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What does it mean to go into the heart? Pope’s preacher explains what it is and how to do it

FATHER RANIERO CANTALAMESSA
Antoine Mekary | ALETEIA
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Father Cantalamessa's 2nd Lent sermon of 2019

St. Augustine made an appeal that despite the distance of so many centuries still maintains its relevance: “In teipsum redi. In interiore homine habitat veritas,” “Return within yourselves. In the inward man dwells truth.”[1] In a discourse to the people, he exhorted this even more insistently:

Return to your heart. Why go away from yourselves? Going away from yourselves you perish. Why go the ways of deserted roads? Come back from your wandering that has taken you so far away and return to the Lord. It can happen quickly. First return to your own heart; you have wandered and become a stranger to yourself: you do not know yourself, and yet you are seeking the one who made you! Return, return to your heart, detach yourself from your body. … Return to your heart; see there what you can perhaps perceive of God, for that is where you will find the image of God. Christ dwells in the inner man, and it is in your inner man that you are renewed after the image of God.[2]

Continuing the comments started last Advent on the verse from the psalm—“My soul thirsts for God, for the living God”—let us reflect on the “place” in which each of us can enter into contact with the living God. In a universal and sacramental sense this “place” is the Church, but in a personal and existential sense it is our hearts, what Scripture calls “the inner self,” “the hidden man of the heart.”[3]  The liturgical season we are in also prompts us in this direction. During these forty days Jesus is in the desert, and that is where we need to meet him. Not all of us can go into an external desert, but all of us can take refuge in the interior desert of our heart. “Christ dwells in the inner man,” St. Augustine said.

If we want a model or symbol that can help us to implement this return within ourselves, the Gospel offers it in the episode of Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus is the man who wants to know Jesus, and to do so he leaves his house, walks through the crowd, and climbs a tree. He is looking for him outside. But then Jesus passing by sees him and says to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today” (Lk 19:5). Jesus brings Zacchaeus back to his house and there, out of the public eye, without witnesses, a miracle happens; he recognizes who Jesus truly is and finds salvation. We are often like Zacchaeus. We seek Jesus and we seek him outside in the streets, among the crowd, yet it is Jesus himself who invites us to return to the house of our hearts, where he desires to meet with us.

Interiority, a Value in Crisis

Interiority is a value in crisis. The “interior life” which at one time was almost synonymous with spiritual life, now tends instead to be looked at with suspicion. There are dictionaries of spirituality that completely omit the words “interiority” and “recollection,” and others that do carry them express reservations. For example, they note that there are no biblical words, after all, that correspond exactly to these words, or that they could have been decisively influenced by platonic philosophy, or that they could lean to subjectivism, and so on. A revealing symptom of this loss of taste and esteem for the interiority is the fate suffered by the Imitation of Christ, which is a kind of introductory manual to the interior life. From being the most beloved book by Christians after the Bible, it has, in a few decades, become a forgotten book.

Some causes of this crisis are ancient and inherent in our very nature. Our “composition,” since we are constituted by flesh and spirit, means that we are like an inclined plane, but one that is slanted toward the external, the visible, and the multiple. Like the universe after the initial explosion (the famous Big Bang), we too are in the phase of expansion and of moving away from the center. “The eye is not satisfied by seeing, nor has the ear enough of hearing” (Eccles 1:8). We are continuously “outbound” through the five doors or windows of our senses.

Other causes are instead more specific and topical. One is the relevance acquired by “social issues,” which is certainly a positive value in our times, but if it is not rebalanced, it can emphasize an outward orientation and the depersonalization of human beings. In the secular culture of our time, the role that Christian interior life used to fulfill has been assumed by psychology and psychoanalysis, which goes no further, however, than the unconscious and its subjectivity, disregarding the interior life’s intimate connection to God.

In the ecclesial sphere, the affirmation by the Vatican Council of the idea of the “Church in the Modern World” at times replaced the ancient ideal of flight from the world with the ideal of the flight toward the world. The abandonment of the interior life and an external orientation constitute one aspect—which is among the most dangerous—of the phenomenon of secularism. There was even an attempt to justify this new orientation theologically that took on the name “Death of God theology” or the “Secular City.” God himself, they say, set up that example for us. By incarnating himself, he emptied himself, he went out of himself and the interior life of the Trinity; he became “secularized,” that is, he became merged into the secular. He became a God “outside of himself.”

