Insensibility of Heart
TAKEN FROM HOLY COMMUNION
by St. Peter Julian Eymard
Imprimi Potest, Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur, 1940
Percussus sum ut foenum, et aruit cor meum.
I am smitten as grass, and my heart is withered.
SAINT BERNARD, writing to Pope Eugenius, said: "I fear, Eugenius, that multiplicity of
affairs will make you abandon prayer, and that thus your heart will be hardened."
The holy Doctor wrote these words to a great Pope occupied with the holiest affairs in the world, those of the Church. We have with greater justice to apply them to ourselves, kept from prayer as we are by affairs of much less importance. The world is all about us, and it takes very little to distract us and turn us from prayer. Our little outer activities are enough to do that and may cause us to fall into spiritual insensibility, the greatest of all misfortunes.
This insensibility or hardness of heart is greatly to be feared, for we need a heart that is sensitive and tender, one that will feel itself to be in the service of God. The unfeeling person will have no horror of himself if he falls into sin. He will be unconscious of his wounds, no matter how deep they may be.
I use the word sensibility here because I can find no better one to express my thought. But this sensibility is nothing but a liking for all we have to do and an aversion for the least sin. Understand me clearly I am not speaking of the emotional sensibility of false devotees.
To avoid exaggeration, also, I shall not speak of insensibility which is involuntary. King David acknowledged that he sometimes felt, in God's presence, as stupid and insensible as a beast of burden. But he added: Et ego semper tecum. 1 ---- "And I am always with Thee." This stupidity of spirit is not always a punishment. It is a stage through which we pass in order to arrive at greater submission and humility before God. What must we do at such times? ---- Nothing but remain patiently in that state, do what we can, and wait. Since this condition does not ordinarily indicate that we are at fault, we are not responsible for our dryness and for the tepidity of our prayers. God in His mercy reduces us to this state in order to prevent our thoughts from being diverted by trifles, in order to kindle a more ardent love in our heart, and make our will firmer and more persevering.
Involuntary insensibility of heart is likewise very painful, even more painful than stupidity of spirit, because it is with our heart that we love God. Moreover, the will, being directed entirely by love, seems at such times to be as if paralyzed. God ordinarily sends this trial upon the too sensual soul which wants to be in continual enjoyment of Him. Our Lord takes this soul with Him for a while to Gethsemane to let it have taste there of joys more bitter.
But most of the time hardness of heart is a punishment. It is a result of our sins, and we must avoid it at any cost. The trial does not last long. It comes, prepares us for greater graces, pays some of our little debts, and then ---- the sun shines again. The heart can not of its own accord remain insensible to God. Only sin, or a state of sin, can force it into that state. Our Lord was able to bear the suffering of Gethsemane only three hours, and the sorrow in His Heart, His Father's abandonment of Him, brought Him to the portals of death.
When this state lasts a long time, we must find out whether it may not be our own fault; for its duration is ordinarily a sign that we have brought it upon us. Suppose, in fact, that you have been insensible for a long time, a year or more, to the graces of God, to His inspiration, to prayer; you need not go far to seek the cause, for it is within you; it is you. Determine it and do everything in your power to be delivered from your aridity of heart. It is clear that when a soul which once enjoyed God falls into such a state, it does so only by its own fault. God is not so stern. He is a good Father, Who would be incapable of hiding long from His children. If He turned away His Face from us too long, we should die. Holy Scripture bears witness that God is good, full of tenderness and love, that He is a father, a mother to His elect. Surely we must needs feel His sweetness, His goodness unless we are guilty. It is as if we lacked a certain sense, as if we were paralyzed, and by our own fault. Let us discover the causes of this condition that we may remedy it.
ONE cause is superficiality of mind, which seeks dissipation in outward things. The frivolous mind is never at home, knows not how to reflect, and acts from instinct and impulse. It wants to be fed whenever it is hungry and takes neither time nor trouble to seek its nourishment. Not finding it in God, it turns toward creatures. If it meditated, it would receive nourishment. But it fritters away the time of meditation with trifles. Is it astonishing that the heart should suffer as the result?
Insensibility or hardness of heart begins, then, ordinarily in superficiality of mind. Be careful, therefore, not to allow your thoughts to be distracted. Fix your entire attention on your meditation, in which you nourish and rekindle your heart, in which you plan your strategy for the spiritual combat. A meditation which does not arm you for the fray is worthless. It does not nourish, and you will fall from weakness.
