This is the conclusion to the previous post, “Diagnosis of the Heart: The Parable of the Sower – Part 1.”
4. How Can I Progress to True “Heart Health” and Mature Spiritual Life?
As we have seen, there are three pathologies of the heart that must be corrected:
1) The first pathology is being on the wrong path itself! The sickness is then a heart without its proper direction, lacking (or refusing to recognize) the fundamental human need to return to God who is our Creator, Redeemer, and final destination.
So for this case of the “path,” what is the prescription for heart-health? For those on one of the many wrong paths of life, whether they are church members or not, the one true way is Jesus. One day we will all stand before Him; He is our final Judge. It is to Him that the path of our lives must lead. There is one way to life: Jesus. He says, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me!” (Jn 14:6) What is the “prescription”? It is conversion. Repent, and believe the Gospel. Life is only in Him. This world is passing, and all its treasures and ambitions will be destroyed with it – but the soul will continue, and every soul will be judged. Now is the time to turn to God, in whom alone can we hope, and trust, and live. Now is the time for a final, definitive and irrevocable commitment to follow Him, and Him alone. To become, seriously, His disciple. To learn from Him, to obey Him, to entrust my life to Him, whatever the cost. To be a Christian.
2) The second pathology is the rock-infiltrated heart. This is the first obstacle that a Christian finds in himself, when he seeks to learn from and to follow Jesus: hardness in his own heart. Such hardness can come, for example, from fears, from smallness of faith, and from failure or refusal to forgive others. The first thing we need, and seek, from Jesus as a disciple is forgiveness. We need to be forgiven! We come to Him in repentance, sorry for our former life, seeking a clean and new beginning! But we learn from Him that forgiveness comes at a cost: we must become persons of forgiveness – we must be forgiving of others, if we would seek the Father’s forgiveness for ourselves.
In His beautiful prayer, the Our Father, we pray: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Immediately after teaching the foundation for prayer, the Our Father, Jesus adds this emphatically:
Mat 6:14 For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you;
Mat 6:15 but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
The consequences are clear. If we keep a heart hardened against mercy for others, refusing to forgive others who have trespassed against us, then the Father will not forgive us either. To be open to His mercy, we must become a people of mercy. You and I must be persons of mercy. Our hearts must be not hardened against others, but merciful and forgiving.
The cure for this pathology, then, is also clear. We must recognize these rocks of hardness in our hearts, and repent of them. To keep hardness in our hearts, refusing to be merciful, is a sin! And it is sin we must see, admit, recognize, and reject. We must cast the hardness of refusal to forgive out of our hearts by His grace, so we can present a heart to Him that is worthy of Him: a heart of mercy, that loves mercy, that seeks and needs and can receive His mercy. In such a heart, His life can grow.
3) The third pathology is the thorn-infested heart. To understand the important distinction between “rocks” and “thorns” in the heart is to realize that one is dead and inanimate – rocks – but the other is living and growing although fruitlessly – thorns. One is a hardness in the heart, but the other is living and growing, and is rooted deep in the heart. We begin to see the difference: rocks are alien to the heart, but rooted plants (even though incapable of bearing fruit, like a thorn-bush) are things loved and welcomed into the heart (even though things, such as the thorn-bushes, that produce only the fruit of harm and injury: sharp and hurtful thorns).
If we would find the “cure” for this affliction of the heart, we must see the cause: false loves. The affliction is common to man, and is deep in him. False loves are rooted so deeply, and can be so many, that we can do little by ourselves to stop loving and desiring things that we should not. We can struggle to resist certain attractions, but we can do little to stop being attracted. We can hate the fact that we desire things that we ought not desire, but we cannot stop desiring them. Such things are thorn bushes, rooted in the heart, and they can choke the living word of God and keep us fruitless in His work. Only God can deliver us from such a deeply imbedded enemy of our souls. But God can so deliver us! Remember Paul’s writing in Scripture:
Rom 7:15 I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.
Rom 7:19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.
Rom 7:20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me.
Rom 7:21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.
Rom 7:22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self,
Rom 7:23 but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members.