Interiority in the Bible

As always, when there is a crisis about a traditional value, Christianity must respond by carrying out a recapitulation, that is, a return to the beginning of things to carry them forward to new fruitfulness. In other words, we need to start again from the word of God and rediscover, in its light and in the same Tradition, the vital and perennial element, freeing it from obsolete elements that it accumulated over the centuries. This is the methodology the Second Vatican Council followed in all its work. Just as in springtime in nature, we prune a tree of its branches from the preceding season to make possible new growth from its trunk, so too we need to do the same in the life of the Church.

The prophets of Israel had already endeavored to shift the people’s interest from the external practices of worship and rituals to the interiority of relationship with God. We read in Isaiah, “These people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote” (Is 29:13). The reason is that “they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (see 1 Sam 16:7). And we read in another prophet, “Rend your hearts and not your clothing” (Joel 2:13).

It is the type of reform that Jesus took up and brought to fulfillment. Anyone who examines the work of Jesus and his words, outside of dogmatic concerns and from the point of view of the history of religion, would notice one thing above all: he wanted to renew Jewish religiosity, which had often ended up in the shallows of ritualism and legalism, and to replace at its center an intimate and lived relationship with God. He never tires of referring to the “secret” place, the “heart,” where real contact takes place with God and his living will and on which the value of every action depends (see Mk 15:10ff). The call to an interior life finds its most profound and objective biblical rationale in the doctrine of the indwelling of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—in the baptized soul.[4]

As time went on, something became clouded in the biblical vision of Christian interior life and contributed to the crisis I spoke of above. In certain spiritual currents, as in some of the Rhine mystics, the objective character of this interior life became obscured. They insisted on a return to “the bottom of the soul” through what they call “introversion.” But it is not always clear if this “bottom of the soul” belongs to the reality of God or to the reality of the self—or worse, if it means both things together in a pantheistic fusion.

In recent centuries the method ended up prevailing over the content of Christian interiority, reducing it at times to a kind of technique for concentration and meditation more than for the encounter with the living Christ in a person’s heart—even if in every era there are wonderful examples of Christian interior life. Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity is aligned with the purest objective interiority when she writes, “I have found Heaven on earth, since Heaven is God, and God is in my soul.”[5]

The Return to Interiority

But let us turn to the present. Why is it urgent to speak about the inner life and rediscover the inclination toward it? We are living in a civilization that is completely outward-facing. What we observe in the physical sphere is happening in the spiritual sphere. We send probes to the periphery of the solar system and take photographs of what there is on distant planets; in contrast, we do not know what is stirring a few thousand meters under the earth’s crust and we do not succeed, therefore, in foreseeing earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. We also know, now in real time, what is happening on the other side of the world, but we still do not know the restlessness in the depth of our hearts. We live as though we are inside a centrifuge moving at high speed.

To escape, that is, to go outside of self, is a kind of watchword. There even exists “escape literature,” and “escape entertainment.” Escape has become, so to speak, institutionalized. Silence causes fear. We do not succeed at living, working, and studying without some kind of talking or music around us. It is a kind of horror vacui, the fear of a vacuum, that impels us to numb ourselves this way.

I once had the experience of going inside a discotheque, having been invited to speak to the young people gathered there. It was enough to give me an idea of what prevails there: raucous noise and a deafening din like a drug. I made some inquiries among the young people on their way out of the discotheque, and when I asked, “Why do you get together in this place?” some responded, “So that we don’t have to think!” It is easy to imagine what kinds of manipulations young people are exposed to when they have now given up thinking.

The command of Egypt’s Pharaoh for the Jews was “Let heavier work be laid on them; then they will labor at it and pay no attention to [Moses’] deceptive words” (see Ex 5:9). The tacit, but no less authoritative, command of the modern pharaohs is “Let deafening noise be put on these young people to daze them so that they do not think and cannot make free choices; then they will follow the trends that suit us, they will buy what we tell them, and they will think the way we want them to!” For the very important sector of entertainment and advertising in our society, individuals count only as “viewers,” as statistics that make the “audience” numbers go up.

