Friday, 6 June 2014

I [Heart] What?

By John D. O’Brien, SJ 


Once, in an earlier chapter of my life, and in a spirit of lament, I wrote a poem about feeling detached from my emotions, 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 the elder Hobbit. Perhaps I was sensing the weight of my own selfishness. I strongly desired to recover my heart, whatever that was.

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 understanding of what we are referring to?

In Christian spirituality, the heart does not refer to the physical organ, but to something much deeper. 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.

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 note that the heart is not passive, but is also the place where we make our decisions. 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.”


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 capacity for 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 a heart of flesh. Like Bilbo, it took leaving home for a while, and submitting to the uncertainties of adventure. I had to examine my past, and make choices for my future. But I had my encounter with God and recovered the seat of my true self.

The state of our heart is perhaps the most important concern the Christian. Next time we hear the priest say “lift up your hearts”, may we respond with a sincere “we lift them up to the Lord.” These words may be enough to open us to the Lord of Hearts, and he will teach us everything we need to know.

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