The Youthful Heart

by Yves Congar, O.P.,

Revue des Jeunes, January 1935

A YOUTHFUL HEART. IT IS A FRIENDLY THING, with an irresistible power of attraction. We can all recognize it and point it out. But we have probably never thought of defining it, and it may be salutary to make the attempt.


There is youthfulness of years, bodily youth, and there is also youth of soul. These are not identical (one can be a little old man at twenty, or on the other hand, retain a youthful soul for ever). There is, of course, a resemblance; the same word denotes them both. The epithet 'young' seems applicable to those who in spirit possess the characteristics of the young in years. What is this latter youthfulness?

It is something flexible and robust, something fresh and thriving; life in abundance, overflowing life. Consider nature in the spring; a young plant, a young animal, is a living being whose reserves of life have not been drawn on, but are fluid and ascending and eager to spend themselves.

Primarily, youth means this abundance and exuberance of life's energies. Its outward signs show a particular brilliancy, games are freely played with agility, singing preferred to speech, running to walking. An inner vitality seems to demand an outlet. The same idea seems to be true of youthful institutions; their fullness of life controls their form; their material elements are still flexible, and have not hardened; they are still wholly adaptable and ready to flow into fresh channels.

Youth exists, therefore, wherever there is an unused store of energy, unpiped and still ascending. The most recognizable feature of a young man is the absence of fixed decision. He represents virgin energy untapped for any particular purpose. As yet he has pushed nothing aside, and every direction seems equally attractive.

One of the reasons why, at present, we hear not merely of young men, but of 'teenagers', not only of a new generation but of a proud self-conscious youth, as such, is probably due to the fact that the rising generations seems to be equipped with unprecedented spiritual resources ready to serve causes that everyone realizes are completely new arid decisive. Never before has 'youth' and 'not yet thirty' been so discussed, because there has never been so many spiritual resources for the young to utilize in preparation for the unsettled but decisive tasks which we all realize lie ahead.

The young and the under-thirty have never been confronted with so many possibilities; with a tomorrow so loaded with fresh tasks and with the unknown. Youth, indeed, is marked by the possibilities open to it and the events of tomorrow; by implicit disinterestedness combined with a readiness to adventure, and a sense of commitment. Hence its zest for danger and adventure, its love for original undertakings, for everything which means a fresh start.

A young man is one who welcomes anything really new, who is looking for and is directed towards some compelling activity, eagerly striving for something original, struggling in hope towards a better world; the spirit of the springtime and of life ascending.

Why is youth superabundantly alive, tense with expectation? Because it is meant to grow up and be fertile. It has been compared to a flower not merely because it is bright and fresh, but because it is on the way to a fully developed life and promises fertility. Childhood does not contain the brilliant originality which makes adolescence so attractive; on its slender and less robust stalk, buds are only germinal and flowers remote. Real youth presupposes a more immediate hope; not merely towards possibilities, the accent of original energies, but a move towards direct fertility and the most developed and active forms of life. Youth is life ascending with untapped energies to a life that is perfect and fruit-bearing.

On the other hand, everything which obstructs, which uses up vital energies, and, in using, specializes and so impoverishes or immobilizes them, is tending towards old age. In an ancient tree the sap's ascent is lower every year, until only a single branch receives the remnant of its vitality.

In a worn out institution, with its arteries hardened, its ideal is no longer giving life to its administrative apparatus, but the apparatus is somehow supporting enfeebled convictions. In a declining body that has lost its strength and energy, so settled in a single groove as to be unable to turn to any other without excessive difficulty, the mind becomes mechanized and rusty, slowed down and practically incapable of attending to any new ideas. This is old age in different forms.

It is true that other very worthwhile qualities - easier to enumerate because they are possessions - may have replaced those of youth that cannot be catalogued or given a name. To the spiritual qualities of youth - not yet possessed but belonging to the future, not so much an acquisition as a possibility - new qualities have come into being, the fruits of experience, peace and contemplation.

We should be careful not to underestimate these additional gifts of God, summed up in a fine phrase by Rene Bazin: 'With old age the customary things depart, but God arrives'. It is not, however, old age of this stature that we have been discussing. Moreover when it does possess this loftier spiritual quality it shares, ceteris paribus, in what we find most attractive in youth; its fresh approach to reality, its openheartedness. But that is a matter of the youthful heart, something independent of youthful years, though closely related to them.


It is marked first of all by the spirit of adventure, of joy, by a kind of impetuosity, often even by easily aroused enthusiasm, a carefree confidence, an exuberance that seems to indicate inexhaustible strength. 'God of those who sing, 0 Jesus Christ'; with these words Clement of Alexandria concludes his Pedagogue.

Then we note a certain lack of prudence and diplomacy, a disregard of obstacles. Youth has little interest in the possible; not that it is unacquainted with reality, but the power of the ideal and of sincerity of heart appears able to accomplish anything and removes the word 'impossible' from the dictionary. (A child looking at a horse galloping in a cloud of dust, said to me, 'I could run as fast as that, if I wanted to.' And he believed it. A child finds it hard to accept that something wanted wholehearttedly may not be possible of attainment. He is amazed by what he can do, and imagines that nothing is impossible).

