The Personalist Project

Saturday morning, over breakfast, Alice von Hildebrand began telling me things she had meant to mention the evening before in her lecture on the role of the heart in human life, but hadn't. Thinking others might like to hear what she was saying, I started recoring. I captured two nuggets I thought especially worth sharing.

The first is on sentimentality as a perversion of the heart, and on Jean-Jacques Rousseau as a perfect example of it: click here to listen

The second, a bit longer than the first, is a beautiful philosophical and scriptural reflection on the meaning of nakedness: click here to listen

Another point came up in our conversation, which I didn't record, but want to add anyway. It has to do with the fact that sometimes, especially in cases of suffering, the human heart (our affective center) is called upon to give a very different response to reality than the will (our freedom). The idea is developed by Dietrich von Hildebrand in the following passage from The Heart. Notice especially how important the idea is for 1) a proper understanding of "the cross" in human life, and 2) for man's ability to retain his full selfhood and individuality in his encounter with and submission to God:

We must here again repeat that the heart has a function other than the will, and that God has entrusted the heart to “speak” an irreplaceable word, a word which sometimes differs from that to which the will is called. It would be a disastrous error to overlook this fact and to think that the heart and will must always speak the same word. To deny that God has entrusted the heart to speak a word of its own leads to the conviction that the silencing of the heart is a religious ideal.

The call of God directed to our will has to be obeyed, whatever our heart may feel, or whatever it may object. But this does not at all imply that our heart should conform itself to the will in the sense that it should speak the same word as the will speaks.

Abraham, after hearing God’s command that he sacrifice his son Isaac, has to say “yes” with his will. But his heart had to bleed and respond with the greatest sorrow. His obedience to the commandment would not have been more perfect had his heart responded with joy. On the contrary, it would have been a monstrous attitude. According to the will of God, the sacrifice of his son called for a response of Abraham’s heart, namely, that of deepest sorrow. But notwithstanding the deep reluctance of heart, Abraham was obliged to accept this terrible cross and to conform his will to God’s commandment…

If we ask, for instance what is the God-pleasing attitude when a beloved person dies, our answer is that with our free personal center we should speak our fiat: we should accept the terrible cross imposed on us. This acceptation is an act of the will. But it is meant as a cross by God and this implies that our heart bleeds. The cross would have no place in our life if our heart conformed to God’s will in the sense that everything that God permits could only gladden our heart. The great and deep mission of the cross would be frustrated if holiness implied that as soon as something sad happens, and thus is at least permitted by God, the heart should no longer worry about it. And not only the role of the cross, but the fully personal character of man, would be frustrated. Man is not simply an instrument, he is a person to whom God addresses himself, whom God treats as a person since it depends upon man’s free will, his free decision, whether or not he will attain his eternal welfare. God also wants man to have his own individual life, to take positions with his heart, to direct himself to God with petition prayers for legitimate high goods in life…

…Man would be a mere mask, he would no longer have his specific individual life; all the gifts of God entrusted to him during this life would not really reach him, he would no longer have a real history, he would not possess a unique unrepeatable existence, if his heart did not give responses to all real goods, responses of Gratitude, of longing, of hope, of love.

Man could no longer live a full human life if his heart spoke the same fiat that his will speaks in all those cases where the endangering of a good endowed with a high value, or the loss of it, calls for a specific response of the heart. We emphasize here the sameness of the fiat, because the heart also speaks a certain fiat as opposed to any murmuring. The heart also submits to God’s will in throwing itself in the loving arms of God, but it does not for that reason cease to suffer. We need only think of the words of our Lord in Gethsemane: Pater mi, si possibile est, transeat a me calix iste, “Father, if it is possible, remove this chalice from me.

Comments (17)

Patrick Dunn

#1, Mar 12, 2012 3:18pm

I found the third point (on the heart and will in light of the will of God) interesting to consider in light of the methods for discernment proposed by St. Ignatius of Loyola.  His is essentially heart-based, and my sense is that true conformity to God's will can be identified through the experience of "spiritual consolation," an affective experience generally marked by love of the Lord, joy, a quieting of one's soul in peace (and more besides - see Spiritual Ex.316). 

