Monday, 26 February 2018

Guard your heart: Theology of (more than just) the Body

By Megan James

Let's talk about virtuous relationships. 

I recently dropped my phone down the toilet (embarrassing I know, but stay with me on this one) and was sooooo thankful for the nice protective casing that saved it from a very sad and watery death. And as weird as it sounds, it got me thinking about my heart. I am so careful to protect my stuff; the stuff I value like my phone or new fancy laptop, but what about me? What do I do to guard what God values most? How do I buffer my heart from the drops and the tumbles of life? Truthfully, nothing.

As a Catholic who had my conversion a little later (I was 19), I went through school (and to some degree, my first year of uni) seeking love in all the wrong places. Even at the time, although God wasn't the number one thing on my mind, deep down I knew it was wrong because I just felt empty. No matter how much male attention I had, it never quite satisfied the longing in my heart the way I thought it would. I'd wake up the next day with knots of regret in my stomach, confused because wasn't this meant to be good? This guy 'loves' (or at least desires) me!! Wasn't I meant to be happy? But instead, no matter how much I tried to tell myself that it was great, that it was normal, it was love, I still just felt worthless and used.

So, when I came back to the Church, and actually listened to Church teaching on love, sex, and marriage, I found it all quite easy to accept. I remember thinking "well yeah, this all makes sense to me" because I had experienced the flip side; I had lived in the dark and knew it wasn't as fun as films and magazines made it out to be, and I knew my heart yearned (and was worth) so much more than what these relationships were offering. However, I've realised recently that this striving for authentic and virtuous love isn't as simple as 19 year old me thought it was going to be.

I think I thought that when I returned to the Church, and I turned my back on those empty relationships, filled with insecurity, lust, and desperation, that would be it; I'd be pure, and chaste, and virtuous. The restlessness would stop, because y'know, I'm pure now and my relationships would all be super holy and Christ-centred. And did I mention that I'd be pure??? I thought by cutting sex out of the equation, that would be enough for love to be authentic and life-giving, rather than empty and damaging like I had experienced in the past. But really, sex just scratches the surface when it comes to talking about purity and virtue in our relationships. By cutting the sexual aspect out of the equation, sure I was stepping in the right direction, but it didn't solve all my problems, and I realised to be truly chaste took so much more than that. To be truly chaste, I needed to work on my heart (not just my body).

“Our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” 
- St. Augustine.

I've always been an all in kinda of gal - I don't half heart anything, I throw my whole heart into everything; my friendships, my work, my ministry, my relationships. And this is something that has often been my biggest strength, but also sometimes my fatal flaw. By throwing my heart so hard at so much stuff, it's taken quite a few hits (obviously, because you know, nothing gets thrown about and doesn't get at least a little damaged once or twice). 

Where we invest our heart is important.

You see, when I invest my heart so deeply in so much, I'm opening myself up to hurt time and time again. And yes, there is beauty in this, and by no means should we put up walls or become hardened because we were created by Love to love. However, we were also created to firstly be loved by Him, and to first and foremost invest our heart there. 

So often we root ourselves in our relationships, in our work, in our friends, and without meaning to, God starts being pushed into the background. However, He should always be foreground. When our hearts are placed in the hands of people, ultimately they are at risk. People change their minds, people are broken and make mistakes, people are not constant. It's not that we shouldn't trust people (relationships are what we were created for!), it's just our hearts are delicate and we should not be reckless with them, and we shouldn't give them away too freely. Instead, we should above all else give them to God, let Him fill them, and then invest in others with the overflow from Him. 

We are called to pour out our overflow, not give away the source.

You see chastity is not just what we do with our bodies, but also what we do with our hearts. I learnt quickly how damaging it was to expose my body to others, but what about exposing my heart? Intimacy is not just what happens in the bedroom, it's anything that makes you feel attached to a person, anything that involves vulnerability and trust. Who you have this intimacy with matters and should be kept in check. That guy you're texting at 2am, that person you're imaging a future with after 2 dates, that girl you've told your deepest darkest secrets to, the one you spend every chance you get with; this is all intimacy and attachment. And what do we expect to gain from this? 

For me, it's fulfilment; I crave intimacy because I know ultimately I want to feel cherished, known, loved, safe, and worthy. So, I pour myself out (whether it's in a friendship, relationship, or work), hoping that the other does the same and that they ultimately satisfy the yearning in my heart. But when they don’t (because no one person or thing can), I am that schoolgirl again left feeling empty and used, even though my clothes remained on. 

What defines love as authentic, as pure, or as chaste, is the intention behind that love. 

We are called to be both physically and emotionally chaste. Sex is not the only way we use people or get used. Whenever anyone, as St. John Paul II says, becomes 'a means to an end', when a person becomes a way to fulfil a need, they become an object, and that is not love, it is utilityAuthentic virtuous relationships, according to JPII in Love & Responsibility, are built on the common purpose of holiness; both persons are pursuing something outside of themselves, they are striving towards God, and through a selfless pursuit of the other's best interest, they are keeping one other on track to virtue and holding one another accountable. They have their sights set on a higher purpose, on a greater good. It is when our eyes become fixated on one another, rather than on God that problems arise. It is when we look for ourselves (our worth, our happiness, our security) in one another, rather than in God, that we begin to lose sight of the big picture, and endanger our hearts.

If your intention is to satisfy a need or fulfil a yearning, if you're relying on a person purely for comfort or a boost in self-esteem, then that love isn't chaste, no matter how unphysical it is. To love chastely is to love without self-seeking, to give freely, and to desire only goodness for that other person. To love chastely is to love without self-interest, and the only way to do this is if we enter into it with our eyes (and our hearts) fixed on God. It is only when we are satisfied in Him, that we can love authentically. 

The best advice I had from a confession was when I was completely burnt out, and a priest said to me 'sit and receive from God, because you can't give what you haven't got.' 
If we want to give real love, then we have to turn to the source of all love. Love himself. 

So, next time you find yourself constantly relying on another for affirmation, or you see that you are seeking intimacy with someone, or that you have a growing attachment to another, check your heart; check your intentions. Is your heart rested in God? Or are you using this person to fill a space? Our hearts were created for love, and Love Himself is the one who is saying "pour it out for me and it will never be left empty." 

“In God there is no hunger that needs to be filled, only plenteousness that desires to give.” 

- C. S. Lewis (The Four Loves)
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