"But," you will say, "I make every effort at meditation and still my meditation does not help me." In that case choose another subject, one that appeals to you more. If this weapon does not serve you, take up another; for armed you must be. Bear in mind that in the spiritual life there are practices which are simply devotional and others which are necessary, such as meditation, the spirit of faith and of prayer. Nothing will take the place of these. If they are abandoned, the spiritual life which they sustained is extinguished. It is certain that the heart lives by the mind, and that love and affection are nourished only by meditation.
Another cause of hardness of heart is our unfaithfulness to grace. God's grace, illumination, and inspiration are never wanting to us; God continually speaks to us. But we stifle His voice and, in so doing, deaden our heart. For it lives only by grace, this heart of ours. If it no longer receives this sustenance, it dies of starvation.
Beside the graces of salvation, we are given also graces of sanctity and of vocation. To these, likewise, we must be faithful. It is they that really make us what we are to be. For what is a man without his vocational grace? For an adorer this grace lies in prayer, in the sacrifice of self, as he kneels before the Most Blessed Sacrament. Neglect this grace, and you will perish. Without fire there is no warmth. Examine yourself carefully in this regard. If you pray, then all goes well; if you are neglectful of prayer, you are rushing to destruction. You will obtain God's grace only through prayer, sacrifice, and meditation. If you will not fulfill these conditions, you will not obtain their effect. You have a right to graces; if you do not take advantage of that right, it is your own affair. But you will be asked to give an account of the talent you are keeping to no profit. So long as the body follows its regimen, all goes well. Your soul, too, has a regimen to follow. Do you say all the prayers that are prescribed for you?
Perhaps you have given up prayer for a time only; you will take it up again, you say. That is presumption. If you try to live without God and without spiritual nourishment, you will fall by the way.
"But I omit only prayers of devotion." ---- Take care! You have been saying these prayers for a long time; why give them up now? That is ingratitude, sloth, and you are taking a road that leads to sin. You must never change your regimen yourself. Do more if you will, yes; but never less! Otherwise your devotion will languish. Do not say: "There is no law that obliges me to continue such and such a devotional regimen." When we love God, we do not consult the letter of the law, but only the desire of our heart.
A third cause is sensuality of life. God loves us so much and wishes so greatly to raise us to Himself that every time we seek our happiness in ourselves or in creatures He punishes us. Or, at any rate, we punish ourselves by no longer serving Him with joy and alacrity. This chastisement is not long in coming, but follows closely upon the fault. That is a law of holiness. Other sins are not so swiftly punished as the sin of taking pleasure in self or in creatures. Mortal sin is its own punishment until God's justice is avenged in the hereafter. But the person who seeks consolation in creatures or in himself makes God's grace ineffectual. He lowers and dishonors God in himself. And he is punished immediately by being deprived of the peace and contentment which come from serving God; that is, he finds his punishment in the sin itself.
Such souls are very numerous. They want to enjoy all the time; in every state of life, they seek first of all the side that appeals to their feeling; they mistake their sentimentality for greater love. The truth is, such a soul is like a child that is given a reward it does not deserve in order to please it and make it quiet. Sensual souls do not love; rather, they seek to be loved instead. In their enjoyment, they become ungrateful toward Him Who alone is the source of this wholly gratuitous joy. This joy, which is the gift of the Savior, they attribute to their own virtue and merit. Woe to us if God were obliged to treat us like that! He would be flattering us, as people flatter the dying by concealing from them the gravity of their condition.
So, when we find our heart has grown insensible, let us see if we have not been living too sensual a life. I am not speaking of an abominable sensuality, but of sensuality in good things, of the pleasure our self-love takes in good works; the sensuality with which one does good in order to enjoy it and give honor and glory to oneself rather than to God, the Author of all good. Be quick to rise out of this state, and praise God for the hard treatment He gave you in order to make you recognize your, malady.
IT IS, therefore, necessary to have a heart that is sensitive, pliable, susceptible to grace, obedient to its slightest influence, capable of feeling God working within it.
But people say: "Whoever works prays; and, although I do not feel God's presence, my work sanctifies me." ---- Oh, if you pray while you work, that is good! But unless your work is animated by good intentions, aspirations, and union with God, it is not a prayer. Pagans and infidels work, too. If you work from love of God, you are praying; otherwise, not.