While God's will may well entail times of sorrow, at least for Ignatius the moment itself of decision-making/discernment is important to distinguish as well as the affective experiences we notice in our hearts at those times. 

Contrary to Abraham's experience, Ignatius has in mind a discernment wherein the heart "speaks" and so the will then knows how to follow.  But Abraham's illumination of God's will was of another order - as DvH stated it, a "call of God directed to our will" that "has to be obeyed, whatever our heart may feel."  

I wonder how one specifically comes to understand a call from God that is directed to the will and not one that is a function of listening to our hearts.

Jules van Schaijik

#2, Mar 12, 2012 4:43pm

That's a very interesting point you bring up, and one that sits well with von Hildebrand's overall thought about the heart, namely, that it is in a very important sense our deepest self. This is one reason why a rationalistic rejection or disparagment of the heart can do such serious damage.

In one of my favorite passages from his book, The Heart, von Hildebrand shows that it is a mark of our creaturehood, that we are deeper than our intellect or will can reach. Our heart therefore has a kind of revelatory power. It reveals us to ourselves (and also to others). The higher affections/emotions are

truly gifts—natural gifts of God which man cannot give himself by his own power. Coming as they do from the very depth of his person, they are in a specific way voices of his true self, voices of his full personal being.

Jules van Schaijik

#3, Mar 12, 2012 4:54pm

Let me add to the last point that, in von Hildebrand, it is connected with the idea of cooperative freedom. These high ranking emotions, such as true contrition or deep joy, while not initiated by our freedom, can and ought to be sanctioned by our freedom. That is the only way to make them fully our own. The highest freedom for a creature is this kind of cooperative freedom:

However great and admirable free will is as lord and master of our actions, nevertheless, the free cooperation with the "gifts" from above, which as such are only indirectly accessible to our free power, is the deepest actualization of our freedom, the highest vocation and mission of our freedom.

I think all of this corresponds pretty closely to the insights of Saint Ignatius, no?

Katie van Schaijik

#4, Mar 12, 2012 4:54pm

Patrick Dunn, Mar. 12 at 2:18pm

I wonder how one specifically comes to understand a call from God that is directed to the will and not one that is a function of listening to our hearts.

I think whenever we're dealing with an absolute moral norm, like "do not kill", "do not commit adultery", "do not bear false witness against your neighbor", we are in the realm of the will, not the heart.  No matter how much a man's "heart" may be telling him that so and so is his real soulmate, it's not okay for him to commit adultery with her.  His heart is misleading him.

Another case would be clear commands of God received in prayer, like God's command to Abraham, or God's telling Joseph to take Mary and the Infant and flee to Eygpt.

Another would be simple acceptation of what is given, like when a loved one dies.  Or accepting the gender we are given, rather than pining to be the other one.

But in case where there is no objective right or wrong—where we really are free to choose—those are the moments when we have to pay special attention to our hearts.

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#5, Mar 12, 2012 8:06pm

Thank you for including the quotation. I am struck by the reference to Christ's prayer at Gethsemene. I've struggled in misfortune with the idea that to be fully faithful in trial the Christian should pray only that "God's will be done". There is something that rebels at that level of disinterest to the desires and direction of the heart. I'd not considered before that even in Christ's prayer at Gethsemene the cry of his heart to be spared suffering came out alongside the submission of his will.

Patrick Dunn

#6, Mar 13, 2012 11:35am


Yes, in my understanding, absolute moral norms are not in the arena of “discernment.”  Whether to murder is not something we need to “discern.” 

Neither, it would seem, are the “clear commands of God,” like with Abraham, because the very need to discern implies some ambiguity – God’s call may be clear from His end, though we need to sift through or rummage around so as to understand that call and so then choose to follow His will. 

I would also say that discernment necessarily implies an alternative between two or more goods, or perhaps at least trying to decide what is the “lesser of two evils” in cases where no outright good, objectively speaking, in itself, exists. 

