In our daily reading of the sayings of the Desert Fathers the following attributed to Abba Isidore stuck out:
The same Abba Isidore said, ‘It is the wisdom of the saints to recognize the will of God. Indeed, in obeying the truth, man surpasses everything else, for he is the image and likeness of God. Of all evil suggestions, the most terrible is that of following one’s own heart, that is to say, one’s own thought, and not the law of God. A man who does this will be afflicted later on, because he has not recognized the mystery, and he has not found the way of the saints in order to work in it. For now is the time to labour for the Lord, for salvation is found in the day of affliction: for it is written: “By your endurance you will gain your lives.”‘
“Follow your heart”. How many times have I heard this? It seems of late to have become a mantra of sorts, a justification for all kinds of actions, especially selfish ones (I’ve heard it employed even in abandoning one’s spouse after years of marriage). The premise seems to be that the heart cannot err, that it is the best compass to one’s happiness. Yet, is this the truth? My take on it would be yes and no.
A saying attributed to St. Macarius sheds some light on my position:
[T]he heart itself is but a little vessel, and yet there are dragons, and there lions, and there venomous beasts, and all the treasures of wickedness ; and there are rough uneven ways, there chasms ; there likewise is God, there the angels, there life and the kingdom, there light and the apostles, there the heavenly cities, there the treasures, there are all things.
First, let us address the No. From what I am able to ascertain, those who use “follow your heart” as their rationale tend to identify the feelings which spring from there as the most genuine, and so they act on them. These are people who tend to simply act on their passions, saying that they are free to do what they want. Generalizations? Perhaps, but not unfounded, I believe, given what I’ve been able to glimpse from conversations. Is acting on the passions an expression of freedom? Is it even wise? Do the passions, as they are, bring us happiness? One need not be a Christian to know that this is not the case. Even the ancient pagan philosophers knew that obeying one’s passions is not freedom, but slavery. If one wanted to live a virtuous life – it is the virtuous life which brings about happiness – then the passions had to be mastered; they had to be subject to reason; they had to be re-ordered.
This kind of “follow your heart” stems from a solipsistic mindset of sorts: man is an island; my actions have no impact on others; I am the master of my destiny; my happiness comes before all other considerations; I am a law unto myself. Has not happiness in this case been turned into an idol? The heart, which is indeed the compass of happiness, is not free; it is a slave of the passions. It is like a compass near which metal has been placed, pointing every which way, acting erratically, throwing one forever off course, making happiness an elusive thing. The happiness sought this way is not happiness at all, but fleeting pleasure.
So will obeying the heart not bring us happiness? It will, but it requires discipline – askesis – and prayer. The happiness that comes from this, however, might very well not be the kind which those who use the mantra envision. One might compare the heart to a garden: if the garden is not maintained, if the weeds are not extracted, if the plants are not watered, eventually the garden becomes derelict, overrun by the weeds and the flowers die. Anyone who has tried to cultivate even the smallest patch will know this is true. The saints show us that purifying the heart, ordering the passions, is a lifelong struggle, which depends not only on our own powers, but most of all on the Lord’s grace.
Do I want to obey my heart? Do I want it to bring me to eternal happiness? As an aspiring Benedictine oblate obeying and listening are very much an integral part of my spiritual life. If I want to obey my heart then it must become like one which I know is the purest heart of all, the humble heart of our Lord Jesus Christ. To follow my heart then will mean to follow the Lord. I will follow my heart because I know that He will be abiding within me.
It is especially during Holy Mass that this is brought home for me. When the priest hauntingly intones Sursum corda (“Lift up your hearts”), that is when I am especially reminded of the need of purification of the heart. Sursum corda – here, O Lord, is my heart. Here is all that I am, here is my totality, which broken and maculate as it is, I offer up to you. Sursum corda – take it, o Lord, into the furnace of your love and burn away the dross. Sursum corda – that I may be able to offer it you, through your Son, ever purer, O heavenly Father.
Do you wish to follow your heart? Then follow it on high. Sursum corda!