the three-legged race of heart and head

Often enough, parishioners will approach me with one of two conundrums:
(a) I yearn so much to be good, to be holy, but I can’t figure out how.  OR
(b) I follow all the rules, do everything I’m supposed to, but I don’t feel any closer to God.

Another common variation on this themes substitutes “being good/ begin holy/ following the rules” with that sticky phrase, “being a ‘good’ Catholic.”  …still not sure quite what makes a ‘good’ Catholic, but I digress… 

Whatever nomenclature one prefers the issue comes down to this: the relationship between heart and head… feeling and will.  The false assumption at the root of my parishioners’ tension is that the decisions of the will and the satisfied feelings of the heart will (a) be simultaneous and (b) only be justified if they happen simultaneously.

Life experience proves however that such assumptions are, as I say, false.   Our pursuit of goodness is often more like the three-legged races the kids are currently running as part of field day… bound together, but more often than not quite clumsy.  Heart and head alternately lag behind, catch up or over compensate one for the other.  Don’t be alarmed, this is actually the norm for the spiritual life.  Consider St. Paul himself

 What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate. (Rm 7:15)

and again

If Christ is in you the body is dead because of sin while the spirit lives because of justice.  If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, then he who raised Jesus from the dead will bring your mortal bodies to life also. ” (Rm 8:10-11)

There’s always this sense of a lag between head and heart.  Chalk it up to the imperfections of our fallen world and move on.  In some ways its kind of nice having the two slightly out of sync… when one is weak the other can make up for it always keeping us on a forward moving path.  Writing to his brother Francis about his own spiritual life, Bl. John Henry Newman used this phrase, “It is my daily  and – I hope – heartfelt prayer…”  I don’t think Newman was being rhetorical, I think he was being quite realistic.  Sometimes the search for holiness is lead by the head and the heart catches up… sometimes the opposite.  Like the kids in the three-legged race who stumble left and right, the important thing is that we keep moving forward and rejoice in the interplay.

1 thought on “the three-legged race of heart and head”

  1. Not sure if this will make sense, but am gonna give it a go. I agree that it can be an out of sync head and heart thing, and I also think often times people over think it! I hear people talk about having to do things in the Catholic faith, about “following the rules” ( ugh! ) when they quite simply are God’s laws, much like any man made law. Consider this:

    You drive your car, you abide the law. You travel by air or train, you abide the law. You may not consciously be thinking about not running red lights, yielding for pedestrians, fastening a seat belt, placing your bag in the overhead bin, your tray in the upright locked position, not smoking, etc. etc. You know what you have to do, you know what is expected, because you have heard it, read it or studied it, and you just do it. It keeps you and others safe, it respects those around you, and it gets everyone from point A to point B unharmed.

    Having practiced dietetics for a number of years I made it a point to tell clients that it wasn’t a “diet” it was a lifestyle. If you make something harder than it has to be it becomes a chore, much like “rule” following. It can feel like a burden, hinder you, make your goal harder to achieve, slow your progress. If you look at it simply as a way of life, a lifestyle, it becomes less about laboriously “doing” and more about simply being.

    If we choose to approach our Catholic faith as a lifestyle, instead of a checklist, I think it could yield much fruit, bringing us closer to God and others, and dare I say, holier.

Comments are closed.