Word of the Day: HEART

“Now when he was in Jerusalem at the passover feast,” says Saint John, that eagle of evangelists, “many believed in his name when they saw the signs which he did; but Jesus did not trust himself to them, because he knew all men and needed no one to bear witness of man; for he himself knew what was in man.”

Those may be the most melancholy words in the New Testament, and they echo the wisdom of the Old. “God looks down from heaven upon the sons of men,” says the royal psalmist, “to see if there are any that are wise, that seek after God.” But “they have all fallen away; they are all alike depraved; there is none that does good, no, not one.” For “the HEART is deceitful above all things,” says Jeremiah, “and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” Those are the words of the Lord Himself, in Genesis: “The imagination of man’s HEART is evil from his youth.”

Says the poet Herbert:

A HEART alone
Is such a stone
As nothing but
Thy power doth cut.

Or the Lord must perform that sole salutary operation, which is not so much to heal the heart, as to tear out the false ones we have and replace them with real ones, as we read in Ezekiel: “I will take out of your flesh the HEART of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”

And yet, and yet. I have in the last couple of days returned to Pascal’s Pensees (by the way: avoid the new Oxford edition and translation; really horrible, makes Pascal sound like a clumsy stylist, and the introduction is of that subtly snide kind that detracts from the stature of the subject), and there I read again that the HEART has reasons whereof reason itself does not know, and I will be asking my students, “What is this HEART that Pascal is talking about?” It isn’t Harvey’s blood-pump. What is it, when we are commanded by Jesus to love the God with all our HEART and soul and mind and strength?

It doesn’t have to do with sentimentality. It has to do with feeling, if by that we mean a kind of feeling that sees: insight into the goodness and beauty of a thing, that soars past discursive thought; in fact it is discursive thought that limps along after, struggling to explain what the HEART has already seen and grasped. Pope John Paul II used the word pretty often to denote the CORE of a person’s being, the intimate center. If we take that hint, we might say that the reasons of the HEART are the supra-reasons of man’s most powerful and most essential faculty, what Milton, following the schoolmen for a change, calls INTELLECT. It may be a sign of our thin and waterish discourse that INTELLECT means for us not much more than brain power, which can well repose itself in people who are, at the CORE, not wise at all.

The word HEART comes from Anglo Saxon HEORTE, and its cousins are obvious all over the Germanic languages — German HERZ, for example. Grimm tells us to look for Indo European K where we find Germanic H, so we see, from the ancient root KERD-, Latin COR (genitive CORDIS), Greek KARDIA, Welsh CEIRDD (CENTER), and CALON, HEART. From CORDIS we derive, through French COEUR, the English CORE, the HEART of something. The idea that you give your HEART to something is behind Latin CREDERE, to BELIEVE, principally to TRUST IN, even TO DEVOTE ONESELF TO; hence when we say, in Latin, CREDO, we do a lot more than express an opinion, a bare belief. We say, “I TRUST, I give my HEART.” Ultimately only God is a proper object of that verb.

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