Fortieth in a Series on Catholic Morality
Fr. John H. Stapleton
|With all watchfulness keep thy heart,|
because life issueth out from it. - Proverbs 4:23
The heart, the seat of the affections, is - after the mind whose authority and direction it is made to obey - man's noblest faculty; but it may, in the event of its contemning reason's dictates, become the source and fountain-head of inordinate lust and an instrument of much moral disaster and ruin. When the intelligence becomes powerless to command and to say what and when and how the affections shall disport themselves, then man becomes a slave to his heart and is led like an ass by the nose hither and thither; and when nature thus runs unrestrained and wild, it makes for the mud-holes of lust wherein to wallow and besot itself.
The heart is made to love what is good. Now, good is either real or apparent. Love is blind, and needs reason to discern for it what is good and what is not, reason to direct its affections into their legitimate channels. But the heart may refuse to be thus controlled, swayed by the whisperings of ignorant pride and conceit; or it may be unable to receive the impulse of the reason on account of the unhealthy fumes that arise from a too exuberant animal nature unchastened by self-denial. Then it is that, free to act as it lists, it accepts indiscriminately everything with an appearance of good, in which gets mixed up much of that which appeals to the inferior appetites. And in the end it gets lost.
Again, the heart is a power for good or evil; it may be likened to a magazine, holding within its throbbing sides an explosive deposit of untold energy and puissance, capable of all things within the range of the human. While it may lift man to the very pinnacle of goodness, it may also sink him to the lowest level of infamy. Only, in one case, it is spiritual love, in the other, it is carnal; in one case it obeys the spirit, in the other, the flesh; in one case its true name is charity, in the other, it is animal, sexual instinct, and it is only improperly called love. For God is love. Love, therefore, is pure. That which is not pure is not love.
People who trifle with the affections usually come to woe sooner or later, sooner rather than later; affairs of the heart are always morally malodorous affairs. Frequently there is evil on one side at least, in intention, from the start. The devil's game is to play on the chaste attachment, and in an unguarded moment, to swing it around to his point. If the victim does not balk at the first shock and surprise, the game is won; for long experience has made him confident of being able to make the counterfeit look like the real; and it requires, as a general rule, little argument to make us look at our faults in their best light.
Many a pure love has degenerated and many a virtue fallen. Why? Because people forget who and what they are, forget they are human, forget they are creatures of flesh and blood, predisposed to sin, saturated with concupiscence and naturally frail as a reed against the seductions of the wily one. They forget this, and act as though theirs were an angelic, instead of a human, nature. They imagine themselves proof against that which counts such victims as David and Solomon, which would cause the fall of a Father of the desert, or even of an angel from heaven encumbered with the burden we carry, if he despised the claims of ordinary common sense.
And this forgetfulness on their part, let it be remembered, is wholly voluntary and culpable, at least in its cause. They may not have been attentive at the precise moment that the flames of passion reached the mine of their affections; but they were well aware that things would come inevitably to such a pass. And when the mine went up, as it was natural, what wonder if disaster followed! Who is to blame but themselves? People do not play with matches around a powder magazine; and if they do, very little consolation comes with the knowledge of their folly when they are being picked up in sections from out of the ruins.
Of course there are easier victims than these, such as would not recognize true inter-sexual love if they saw it through a magnifying glass; everything of the nature of a fancy or whim, of a sensation or emotion with them is love. Love-sick maidens are usually soft-brained, and their languorous swains, lascivious. The latter pose as "killers;" the former wear their heart on their sleeve, and are convinced that every second man they meet who treats them gallantly is smitten with their charms and is passionately in love with them.
Some go in for excitement and novelty, to break the monotony of virtuous restraint. They are anxious for a little adventure and romance. A good thing, too, to have these exploits to narrate to their friends. But they do not tell all to their friends; they would be ashamed to. If said friends are wise they can supply the deficiencies. And when it is all over, it is the same old story of the man that did not know the gun was loaded.
They, therefore, who would remain pure must of all necessity keep custody over their heart's affections, make right reason and faith their guide and make the will force obedience thereto. If wrong attachments are formed, then there is nothing to do but to eradicate them, to cut, tear and crush; they must be destroyed at any cost. A pennyweight of prudence might have prevented the evil; it will now take mortification in large and repeated doses to undo it. In this alone is there salvation.