The concept of love that is extremely popular in Western society happens to be equally dangerous. There are many dangerous things that are easy for us to point out: a snake when it’s tail starts to rattle, a man with his gun pointed at you, a car when the driver loses control. But when it comes to spiritual danger, things get blurry. So here’s the dreadfully dangerous concept: Follow your heart. It sounds charming and innocent, but it is the sweet Sirens’ song that has confused, embittered, and enslaved too many. It has weakened our will and made us incapable of genuine love. And the reality is that it continues to do so. Constantly.
The concept “follow your heart” is only dangerous because of the little word that is implied afterwards: “always!” In reality, the fact that your heart moves you is not bad; it is beautiful. But because of a slight inconvenience called original sin (sarcasm intended), our hearts often get confused, in the best case, and in the worst, perverted.
An enflamed heart can lead to the heights of Christian charity, or the depths of human misery. The courageous heart of a mother impels her to jump into the flames to rescue her child, while the immature heart of a teenage girl impedes her from breaking up with her subtly abusive boyfriend because, “He needs my help,” or the classic, “I know he’s going to change for me!” While one heart is overflowing with selfless love, the other is shrunken by tragic naïveté.
The solution is relatively simple… in theory at least. Don’t base your decisions on your heart, your feelings, or your emotions. Base them on your conscience: when you are sure that heart is leading you to good places, you can follow it— your heart can move you to compassion, to service, to do good. But the reason you can follow it isn’t the fact that you felt it, but because you are sure that the place it leads you towards is good. And you have to decide to walk—or sprint— in the opposite direction when the place it leads you towards is not good, because your heart can also move you to lust, to depression, to unhealthy attachments. Of course the difficulty comes when you must discern the difference. The difficulty is accented when you consider that movements of the heart are often accompanied by a certain clouding of the intellect; in some exceptional cases the clouding is because the desire transcends the intellect, but in most, because it contradicts the intellect. And the difficulty is emphasized because the heart is dramatic, and a spoiled heart will convince you of your imminent death if you do not follow its’ every whim. That's why prayer is crucial in these situations: a prayer of utter sincerity and total abandonment before the Lord, asking Him to give us the strength to ignore or cut off certain feelings or movements of the heart that are leading us away from Him— and willingness to embrace them if they lead us towards Him and towards His will for us.
Discipline of the Heart
Let’s be clear. If you are in a serious (maybe too serious) relationship with your boyfriend or girlfriend and you “follow-your-heart-always”; if you have problems with depression and you “follow-your-heart-always”; if you have a homosexual tendency and you “follow-your-heart-always”; if you are married and start to have feelings for another person and you “follow-your-heart-always”; your heart will not always lead you to good places. We have to learn to deny, reject, or mortify certain feelings that come from our hearts: attachments, feelings, and affections, even “falling in love”. If this sounds harsh, realize that you have been raised in a society that has taught you to do just that: to follow-your-heart-always. But if you let yourself be led by these feelings when they lead you the wrong way, you will end up confused, upset, and shoving God out of your life and out of your heart. This isn’t emotional masochism. It’s not about rejecting your feelings just to reject them. Christ doesn’t ask us to be “inhuman” or “unnatural”. We have to learn to educate our hearts, to form our consciences, to discern when our heart leads us to good places, and when it leads us to bad places. If we don’t, our love will be a superficial emotion that comes and goes with our attachments and our hormones.
When can I follow my heart? When it beats in unison with Christ’s heart. That requires a profound union with Him. We are called to have the same feelings as Christ, to educate our hearts, our affections, and our passions. To do so, it is not enough simply to stop watching ugly TV programs and movies. It is not enough to throw away superficial magazines and music. (“Ugly” and “superficial,” don’t refer to porn—porn must be thrown away immediately if you want to be a respectable human being. They refer to chick flicks and sitcoms, which, though they may not be rated R, sell you the concept we are debating.)
To educate your heart, along with getting rid of anything that could pervert or twist it, you need an immersion program. You must immerse your heart in the love and mercy of God. Anything less is insufficient. And in order to do so, use the means Christ Himself gave us to unite ourselves to Him: the Sacraments. If you want to immerse your heart in His, Confession would be a good start— traditionally, confessionals were situated on the right side of the cross-shaped churches, to symbolize that in confession you immerse yourself in the open Heart of Christ— followed by receiving the Eucharist frequently, and time for prayer and the Rosary every day.
