JULY 27, 2003, 17TH SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME—CHAPTER 

THE HEART IS MORE DEVIOUS THAN ANY OTHER THING; PERVERSE TOO; WHO CAN PIERCE ITS SECRETS? (Jeremiah 17: 9). When Jeremiah gave expression to this cry of exasperation he was still in the rather early stages of his mission as a prophet to his own people. As desperate as he felt at the time he unburdened himself with these words, he had much more to learn about human deviousness and perversity. Before he completed his assigned task he was to know rejection, persecution, condemnation and, as tradition has it, a violent death. Meantime, he made discoveries of another kind that provided him with the faith, hope and courage he required to carry on his mission faithfully and with sufficient effect to assure the well deserved place he occupies in the history of salvation. 

The words he added to this cri du coeur (cry of the heart) witness to this more consoling feature of his prophetic life. For God gave him extraordinary assurances of his care and protection even as he sent his chosen prophet on so daunting a task as preaching a message of doom. And so Jeremiah, speaking in God’s name added to the above words the following commentary: “I, The Lord, search the heart, I probe the loins,  to give each man what his conduct and his actions deserve.” Thus, what our prophet proclaims here is that no matter how complicated, how perverse even, the human heart may be, it is wholly open to the eyes of God who will not automatically condemn but judge with justice. He will reward as well as punish, according to the innocence and guilt his all-knowing eyes discern.   

Most of us would find such assurance rather thin consolation; we feel the need for the mercy of God. The teachings of the one whom Jeremiah foretold, Jesus of Nazareth, has made us keenly aware of our inability to stand with confidence before the tribunal of the omniscient God who judges without human respect, according to the merits of each. We are too conscious of the truth of the prophet’s insights into the depths of the human condition, reinforced as they are, by so many supporting proofs of their clear -sightedness. We can only agree with this witness of human affairs as observed and evaluated by one who has experienced the holiness of God. THE HEART IS MORE DEVIOUS THAN ANY OTHER THING; PERVERSE TOO; WHO CAN PIERCE ITS SECRETS?  

As a part of his mission Jesus was assigned the burden of revealing the true dispositions of the human hearts of those to whom he was sent. The prophecy of Simeon delivered at the time of our Lord’s presentation in the temple, declared this to be a result of his presence among his people.

Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, ‘You see this child: he is destined for the fall and for the rising of many in Israel, destined to be a sign that is rejected- and a sword will pierce your own soul too- so that the secret thoughts of many may be laid bare. (Luke 2: 34, 35) 

Such a revelation proved to be more than most could endure. We know what it cost our Lord in terms of rejection, suffering and death. Jesus endured precisely the same kind of fate, only with much greater consequences in every way, that Jeremiah had known in the course of his own prophetic witness. Knowledge of the human heart, then, has proved to be a difficult and even dangerous acquisition. Self-knowledge is experienced more as a threat than as an opportunity for liberation by many, to judge from the example of these two persons sent by God, one a holy prophet the other the Son of God himself. Jeremiah attempted to turn the attention of the people from the externals of temple worship to the inner dispositions of the heart. He sought to point out that exterior acts without proper adherence to the divine purpose of interior obedience to the word of God were not acceptable to the Lord, the Glory of Israel. Because the people lacked insight into the meaning of their disobedient behavior, Jeremiah urged them to turn to God who assured them saying: “I will give you shepherds after my own heart and these shall feed you on knowledge and discretion.” The kind of knowledge that is understanding of God’s will and the discretion that discriminates the ways of justice and holiness from the seductions of error.   

Jesus gave fuller and more urgent expression to the primacy of interior dispositions and so of the necessity of that self-knowledge and discretion which recognizes one’s sinfulness and accepts responsibility for purifying the heart. Far from pleasing God, the observances of religion performed without sincere inner intent were unacceptable to his heavenly Father. The kind of formation our Lord sought to give was a worship “in Spirit and in truth.” This truth was embodied in his person, his teaching, his example. Some were charmed and persuaded by this teaching; the majority, however, found it altogether too much and rejected it and him with his doctrine. Man cannot endure too much truth, T.S. Eliott was to say many centuries later, with abundance of evidence to sustain his argument. Certainly, the truth that Jesus taught about the human heart, alienated from God and so at cross purposes with itself, met with a violent resistance that did not hesitate to kill the messenger. What has been acclaimed as the Good News by generations of believers, was at that time, and is still today, rejected as a threat or simply ignored by large numbers of persons.  

To receive the Gospel message the hearer must begin with an acknowledgment that he is a sinner and needs the mercy and grace of God. This admission is a beginning of self- knowledge in light of the saving truth of revelation. This is the minimum measure of self- knowledge and the first stage in a life long endeavor to appropriate the spiritual light that purifies the heart and unites us with God. We never arrive at a stage in this life when we can presume we have acquired sufficient understanding of our self in light of our destiny as sons of God. Even writing to a saintly Pope, Eugene III, St. Bernard considered  it not superfluous to admonished him to attend to this necessity. “Begin by considering yourself, lest you seek other things in vain for having neglected yourself.”(De consideratione II.3.6) St. Bonaventure cites this passage at the beginning of his Soliloquy. He adds in his own words similar advice: “O soul, hold to the counsel of the saints: direct the beam of contemplation first upon the land of the East, that is, upon your own condition. Consider with care how generously you were formed in your nature by your Maker.” (Introduction I.1.22 “The Works of St. Bonaventure” , III p. 42)  

There is no difficulty in finding other eminent doctors of the Church and saints who    profer the same teaching and underline its essential contribution to the work of purification and of contemplation. The kind of self-knowledge to be acquired is various. St. Ambrose, also cited by Bonaventure, emphasizes the positive role of this kind of understanding: “Know how great you are; consider attentively what comes into your mind through reflection, and what goes out of it through speech.” (Hexaemeron VI. 8.50). This is a noteworthy orientation that was to become an essential feature of Catholic spirituality. Pope Leo the Great gave it prominence in a phrase that invites all the people of God to look within to discern in their soul the natural foundation of their hope: “O Christian, recognize your dignity!” When Pope Gregory the great commented on the Canticle he underscored this doctrine and insisted that such knowledge of the interior man is the chief science to master for those who would progress in their life with God.

