By Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
Christ commands us to love with “all” our heart, soul and mind (Mt 22:34-40). But what does that look like? To speak about “all” a heart is to speak about a “pure” heart: a simple, whole and straightforward heart, free from anything extraneous. When we love purely, we are unified by a single love.
Children give us a concrete image of pure love. Generally, they want only one thing in any given moment. They may change course from one moment to the next; nevertheless, they have one-track hearts. When a child wants to play a game, she can give you the impression that she wants to play it now and forever. My father loves to remind my siblings and me that when we were children he would play with us, and that after each round we would chant the refrain, “Do it again, Daddy!”
Things become complicated as we mature and learn to control our wills, or at least their concrete expressions. On the one hand, this is a strength. It allows us to distinguish between our good and bad desires, and to integrate our desires with those of others. But on the other hand, this noble ability to control our wills also enables us to become duplicitous by willing one thing while pretending to will another.
This is a major concern in the monastic tradition. Monks wrestle with the duplicity that can mark our desires, impulses and thoughts (or our hearts, souls and minds). For the more we pay attention to our interior lives, the more we see how complicated we can be. We see our good desires mixed with selfish ones. Our impulses, whether we are awake or asleep, sometimes offer surprising insight into our subconscious depths. And we suffer when ugly thoughts rise to tarnish beautiful ones.
What do our scattered hearts, souls and minds mean? How do we unify them for purity and the vision of God (cf. Mt 5:8)? One monastic author from the fifth century, John Cassian, observes that our thoughts come from various sources and that we are often not able to prevent their arrival. God can inspire our interior life, and so can our biology and chosen habits. But so too can darker forces. We should not be anxious for the simple fact that we are sometimes fragmented by negative desires, impulses or thoughts. They do not always spring from our freedom, and we are not helpless before them.
In fact, we can work to unify ourselves. Cassian compared the heart to a mill. So long as the waters of life are flowing, the mill is ceaselessly turning. We cannot stop our hearts from milling. But we can exercise some (not total) control over the grain that is put into our millstones to be ground for our nourishment. We can choose to feed ourselves with words, images and experiences that are wholesome. Cassian encouraged monks to read Scripture, chant the psalms, engage in holy conversation and other such things in order to restore unity and integrity to their interior lives – to bring peace.
Such discipline is not the privileged possession of monks. So, we can ask ourselves: What do we choose to watch, read and talk about? What do we daydream about as we fall asleep? What images do we hang on our walls? What public figures do we follow in social media? In short, what do we eat spiritually?
Would we see God more clearly, and thus enjoy a greater peace, if we were, say, to drop for ten minutes the grain of indignation that fills so much of our news media and instead pick up the psalms? What if we exchanged that dubious series on television for something that promises to be more beautiful and soul-deepening?
We understand this. We know that we can promote unity and peace in our hearts, souls and minds by choosing wisely to mill the right grains. As we struggle to sacrifice vainer and more worldly grains, we can be consoled by knowing that the flour produced by good grain is truly more wholesome and delicious, and that our tastes will quickly discover its goodness. Gradually, our interior life will become more and more delightful as our chosen habits toss into our millstones one beautiful grain after another. We will find our desires drawing closer together around the will of God, to the point where we approach every element in our lives as giddy as children chanting, “Do it again, Daddy!”
Father John Bayer, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column appears occasionally in The Texas Catholic.