Begin Again, By Going to the Heart


Anne was worried about her husband, Mark.  Things were better after he met with a priest, but didn’t last.  She didn’t know what to do.  Mark didn’t want to talk about it and got angry when she tried.  Two days later, he continued to block attempts to talk about what was happening, and seemed to be becoming more discouraged every day.

[Watch Fr. Justin’s homily delivery here.]

On Saturday, she remembered something: The last time there was tension between them was about moving.  Mark wanted to talk about it because his commute was getting longer and the home was feeling crowded.  But Anne wasn’t ready to talk about it: She couldn’t handle even the thought of something so big and just didn’t want to move.

One morning, after dropping the kids off at school, there was a breakthrough.  She went to the chapel and later wrote in her diary: “The monstrance was on the altar just in front of me.  I sat, looking at it.  In that moment, I felt Jesus’ presence there before me and a deep sense of being loved.  For a few minutes, that was all I felt…  In that moment, too, something resistant in me gave way.  I knew that I needed to let Mark talk about the move, and I knew that I was ready to do it.  We spoke that evening, and the tension began to wane” (Fr. Timothy Gallagher, Discernment of Spirits in Marriage, 37-39).

What we have here is someone’s paying attention to God’s moving in her heart, and discerning His plan for her.  I’m going to introduce you to paying attention to the spiritual movements of our hearts, because, if we do this, while at the same time growing in spiritual maturity, we’ll be able to detect God’s plan for us.  I’ll give more examples later, and in the online chat, I’ll discuss this more if you want to learn, but for today, our simple theme is: Begin again by going to the heart, because that’s where God speaks.  Be more aware of what’s happening in your heart!

St. Paul writes in the Second Reading, “Brothers and Sisters: When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption to sonship” (Gal 4:4-5).  Pay attention to three ideas here:

1) ‘When the fullness of time had come’ means that God the Father had predetermined a date when Jesus would be born, die, and rise; it wasn’t random.  God had a plan.  And He does so for us, too.

2) What was the goal of His plan?  His goal was ‘that we might receive adoption to sonship.’  St. Paul was writing to the Galatians, who had believed in elemental spirits of the universe (Raymond Brown, Introduction to the New Testament, 472), which is a form of slavery because those spirits aren’t real and can’t help them.  But they had received freedom once they were baptized!  God has only one natural son, Jesus, but through Baptism, we’re adopted.  Have you ever met parents who were about to adopt a child?  They can’t wait; they already love that child—that’s the kind of love with which God has formulated His plan for us!  And once we know that plan, we have freedom, just as Anne did when she went to the chapel: She knew what her Father wanted her to do.

3)  His plan required cooperation.  ‘Born of a woman’ refers to Mary, who gave consent to God’s plan.  In our lives, we need to pay attention to what He’s doing, often in our hearts, and cooperate.

Begin again by going to the heart!  It says in the Gospel, “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” (Lk 2:19).  She’s pondering in her soul what she just heard from the shepherds, and on the prophecies she had heard from the Old Testament now being fulfilled (Ancient Christian Commentary on ScriptureLuke, 42-43).

Fr. George Aschenbrenner, SJ, the renowned spiritual author and formator, writes about three dimensions of the human person:  1) Our external behaviour;  2) the ‘skin’ of our soul, which is our feelings and emotions; 3) the ‘core’ of the soul (Portrait of the Authentic Celibate in Our American Culture, Chicago Studies, Vol 45:2, Summer 2006, pp 183-203).  Here are some examples of the core, that is, the heart:

*  Giving five dollars to a homeless man because we see Christ in him, even though our feelings want to stay away from him.

*  A priest obeys his bishop even though his assignment is challenging.  He doesn’t need a pat on the back, because the choice comes from the heart.

*  A teenager does the dishes and hates it.  He only does it to avoid getting into trouble.  But later, there’s a change in his heart: He wants to help his parents.

* A young woman spends time in the chapel out of love, even though there’s a part of her that wants to be with her friends; she’s following a movement in her heart.

* True story: A mother says to her daughter every day before she leaves for school, “I love looking at you,” and this stays with her daughter for the rest of her life.

* A non-Catholic is prayed over during Alpha and experiences a sense of warmth they had never experienced.

All day we function at the levels of external behaviour and feelings, and that’s normal, but most of us aren’t good at paying attention to the heart.  When we have conversations, the topic rarely goes to the heart.  What we’re doing right now is building an awareness of the heart, and God’s trying to awaken our whole community to be open about talking about what He’s put there.  Here are three areas where we can grow:

1) Friendships. In my friendships, now that I’m aware that people are more willing to open up, conversations are more satisfying.  With some, we literally ask each other, “What’s on your heart?”  Now, this is very intimate if you’re willing to share, because it’s more than a feeling, but an experience.  People start talking about experiences of God, legitimate needs, pains and longings; they start articulating what happens in prayer.  As Christians, we’re called to move to this level with each other, because this is part of living in communion.