Since compromise is unknown to them, frankness is one of their notable traits; it is evident in their straightforward look, their open, welcoming faces. They enjoy the high privilege of being able to communicate their convictions and to render them acceptable: they believe that truth has power. They believe that everything is worth sacrificing for truth's sake; they would give up a position in life rather than cast off a friend. They believe in friendship and its values; they believe in love.

'In time of peace politicians fear these disinterested creatures whose lives have not yet been controlled by any political label; they can't get a grip on them. Most modern men have lost the faculty, but the young can still treat some things as despicable. They are capable of indignation and hatred, and what they consider to be true they serve intensely.' (F. Mauriac)

It is due to this that they reject so much, a rejection that deserves a smile rather than a rebuke. It is sometimes irritating because they will accept no compromise and take no heed of the actual circumstances or of any accommodation that may be necessary. But even in its excess, youth's openheartedness is a testimony to the absolute nature of truth, to the compelling power of what is right, to what may be called the sacred character of innocence. These are priceless realities.

Youth also despises petty details, conventional attitudes that are safe and involve little expenditure of energy, but are useless for real creativity. Childhood is hardly behind him when a young man begins to take up a personal attitude to life, and soon conformity and mere tradition lose all power over his behavior. His father comes to feel that although he has not lost the confidence of his son, he is no longer everything to him.

The adolescent does not look to his father or to his schoolmaster as his guides to life, but to the give and take and fellowship of his friends who sympathize with his dreams and hopes. He works out a kind of common programme or doctrine. He discovers and shares something that would never be accepted if dictated.

Or if he does commit himself to a master it will be a master of his own choice whom he believes accepts his own ideals and to whom he attributes youth. It is a spontaneity, more ultimate than the slightest acceptance by his adaptable personality of any conventional attitude that might imply willingness to adopt the worn out customs of his elders.

This is true at least of those who are authentically young. For it is a fact that among those who are less than twenty, many cross from childhood without a break to the serfdom of institutions. It may be that the stern law of standardised work absorbs the best of their youth, stifling initiative, allowing no spare time for intellectual pursuits.

Or they may accept without resistance the pitiless and easy fashions of modernity, all the interests, the dreary interests, of the teenage world which are practically the same at Buenos Aires, New York, Paris or Lisbon. All of them infallibly destroy the young in heart.

That youthfulness can only be preserved, or rather can only be unendingly renewed (for youth cannot be preserved) by a continuing victory of the spirit over the rigidity of conventional attitudes. Any position taken up through conformity or tradition is regarded as a sign of senility. A youthful soul disregards the security and comfort offered by routine; it is enamored by danger and by decisions that are really its own; it creates, with utter sincerity and spontaneity, its own way of life.

This is not due to a mere spirit of independence and even less to a narcissistic attitude (although youth can become a theme for literary exploitation). For the ultimate truth about the young is their capacity for admiration, attachment and self-giving. It is this that alone makes sense of their other characteristics; their joyfulness and openheartedness, their contempt for mere conventionality. All this, without self-giving is no more capable of making the heart young than good deeds without charity can make a Christian. But whenever self-giving exists, the essence of youth is present.

The ability to wonder and to be enthusiastic are qualities natural to youth. Every youth movement counts on this; they succeed because they demand great things; and the most successful are those which ask for everything. When Christ asked the young man to sell all that he had and to follow him, he was offering him the worthiest opportunity of his youth. Unfortunately, however, he began to balance the impulses of his heart against his bank balance and went away sadly; he had lost what was best in him: his youthful heart.

Youth is life ascending and abounding; it needs to spend and give itself; it hears the call of the absolute, of the total demand, with all its implications of enthusiasm and disinterestedness and chivalrous fidelity. At twenty, death is less important than at fifty.

What ultimately makes a youthful heart is the power of believing in an ideal and of surrendering completely to it. Not to be merely an owner without ambition, only interested in enjoying an easy life, but eagerly looking ahead, fascinated by an ideal, mastered by it, allowing it to dictate one's actions, subordinating money and comfort to its demands, this is to be young in heart.

Youth - at any age - means the upspringing of new energy seeking an outlet in beauty and fertility. It has no room for the sterile monotony, the placid indifference of those without an ideal, that unhappy privilege of those whom nothing moves, nothing attracts. Youthfulness remains so long as a man does not fall into self-absorption, but still allows his life to be sustained by faith in a better future when the sun will shine more brightly.

The aged soul, on the other hand, turns inward on itself and makes disillusionment a virtue. Enchantment is over, the arteries of the heart and mind harden; nothing new is welcome; there is no accommodation for fresh ideas. Reality has come to mean a dull acceptance of the amenities of life, emptied of every truly generous impulse.

Unfortunately it is not only those of advanced years who join the ranks of the disillusioned. For among the young there are many who find no joy in meeting together to speak of our Lord or their country with childlike spontaneity. These old men of twenty do nothing without some reservation; they are always thinking about what can be got out of it, or what impression they are making, their forehead is always furrowed.