It is necessary to oppose this devaluation with a firm “no!” Young people are also those who are the most big-hearted and ready to rebel against slavery; in fact there are groups of young people who are reacting to this assault and, instead of escaping, seek out places and times of silence and contemplation to find themselves, and in themselves, God. There are many of them, even if no one speaks about them. Some of them have founded houses of prayer and continuous Eucharist adoration, and networks give many of them the opportunity to gather together.

Interiority is the path to an authentic life. People speak a lot today about authenticity and make it the criterion for success or failure in life. The philosopher who is perhaps the most famous in the last century, Martin Heidegger, placed this concept at the center of his system. For a Christian, genuine authenticity is not attained unless one lives “coram Deo,” in the presence of God. Søren Kierkegaard writes,

The cattleman who (if this were possible) is a self directly before his cattle is a very low self, and, similarly, a master who is a self directly before his slaves is actually no self—for in both cases a criterion is lacking. . . . What infinite reality … the self gains by being conscious of existing before God, by becoming a human self whose criterion is God! [6]

He also makes the point that “There is so much talk about human distress and wretchedness, but only that person’s life was wasted who … never became aware and in the deepest sense never gained the impression that there is a God and that ‘he,’ he himself, his self, exists before this God.” [7]

The Gospel narrates the story of one of these “herdsmen.” He had left his father’s home and had squandered his goods and his youth in living a dissolute life. But one day, “he came to himself.” He reviewed his life, prepared the words he would say, and went back to his father’s house (see Lk 15:17). His conversion happened at that moment, even before he started going home, while he was alone in the middle of a pigsty. It happened the moment that “he came to himself.” Afterward he merely followed through on what he had already decided. His external conversion was preceded by his inner conversion and received its validity from that. How fertile is the statement that “he came to himself”!

It is not only young people who are swept up by the wave of an exterior focus. It is also true of the most committed and active people in the Church. Including religious! Distraction is the name of the mortal sickness that lays traps for all of us. We end up being like an inside-out garment with our soul exposed to the four winds. In an address to the superiors of a contemplative religious, St. Paul VI said,  

We are living in a world today that seems to be gripped by a fever that has infiltrated even the sanctuary and our solitude. Noise and a loud racket have invaded nearly everything. People are no longer able to recollect themselves. In the throes of a thousand distractions, they usually squander their energy in step with various forms of modern culture. Newspapers, magazines, and books have invaded the intimacy of our homes and our hearts. It is more difficult than before to find an opportunity for that recollection in which the soul succeeds in being fully engaged with God.

St. Teresa of Avila wrote a work called The Interior Castle that is certainly one of the most mature fruits of the Christian teaching about the interior life. But there also exists, unfortunately, an “exterior castle,” and today we observe that we can be enclosed in that castle as well—shut out of the house and unable to reenter. Prisoners of the exterior world! St. Augustine describes his life that way before his conversion:

You were within me, while I was outside: it was there that I sought you, and, a deformed creature, rushed headlong upon these things of beauty which you have made. You were with me, but I was not with you. They kept me far from you, those fair things which, if they were not in you, would not exist at all. [8]

How many of us need to repeat this bitter confession: “You were within me, while I was outside.” There are some who dream of solitude but they just dream about it. They love it as long as it stays in their dream and does not ever result in being real. They actually shun it and are afraid of it. The disappearance of silence is a serious symptom. Almost everywhere the typical signs in every hallway of religious houses that commanded “Silentium!” have been removed. I believe the following dilemma hangs over many religious environments: either silence or death! Either we find an environment and times of silence and interiority or there will progressively be total spiritual emptiness. Jesus calls hell “the outer darkness” (Mt 8:12), and that designation is highly significant.

We do not need to let ourselves be fooled by the usual objections: we find God outside ourselves, in our brothers and sisters, in the poor, in our fight for justice; we find him in the Eucharist that is outside of us, in the word of God. … All of that is true. But where is it that you actually “encounter” the brother or the poor person if not in your heart? If you encounter them only on the outside it is not a person that you encounter, but a thing. You are bumping into them more than encountering them. Where is it that you encounter the Jesus of the Eucharist if not in faith, which is inside of you? A genuine encounter between persons cannot happen except between the consciousness of two persons, two free wills, that is, between two interior lives.  