Rom 7:24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
Rom 7:25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
The Lord Jesus and only He can deliver us from false loves, but we must do our part and cooperate with Him. We must “hate” that which we ought not love, or that we love in a false and ungodly way! We must cry out to God with the passion we hear in Paul, above, in his struggle against “wretchedness” in him.
John, in his first letter, writes:
1Jn 2:15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him.
1Jn 2:16 For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world.
1Jn 2:17 And the world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides for ever.
God will remove these thorns, these false loves, from our hearts – “the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life” – but it will be a difficult and lengthy process of purgation. God does this work in a kind of darkness, which John of the Cross calls the Dark Night of the Soul, but it is His beautiful will to so cleanse us and make us pure. God wants pure hearts! Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God! For out part, we must want all that He wants, and hate all that He hates. In such a heart, His holy seed finds good ground: good, fruitful and rich ground, ground that brings joy in heaven and on earth.
It must be said, lest the reader wrongly “compartmentalize” these four kinds of heart – wrongly thinking that these must be four different persons! They could be describing the same one person, at four times or stages of his life of discipleship. Healing for a human person – spiritual healing, for a strong and fruitful spiritual life – is a life-long process that is indicated by this wonderful parable. The parable presents four typical conditions of the heart – four which can be discovered in any sincere seeker of the Truth! A person can discover in his adult years that he is a “path person” in whom the Gospel finds no welcome at all! He might even attend Mass regularly, but entirely as a spectator, eager for Mass to be over, eager to get out and return to his more important interests and occupations. He might, late in life, discover this and experience a holy fear of God for the first time – and then, and only then, “turn and become as a child” on a journey at last toward heaven.
Such a person then, and only then, begins to hear the Gospel – and begins to discover with great joy the new life in Jesus Christ! But then later, he might begin to discover some of the costs of discipleship that he had not anticipated. His new-found faith in Jesus may threaten his ambitions for career advancement – or it may threaten an important relationship with a person special to him who does not share at all his new-found religious sensibilities and moral concerns. Or in some other way, he may discover that being a serious Christian can cost. It can cost, and he does not want to pay the price, and so his fervor cools and his faith weakens, and becomes not so important to him as before.
But such a person can wake up from this dark failure – indeed and Peter did, after denying Jesus three times because of fear within him! It is such irony that Simon, renamed by Jesus “Peter,” which means “rock”, should find in himself such a heart. But all is not necessarily lost. Such a person can awaken, and stand up, stronger than before – and yet still the Lord is not finished with him. He can next find in himself an even more humbling truth about himself than hardness of heart: he can discover within, unholy thoughts, unholy feelings, unholy desires, as indeed St. Paul described within himself in Romans, above. He finds an interior battle: “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” He discovers “in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members.” He discovers thorns choking the life of God within him. He cries out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
Such discoveries of inner conflicts, of competing loves, desires against desires, demonstrate examples of the struggle for rooted space in the heart: briars and thorns against holy divine seed, root against root, two ways of life each incompatible with the other, the work of God and love of holiness, against the work of the evil one, and love for sin. The seed sown in thorny ground can be the experience of the same man who once was dead to God on the worldly path, but who repented and began to follow Jesus. This can be the same man who then denied his Lord out of a rocky heart of fear but then repented and returned. The struggle against the thorns can be a deeper and more difficult spiritual battle, on the journey to the purity of heart that God desires.
4) Finally, there is the good ground: a pure heart, purified and purged of the sins and the love of the sins of this passing world. The good ground is not trampled upon, hardened, dried-out and compacted by worldly travel. The good ground has been cleared of hidden and secret rocks within. The good ground has been weeded and tended, all thorn bushes uprooted and discarded. The pure heart is the good ground, hungers for Him alone, and anyone else or anything else only in Him. This is God’s intention for us all: holiness.
Mar 4:20 But those that were sown upon the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.
Footnote: This entire journey is discussed also in my book The Ordinary Path to Holiness, (at Amazon and Barnes and Noble) which may be a helpful resource in your journey of following Christ.