Their look has lost its frankness; their lips, lips that can be as revealing as a look, lips that once smiled and welcomed, have now tightened, permitting only 'a thin and melancholy gleam'. 'They find it an effort', says Lavedan, 'to remember that they once laughed and ran and climbed trees.... Their cold haughty gaze, darts at a man, takes his measure, clothes and unclothes him, and turns away.' This disillusionment, reticence and prudence bear witness to the loss of all power of wondering and self-giving.

We have to admit that all life involves some servitude, some fixation, some ageing. And yet we can escape from these restrictions; we need not confine our soul within the boundaries which our profession or social conformity demand; we may establish ourselves elsewhere, filling our hearts with a spiritual treasure in a realm where 'neither moth nor rust can corrupt' (cf. Mt 6: 19-21; Lk 12: 33-4).


The last word on this matter is this: a soul's youth or age is the age of itsheart, and the years of a heart are measured by what it loves. 'We are as old as our sins,' says Mauriac, 'we are spiritual usurers.'

Intrinsically, a soul is neither young nor old; intrinsically it is outside time, and identically the same at the end of a heavily burdened life as on the morning of its baptism. When I speak of a soul as young or old I am not trying to import chronology into something that is outside time. That is impossible. What I am discussing is the soul as a psychological reality. This demands an explanation.

Our actions have their origin in ourselves and yet they shape us; they dispose us to act this way or that, they create an inclination, a personal way of forming a judgment. And as the result of such judgments and choices and basic preferences provided they are often enough repeated and fit in with each other - a spirit, a mentality becomes a reality within us.

Some of these features inevitably predominate and form our character. These dominant features constitute a soul. We are the makers of this soul, having created it or allowed it to be created by early decisions which we could have modified or controlled.

It is thus that the interests in the foreground of our consciousness, in which our other interests are subordinated, generate in us a spirit, a mentality, a character, a soul. A man devoted to acquiring money has a mercenary soul. A man for whom life means nothing more than the enjoyment of gross and brutal pleasures has a bestial soul. It is even possible to speak of a priestly, apostolic, military, revolutionary soul, by observing the predominant interests and activities of any given individual.

The rule is always the same: external reality bores its way into us and enters our lives. It does so through knowledge and love. The mere knowledge of sensual things does not make a man sensual, but if he loves them, then gradually his soul becomes sensual. The mere knowledge of the evolution of a gentleman does not make a gentleman, but if we make his ideal our own we gradually become one. So, when we describe anyone as young in heart or otherwise, it is these formative factors that determine the answer.

When we give our heart to some reality of this world in order to possess and enjoy it, we cease to be children, poorly equipped and unattached, eager to develop, able to offer ourselves for any purpose, and to offer our whole being for that purpose; we cease to be generally serviceable, an ascending and joyful energy. We become involved, attached; the reality we sense holds us and forms us in its image. It contains the moth and rust that invade our treasure and corrode it.

This does not imply any Manichean deviation, any false asceticism. But there can be no doubt that there are things in this world that provide the most intense satisfaction and yet clog our soul and end its youth; how many human lives, for instance, are dwarfed by the lust for gain and pleasure.

Let us not deceive ourselves: these things seduce; they seem to offer unending possibilities, and this gives the illusion of life and growth. But it is not really the soul that is renewed; on the contrary, as one activity follows another, as collectively they become more engrossing, as numbers become the only thing that matters, as pleasure becomes increasingly repetitive and recondite, the soul becomes proportionately emptier, and any new and genuinely youthful effort is a rare event and a feeble one at that.

The youthful heart has no more deadly enemy than these possessive attitudes or these pleasures; they stifle every generous impulse, and reduce our immortal soul to contentment with a scrap of soil.

Even spiritual realities cannot prevent us ageing if we set ourselves up as their masters. They could keep us young, they could maintain a spirit of enquiry in us, but they may also distort us, twisting us into respectable teachers, revered masters, or scholars of renown.

The adversary lurking for a youthful heart is the verb 'to have'.

Youth is poor and knows it. From its point of view everything that tends to make a man an owner decreases his stature. And it is surely true that ownership does work against the youthful spirit, against its carefree joy, its contempt for mere routine and the compromises that make life easy, its willing devotion and disinterested self-giving. I have become a self-satisfied owner of mediocre trivialities, and I have lost youth's essential aptitude; the power to welcome great ideals that can command a lifetime's service.

Ideals, yes, but is it not true that there is only one ideal, the living God, that can perennially rejuvenate our youthful energy? Is it not also true that it is the saints alone who have made every aspect of the youthful heart a practical reality? It is those hidden depths that we must explore if we are to find the phoenix of perpetual youth.

St Augustine of the burning heart has the phrase we need: 'Quaerite, 0 juvenes, Christum, ut juvenes maneatis'. 'Young ones, if you would remain young, seek Christ.' (Ad fratres in eremo. Sermo 44).