MindfulnessPhilosophyTheological Anthropology

A Dangerous Question

When I first arrived at my parish, we put up fresh banners to remind the local neighborhood of our ministry and presence. We thought our new signage needed a slogan, a tagline, so we chose “Open your heart; change your life.” It wasn’t a bad first try. Eventually, we decided upon something a little more humble, hopeful and descriptive of the kind of community we were trying to be. We changed our tagline to “Rooted in Christ, Growing in Faith, Serving in Love.”

I’ve been pondering our original banner. It struck me with some force the other day that a dangerous question was lurking within our simple spiritual imperative: how does a human heart truly open, soften and transform? Or to use St. Paul’s language, how do the eyes of the heart actually become illumined?

This question is dangerous because it destabilizes our usual patterns of thinking and ways of approaching the Christian life. It rearranges our priorities. It shifts the weight of our language. There’s a pragmatic, experiential aspect to this question that has power to act as a spiritual solvent. What am I doing? What am I saying? Is it good? Is it beautiful? Is it true?

How does a human heart truly open, soften and transform? When we ask this question in a persistent way, some of our theological guardrails inevitably come down. And when they do, we may find ourselves trying to thread our way between opposite extremes.

On the one hand, this question might provoke resistance, rigidity and defensiveness. We may find ourselves plotting to sabotage the workings of our heart, or finding clever ways to deny, inveigle or obfuscate our heart’s own knowing. We may even go on the attack, unleashing short, staccato blasts of doctrine and text in an attempt to keep our heart pinned down and contained.

On the other hand, this question might make us self-absorbed, childish and aimless. We may find ourselves becoming de facto functionalists, abandoning the depths of the heart for the cheap satisfaction of spiritual empiricism, “life hacks” and other pseudo-scientific distractions. We may find ourselves becoming hard-hearted egoists, reducing the grand panoply of religious and spiritual traditions to mere private therapy, paying attention only to what “resonates” or “feels good” to us. Ultimately, we may even find our hearts wandering to the brink of despair. What if we can’t change? What if the holes in the heart are too big to fill? What if we long for what we can never have?

These are all real problems that affect real people. So why should a Christian ask this dangerous question at all? Perhaps because danger is not the whole of the story. There is also light and life; there is also true and lasting reward. The heart’s transformation is connected, I believe, to our participation in the Kingdom. It is like a treasure hidden in a field. It is like a Pearl of Great Price waiting to be discovered in the marketplace. Christ’s call to repent – μετανοειτε! – is change that touches the very center of our personhood. It is a call to the transformation of the heart.

Human beings stand upon a threshold. We are matter and spirit, animal and angel. We live and we die betwixt-and-between heaven and earth. And therein lies our peculiar glory. We have the potential to unite seemingly disparate realities, to bring them together, to refer them to God. Or to use specifically Christian language, we have a unique calling as high priests. We are tasked by God with bringing all Creation together in praise and worship as we steward the Eucharistic mystery of the cosmos.

Only the transformed heart makes this sacred vocation possible. This is why the imagery and language of the heart runs deep in the Christian faith. St. Macarius of Egypt, a 4th century desert ascetic and teacher, beautifully captured the heart’s peril and potential when he wrote:

The heart itself is only a small vessel,

yet dragons are there, and lions;

there are poisonous beasts

and all the treasures of evil;

there are rough and uneven roads,

there are precipices.

But there, also, are God and the angels;

life is there, and the Kingdom;

there, too, is light, and there the apostles,

and heavenly cities, and treasuries of grace.

All things lie within that little space. [1]

Here I suspect St. Macarius speaks from experience. He knows the physical heart is just the tip of the iceberg. It is not just an organ that pumps blood and can be measured on an electrocardiogram. It is also the meeting place, the point of sacred contact, the deepest center of our personhood. It is the pool where all the little streams and tributaries of life eventually come together. It is the space wherein we uncover and cultivate the Imago Dei impressed throughout the whole of our being. The clarity and depth of the heart may be muddied by ours sins and frailties, but it can never be polluted beyond reclamation or, God forbid, destroyed.

This is why no simple description of the human heart will do. Yes, our cultural refrain of “just follow your heart” is insipid and even harmful, but so is our endless quoting of Jeremiah 17:9 – “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” – as a sort of dark, scriptural invective against the whole of our inner life. The mystery of the human heart demands more. The heart’s transformation is not only philosophical and scriptural, but also pastoral, experiential and at the last, mystical.

This final point is especially important. The true Biblical depiction of the heart is vast and deep, much like the quiet working of God as He calls His wandering children to Himself. Our hearts, lest we forget, are never fully our own. God is always knocking on the door of the heart. God looks upon the heart and weighs the heart. God calms the heart and cleanses the heart. God touches stony hearts and returns them to warm, vulnerable and bloody flesh. As the old hymn reminds us, it is God’s goodness that binds our wandering hearts to Him, and we always respond from within that gentle embrace. And so even the heart’s transformation, as difficult as it may be, cannot rightly be called a work. From beginning to end, it is a grace-filled wonder, an expression of gratitude, a dance of transfiguring joy.

Deny this inner prompting if you will, but your heart will remain restless. It will refuse to settle. As a good friend once reminded me, “The heart always strains to catch the rhythm of Divine life wherever it may be found.” So, I ask again: how does a human heart truly open, soften and transform? This is the question that must be faced, and we must attend to the answers that arise. For when we do, we place our trust in the words of the Master Himself: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

[1] Homily 43.7

Brian Rebholtz

Brian Rebholtz

Brian L. Rebholtz is the Rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Auburn, CA. (saintlukesauburn.org) He holds a B.A. in Religion and Anthropology from the University of New Hampshire, a M.A. in Christian Spirituality from the Graduate Theological Union, and a M.Div from the Church Divinity School of the Pacific. His interests include Bible design, homiletics, metaphysics and the spiritual aspirations of human beings. He is married to Catherine, a small animal veterinarian, and lives in a home filled with books, animals and children.

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