We often hear about “the heart “ in our religion. We try to be “pure of heart” and we “lift our hearts to the Lord” in the Mass. But what does “the heart” actually mean. Do we have a coherent Christian understanding of what we are referring to?
Once, in an earlier chapter of my life, and in a spirit of lament, I wrote a poem about feeling detached from my heart, about the takeover of the mental and the loss of feeling in my life. It went something like this:
Steal softly men of earth,
your kingdoms in this land,
And proudly make the proclamation
of your conquests grand.
Witness angels in your realm,
my oblivion to lust
of splendid wings and shiny things –
They crumble into dust.
But fear hapless enemy
my wrath if I do find,
the wicked knave who took my heart,
and left me with a mind.
I was frustrated about feeling emotionally and spiritually dry. I felt like a thin layer of “butter that had been spread over too much bread”, to quote Bilbo the Hobbit. Perhaps I was sensing the weight of my own selfishness. I strongly desired to recover my heart, whatever that was.
In the context of Christian spirituality, the heart does not refer to the physical organ, of course, but to something much deeper. We believe that the “heart” is the deepest part of one’s identity, where the real “me” is. This is why, according to scripture, unless my heart prays, the words of my prayer are made in vain. Perhaps I was feeling distanced from my true self, and needed to recover a purified version of myself.
The Catechism summarizes some of the key concepts about the heart: “The heart is the dwelling-place where I am, where I live; according to the Semitic or Biblical expression, the heart is the place "to which I withdraw." The heart is our hidden center, beyond the grasp of our reason and of others; only the Spirit of God can fathom the human heart and know it fully.” (CCC 2563)
We might also note that the heart is not passive, but is the place where our decisions are made. This is perhaps why the word “courage” comes from the Latin word for heart: cor. To “take heart” is to decide to actively face what needs facing. The Catechism goes on to say that the heart is “deeper than our psychic drives. It is the place of truth, where we choose life or death. It is the place of encounter, because as image of God we live in relation: it is the place of covenant.”
Our everyday lingo uses the term in these senses, as when we say that someone who has had an important conversion has had a “change of heart”. Or someone who lacks true compassion is “heartless” and someone who is innately kind “has a big heart”. The heart is the universal and perennial symbol of the deep seat of the self. It encompasses our deepest emotions, attitudes and holiness. But most importantly, the heart is where my sense of self can meet other selves. It is the seat of my relationships.
We note God's powerful words to the people of Israel: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Ez 36:26). In my case, I’m happy to say, God gave me back my heart of flesh. Like Bilbo, it took leaving my home behind for a while, and submitting to an adventure. But I recovered my heart, the seat of my self, and had my encounter with God.
The condition of our heart is perhaps the most important reality for us as Christians. Next time we hear the priest say “lift up your hearts”, may we respond with a truly heart-felt “we lift them up to the Lord." These words may be enough to open ourselves to the Lord of Hearts. From him we receive our capacity for authentic relationship; he is its source.