2) Confession. Since I’ve been back, I generally ask people during Confession, “Where is your heart focused?”  From my point of view, this has been very powerful.  When we go to Confession, sometimes we have so many thoughts and feelings, but when the priest asks, “What’s on your heart?” it’s a different question.  For example, if I go to Confession and the priest asks me, “Anything on your heart?” I might answer, “I want to get rid of this sin.”  Do you see how God is speaking?  Or, “I feel very loved right now,” then I should stay with that love in prayer.  From now on, when I hear Confessions, I’m generally going to ask this question.  But, please be aware: This is not counselling or spiritual direction.  It’s not meant to be an extended discussion.  You want to be mindful of the people behind you in the line-up.  But, here’s the good news, when we focus on what’s on the heart, it’s usually one thing.  We don’t have to spend time describing the circumstances of all our sins.  We just name our sins and the number of times they’ve happened, and then we have a few more minutes for what God’s put on your heart!  Then I can help cooperate with Him in pointing you in the right direction.  (If you’re interested in examples of how this works, I’ll give some in the online chat afterwards.)

3) Parish Vision.  I’ve been listening to what God’s put on my heart for our parish family, and I know He’s calling us to re-envision.  Our current parish vision has focused us on four ideas for the past three years and has helped us grow in holiness and mission.  Without this vision, we wouldn’t go anywhere.  But I can sense that we’re plateauing, because so many of us have grown but we’re getting comfortable in our prayer lives, in the way we love people, and especially in our mission to evangelize, and since healthy things grow, I’ve sensed that we need to listen once again to where He’s calling us.  I don’t foresee that we have to spend a whole year doing this, but I think eight months.  As of now, I’m spending considerable time discerning and talking to other Catholic leaders.

Because today is the Solemnity of the Mother of God, I’d like to finish with a story about motherhood and a special call.  Jennifer’s two children were both under two years of age, and she was pregnant with her third.  If you had asked her five years ago who she’d be, she would have said she would be a successful career woman and uninterested if she were married.  But now, though she was happily married and loved her children, she was exhausted.  One afternoon, when her kids were quiet, a thought came to her mind: I might not be done having babies.  It was partly pragmatic, because her children would never have cousins since she and her husband were the only children in their families, but it was mostly spiritual.  When Lucy was born, God provided for them, including enough money for a used minivan.  Though there was still chaos, the sense that she had a special call from God to have a big family continued.

One day, after discovering that she was pregnant with their fourth, she stopped by her parish asking for peace: “I’d been trying to run from that call to have a big family for years, and now it was time to give up…  It felt too right… to keep fighting it.”  Just as she was leaving Mass, she saw about 30 Mexican Catholics of all ages celebrating a wedding rehearsal outside the church, and she sensed a message: Stay. Watch.  This group was so joyful and warm that it brought back happy childhood memories for her.  Then she imagined the future of this large family, and a phrase came to her mind: Wholeness of vision.  She hadn’t yet been able to see further into the future, when her children would be 25 at a Thanksgiving dinner, or when they would be 50 bringing flowers to her in her hospital room.  She said, “This moment had given me the peace I’d been searching for.”  There were still questions, but, “I knew… that the path of being unusually open to babies was the right one for us” (Jennifer Fulwiler, One Beautiful Dream, 19, 38, 49, 61-65).

Did you hear how often God spoke to her at the level of her heart?  That’s how she knew His plan for her, and that’s why her book is called One Beautiful Dream!  We begin again by going to the heart.

One thought on “Begin Again, By Going to the Heart

  1. Good morning, Father Justin, and best wishes for a Happy and Rewarding New Year to you. I love the “what is on your heart” question and just may drive into town for confession with you to see if you ask the question. Just kidding …. I think. On a more serious note, I believe if you were to ask me “what is on your mind” I believe I would be inclined to think of the negative, the things that I dislike or want to avoid, and even think of “why is God taking so long to answer my prayers”? But if asked “what is on your heart” I like to think I would focus much more on the positives, the “how can I get involved and/or help”, and appreciate more the many blessings that God has given me. My head and my heart, on occasion, clash with each other, and for sure I would want the heart to win out much more often. As a matter of fact, I am going to use this in discussions with my two daughters and five grandkids and rather than, in talking about challenges, opportunities and even difficulties, I will be asking more about “heart” than “head”. Thanks Father ….. Hope this makes sense to you.

    At any rate, I hope this makes s one sense to you.

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