 6th century BC the prophet Jeremiah cried out, “More torturous than all else is the human heart, beyond remedy, who can understand it?”
The greatest frontiers lie within the human person. While the marvelous expanse of our inner world may be a mystery, it is most fully who we are. There are unknown reservoirs of strength, energy, nobility and goodness in our depths that can be drawn upon in times of need. The human person is the summit of God’s marvelous creation, no other being in all of creation has the capacity to love and to be in a personal relationship with his Creator. Like the psalmist we can ask, “What is man?” Who are we and what makes us so uniquely ourselves? It is in our soul, in the depths of the heart, that the human person is irreducible and all the world’s standards are laid aside.
In our heart, we encounter God Himself – eternity. This inner sanctuary is the sacred place of truth and union with God. Because of this, the geography of the heart becomes infinite! In prayer, union with God, we are no longer bound by the material universe, we touch the divine. In the Gospels, Jesus promises to dwell within our hearts and warns us against hard-heartedness, or having our hearts far from Him in prayer. The disciples speak of their hearts burning within them when they meet the Lord. At times when our hearts feel numb or hardened, God says that He will put a new heart and a new spirit into us.
Navigating the sea of our inner world. Modern man has a tendency to value the visible, material world to the neglect of the immaterial, invisible world. Yet our hearts cry out for something more and have a thirst for meaning that cannot be quenched aside from the infinite. While we are drawn to what we can see and touch, we instinctively know that the immaterial things in life – love, freedom, friendship, faith – have the most profound and enduring value.
What is needed for the boat’s journey? A captain, rudder, wind and sail. Where does the journey begin? How can we discover what cannot be seen? While our inner world may seem wild and unexplored, like a vast roaring ocean, our hearts are not meant to be left shrouded in doubt. Though complex and often misunderstood, the interior world has a distinctive landscape made up of the intellect, will, and the heart. Each of these faculties is given to us to propel us to happiness and fulfillment, to God Himself.
The intellect and the will are the powers that we share with the angels. The intellect is the home of our memory and imagination and guides our ability to think, reason, understand and come in contact with the truth. The will is the place of decision and the faculty by which we seek and choose the good. The heart is made up of desires and affections and is ennobled by the intuitive mind, a sense that effortlessly grasps the whole of something. We cannot fully possess the truth of something unless it is known at both the intellectual and emotional level of our existence (mind and heart).
Since all of us have been wounded by original sin, the perfect balance within our soul has been disrupted: the intellect no longer sees the truth clearly, the will is weakened in its resolve to choose the good, and our emotions are not ordered and can easily go in many directions. This is played out on many levels with everything from making healthy food choices to decisions in relationships. Our emotions and desires may pull us toward apparent goods (things that seem good but do not bring true happiness) and if we allow them to act as our sole guide they eventually leave us empty and unsatisfied. Pursuit of the higher goods in life often requires effort and a firm commitment over time. The intellect leads us to the objective truth and therefore guides the emotions which experience the world in a subjective way. One choice at a time, our wills are strengthened to choose what is true and good and our hearts are educated and formed.
To experience fully the breathtaking beauty of the journey, you need a healthy wind in your sails. While it is important that we distinguish between the objective and the subjective states of mind, allowing ourselves to experience and feel our emotions is critical. There is a law of the heart, that if we try to numb certain emotions, we eventually dull all of them. The emotions are a gift created by God and are fundamentally good. St. Thomas Aquinas taught that all emotions (hope, despair, courage, fear, anger, love, hate, desire, aversion, joy, sadness) are good and necessary if we are to be fully and authentically human. They are signs and have an innate need to be guided by the intellect and the will. For example, the feeling of loneliness may be a call for us to seek a deeper union with God, to draw near to our spouse or to reach out to friends and family. The emotion of anger can propel us to correct an injustice. If we silence our hearts, we may avoid discomfort, but it is a shortcut that will inhibit us from being fully alive and life can become a drudgery.
Without the captain to direct and the rudder to steer, the wind will toss us this way and that, and leave us lost in a turbulent sea. While it is critical we are attentive to our hearts, our culture has a tendency to glorify the emotions with the adage, “as long as it feels good, do it.” This may bring a fleeting satisfaction, but is a path for disaster. While we were made for happiness, our emotions can never be our sole guide because they can lead us astray and are intended to be led by the intellect and the will. If we only rely on our feelings, we become a slave to them in a tyranny of emotions, where they rule indiscriminately giving no deference to the other faculties of the soul. Even though the emotions have an important part in life, it is first necessary that we are in contact with truth or we will lose our way.
This distortion of the emotions can be seen in marriages that fail when they no longer attain the standard set by Hollywood which is often based solely on emotions and physical attraction; however this leads to instability and confusion. Real love requires effort and commitment in order to mature and last a lifetime. For example, a married man may not have the sense of being in love with his wife so he develops an emotional attachment to another woman. If he allows himself to be guided only by his emotions, he may begin to idealize the woman and abandon the truth of his relationship with his committed wife.
While he may not have the feeling of being in love with his wife at the moment, the truth of love is deeper. In marriage, there is a deep abiding bond in the heart maintained by the will, strengthened by commitment, and reinforced by grace. Thus, it is possible to love even in moments when we do not have feelings of affection because it is an act of the will to remain true to the love professed on one’s wedding day. We see this faithful love in couples who have been married for years, when one spouse becomes ill. Although the person may no longer be able to walk, speak, or have a physical relationship, his spouse nevertheless remains true and loves in a noble and beautiful way that brings an abiding peace and joy.
This type of life-giving love is also seen in the lives of the saints who love those who some may describe as unlovable, lost, and abandoned. While the saints may not feel a natural attraction towards the sick, lost or lonely, their intellect and will enlighten the heart and guide them to the truth of the goodness and dignity of the person and they are given a new supernatural vision through faith. Blessed Mother Teresa was indefatigable in loving the poorest of the poor with tenderness and compassion because in each person she saw Jesus, her love.
The process of integration is a journey and part of our earthly pilgrimage that leads us to wholeness and freedom. We are most fully alive and find peace of heart when our intellect, will, and emotions act in harmony because they are meant to lead us to truth, goodness, beauty and communion with God and others. When this happens, we act with freedom and spontaneity.
When we are drawn to think about our real self we turn to those deep recesses of our being. This is where God, who probes the heart, awaits us, where we chart our course and decide our destiny. The heart is our secret core and sanctuary where we are alone with God. God is in our hearts; are we there to meet him or are we living outside of ourselves? To be in touch with this deep place of our being requires times of silence, personal reflection, prayer and living what has been called from ancient times an examined life. Our Lord urges us, “come back to the heart where you are truly loved, where there is life in you, and you are most fully yourself, and most fully treasured.” God’s role is not to spare us of the drama of human life but to join us in the adventure of living fully alive in touch with Him in our inmost core.
Originally printed in IMPRINT Magazine Fall 2012.