The Eyes of the Heart
Homily for the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord, Cycle A

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

There were a number of things that struck me about these readings. I won’t mention them all, but I would like to comment on this exert from the Second Reading: “May the Lord give you a Spirit of wisdom and revelation resulting in knowledge of him. May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened, that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call, what are the riches of glory in his inheritance among the holy ones, and what is the surpassing greatness of his power for us who believe,…” (Eph 1, 17-18).

What I find interesting about this text is that Paul said “the eyes of your hearts”, not “the eyes of your mind”. What are the eyes of the heart? Man was created in the image and likeness of God, which means “in the image of mind and heart”, or “knowledge and love”. We have the ability to know and to love. Wouldn’t it make more sense to speak of the “eyes of the mind”? For it is the intellect that sees; but no, Paul speaks of “the eyes of the heart”, as if the heart sees

The heart loves, and those who love God will know God in a way that is inaccessible to the intellect by itself. In other words, it is love of God that begets a certain intellectual light, namely wisdom. This is a light that arises out of a heart inflamed by charity. That’s why he uses the expression “the eyes of the heart”. We are not going to really know God unless we choose to love Him, trust Him, and follow Him. St. Augustine said: “Believe in order to understand”, not the other way around. Do not say to yourself: “I will believe when I finally understand”, because then you’ll never understand. Understanding follows upon the decision to believe with the heart of a child, and as you know, children often see so much more than adults—their intuition is often much better.

It is one thing to know about God with the eyes of the intellect, but to know the hope of eternal life with the eyes of the heart is to know God personally, interiorly, because He dwells within you.

But there can be a problem with this. When we come to know the Lord and the hope of eternal life with the eyes of the heart, our knowledge of Him is very real, and we experience a kind of certitude. Someone can argue with us and try to persuade us that it is a delusion, but we know from within that it is real and nothing will move us to abandon the faith. But although I may really experience the divine life of grace within me and feel a genuine certainty, my interpretation of that experience, that is, my understanding of all its implications, can be woefully deficient. Indeed, the divine life in me is perfect, but I am far from perfect. And it is precisely my imperfections, my dullness of mind, and my sinfulness that inevitably taints my knowledge of what is happening within me and what it all means. It is very much like pouring pure water into a dirty cup. When we pour the water out, it is not that pure anymore, but discolored. There’s nothing wrong with the water going in, it is the cup that receives it which taints the water.

Similarly, we can be filled with the divine life and know it from within, and that experience is very real. But it does not follow that we are able to correctly interpret that experience or accurately articulate its implications. My own imperfections mixed with the divine life within me give rise to a very deficient product in the form of theological assertions. Hence, a deeply personal knowledge of God is not enough for an individual Christian.

That is why Christ established a Church. In Matthew, chapter 16, Jesus asks his disciples: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?...they replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets… But who do you say that I am?” It was Simon who spoke up. You are Christos, the Son of the Living God. So Jesus turned to him and said “It was not flesh and blood and revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven”. And so you are Petros. On this rock Christ builds his Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth is bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is loosed in heaven.” Here Jesus establishes the Church on the rock of Peter’s authority.

And in today’s gospel Jesus commissions his Church: “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” That is why the Church that Christ established is the Catholic Church. The Greek word katholikos means on the whole, that is, “all nations”, universal: “go out to all nations”, Christ said. And it is Roman Catholic because Peter, the rock on which Christ built his Church, went to Rome and became the bishop of Rome, and since Peter was given the keys, which symbolize authority, the authority of the Church is centered in Rome. The mission of the Church is to teach: “…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you”. As well, it is to sanctify through baptism and the sacraments that follow. The Apostles are the official teachers of the Church, not university professors, not dissenting priests, but bishops in union with the Holy Father. And he said: “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age”.

No individual person is infallible, but the Church as a whole is infallible in its doctrine; for Christ said that “the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church”. What does that mean, “the gates of hell”? Jesus referred to Satan as the Father of Lies, and a lie is an untruth. So what Christ is saying is that the gates of untruth will not prevail against the Church he established. Individuals can be mistaken, including individual bishops, but the official teaching of the Church as a whole will always be free of error. The organ of that charism of infallibility is the Magisterium, which is made up of the bishops in union with the pope. Only when the Holy Father in the discharge of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians speaks on a matter of faith and morals does he enjoy the prerogative of infallibility.

There’s a real advantage to being a Catholic. I learned that in university rooming with a number of Protestant roommates; for although each one of them had a personal relationship with the Lord and knew Him with “the eyes of the heart”, all of us were in conflict with one another. One said there were five sacraments, another said only two; one says non-Christians are going to Hell, another says not necessarily. One says it is right to honor Mary, the others insist it is a violation of the first commandment, etc. Who is right? Who is going to settle these matters? In the early Church, it was Rome that settled the matter. The bishops would gather in an ecumenical council and settle matters of doctrinal dispute. That’s how we ended up with our creeds; they are concise articulations of the fundamental points of the faith, and they arose as a response to heresy.

But more to the point; when we take a good honest look back at our own lives, we do see that for most of our lives, we were wrong about all sorts of things. We didn’t see that when we were young. The arrogance of youth keeps us from having to face that disturbing fact. But it is only in time, gradually, with age, that we realize that things are not as simple as we originally thought—it is amazing how young teachers fresh out of teacher’s college know all about how principals should run their schools. We tend not to see our limitations when we are young, we don’t have enough life experience. So why would I trust myself, my way of seeing things, when I look back and see that for most of my life, I’ve been mistaken about most of the opinions I used to hold with certitude?

Christ gave us a great gift in giving us the Church, who is our official teacher. And that’s what is striking about the history of the Church. We clearly see the corruptions, the sinfulness of the members, yet the official doctrine of the Church remains intact. This is especially true of the moral teaching of the Church. If the Church were merely a human institution whose teaching is rooted merely in the individuals who make it up, and not from Christ, then the moral teachings of the Church would differ very little from those of popular culture. In fact, so many Protestant denominations now stand virtually for nothing; they’ve capitulated to cultural pressure—if a branch is severed from the vine, it eventually dies.

The Catholic Church is the only voice in the world that opposes In Vitro Fertilization, Artificial Insemination, Contraception, for example, three of the most subtle moral issues. I studied moral philosophy for years, and when I finally came to see that unaided human reason, after centuries of gradually unpacking the implications of natural law, can show that these are indeed morally wrong, I knew in my own mind that the Church has the charism of infallibility—a group of celibates in Rome could not have figured these out on their own. Christ is the teacher who teachers through his Church, which is his mystical body. It’s a great gift to be a Catholic, because in the end, it means that we don’t have to rely on ourselves. Christ commissioned the Church to teach, it only makes sense that he would give the Church the ability to teach and lead the flock to salvation and keep the Church from misleading the flock with false doctrine and deficient moral teaching. That’s a gift, but not for those who are adverse to truth, who want to live and believe only what they want. For them, the Church is an imposition. But for those who thirst for truth and are willing to conform to it but who are too busy raising their families to research it all their lives, and for those who have a healthy sense of their own limitations, the Church and her charism of infallibility appears as it truly is, a gift.