There is a saying ascribed to Isidore the Priest warning that "of all evil suggestions, the most terrible is the prompting to follow your own heart." The modern reader will be taken aback. "Follow what your heart says" is part of the standard popular wisdom of our day, like "following your dream." Are we being told to suspect our deepest emotions and longings, when surely we have learned that we have to listen to what's deepest in us and accept and nurture our real feelings? But the desert monastics would reply that, left to ourselves, the search for what the heart prompts is like peeling an onion; we are not going to arrive at a pure and simple set of inclinations. In the matter of self-examination, as in others, "the truth is rarely "pure" and never "simple."

The desert means a stepping back from the great system of collusive fantasy in which I try to decide who I am, sometimes try to persuade you to tell me who I am (in accord, of course, with my preferences), sometimes use God as a reinforcement for my picture of myself, and so on and on. The "burden" of self-accusation, the suspicion of what the heart prompts, this is not about an inhuman austerity or self-hatred but about the need for us all to be coaxed into honesty by the confidence that God can forgive and heal. Henri de Lubac, one of the most outstanding Roman Catholic theologians of the twentieth century, put it with a clarity and brevity very hard to improve upon: "It is not sincerity, it is truth which frees us....To seek sincerity above all things is perhaps, at bottom, not to want to be transformed." He has also observed that "psychology alone is not suited, at least in the most subtle cases, to discern the difference between the authentic and the sham." Like the desert teachers, he warns us against easy assumptions about the natural wisdom of the human heart.

If the heart contains the love of God, one may wonder where is the danger of being guided by it? It is confusing on the surface, but there is something intelligible behind this contradiction. It was Abba Isidore who expressed strong reservations about being guided by the heart. These reservations have to do with listening to what you think are the promptings of your feelings. He wants us to be clear that listening to these promptings is not a guarantee of getting it right. "How can I be wrong if I am so sincere?" is not a Christian principle.

We're out of tune with God

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  • If we can get to the true depth of the heart, what we find there is the echo of God's creative word. Each one of us is a unique kind of echo of God. This does not mean that if we uncovered our deepest consciousness, we would find the Ten Commandments written there. It is that we are, by the very nature of our humanity, naturally attuned to the reality of God. Our task in growing up in the life of the spirit is to try to recover that attunement. I think of that, for example, when I listen to Bach, who somehow does a great deal more theology in a few bars of music than most do in many words.

    Deep down we are attuned to God, but we have jarred the harmonies in various ways. We are out of tune. The trouble then is that what we often listen to is the out-of-tuneness, the habits of self-protection and self-regard. If that is what listening to the heart means, forget it. That is just canonizing what we think is going on in us. We have a lot of self-knowledge to acquire before we can truly listen to the heart.

    God alone will tell me who I "really" am, and he will do so only in the lifelong process of bringing my thoughts and longings into his presence without fear and deception. The central importance in desert practice of "manifesting your thoughts" to an elder is only partly about receiving good advice, getting your problems sorted out; it is more deeply about how the elder "stands in" for a truth that is greater than any human presence. The novice's fugues and chains of fantasy or obsession are poured out, sometimes receiving only the barest of acknowledgments and very little we would think of as counseling, but the job has been done, because the novice has been learning not to "follow" the heart in the sense of taking what he discovers inside himself for granted but to see the heart in all of its complex, yearning, frightened actuality and to find words for it. When there is no manifestation of thoughts, there is no progress, as so many of the narratives make plain: "Nothing makes the enemy happier," says John the Dwarf, "than those who do not manifest their thoughts."

    Defenselessness before the elder who represents God: that is the key to growth for the monks and nuns of the desert. It is not simply a matter of submitting to the authority of an elder to be told what to do. When the novice approaches the elder and says, in the usual formula, "Give me a word," he or she is not asking for either a command or a solution but for a communication that can be received as a stimulus to grow into fuller life. It is never a theoretical matter, and the elders are scathing about those who simply want something to discuss. "The desert produced healers, not thinkers," in the fine formulation of John Chryssavgis. The novice, in approaching the elder, both to manifest thoughts and to ask for a saving word, is becoming vulnerable, and that is the heart of the transformation that, as Father de Lubac says, we are by no means sure we really want, if that is what it costs.

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