It is a mistake to think that an emphasis on the interior life can be harmful, after all, to an active commitment for the kingdom and for justice; in other words, it is a mistake to think that affirming the primacy of intention can be harmful to action. Interiority is not in opposition to action but to a certain way of performing the action. Far from diminishing the importance of working for God, interiority establishes it and preserves it.

The Hermit and His Hermitage

If we want to imitate what God did by becoming incarnated, let us imitate him all the way. It is true that he emptied himself and went out of himself and from the inner life of the Trinity to come into the world. We know, however, the manner in which that happened: “He remained what he was and assumed what he was not,” says an ancient adage about the Incarnation. Without abandoning the bosom of his Father, the Word came down among us. We too now go toward the world but without ever leaving ourselves totally. The Imitation of Christ says, “A spiritual man quickly recollects himself because he has never wasted his attention upon externals. No outside work, no business that cannot wait stands in his way. He adjusts himself to things as they happen.” [9]

But let us also seek to see concretely how to rediscover and preserve the habit of an interior life. Moses was a very active man. But we read that he had a portable tent constructed for himself, and at every stage of the exodus he would set up the tent outside the encampment and regularly entered there to consult the Lord. There, the Lord spoke with Moses “face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (Ex 33:11).

We are not always able to do that. We cannot always withdraw to a chapel or a solitary place to establish contact with God. St. Francis of Assisi suggests another tactic that is at our fingertips. Sending his brothers into the streets of the world, he would say, we always have a hermitage with us wherever we go, and any time we wish we can, like hermits, enter that hermitage: “Our brother body is our cell and our soul is the hermit living in that cell in order to pray to God and meditate.” [10]

This is the same recommendation that St. Catherine of Siena expressed with the image of an “interior cell” that we each carry within us; it is always possible to withdraw there with our thoughts to restore a living contact with the Truth that dwells in us. To this interior cell not limited by walls, says St. Ambrose, Jesus invites us when he says, “When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret.” (Mt 6:6). [11]

We heard at the beginning the heartfelt appeal by St. Augustine to return to our hearts. Let us conclude by listening to another appeal with the same objective that is also heartfelt, the appeal that St. Anselm of Canterbury addresses to the reader at the beginning of his Proslogion:

Come now, insignificant man, fly for a moment from your affairs, escape for a little while from the tumult of your thoughts. Put aside now your weighty cares and leave your wearisome toils. Abandon yourself for a little to God and rest for a little in him. Enter into the inner chamber of your soul, shut out everything save God and what can be of help in your quest for Him and having locked the door seek Him out [Mt. 6:6]. Speak now, my whole heart, speak now to God: “I seek Your countenance, O Lord, Your countenance I seek” [Ps 27:8]. [12]

With these desires and intentions, let us begin our workday in the service of the Church.

~

English Translation by Marsha Daigle Williamson

[1] St. Augustine, Of True Religion, 39, 72 (South Bend, IN: Regnery/Gateway, 1959), p. 69; PL 34, 154.

[2] See St. Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John, 18, 10; CCL 36, p. 186.

[3] See Rom 7:22; 2 Cor 4:16; 1 Pet 3:4.

[4] See Jn 14:17, 23; Rom 5:5; Gal 4:6.

[5] See “Letter 122,” in The Complete Works of Elizabeth of the Trinity, vol. 2, ed. Conrad de Meester (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1995), p. 51.

[6] Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death , Part 2, vol. 19, Kierkegaard’s Writings, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1980), p. 79.

[7] Ibid., Part 1, p. 26.

[8] St. Augustine, Confessions, X, 27, trans. John K. Ryan (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1960), p. 254.

[9] St. Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, 2, 1, trans. Aloysius Croft and Harold Bolton (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2003), pp. 29-30.

[10] Legend of Perugia, 80, in Francis of Assisi: Writings and Early Biographies, ed. Marion A Habig, 4th ed. (Quincy, IL: Franciscan Press, 1991), p. 1056.

[11] See St. Ambrose, De Cain et Abel, I, 9, 38 (CSEL 32,1, p. 372).

[12] St. Anselm of Canterbury, Proslogion, in Anselm of Canterbury: Major Works, eds. Brian Davies and Gillian Evans (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 84.

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