The Heart & The Gut

With the amount I talk about feelings and the importance of “using your heart” or “paying attention to your gut” I tend not to think about the bodily language we use to describe feelings. But feelings are just that, physical feelings occurring somewhere in our bodies. When I was doing CPE, my supervisor often asked me, if I expressed a feeling, to point out on my body where the feeling was. Let’s explore two such places: the heart and the gut.

The Heart
When discussing feelings or the depth of a person we say things like, “Do it with all your heart” or “Speak from the heart.” The word heart is related to the Latin word cor. The heart is the centre, the core (“Let’s get to the heart of the matter.”). Oftentimes the heart and the soul are interchangeable. When I look into my heart or see into yours I am looking into the depths of the soul. This is no surprise given that blood is life-giving and the heart is what sends it throughout the body. Many religious traditions see blood in special ways. In the Jewish tradition blood is seen as the substance that contains the life of an animal, which is why Jews cannot consume animal blood. In the Catholic/Christian tradition it is believed that the wine at Mass becomes the Blood of Jesus Christ. The Sacred Heart of Jesus is a popular devotion as Christians see the physical heart of Jesus as a sacred life-giving centre from which his love comes. Among some German tribes blood was used in ritual and sprinkled on objects. The Old English word for this sprinkling, blóedsian, was adopted by the Catholic Church and became bless or blessing.

So the heart is the life-centre of us. We see it as the source of our love (“I love you with all my heart.” “I ♥ you.”). When we feel emotions it can sometimes feel like it comes from the heart. The heart is seen as our true selves (“He’s kind at heart.”). We pour our hearts out when we allow that inner true self to be revealed. We do something with all our heart when we do it fully, with our whole selves, intentionally. When we take something to heart we take it very seriously; one could imagine storing it in our depths into our core. What about your heart of hearts? That’s like speaking about the soul of your soul, deep deep within.

The Gut
It literally means your intestines: bowels, entrails. When one asks you what your gut says, they’re asking you for your instinctive reaction. This is quite different from the heart which seems more discerning and less bodily. The gut is the raw innards. There’s no holding back the truth that comes from the gut, almost as if we’re not in control of what it has to say. The reasoning mind doesn’t get in the way and the discerning heart doesn’t either. Saint Ignatius might tell you to pay attention to your gut feelings and those immediate reactions that come from there. It might reveal some truth that reasoning could never get you to.

The ancients saw the bowel as the seat of human emotion:

“Greek poets, from Aeschylus down, regarded the bowels as the seat of the more violent passions such as anger and love, but by the Hebrews they were seen as the seat of tender affections, especially kindness, benevolence, and compassion.”

(From etymonline.com)

Some early English bibles used the word bowels to mean pity or compassion. Later it was retranslated as heart. So the heart and gut have some relation. They’re both internal organs associated with feelings and human depth.

Feelings are physical. When we are “moved” by something those physical feelings manifest in our organs such as our heart or gut. We really feel them. Those organs might actually experience some sort of physical movement. In a sense, we have a bowel movement. (!) Well, that’s probably what the ancients would say.

God has given us not just the gift of our souls but also our physical bodies to be used for God’s glory. And we must be attuned to our body’s feelings and what each organ represents if we want to pay attention to yet another way God communicates with us. After a loved one dies when our heart is in our throat we recognise our love for them and the grieving that must be had. When my gut tenses up and tingles I may be nervous and excited about a love interest. It’s almost as if our heart and our gut have their own personalities. How often do you look down at your heart and gut and ask them what they have to say? It might be important.

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