My initial wonder was how we are to understand those clear commands of God directed to the will from an epistemological  perspective I suppose – how does one know the will of God in such a case if it is not through listening to our hearts, as with “discernment” proper?   I’m intrigued by these cases because they are not absolute moral norms, but instead subjective calls, yet they seem to carry the objectivity and clarity and weight of absolute moral norms. 

Patrick Dunn

#7, Mar 13, 2012 12:16pm


I think so, yes.

One of my initial fears with Ignatian spirituality was how to understand the trustful reliance on the heart that it endorses.  I sensed the problem with adopting the rationalistic rejection of the heart that you note, but I was also conscious of at least my own capacity for self-deception and egotism; and further, of the confusion that I’ve often observed within my own heart, of having a heart “more tortuous than anything,” to quote Jeremiah.  Similarly, I’ve struggled with the Ignatian emphasis on the importance of desire. 

While I do not think there is an outright trust of any and all desires, there is a fundamental “optimism” that our desires, rightly understood, can indicate to us what is God’s will (in matters that require discernment, at least).  From there, it is a matter of utilizing our freedom so as to cooperate with God’s prompting.  I’ve seen it described as an “active passivity,” which is a dynamic that I think is consistent with the great “call stories” of Abraham and Mary, and essentially the gift Solomon received (1 Kings 3:9–12).

Patrick Dunn

#8, Mar 13, 2012 12:18pm


I have wondered, to use the language you do, how I am to understand what is in my heart as truly my own, if the high ranking emotions are not initiated by me, but only sanctioned.  And I have the same wonder about desires: can I call my desires truly my own in the way I would my will, which seems to be most authentically my own by virtue of its capacity to sanction, something that appears to be completely (though in another sense, "everything is grace,") under my control?

If desires especially are to be indicative of God’s will in a meaningful way, I tend to think that they must in a sense “precede” me, such that by rightfully responding to “my desires” I could potentially hope for communion with God.  Even desire itself, “my desires,” appear to be gifts.  This I think would be consistent with DvH when he speaks of “gifts from above” as “only indirectly accessible to our free power.”

Katie van Schaijik

#9, Mar 13, 2012 3:29pm

I love these questions and musings Patrick. Thank you! They are right in line with a paper Jules is working on.  

I want to think more about them too. But I'm under pressure preparing for my class tonight so have to wait to them real attention.

Jules van Schaijik

#10, Mar 15, 2012 12:02pm

Patrick, I'm not as familiar with Ignatian spirituality as you are—can you point me to some good resources?—and don't really know what to say about how, in practice, one discerns the difference between genuine, true desires and deceptive ones. Clearly a very important issue.

In regards to the other question you ponder, about how we can make emotions and desires truly our own even though we do not initiate them, I think it might be helpful to see two things:

First, the same sort of paradox is also present in acts of understanding, which are perhaps more clearly our own. In understanding something we are receptive in two ways: 1) we discover a truth we did not make, and 2) we perform an act, for which may have prepared in all sorts of ways, but which itself we did not and could not have initiated.

Secondly, the emotions and desires are already ours before we consciously and freely identify with them. This is why, say, if a desire is bad or inappropriate, we ought to distance ourselves from it. If we don't we are morally stained by it. Sanctioning is not incorporating an external experience, but integrating what is already ours.

Patrick Dunn

#11, Mar 16, 2012 9:10am


Ignatian spirituality can be a rather broad topic.  My own experience with it has been through various facets of it that, taken together, have given me something of the full picture. 

One such facet has been the Igantian way to discern which is based primarily on the first set of rules Ignatius gave in the Exercises to “become aware and understand to some extent the different movements which are caused in the soul,” and from there to either accept them or reject them—I believe this is an Ignatian equivalent to the sort of cooperative freedom that you spoke of before. 

For a practical understanding of this teaching, I know of no better resource than Fr. Tim Gallagher’s book “The Discernment of Spirits.” 

