Do not give your heart to that which does not satisfy your heart.
At first glance, this could be from any “positive quote” trinket or plaque, but to read it as such is to misunderstand the context and meaning behind it. The Desert Fathers were not into self-actualization in the sense embraced by Abraham Maslov or Joel Olsteen. They went into the desert to seek after God. They knew, and came to understand more deeply through their experiences, that the only thing that brings true and lasting satisfaction to our hearts is to “be holy as I am holy.”²
Everyone seeks to satisfy the desires of their heart. It is not a problem of not seeking after our desires, but of having desires that end up being less than satisfactory.
Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by an offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
We look to that which seems attainable, to that which is visible before us, in trying to satisfy our desires. But that is not the way of the saints, who “endured as seeing him who is invisible.”4 This does not come naturally, but requires growth and maturity in the faith. Part of this maturity comes by following the ascetic path laid down both in Scripture and in the early church. We have a difficult time conceiving that it is God who alone satisfies the desires of our hearts until we set aside everything else except seeking after him.
Too often the austere life of the Desert Fathers and other monastics is misinterpreted as a means of trying to impress God or somehow earn his favor. God is not impressed with our fasting; he is impressed with our undivided attention and affection. This is not without parallel in our human experience. When we choose to show respect and honor to another, we set aside everything else and give them our undivided attention. This focused attention is the point, not what was set aside. It doesn’t matter if I put down Calvin and Hobbes or The City of God in order to listen to my wife or children. What matters is the giving of myself completely in those moments as an expression of love.
So it is with God. Fasting, solitude, poverty, and all the rest are only a means to an end. They are only useful as they allow us to set aside food, company, wealth, and whatever else consumes our time and attention. The goal, the desired end state, is total focus upon God. That is the desire of our heart, for that is what it was created for. The more we are able to achieve and maintain such a focus, the more truly and deeply satisfied we will be.
¹ Ward, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: the Alphabetical Collection. Trappist, KY: Cistercian Publications, 1975. p. 178
² 1 Peter 1:16, Leviticus 19:2
³ from “The Weight of Glory”
4 Hebrews 11:27