“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10)
“We take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5)
Father Grou, a great spiritual writer, tells us that one of the means by which we attain to “true and solid virtue” is through the “mortification of the heart.” He states: “We cannot watch too much over our own heart, and all that passes there.” Grou says that to “watch carefully over the heart, to restrain its first motions,” is a “great means” to overcome our fallen human nature and its attendant evil – or at least misguided – inclinations, and thus to keep ourselves in “peace and self-possession.” Grou advises that this “constant attention” to what is passing in our hearts “is not so difficult as we might think,” and clearly he is suggesting that there are great spiritual dividends to be obtained through this practice of purity of heart.
The Catholic spiritual practice of Purity of Heart is one of the most important spiritual disciplines we can and should make use of. The Catholic cognitive discipline of purity of heart monitors and detects disordered and evil thoughts, capturing them and deleting them as hostile to growth in holiness. Saint Paul says: “We take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ” -that is, obedient to the Christian law of charity (see 2 Cor. 10:5). Our goal, then, is to detect and weed out thoughts (movements of our heart) that are opposed to growth in holiness.
By the practice of purity of heart we keep a very careful watch over all the thoughts being presented to our mind and over all the affections and passions being presented to our heart. By this careful watch, we almost immediately intercept and delete the thoughts and affections which violate purity of heart. Thus, as a very simple example, should I suddenly feel the desire to gossip about someone, I check out this movement of my heart, examine it, and ultimately suppress or delete it since it violates purity of heart. Or, as another example, should I suddenly feel swelling up in my heart ill-will towards a certain person, the practice of purity of heart obligates me to take a close look at this movement of my heart, and to mortify it, and to replace it with Christian charity and forgiveness. Gradually, by steadfastly and diligently practicing purity of heart, our heart becomes cleaner and cleaner. What do we want more in our lives than purity of heart?
Purity of heart is a mechanism of introspection whereby we carefully look at our thoughts and affections, even moment by moment, to place them under Christ’s law of charity. As soon as we observe that our mind or affections are tending in a sinful direction, we immediately mortify such thoughts or affections, giving them no chance of growth within our souls. Its sort of like we’ve installed security software in our brain that immediately detects and deletes bad stuff (God’s given us the software and all we have to do is learn how to use it!!).
Father Jacques Philippe, the well known spiritual writer, recommends the practice of purity of heart in his very worthwhile book, In the School of the Holy Spirit (see Appendix II beginning on page 70, and pages 40-42 ). But the two giants of our Catholic spiritual heritage who speak so highly of practicing purity of heart are Father Lallemant (in his classic The Spiritual Doctrine), and Father Grou (in Manual for Interior Souls). Both Fathers Lallemant and Grou were French and Jesuit.
Father Lallemant recommends the practice of purity of heart in conjunction with regular, sacramental confession. He states:
“For the oftener we confess, the more we purify ourselves, the grace proper to this sacrament being purity of conscience. Thus, every confession, besides the increase of habitual grace and of the gifts, imparts also a fresh sacramental grace, that is to say, a new title to receive from God both actual graces and the aids necessary for emancipating ourselves more and more from sin.” (Father Lallemant, The Spiritual Doctrine, II, Chapter 6, as cited in The Mystical Evolution, pages 99-100).
What an amazing purifying tool at your immediate disposal for growth in holiness: the practice of purity of heart! Its like an ongoing, perpetual examination of conscience that keeps all the junk out of our hearts and mind. And when the junk is gone, we become, as Father Lallemant insists, more docile to the whispers of the Holy Spirit, which we previously could not hear. This is why Father Lallemant says that “purity of heart accomplishes so much” in the spiritual life.
Dear friend, take captive every thought in obedience to the Gospel (see 2 Corinthians 10:5). “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8).
We should practice purity of heart calmy, peacefully, without any panic and with appropriate perspective, with the ultimate goal of keeping ourselves in the peaceful presence of God as much as possible (not being too shocked that from time to time we experience some very disconcerting thoughts).
Tom Mulcahy, M.A.
Sources: Father Lallemant, The Spiritual Doctrine...purity of heart is one of his main doctrines for growth in holiness, and he formed saints!!! Saints Isaac Jogues and Jean de Brebeuf were his students. And also Father Grou as mentioned above. Matt Maher sings, “Hold my heart up to the light” in one of his songs. That is what the practice of purity of heart is: holding our heart up to the light!
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