Purity of Heart

May 18, 2019

Saturday of the Fourth Week of Easter

We’re doing it wrong. All of us some of the time, some of us all of the time. That means me, and I’m afraid it also means you.

Living a good life full of right choices seems like it should be easy. Jesus condenses 613 biblical commandments into just one (or two? three? -- depends on who’s counting): “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

I imagine it is for this reason that St. Augustine famously preached, “Love and do what you will.” However, this requires learning how to truly love, instead of just following our preferences and passions. I’ve written previously about the challenge of loving well and the joy of coming close on occasion. For now, let us simply remember that when you chop away all the fancy words and academic discourse, no less a source than the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines sin as a failure to love (CCC. 1849).

There is no one thing that brings these topics to my mind this day: It’s everything. Oppositional politics, the assumption of malevolence, xenophobia, seeing people continuing to burden themselves with guilt that has long been forgiven. I think that much of the pain caused by these phenomena derives from a twisted drive for purity: I exclude those who do not pass my ideological litmus test, marginalize those whose personal or cultural practices differ from my own or whom I see as inferior or contaminated, or I hate myself for not living up to my own impossible standards. Isn’t this what Jesus wants to free us from? In his homily the other day, a priest reminded us that Jesus first shows us love, and then invites us to change our lives… however we too often get it backwards by conditioning our love for another based on him or her first doing things my way.

The Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard once proclaimed that “purity of heart is to love one thing.”

One image of purity is exclusive, aloof, sterile, and harsh. Violent. It eliminates all that falls outside of its own boundaries in order to be all that remains. “Whoever is not for me is against me.

I cannot embrace this type of purity, however. After all, love is meant to cast out fear. I’d like to think it also casts out hatred and envy. Genuine love does not displace or overwhelm genuine love, however. Instead it grows and transforms, increasing its scope.

“Purity of heart is to love one thing.”

The truly Christian implication of this purity would not be a love of God to the exclusion of everybody else. Rather, to recognize that God’s love is so great that by entering into it we gain the possibility of loving everyone else. Only then is the second commandment (“Love your neighbor as yourself”) similar to the first (“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”). “Whoever is not against us is for us.

If we truly believe in love, we will see the lie present any time we are asked to choose between loves: self or other, local workers or migrants, young or old, pregnant women and the unborn, Jesus or ANYBODY, or even the victims or the perpetrators of crimes. Love is the command, and it is not meant to be applied only selectively. To share this love with all, even those who appear at first to have opposing interests, may require creativity and determination, but we cannot declare it impossible. Even if delay may be inevitable, defeat cannot be an option. Love may at times require toughness and hardship—it is not always a soft and delicate thing. Nonetheless, it must be true compassion.

As a slight addendum to the main text of this post, I would also like us to remember that self-love is an important piece of this whole picture. Again, true love of God or other will not cast off but instead encompass love of self. To that end, see the picture below that social media blessed me with this week, parodying Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree.


If one reads between the lines, all I ever actually write about is love; thankfully there are a lot of songs about it. “Ear Candy” this week comes courtesy of Bob Marley, as he sings about the one love that has room for all others. Meanwhile, columnist Nicholas Kristof offers us a great article in which he uses the parable of the Good Samaritan to discuss a recent case of a woman who showed love to a stranger in dire need and faced consequences for doing so. This raises the question: when law makes itself the enemy of love, does love need to become the enemy of law?

Ear Candy: “One Love” – Bob Marley

Brain Food: “She May Have Saved a Life. Then She Was Arrested.” by Nicholas Kristof

Come back next Saturday for a new post!