Now, there is a whole host of work (some of which can be found on the Internet) that studies all things Ignatian as such and which tries to address some of the types of questions we’ve been raising here, digging beneath the practical guidance of the teaching (which was Ignatius’ primary concern), so as to understand the dynamics, theology, anthropology, etc. 

Patrick Dunn

#12, Mar 16, 2012 9:11am


Ignatian spirituality can become a scholarly pursuit unto itself it seems, though I think even by coming to understand the Igantian principles of discernment, one can see how Ignatius understood the importance of the heart and desire for our relationship to God in a reasonably meaningful way.  Fr. Tim’s books bring this out beautifully.

Another book of his, closely related to discernment, is his treatment of the Examen Prayer.  My sense is that the Examen is a particular way to help us discern, drawing upon the principles that are articulated in the other book.  When we pray the Examen each day, we’re in part utilizing the wisdom of those principles by applying them to our concrete situation so as to see how God is leading us.

Patrick Dunn

#13, Mar 16, 2012 9:19am


Beyond this, I have found the writings of Fr. George Aschenbrenner, SJ very helpful.  He has an article on that prayer just mentioned, which can be found here, that is a good complimentary resource to Fr. Tim’s book.  Also, Fr. Aschenbrenner wrote a book that is meant for people who are going to make the Exercises, though I thought it was very enriching unto itself and provides perhaps a more comprehensive picture of what Ignatian spirituality on the whole is tending towards. 

Finally, that same website that hosts Fr. Aschenbrenner’s article has a series of links along the left-hand side (such as “The What-How-Why of Prayer,” “An Approach to Good Choices,” etc.) that, when followed themselves, open to other links which may be helpful for entering into various facets of the spirituality. 


I wanted to just say too that I appreciate the anaology you draw between desires and understanding.  Desires (and emotions perhaps) "feel" to me more my own than understanding, I think because understanding is necessarily related to something objective - "a truth we did not make," as you note - while desires seem to be more subjective and personal in nature. 

Jules van Schaijik

#14, Mar 16, 2012 9:27am

Thanks Patrick. I just ordered the book by Fr. Gallagher. I also found an online tv-series, freely available on, in which Fr. Gallagher presents the main ideas of the book. It looks like a wonderful resource.

Patrick Dunn

#15, Mar 16, 2012 9:37am

You're welcome, Jules.

I meant to mention this earlier: Fr. Gallagher has done a series of podcasts (found here), 16 of which cover those principles of discernment noted above and 8 of which cover the Examen prayer - also great resources.

Fr. Gallagher is also hosting  a program on EWTN wherein he teaches those principles of discernment.

richard sherlock

#16, Mar 17, 2012 11:02pm

Fr. Gallagher's book is terrific. The ewtn series is also great. Greats like St. Teresa or St. Ignatius can hear what most of us can't or cant do very well. My first year in grad school at that institution in Cambridge that starts with H I had a great example of this that I use in class. My roommate who became my oldest and closest friend ( he'll be my sponsor this Easter Vigil) had a student from the Catholic high school he taught at get accepted as a freshman. He would come over to our room very late at night and we would have on WCRB, the 24 hr classical music station. He would listen for a minute and say " that's Mahler's 1st symphony" I knew that because the announcer said so. But then he'd say and that's Sir George Solti and the Chicago Symphony because he likes to do it this way" None of my students and only a few people I know can do this. But my students do not deny it is real. Saints can do this better than I can but I cannot deny that they are experiencing some very real

Helvi Moore

#17, Mar 22, 2012 10:03am

From the Holy Father on St Joseph's "open heart":

Joseph sleeps, it is true, yet he is able to hear the voice of the angel (Mt 2:13 ff). The scene appears to represent what the Song of Solomon had proclaimed: “I slept, but my heart was vigilant” (Song 5:2). The external senses are at rest, but the depths of the soul are open and receptive. In this open tent we see the figure of a man who, deep down, can hear what resonates within or is told him from above; a man whose heart is open enough to receive what the living God and his angel tell him. In that profound openness, the soul of any man can meet God. From it, God speaks to each of us, and shows that he is close to us.

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