To Follow (or Not to Follow) Your Heart

Our hearts burn within us, especially when we are young.  God did not make us emotionless robots, but creatures of intense feeling and passion.  There is a reason that most of the songs on the radio are songs about love and romance.  These feelings pierce us to the core.  And they inspire us to act.  I’m sure we can all recall a time that love turned us into fools.  We experience the stirring and we feel the need to act on it.

Sarah Reinhard, our editor here at New Evangelizers, shared her insight that “Follow your heart” is the dogma of our current culture.  I couldn’t agree more.

The deepest sin you’ll find in most of our pop culture is to not do what your heart says.  I was watching the movie He’s Just Not That Into You where the character played by Scarlett Johansson became attracted to a married man.  Her friend (played by Drew Barrymore) encouraged her to go after him anyway because she needed to follow her heart.

This is not a new problem.  Every few years, the famous poet Percy Shelley would fall head over heels in love with a new woman and abandon the person he was currently.  He had to follow his heart.

In our current debates on “gay marriage,” there are many who find the Church’s teaching on homosexuals living chastely to be far too cruel.  They have a deep romantic affection to someone of the same sex.  How could the Church stand in the way of them following their hearts?

A couple is struggling to have children, so they have in vitro fertilization, where the majority of their children conceived will be killed in the process of implantation.  But their hearts desperately want a child.  How can the Church stand in the way of them following their hearts?

There are several women who feel called to the Catholic priesthood.  The Church has maintained the constant Tradition from the time of Christ that She has no power to ordain women.  But these daughters of God feel so strongly that they should be priests.  How can the Church stand in the way of them following their hearts?

I could go on and on, but even when we disagree with the end or object that is desired, we can all relate to that intense tug on the heartstrings that draws you in one way or another.

So why can’t we simply follow our hearts?

Following our hearts would make complete and total sense for all of our life’s decisions, except for one important problem: our hearts are damaged.

If I had a compass that worked properly, I would always know which way was true north.  With this information, I should be able to guide myself in the correct direction I intend.  But if my compass is broken, then I cannot trust the way in which it points.  It may lead me home or it may lead me to destruction.

Because of Original Sin, the inner moral compass of our hearts was busted.  My heart does not tell me now what is right or wrong.  It only tells me how I feel about something.   But our feelings have no bearing a thing’s rightness or wrongness.

I may want to punch the man on the bus who just stepped on my foot.  But that does not tell me if it is right or wrong to do.  Children behave this way.  They act on their immediate feelings and have to be trained to think before they act.  For correct action I need something much more reliable than feeling.

I remember a scene from the book The Great Gatsby that always stayed with me.  The rich, arrogant Tom has just become complicit in a murder of an innocent man.  He did so over the death of his mistress.  When confronted about his wrongdoing, Tom’s defense is to say that he went to his mistress’ apartment and “cried like a baby.”  He somehow believed that because he had an intense emotional moment that this someone absolved him of his crime.  He acted from his heart, so how could he be guilty?

How often do we live such passionate illusions?  And how can we break free?

For that we can turn to things like reason.  The Church teaches that you don’t need to be a religious person to be moral.  You can rely on your God-given gift of reason and logic to take you to truth.  St. Thomas Aquinas emphasized with his Natural Law theory that what God tells us in the Scriptures and how right reason tells us to behave should be one and the same.

Truth is truth, whether it comes from reason or Revelation.

But our popular culture has done such a remarkable job of divorcing reason from our considerations.  I feel, therefore I must act.  Don’t worry about the consequences.  In fact, we do everything we can to remove the consequences.  For example, people talk about having an “unexpected pregnancy.”  I once read somewhere that this is like having an “unexpected hangover.”  There is a natural consequence for our actions, but we ignore our reason and listen to our bent hearts.

The solution, however, is not to ignore our hearts.  To do so would be to deny human nature.  God made us to feel deeply, because it is only when with this intensity that we can act boldly.  Logical syllogisms do little to inspire grand revolutions.  The heart fuels the fire of life.  So the heart must be changed.

One of the first things Jesus says in the Gospel of Mark is “repent.”  The Greek word for this is “metanioa.”  It does not mean simply to be sorry.  It means to have a complete change of heart.

Dr. Peter Kreeft used this example: If I told you that tomorrow that you would be taken to the hospital and they would take out your heart and replace it with another, would this be good news or bad news?  Most of us would say bad, unless it was the case that our hearts were defective and will kill us if they are not transplanted.

The same is true of us today.  Our hearts are going to kill us because they are twisted by sin.  We need Christ to give us a new heart.

One of my favorite poems from the great Oscar Wilde says this:

Ah! happy day they whose hearts can break

And peace of pardon win!

How else may man make straight his plan

And cleanse his soul from Sin?

How else but through a broken heart

May Lord Christ enter in?

We must surrender our hearts to Christ and die to ourselves and our desires.  When this happens, Christ will give us a new heart and He will live in our hearts.  If we do that, then we can finally and truly listen to our hearts, because then we will be listening to Him.

Copyright © 2013, W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me. I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find. As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows. They take up a huge part of my life. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class. I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask). The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill. In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth. Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me.

One response to “To Follow (or Not to Follow) Your Heart”

  1. […] articles (found here and here) from the New Evangelizers  give some great exposition on the matter: “Because of […]

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