The modern western world claims to be thoroughly empirical, so it is a wonder that our culture still clings to fanciful concepts like the “heart.” In this case, I don’t mean “heart” in any biological sense, of course, but rather in its more spiritual connotations. A pop singer on The Voice might talk about “giving their heart” or “protecting their heart”. And how can we forget that Black Eyed Peas hit, “Don’t Phunk with My Heart”? It’s a curious turn of phrase that, in various ways, has persisted for thousands of years, thanks at least in part to its use in Scripture. “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” (Proverbs 4:23).
In one sense, we Christians should be grateful for this opportunity. Increasingly, the western world, at one time permeated thoroughly with at least the trappings of Christianity, poses significant challenges to faithfulness. We can no longer take for granted that our countries or communities will support a life-giving culture, even in the least. And so, I think we should be grateful for at least this one small overlap in our shared language that points to an innate spirituality.
The opportunity is also a responsibility, since the “heart” is such a vague term without a clear, universal definition we can all rely on. It falls to us to ensure we are using the word “heart” in a Christian way and also, where possible, to turn it into an occasion for evangelization, however subtly.
But what is the heart, exactly, and how are we Christians supposed to understand the term? If you’re like me, perhaps you have a vague notion of something central to oneself, something that is at the core. Indeed, this is in fact one of the definitions of the word “heart,” such as when we say, “the heart of the woods” or “the heart of the matter.” Or if you’re feeling eloquent, like Shakespeare who coined the phrase, you might say, “in my heart of hearts.”
Hearts can be open or closed or even hardened; they can be guarded or given. They can be strong or weak. Hearts can desire, or want, or believe. Scripture reveals other meanings of the word, “heart”: God has written the law on our hearts. We are to love God with all our heart.
Pope Francis has given us some definitions throughout his five years of ministry but most succinctly in his encyclical Lumen Fidei, which often carries the voice of Pope Benedict XVI. There, Francis writes:
In the Bible, the heart is the core of the human person, where all his or her different dimensions intersect: body and spirit, interiority and openness to the world and to others, intellect, will and affectivity.
In the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas offers this insight as a commentary on Scripture’s “love God with all your heart.” In the Summa, he writes:
We must therefore observe that love is an act of the will which is here denoted by the “heart,” because just as the bodily heart is the principle of all the movements of the body, so too the will, especially as regards the intention of the last end which is the object of charity, is the principle of all the movements of the soul.
Both Francis and Aquinas refer to the heart as a principle or place that touches our entire human soul. It is a place where the various aspects of our soul “intersect” and it is also the principle by which they are put into motion.
Importantly, these descriptions of the heart conflict with the popular understanding of the word in one crucial way: the heart is rational (or at least ought to be). Francis says, “[T]he heart is the organ not only of feelings but of spiritual faculties, reason and will; it is the seat of decisions, and of the manner of thinking and acting.”
You may have heard a friend or an actor on television say something like, “I just gotta follow my heart,” before they run off and do something so mindnumblingly stupid that you wonder if hearts are even worth having. This would be an unChristian example of the heart, particularly if this person “follows their heart” despite the loving and insightful protestations of their friends and family.
The heart cannot be closed off completely, but most especially to God. A hardened heart is dead to the world. Conversely, faith is the first principle which gives us new horizons and truly opens our heart to new life in Christ, through love.
Aquinas writes, “The first beginning of the heart’s purifying is faith; and if this be perfected through being quickened by charity, the heart will be perfectly purified thereby.”
Francis echoes this, saying: “[The heart] is where we become open to truth and love, where we let them touch us and deeply transform us. Faith transforms the whole person precisely to the extent that he or she becomes open to love.”
To counteract a hardened and stubborn heart, we must learn to love. Paraphrasing Francis in a 2015 morning meditation as reported by L’Osservatore Romano, our hearts become hardened because they are not free; they are not free because they are afraid; and they are afraid because they do not truly love (cf. 1 John 4:18).
But what if in our example above, this friend does something remarkably idiotic, but he does it “for love”? As evidenced by the thousands of instantiations of that trope in movies or television shows, our popular culture would likely celebrate this decision, regardless of the obvious impermanence of that “love” or the consequences it brings. Francis warns in Lumen Fidei that love needs truth:
If love is not tied to truth, it falls prey to fickle emotions and cannot stand the test of time. True love, on the other hand, unifies all the elements of our person and becomes a new light pointing the way to a great and fulfilled life. Without truth, love is incapable of establishing a firm bond; it cannot liberate our isolated ego or redeem it from the fleeting moment in order to create life and bear fruit.
Philosophically, this makes sense, but in our day-to-day lives we often struggle with doubt and uncertainty in the shadows of human weakness and sin. Francis says that the heart can be like a “market,” where many things come and go. How are we to know if something is truly of God or of the devil, if something is real or if it is false? The answer is discernment. Francis advises, “What is going on in my heart? What am I thinking? What am I feeling? Do I pay attention to what comes and goes or do I let it go? Do I know what I want? Do I test what I desire? Or do I simply take everything? Beloved, do not believe every spirit; but test the spirits.”
Francis warns of weak or lukewarm hearts. Weak hearts are hearts that do not know what they truly believe or want. They are fickle. In a similar way, we can speak of lukewarm hearts, which are “self-absorbed.” Lukewarm hearts are not truly open to the powerful love of God. They do not truly love others, but instead only give a part of their hearts. They are “content with a mediocre life.”
Conversely, a “strong heart” is a heart that is “closed to the tempter but open to God. It is a heart which lets itself be pierced by the Spirit so as to bring love along the roads that lead to our brothers and sisters. And, ultimately, a poor heart, one which realizes its own poverty and gives itself freely for others.”
We set our hearts on what we truly desire. (cf. Matthew 6:21). Prayerful reflection about our heart’s desires can help us to discern our lives and the path we are on. But this fundamental aspect of our heart is also the opportunity for evangelization. Why? I agree with Francis when he says that our desire for “definitive encounter with Christ” is a desire we all share, whether “explicit or secret.” It is hidden in our heart. We “all harbour this desire in our heart.”
Far from being merely metaphorical, the heart points to a true aspect of the human soul, the will, which is the principle by which the soul moves. With its usage in popular culture, we have an intuitive understanding how the heart is related to our deepest desires, which Francis calls us to examine and test. Francis, particularly in Lumen Fidei but also elsewhere, shows how a fully Christian understanding of the heart can be helpful to discernment. Purified by faith and perfected in love, the heart is at the core of who the human person is.