"But when I work I am doing the will of God; that must suffice." ---- You think of that Divine will, do you? Are you really working in order to conform with it?
"But I am doing my duty." ---- Do not deceive yourself. Soldiers and galley-slaves also do their duty. The outward life by itself is not a prayer; in order to become one, it has to be filled with the love of God and with the spirit of prayer.
It is a matter of necessity, I repeat, that one should have a heart that is alive to God. Why should the Creator have endowed us with feeling if not in order that we might use it in His service? It is the life of the spirit of faith. The Lord said to the Jews: "I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh and will give you a heart of flesh." 2
The Jews had stony hearts because they led an entirely external life and found their reward in the joys of the present. But the Lord gave to Christians a heart of flesh sensitive to the Divine life and capable of being united to God, to the Eternal
Word. Now the Word is active only in hearts which resemble His Own. He is spirit and He speaks only spiritually and by faith. For this reason our heart, our soul must be ever in our hands, uplifted to God, that this Divine Artisan may fashion it according to the Divine Model, giving it the impress, the life, and the movement of His Own. Our heart must be, to the Hand of God, like soft, moist clay in the hands of the potter.
In terms such as these the Lord contemns and curses the earth in Holy Scripture: "It shall be arid, the rain shall not water it, nor shall it yield any more to the ploughshare." When He blesses it, on the contrary, He says: "The rain and the
dew shall fertilize it." In like manner, God waters the soil of our heart, makes it fruitful with the dew of His grace, causes it to swell with the warmth of His love. Thus He renders it susceptible to all the influences of His love.
THE first effect of sensibility of heart is to make us more quickly aware of God's nearness, to cause us to hear His voice more clearly from afar and more joyfully, and to keep us beneath the influence of His loving presence. Sensibility makes the heart turn more easily toward God, more by feeling and by instinct than by reason. The more completely one gives oneself to God, the more sensibility and tenderness of feeling one will have. It is not a question of shedding tears in more or less abundance. No, sensibility and tenderness of heart are something mysterious. We do not define them; we feel them. They are the surest sign of grace.
On the other hand, as one goes farther and farther away from God, one's fineness of feeling diminishes.
One leaves the company of the King to mingle with the vulgar crowd. Instead of contemplating God, one's eyes are fixed continually on creatures.
Alas for him who thus falls! Sensibility has the effect, secondly, of moving us to pray inwardly. Vocal prayers are no longer adequate; however holy they are, they do not quite satisfy us; for now the heart needs to be nourished constantly with new sentiments. It desires more and more complete detachment, wishes to mount ever higher. It feels the need of living with God by meditation.
Thus we must have a sensitive heart for the service of God. We need it because we are weak. It is a presumptuous doctrine which rejects feeling and teaches the soul to go on its way without enjoying God. It is true, we must not seek enjoyment of God as our goal; besides, if you should rest too long in it, you may be sure God will know how to draw you away from it. But if you feel yourself led on, if, while you feel the Heart of Jesus near your own, you are truly making your way upward, oh, how fortunate you are! Pray for this grace. It is a strong and trusty staff to help you on your way.
I do not like to hear people say: "My tent is pitched on Calvary!" If you stay there weeping, it is well; but if you remain unmoved, it is pride that keeps you there.
Who are you, pray, that you want to do without the sweet and easy means the good God has so mercifully placed within your reach? But, alas, now that children are made worldly-wise even at seven years, they become arrogant and pedantic, because their mind finally gains mastery over their heart.
On the other hand, note in the Gospel that, when Magdalen and the holy women wept, Jesus, far from reproving them, consoled them.
If God has given you a sensitive heart, let it feel, then, and enjoy Him!
But tenderness of heart is usually the reward of sacrifice. In case the Lord makes you travel that road, submit; but let Him do it in whatever way He wills.
God wants our whole heart. But we are afraid to make a complete gift of self; we say: "I would rather have suffering!"
Sloth lies at bottom of this sentiment. We do not want to abandon our own will entirely; we want to choose our suffering, being afraid to let the good God choose for us.
Oh, let your hearts turn with constant tenderness and affection toward God, especially in your prayers! We are not happy enough in our Lord's service. God would like to communicate the sweetness of His grace to us in greater abundance. Accept it then with confidence, that you may be happier in this world and in the world to come.
1. Ps 72:22.
2. Ezech. 36:26.