The Knowing Heart

Why is love so important? What is it about love that sets us apart and sets the angels apart?

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If, like me, you grew up in the America of the 1970s, you knew it was a lot of things all at once. Practically every song on the Top 40 station I listened to had the word “love” in it somewhere, and in each song it was described in a slightly different way.

For Diana Ross, love was like an itching in her heart that she couldn’t scratch. According to a group called the Ohio Players, love was a roller coaster. “Love hurts,” one song lamented, while another went a step further by announcing: “Love stinks.”

For John Lennon (who both in and out of the Beatles used the word “love” even more often than the average pop songwriter), love was “all you need” and also “the answer.”

Not that love, and discussions of what it was, were confined to my radio. TV shows talked about it almost as much. “Love is all around,” sang the guy on the opening credits to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” each week. Both “The Dating Game” and “The Newlywed Game” turned around the topic, while “Love American Style” reminded me that, whatever else love was, it was also thoroughly American.

The stars-and-stripes heart that introduced that show each week always made me think of a slightly updated version of the most beloved TV heart of all: the puffy black-and-white one that introduced the reruns of “I Love Lucy” I watched each day after school.

Speaking of school, reminders of love’s all-importance were present everywhere there as well. Each year, my home classroom seemed to feature one of those posters (inescapable in elementary and high schools all across America in the seventies) with the letters L O V E stacked two above and two below, with the O just slightly off-kilter like a book that had tipped over on a shelf.

In fourth and fifth grade, when the more accomplished readers in class started investigating genuine grown-up novels, girls could now and then be seen carrying around a copy of Erich Segal’s “Love Story,” the basis for the movie that taught the world the important—if to me puzzling—news that “love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

Last but not least, there were the bumper stickers. I grew up in Virginia, and somewhere in the mid-seventies every other car bumper started carrying a sticker announcing that “Virginia is for lovers.” Not only did I live in a world where love was clearly the most important thing going—I lived in a state where that was apparently even more the case than elsewhere.

These details all come from a very specific time and place, but a kid growing up today in New York City—or central Iowa—could provide his or her own equally long list of love-related images and slogans.

Why are we so obsessed with love? Why is so much of what we read, watch and listen to so crowded with the word and the idea—not to mention the heart that is its most popular visual symbol?

Part of the answer to that question is obvious. We are obsessed with love because we understand on an intuitive level what the Gospels tell us straight out: Love is all-important.

But there’s another reason why we humans are so love-obsessed, and it’s not so obvious. I have a suspicion we talk about love so much because we have forgotten an aspect of what it really is. It’s a way of thinking.

At first this might sound ridiculous. The last thing love would seem to have anything to do with is thinking. People who are in love do stupid, crazy things precisely because when you’re in love, you don’t think, right?

Yes—but that’s only one side of the story: the side in which love is seen as a kind of momentary madness that comes over us. But there’s another side of love: one that isn’t crazy and impetuous but profoundly sane and sober. Far from making us act irresponsibly, this variety of love brings out our deepest capacities for commitment and sacrifice. In short, this kind of love is thoughtful.

Try this experiment. Imagine that no one has ever told you anything about the way your insides work. You don’t know about your lungs or your kidneys, your stomach or your liver or any of the other internal organs that keep your body alive and functioning. For evidence of what’s going on inside you, you only have what you feel. Now, concentrate and see if you can tell where your thoughts are coming from.

If you’re like most people, it will be very hard, at least at first, to get away from the feeling that all your thoughts are coming from your head. We are so used to thinking of our brains as thought-making machines that we connect our thoughts to our brains without a moment’s hesitation.

But if you stay with this experiment a little longer, you might find that certain kinds of thoughts actually feel like they’re coming from parts of your body other than your brain. A mother worrying about her children might feel these heavy thoughts coming from her stomach. And when she stops worrying about those children and concentrates on her feelings of love for them, that same mother might experience those thoughts as coming from her heart.

The heart is the true human center, and in times past it was taken for granted that the deepest, most serious and most essential thoughts came from it.

The brain had its place too, but brain thinking, according to traditional wisdom, was generally regarded as secondary to heart thinking. According to Aristotle—a man not known for letting his emotions run away with him—the truest knowledge was obtained not from mere speculative knowledge (brain knowledge), but from something called the intellect. The intellect was the true center of the human being, and it was located not in the brain but within the heart.

All the truest and most reliable knowledge came from the intellect, whereas those who just used speculative knowledge (brain knowledge) un-illumined by the intellect were essentially like people fumbling in the dark.

To understand why brain thinking was so much less important than heart thinking, it might be useful to use a computer analogy. When we are online, we are plugged into a potentially limitless source of information.

While a high school student writing a paper about the American Revolution on her computer can check a fact on the internet or e-mail a friend with a question about the assignment, a student whose computer connectivity is down will be cut off from all those outside resources and stuck with whatever she has immediately at hand.

In the same way, when a person looks into her heart to see what she thinks about some matter of importance, that person isn’t just consulting her deepest and truest self, but going beyond that self to an immeasurably larger source of wisdom. When people think with their hearts, they are being “intellectuals” in the original sense of the term, using their intellect or heart to link up directly with God.

The French philosopher René Guénon—another writer not known for his gooey sentimentality—put it this way: “This direct perception of truth, this intellectual and suprarational intuition, the very notion of which modern man seems to have lost, is true heart knowledge.”

This “heart knowledge,” says Guénon, “is the direct perception of the intelligible light, of that Light of the Word of which Saint John speaks, radiant Light of the ‘Supernal Sun’ which is the true ‘Heart of the World.’”

The same root that gives us the word “mind” also gives us the word “moon.” Just as the moon reflects the sun’s light, reflective knowledge makes use of a light that comes from a place other than itself. Hence it is always, in comparison to heart knowledge, limited in what it can tell us.

The truest light, on the other hand, is warm light, and that light comes from the sun. Our hearts are like mini suns inside us, and a heart emitting light or heat—like the burning heart of Jesus that we see in Catholic devotional illustrations—is a heart on fire with knowledge that is not reflected, not secondhand, but which comes straight from the source.

Angels, not surprisingly, are said to think exclusively with heart knowledge. Their link to God is so direct (in comparison to our own much more spotty connectivity) that they are never in a position to be distanced enough from him to practice speculative brain thinking even for a moment.

All of this seems to be selling the brain a bit short, but the fact is the best kind of thinking is the kind that combines heart and brain, sun and moon. In that kind of thinking, all the gifts of logic are joined with all the powers of direct godly inspiration to produce a state of mind that in certain mystical traditions was illustrated by a heart with wings.

Another symbol of head-and-heart thinking is an eye within a triangle—an image we see on every dollar bill. When we practice head-and-heart thinking, we can access the truths of our deepest self—that place at our very center where we connect with God—and bring those truths out into ordinary, earthly daylight where they can be of the most use in helping us negotiate our lives.

We feel this heart knowledge working whenever we get one of those strange but undeniably real moments when we simply know something without understanding exactly why we know it. When we just...know.

Somewhere along the way, this conception of the heart as the fiery center of all our truest and best thinking got lost. True thought became rational thought—brain thinking—and heart thought became associated with mere emotion—the kind of thing we associate with those frilly red hearts on valentine cards.

There’s nothing wrong with a nice gooey valentine card, of course. But it’s good to remember that behind all the frills—as behind all the hearts and love references that so fill our world—is something very un-gooey and un-silly indeed.

Love, as John Lennon suggested, really is “the answer,” and in our hearts—our knowing hearts—we know just how deep, how serious and how completely satisfying that answer really is.

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