The Intention of the Heart

21 May 2020

‘They sent Barnabas to go to Antioch and, having come, and having seen the grace of God, he was glad, and exhorted all to cleave to the Lord in the intention of the heart’.

The Apostle Barnabas was sent to the church in Antioch, where both the number and zeal of the Christian community was on the increase, in a city that, in today’s terms, would be somewhat on a par with Paris, though in the East. It wasn’t just the wealth. It was also the level of culture, the nobility, the sophistication, the sense of superiority over others which made it stand out. It was a city of refinement which was beginning to feel the seed of Christianity coming to fruition in its depths. Barnabas advised everyone there to remain devoted to Christ ‘in the intention of their heart’

‘In the intention of the heart’*. It is not merely the zeal of the heart, its dedication, which is the requisite in any faith, task, struggle or relationship. It’s also the intention of the heart, its aim. The small trace from which a feeling, an idea, a desire or a decision starts or emerges. It’s that inconspicuous thing that sometimes even we ourselves don’t realize is urging us to think, to want, to act. It lies deep inside us. And it’s so important. The intention of the heart is our truth. It’s what encourages us. Very often we cover it up as a starting point. We embellish it, we name it or identify it as some other inclination: we want what’s good for others or we want what’s best for ourselves. Frequently our first thought is what serves us best, being wrapped up in our personal interests, which is our priority. Often it’s about survival, or our standing. We transform self-interest into concern for people as a whole, into a supposed state of mind. This becomes an attitude to life through which we try to fool ourselves, and others in particular, that we have good intentions. What and whom do we love? Therein lies the answer of the heart.

‘In the intention of the heart’. Our very first thought reflects our character, who we are. Our foundation. Sometimes our ambitions. Whether it’s love that moves us. It’s a reflection of our freedom towards God, towards our neighbor and towards the world. It’s a choice between good and evil. It’s a command of the ego, a demand sprouting within us and may be the denial of God’s love, which becomes, for us, determinism. It’s the quality of our conscience. It’s the meaning of life we have. And this comes from soon after conception. It’s in our genes, and in the way our umbilical cord nourishes us with food and meaning, feelings and sound, values and dreams. It’s our father and mother who leave their imprint upon us. And it’s also what we’ll add. How we’ll gradually shape this trace in our heart. Whether we’ll begin to listen to the song of God within us and transform our will from ‘normative’ to ‘natural’. Normative is the will where the ego is dominant. Natural is the will where the love implanted in us by God makes the ego show respect, and makes withdrawal, familiarity and joy its priorities.

‘In the intention of the heart’. It’s shaped by our passions. Whatever takes root in our heart and becomes our prime concern. What becomes our interest. What becomes our ambition, self-love, hedonism. What becomes survival and fear of one’s neighbor. What becomes a sense of the nothingness of existence after death and the decision that, because ‘we only have one life, it has to be here and now’, that everything should be ours. Then the norm becomes the only truth. And our natural inclination towards God, towards His will, which is etched on our hearts ceases to be of any value, because we identify it with the absence of satisfaction. Although our relationship with God, sometimes through the Cross, sometimes through the Resurrection, is full of joy, we demand the immediate, momentary satisfaction of our thoughts and desires. We don’t grant any time for the confidence of faith. Instead we want it all, to control and shape as we will. The problem doesn’t lie in struggling for what we dream of. It’s the demand that everybody owes us, even God Himself, and that the world was made only for us. Others think the same.

‘In the intention of the heart’. The heart is as mystery, one which people don’t want to accept as a way of existence. The mystery of the heart transcends their rationalization, sensualism and evidence. It would be enough for them to show respect for the experience of forgiveness, for the rejection of self-justification which many have shown over the centuries. Respect for the decision to fast. To devote oneself to God and transcend the flesh. Respect for freedom. For love that pays no attention to self-interest. All these experiences of the Christian faith, the experiences of the Saints, reveal intentions of a heart struggling not to be overcome by egotistical self-indulgence, whether this is the result of temptation from the evil one or from other people who urge us towards the passions for pleasure. These experiences reveal hearts that have chosen to abandon life itself by accepting martyrdom, both of blood and the conscience, in order to leave us a legacy of the Gospel of love and truth. And a liberty which becomes a blessing in our daily relationships, in little and in everything.

‘In the intention of the heart’. In a world which sees only the obvious, let’s strive to see the trace of our true self in our heart. Our treasure. And if we want to believe, let’s choose to cleave to Christ with all our strength. We may and times be poor and inadequate, but He supports the humble, those who place their hope in His person. Those who, within the Church, know how to display fortitude and to ask for what they can’t do by themselves. Sometimes this will be for everything because we’ll feel our inadequacy.

Lord, grant that the trace in our heart may begin with love for You and for other people. May it start from belief in the Resurrection. Any may our every thought, work, and emotion be sanctified by cleaving to You.

Christ has risen.

* This is an unusual phrase and is nowhere translated as such in any of the English Bibles I have seen. ‘In the intention/inclination/disposition’ is common and so, obviously, is ‘of the heart’, but this particular combination seems not to occur anywhere else.