Heart vs. Conscience
Along with an immersion program, it’s a good idea to take a step (or three steps) back and ask yourself some questions. This goes back to the importance of the conscience in matters of the heart. Am I in this situation because I believe that it leads me to a good place, or because I am too weak to change it, too naïve to see the danger I am in, or too blind to see the damage I am causing to myself or to others? How would I advise my little brother or sister or a friend if he or she were in the same situation? What do my parents and friends think about this situation? Why? And here is the most important question: What does Christ think about the way my heart is leading me? Is my heart leading me to offend Him? Have I asked Him in prayer or am I ashamed to do so? Christ demands pure hearts: if a man looks at a woman with lust in his heart, he commits adultery. Is my heart pure and immersed in Him, or is it full of egoism and lust?
Follow your heart when it beats in unison with Christ’s heart, when your will is subject to and united with His. If your heart is leading you to betray Him and/or to betray your own conscience, reject it. When you do so, don’t be scared if at first it feels like you’re breaking your own heart. Don’t forget that the heart is excessively dramatic. Christ will not only help you, but He will heal it and make it stronger than it was before so that you can love selflessly.
If you buy in to the “follow-your-heart-always” mentality (and the world sells it cheap) there are two immediate consequences: 1) you will commit sin, and 2) you will necessarily end up believing that the Church is mean.
Following your heart always will lead you to sin only if you are normal. Maybe some abnormal people have hearts that only lead them to good places… but that’s doubtful. Most people have hearts that lead them to some good places, and other bad places. The human heart is damaged and confused, and if you do not let Him heal it and put it in order, if you follow it always as our society demands, you will probably end up living in sin. And if you continue down that path, you could very well end up in (brace yourself!) mortal sin. Mortal sin means that you decide to completely cut off your relationship with God. If you follow your damaged heart’s every whim, it will lead you down a crooked path. Maybe you started off with good intentions… or let’s say without bad intentions, at least. But if you don’t react when God gives you chances to turn around (and He gives those chances), before you know it, everything gets blurry, and you prefer a crooked path, sin, to being with Him, to having Him inside you. If you continue in that crooked and blurry path, you could eliminate Him from your heart. That’s what mortal sin is. It’s like living in Hell on earth, though exteriorly you could seem perfect. If you die in mortal sin and refuse to repent, God can’t save you. Sounds severe, right? But if you continually choose to live in Hell, how can you expect Him to force you go to Heaven? In other words, if you shove Him away from you every day, He won’t oblige you to be with Him eternally. (Before going to the next consequence, remember that if you have committed mortal sin, He is waiting for you with His arms wide open, hoping you will accept His mercy. When’s the last time you went to confession?)
Secondly, if you follow-your-heart-always, you will end up believing that the Church is mean. Why? Because it seems like a good excuse: if I believe that I must follow my heart always, and the Church asks me not to do so, the Church is too demanding, too strict, or just plain mean. It’s an excuse because it would be too excessive to say, “Jesus Christ is mean!” It’s much easier and much more politically correct to blame it on the Church. (Of course if you read the gospel with a pure and sincere heart, you will see that the Church is asking you to live what Christ preached…) Whether you blame the Church or Jesus Christ for being mean, you do so because you still didn’t understand the first consequence of following your heart always. Read it again if you want. If you don’t understand what sin is, you’ll never understand why Jesus asks you not to sin. To live in sin is to live in emptiness, confusion, and ultimately despair, regardless of what this society thinks of you. Why do you call Him mean when He asks you to love, to be pure, to be generous, and to be selfless? Why is the Church mean if She teaches you how to reach Him? If you catch yourself thinking that the Church is mean, meditate on the beauty of grace and Heaven and the repulsiveness of sin and Hell. Meditate, because these truths are of vital importance in the spiritual life. We are so permeated with our fallen culture that sometimes it’s hard for us to see the difference between beauty and ugliness, sin and virtue, truth and lies. Ask Him to help you to understand.
The Virgin Mary and Your Heart
The Virgin Mary is a specialist in strengthening weak hearts, purifying impure hearts, and healing broken hearts. We can ask her, who is Immaculate, to help us to clean our stained hearts. If we consecrate ourselves to Her and discuss these issues with her as our Mother, She will not only take care of us, She will slowly but surely transfom our hearts into Her Son’s. She won’t be scandalized by our misery when we speak to her with simplicity and trust. When you feel tempted or confused, look to Her. Ask her to help you to see clearly.