In my years of ministry, I was frequently asked by engaged couples, “Why is it wrong for us to live together before marriage if we love each other and intend to get married soon?” They usually knew the teaching of the Church, but justified it by saying they were “in love” and their purpose was simply to “try out” living together to see if marriage was for them.
I got the impression that one could “try” marriage as if one were merely trying on a pair of shoes, calmly placing the shoes back on the rack if not satisfied and walking away, no commitment and no consequences. How easily we tend to ignore the effects of our free choices on our hearts.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that
“The law of the Gospel does not add new precepts but proceeds to reform the heart, the root of human acts, where man chooses between the pure and the impure, where faith, hope and charity are formed, and with them the other virtues.” (CCC#1968)
The heart is the place of conscious, intelligent and decisive choices. In addition to being the place where we make our choices, the heart is also affected by all the choices that we freely make. All freely chosen actions flow from the heart and these freely chosen actions in turn shape and mold the heart and personality of the actor no matter the intention that might be proffered for what was said or done. Jesus stressed this fact too: “All these evils come from within and they defile a man.”(Mk 7:23) Because actions flow from and shape the personality of the actor, it is very important that we train the heart to love the good and hate the evil if we are going to make good choices in this life.
Chaste and separate living conditions provide the couples the opportunity to train the heart for the commitment to marriage and allow them to discern properly God’s will for them in their desire for marriage. By cohabitating and engaging in premarital sex, the couples do not train their hearts for the life of faithful and exclusive commitment that marriage calls for. Cohabitation and premarital sex are more than a violation of Church teaching. On the contrary, they both confirm the heart in that attitude of lacking self-control and ability to delay self-gratification. Such actions also rob the heart of the necessary light to make good choices before and after the marriage ceremony itself. The wrong persons are married, abusive relationships are developed, the marital communication is poor and there is a higher risk of infidelity between the spouses simply because the heart has not been trained and the passions and emotions have been allowed to dethrone reason and faith. Maybe this is why most marriages that begin with cohabitation and premarital sex have a higher risk of failure.
As a seminarian I was often told, “The type of seminarian you are now will shape the type of religious priest you will be in the future.” In other words, I would not begin to be devout, generous, celibate and obedient on the day I was ordained. But I had to start as a seminarian to train my heart for that commitment and thus open myself to make good choices regarding my vocation. We train our hearts for tomorrow by the actions we freely perform today. Honestly, I am still working on this very important task of training the heart.
Our First Reading for Sunday shows us that we always have free will that gives us the ability to choose between a life of faithfulness and a life of sin. God does not force us, “command us to act unjustly,” or give us “license to sin.” But He sets before us “life and death, good and evil, whichever we choose shall be given to us.” Our free choices have consequences beyond what we can see in this world but they determine the quality of our spiritual lives. Our choices have these lasting and profound consequences because they all come from the heart and they shape the human heart. If we fail to train our hearts to love the good and hate the evil, we cannot make good choices, and thus we cannot have a deep spiritual life.
God wants to lead us to the fullness of life by drawing our hearts to Him. He does not intend to force us but wants us to respond promptly and joyfully from the heart to His movements. Thus He promised us through the Prophet Ezekiel a new heart and a new Spirit so that we could be docile to His movements. “A new heart I will give you and a new spirit I will put within you… and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my decrees.” (Ez 36:26-27) Only a well trained heart can be led by God in making choices according to the divine will. God fulfilled this promise of a new heart and a new spirit in sending us Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary. In the heart of Jesus, we have a heart that possessed all goodness and was thus led joyfully by the Father in all His choices even to point of death on the Cross.
It is only because Jesus gives us a share in His own heart and spirit, that He can make the tall order in this Sunday’s Gospel: “If your righteousness does not surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” The scribes and Pharisees were known for their regulated external observation of the law that did not flow from or affect their hearts and lacked any sort of interiority. Because our hearts have been transformed by the grace of the Holy Spirit, it is possible for God to move us to serve Him with joy from our hearts. Because our hearts have been transformed, it is possible for us to go beyond avoiding murder to the level of overcoming angry thoughts in the hearts; it is possible for us to go beyond adulterous acts to the level of having pure thoughts in the heart; and it is possible for us to go beyond making false oaths to the level of sincerity in our heart.
Choices in Our Heart
We must remember that the first evil and the first good come from the heart and shape our hearts, training our hearts for future choices. A wrong choice is more than breaking the Commandments or the precepts of the Church. And it is surely more than a mere solution to an uncomfortable situation in life. Blessed John Paul the Great reminded us of the power of our freely chosen acts to determine our character and perfection in these powerful words: “Human acts are moral acts because they express and determine the goodness or evil of the individual who performs them. They do not produce a change merely in the states of affairs outside of man, but, to the extent that they are deliberate choices, they give moral definition to the very person who performs them, determining his profound spiritual traits” (Veritatis Splendor #71) Whether we realize it or not, and no matter our intentions for our actions, our freely chosen actions shape us.
No matter what the past may have been, no matter how many bad choices we have made in the past, we can begin today to shape our hearts to love the good and to hate evil so that God can lead us to the fullness of life. We begin training our hearts when we seek to be transformed and shaped by God’s grace in the Sacraments of the Eucharist and Confession. Letting the blood of Jesus cleanse our sinful hearts in the sacrament of confession, we let Him also reveal to us “what God has prepared for those who love Him” and then lead us to choices that bring us to this fullness of life.
In the Eucharist, we let Him to shape our hearts according to His own heart so that we love and despise what He loves and despises. Secondly, we train our hearts when we choose carefully what we choose to love. We long and seek for that which we love. Let us fall in love with Jesus Christ in His written words in the Scriptures, in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar, in the teachings of the Church and in the person of our neighbors. Let us fall in love with His Mother Mary and we will share in the sentiments of her pure heart. Lastly, we train our hearts by guiding our senses closely, especially our eyes and ears. This is not being prudish but it is very necessary today when we are facing a deluge of immodesty.
Our hearts are transformed by divine grace in this Eucharist. Jesus Himself comes into our hearts to lead us to the fullness of life by way of the choices that we make daily. His grace is also offered to us to train our hearts so that He can lead us to life without force.
We must never forget that our choices flow from the heart and confirm the heart in its attitude. It is more than breaking Commandments and Church teaching. If we seek to train our hearts faithfully and without respite today by our free choices, we will develop an affinity for good choices tomorrow according to the divine will and it is then and only then that we will have life.
Glory to Jesus!!! Honor to Mary!!!