SpiritualDirection.com / Catholic Spiritual Direction

What Exactly does Jesus Mean by “The Heart”? (Part I of II)

Dear Father John, when I hear the readings at Mass, I hear Jesus talk about the heart all the time. But, what exactly does He mean?

THE FIRST ARENA of love that Jesus points out is the “heart.” In all three New Testament versions of this greatest commandment [cf Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30, Luke 10:27], heart is always first on the list.

Sacred Scripture uses this term more than a thousand times, but never to refer simply to the biological organ. The term always has a fuller, more complete, and more spiritual cachet. With so many appearances, the word can’t help but take on a variety of connotations, yet the core meaning always remains the same. The heart refers to the deepest center of the person, the irreplaceable and irreducible “I” of the unique human individual. All the other powers of human nature flow from and depend on the heart. A person can say, “my feelings, my decisions, my hopes, my desires, my thoughts…” But while all of those possessions belong to someone, the heart is the biblical term that refers to the core identity of that someone; it encompasses the substantive center of the possessor of everything else.

The Catechism explores the rich and evocative meaning of this term in its discussion of Christian prayer, and the mysterious origin of prayer:

According to Scripture, it is the heart that prays…. The heart is the dwelling-place where I am, where I live; according to the Semitic or biblical expression, the heart is the place “to which I withdraw.” The heart is our hidden center, beyond the grasp of our reason and of others; only the Spirit of God can fathom the human heart and know it fully. The heart is the place of decision, deeper than our psychic drives. It is the place of truth, where we choose life or death. It is the place of encounter, because as image of God we live in relation: it is the place of covenant. (CCC, 2562—63)

This is the heart. Jesus commands his followers to love him, in the first place, with all their heart. What does this mean?

The Treasure Hunt

SparklerHeartChristmasTreeStjernekasterJesus gives us a revealing clue in another one of his discourses, when he says, “For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be” (Matthew 6:21). A treasure is what we value most, what we desire most, what we set our sights on attaining or maintaining. To love God with all our heart, therefore, means to make God–communion with him, friendship with him–into the overarching goal of our lives, into our most precious possession, into our deepest yearning. It means making our relationship with God the true north of our earthly journey, so that every decision, every desire, every hope and dream, every interpersonal interaction is evaluated, lived, and developed in light of that fundamental, orienting relationship. As a result, anything that may damage our relationship with God must be cut away or re-dimensioned, especially sin and sinful habits, whereas anything that harmonizes with or may enhance our relationship with God is welcomed and integrated more and more fully into our life. As you can see, engaging the whole heart in our love for God is not something that happens from one moment to the next; it is a process. To love God with all your heart means intentionally and gradually making your relationship with him into the greatest–indeed, the only–treasure of your life.

In the second post in this series, we will explore the importance of continuing to seek the Lord, and how to know if we are learning to love God with all our heart.


Editor’s Note: This is another excerpt from Father John Bartunek’s new book “Seeking First the Kingdom” filled with “practical examples and down-to-earth wisdom which will show you how to bring Christ into each facet of your life”. Click here to learn more about the book…or if you wish to get it for a friend or relative who doesn’t read on line.


Art:  A sparkler as decoration on a Christmas tree, Malene Thyssen, 1. januar 2005, CC-SA, Wikimedia Commons.
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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at RCSpirituality.org, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at SpiritualDirection.com.

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