April 2007 - Volume 11, Issue 9
An Undivided Heart
A few years ago, I underwent an echocardiogram. I remember seeing a picture of my undulating heart on a computer screen. It was quite a revelation to see my heart rhythmically pumping away to keep me going. The doctor used the occasion to remind me how blood moves through the various compartments of the heart and what can happen when that flow is impeded. I found myself marveling at the intricacy of God's creation and, at the same time, I was given a new awareness of how tenuous is our hold on life.
Lent is a good time to think about the human heart - not just our physical hearts but indeed our heart of hearts, our inmost selves, our soul. Unlike our physical hearts, we will never see our souls through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or an x-ray. We'll never view how well our souls are functioning on a computer screen. Nonetheless, we have to be attentive to the state of our souls, our inmost selves.
Unlike our physical hearts, the soul does not have moving parts. Rather the soul is our spiritual core, the invisible but real principle of life that pervades our bodies. Our souls are the spiritual part of us that make us most like God - in whose image we were created. They make us desire friendship with God and with other people. They prompt us to long for unending life. Our inmost heart makes each of us a unique reflection of God and imparts to us an inalienable dignity, a dignity not granted to us by any government, but by the Creator.
For all its simplicity and wonder, the inward human heart is not without its problems. Jesus put His finger on this truth when He said it's not what goes into us that makes us unclean but rather what comes out of us. Sinful behavior originates in the depths of the human heart. The soul that makes us capable of friendship with God and others is also a point of origin of human sinfulness. It is in one's inmost soul that bitter thoughts and words originate as well as human treachery. Here is where so many forms of self-centered and addictive behavior gain traction over our lives, including over-indulgence in food or alcohol, and the misuse of our sexuality, including on-line pornography.
From our inner selves comes the tendency to grow soft in our vocations and responsibilities. How many times, at the end of a long day, do we think we are entitled to ignore spouses, children, and other loved ones who have need of our love and attention?
Human souls may not have moving parts but they are divided, no less than physical hearts. And while the compartments of the heart muscle are good and necessary, compartments in the soul can be dangerous. People often try to hide their shame, their rationalizations for sin, and their unresolved issues deep within the recesses of the soul. Their hope is to conceal them not only from God but also from themselves and from others. This results in their living a lie, a protracted effort to portray themselves differently from the way they really are.
Some do this skillfully - they play the part convincingly. Others engage in destructive behavior that is the symptom of deeper problems. At some point in most every life the mask of normality falls, if only briefly. And to the degree that one finds it necessary to maintain a false facade - to the degree that one must weave and bob - to that degree the human person is not really free. How complicated is the human heart!
I write about this mystery in the third person as if happens only to other people, not to me or to you, my readers. The truth is that that our hearts have chambers whose doors we'd prefer not to open, compartments whose contents we'd rather not deal with. And this makes it difficult to communicate with God. When we keep a significant part of us closed off, prayer becomes awkward, even unpleasant. We know God can see us through and through yet we resist discussing with Him those things which both God and ourselves know need to be addressed. It's like trying to have a heart-to-heart talk with your spouse even though you both realize you aren't leveling with each other. It doesn't work. The dialogue is superficial and even dishonest. Such relationships often don't last.
How do we break down the compartments in our inmost hearts that close us off from God and others? Psalm 51 offers us the right answer: "A broken, humble heart, you will not spurn." Paradoxically, the way our hearts are made whole is by being broken - by their becoming contrite. When we resolve to mend a relationship, our first move is not to draw up a list of excuses for the things we said and did that caused it to falter. Rather, we open the dialogue by asking for forgiveness and then we proceed to discuss that for which forgiveness is necessary.
The Prodigal Son is a good example of this. After he squandered his inheritance, he found himself in squalor. He decided to seek forgiveness: "Father, forgive me!" An underlying confidence in his father's goodness and mercy gave him the courage to acknowledge his sins and their consequences. So, too, with us! Our prayer should always begin with an acknowledgement of our need for God's mercy and with a prayer for a broken heart - for a heart whose dividing walls are torn down. When we utter this prayer sincerely, we recognize that, without God's grace, we are unable to tear down those walls that divide us from God, from others, and from ourselves. Rather, we are asking the Lord to help us see ourselves as He see us - more clearly than any echocardiogram!
We are asking to be confronted with the grave inconsistency in our hearts when we profess with our lips that we are His followers but live as if God barely existed. We give the Lord permission to overcome the ways in which we rationalize anger, addictive behaviors, and our excessive attention to our comfort, power, prestige, and success. We are asking for the freedom to become the men and women that God has called us to be.
Of course, this doesn't happen in an instant! It requires a lifetime of prayerful attention to our interior life and of allowing Christ to reveal us to ourselves. The great masters of the spiritual life never merely presume on God's mercy nor do they ever despair of it. Rather, they allow the Holy Spirit to transform them from within as, day after day, they pray for true purity of heart: "Create in me a clean heart, O God!" Their prayer is persistent and not always comforting. Nor was it all talk; much of it was listening. Like a husband and wife who realize they must have occasional difficult conversations for their relationship to survive and flourish, so, too, a soul on its way to holiness knows it has to be open to the Lord even when it would rather hide from his Presence. When we spend time with the Lord, we come to know the things that must change, and the grace to change them.
We are fast approaching Lent's mid-point. Whatever else we resolved to do or not to do during Lent, we will make good use of this season of grace only if we are spending a significant amount of time each day in prayer - quiet prayer without props in the presence of the Lord, whenever possible, in the presence of the Eucharist.
And our Lenten observance should lead us to acknowledge our sins and to seek their forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Only in this way do we avail ourselves of God's grace by which we have "the strength to purify our hearts, to control our desires, and so to serve [the Lord] in freedom" (Preface for Lent II).
May the Lord grant us the grace of an undivided heart in this season of Lent and throughout our lives!
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