Every soul should have as its paramount concern that it knows itself. For who knows himself, knows that he was made to God’s image and that he ought not to follow the likeness of animals, either in his sexual practice or in his desire for the things of this world. (In Cant. 1:28, PL 79:490b cited in Casey, ‘Athirst For God,’ p.154, n.47) 

Bernard of Clairvaux built his spiritual edifice on this foundation. He also had a keen awareness, however, of the loss of the original likeness to God through sin. Knowledge of self as he conceived it, was nothing if not aware of the human predicament resulting from the consequent alienation and unlikeness. We are called to nobility and greatness by the endowments of nature, freedom and choice, yet we are wounded and weakened by failure to obey our Maker. These are the two aspects of our condition that reveal themselves to us when we enter upon the way of return to the original likeness. He states his convictions on this matter in a strongly worded sermon to his monks in chapter that treats of the paths that lead to the way of confession which in turn terminates in Paradise. He makes his case in the following terms.

The first path and the first step in that way is knowledge of self. That maxim fell from heaven: ‘O man, know yourself’….  The second step is penitence. These two are so joined together that no one can know himself unless he is penitent, and he cannot be penitent unless he knows himself. And so let the soul be penitent, wounded by the dart of compunction with a triple compunction: that she lost her innocence, that she has not sought again for the innocence she lost, and that she has neglected to respond to the patience of God. (De diversis 40. 3 and 4 in Obras, VI [Madrid: BAC, 1988] 282, 284)  

Bernard, accordingly, was deliberately applying to his own time and developing further an approach to knowledge of self in view of attaining to likeness to God that earlier teachers and mystics had outlined. Knowledge of the human heart is not an expendable accessory that one can neglect at will but rather is the only key that unlocks the door that opens to the hidden, narrow way of salvation brought by the Lord Jesus.

Enter by the narrow gate, since the road that leads to perdition is wide and spacious, and many take it; rather, it is a narrow gate and a hard road that leads to life, and only a few find it. (Matthew 7: 13, 14) 

For the contemplative life this understanding of the interior man in all its breadth and depth is particularly pertinent. Of course, there are innumerable kinds of knowledge involved in human experience that enter into the formation of the human personality. For a majority of people emotionally charged experiences are dominant at first and need to be confronted. After a more or less prolonged period following upon the way of conversion other kinds of problems make their appearance such as lack of social skills or defective ability to reason, or to analyze the causes of inner conflicts with a view to eliminating them. The approaches to gaining this knowledge are various as well. St. Bernard was keenly aware of this fact and pointed it out to his monks. “Many and diverse are the paths that one can take to find this way, difficult it is to hold to them, too complicated to count them” (De div. 40.3). So diverse, as Bernard discovered as he gained more familiarity with the inner ways of the heart, that he never managed to formulate a single doctrine on this question. While his various treatments of the image and likeness in man are complementary rather than contradictory yet he has more than one schema for presenting this doctrine and so more than one way of approaching knowledge of self (cf. Casey, 138). 

However, these paths are rendered more negotiable by the light thrown on them by meditation and study of the Scriptures and the Fathers. After having traveled a considerable distance along these by-ways, more distant horizons appear as the voyager catches glimpses of the divinity shining through the person of the Son made flesh. Only in the reflection of the divine glory can man become aware of the hidden mystery of his own person. Since human dignity derives from being created according to the image of God, the lineaments of his own nature appear only to the extent that a man discerns the original prototype. The clearer our perception of the glorified Son of God the more distinct will be our consciousness of what we are destined to be. Thus contemplative prayer is accompanied by an increment of self-knowledge at a deeper level, by way of revealing something of the Creator in whose image man is created.  

The Fathers were dedicated to the study of man and so of the human heart, not as psychologists or sociologists but rather as concerned with the great task of purifying the heart. They understood well that only the pure of heart are admitted to knowledge of the Trinity by a passing experience in this life and eventually in face to face vision in the life to come. The more familiar we become with the writings of such men of God as St. Augustine, St. Bernard and others of those named above, the more evident it becomes that the courage born of trust in God’s mercy is a requisite for entering upon the ways that lead to the deep places of the heart.   For, as Jeremiah has proclaimed : THE HEART IS MORE DEVIOUS THAN ANY OTHER THING; PERVERSE TOO; WHO CAN PIERCE ITS SECRETS?  

Any one who undertakes to enter his heart has to be willing to confront there passion, disordered dispositions and tendencies that stir feelings of anxiety, guilt, shame, fear along with aberrant ideas and disturbing images, all of which serve as obstacles to purifying the heart. However, as our holy Fathers have shown in their own lives, God is greater than the heart, and he calls us to holiness and even union with him in his son, Our Lord Jesus. He calls us because he loves us. The Lord Jesus answered Jeremiah’s question: Who can pierce the heart’s secrets? God who is love; who became man that human warmth might open the heart of man and reveal its secret in the clear knowledge of its Maker. As this realization of his merciful love grows in us we shall find within our own soul the strength and confidence we need to follow through the paths of the heart that lead to that knowledge of self that reveals to us the way that bring us to eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

  Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

Return to Index.

Go to Archive.