According to the biblical worldview, the heart was believed to be the centre of the human being, integrating intellect, emotion and will. This Jewish understanding of how our desires, reason and passions are brought together in our heart contrasts with the modern preoccupation that separates these aspects of the self, and prioritises one over the others.
For example, modern individualism asserts the priority of desire, modern rationalism over-emphasises reason, and modern romanticism fixates on emotion. All of these positions lead to a lack of personal and social integration, resulting in confused identities and fragmenting societies and public debates.
For the ancient Jews, the heart was also the centre of one’s relationship with God and others. Because it was the centre of personal integration, it was the seat of deepest encounter with others.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the heart in this way:
The heart is the dwelling-place where I am, where I live; according to the Semitic or biblical expression, the heart is the place ‘to which I withdraw’. The heart is our hidden centre, beyond the grasp of our reason and of others; only the Spirit of God can fathom the human heart and know it fully. The heart is the place of decision, deeper than our psychic drives. It is the place of truth, where we choose life or death. It is the place of encounter, because as image of God we live in relation: it is the place of covenant. (§2563)
The heart, then, is the seat of our deepest relationships and commitments, where our identity is entwined with others. The human heart is always seeking beyond itself for these connections and relationships. Humans are, in this sense, inherently transcendent: they are paradoxically only themselves when they are with others—in communion. Unlike other animals, this communion goes to the level of intellect, emotion and reason. In this sense, we image God.
Saint Augustine expressed the capacity of the human heart to not only image God but relate intimately with God: ‘Our hearts are restless, Lord, until they rest in Thee.’ Our desire for God is suggested in many ways to us, such as by our attraction to beauty or search for goodness. Most importantly, we have a great capacity for love—and when we experience love, we only want it to go on, without ending. In this way, St Augustine recognised that the human heart only realises its full potential for integration and fulfilment when we can enter into relationship with the source of all being—our Creator—who loves totally, infinitely and more intimately than we know and love ourselves. The human heart, then, is only satisfied when it receives the inexhaustible, eternal and unconditional self-giving of the Other, which only God accomplishes, in Jesus.
Through his incarnating of absolute love and total self-giving, Jesus answers the deepest yearnings of the human heart. In his suffering and death, Jesus shows how far such love will go to reach the human heart—despite humans twisting their hearts with violence, sin and evil, and imposing that violence on God.
And in his Resurrection and Ascension, Jesus shows where such love will lead: into the eternal exchange of love that is the life of God, beyond finitude and death. Through Jesus, humans are actually integrated into the total self-giving of Father and Son loving each other in the Spirit, ‘the outpouring and returning and sharing, gift and response and renewed overflow of giving, the threefold rhythm of love, Father, Son and Spirit’ (Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust).
In his Incarnation, Jesus shows how close God is to us—a closeness that God has sought with us since the beginning of creation (and which we rejected). In his intimate relationship with the Father, Jesus shows the full capacity of the human heart and how it reaches its fulfilment in love. In this way, Jesus both experiences and addresses the deepest yearnings of the human heart.
Thus, Jesus presents to humanity how God has always sought relationship with them. God has always been intimately present to each of his creatures, though this presence was not fully acknowledged and often rejected. In Jesus, God is providing a physical sign of his intimate presence—a presence that seeks the most intimate relationship with us that both respects our freedom and seeks to perfect it in love.
Through a relationship of the heart with Jesus, humans can enter right relationship with God and each other. In Jesus, God is both immediately immanent but also transcendent, not within the grasp of rivalrous humans who seek to kill him, but always present in our deepest selves and in the other through the Spirit of love.
René Girard and Benoît Chantre in Battling to the End call this presence of God in our deepest selves ‘innermost mediation’, which undermines the distortion of our identity by false desires, models and rivals, and turns us towards non-rivalrous relationship with and imitation of God.
In referring to ‘innermost mediation’, Girard and Chantre are drawing on St Augustine’s understanding of God as being more present to the self than the human person is to his/her self. In creating and holding everything in being as well as giving us his Spirit, God is constantly and deeply present to all life, especially to the human heart that can freely respond to such presence with love. We constantly sense this transcendent presence that is somehow intimately connected to us, especially in silence and prayer.
Yet, humans become disconnected from themselves and God by distorted forms of relationship and desire. God’s grace, which results in loving forms of relationship, actually integrates and gives us back to ourselves (free from ego, rivalry, bad habits and sin). Grace helps the self to discover its deepest meaning and fulfilment in love, which is at the heart of creation and being.
God can be recognised as being present to the self in the most intimate relationality at the core of each human being, freely exchanging love and opening up the human self to holistic forms of relationship. This opening up of the self leads us outwards towards others, especially the poor and victimised, with whom Christ identified himself.
Thus, humans are given the astonishing opportunity to live with their eternal Creator, in and through Jesus, who offers his love and forgiveness to the hearts of all, so to cleanse and integrate them into the divine love for which they deeply yearn.
Dr Joel Hodge is Senior Lecturer in the School of Theology at the Australian Catholic University (Melbourne) and National Course Coordinator for Undergraduate Theology Degrees and Short Courses.
This article was originally published in the August 2019 edition of the Melbourne Catholic Magazine.