Heart-stopping moments. They happen quickly and without warning.
A car runs a red light and misses your car by what seems like inches. Your heart begins beating so hard and fast within your chest that you have to pull over and let it settle before continuing your journey.
In the department store, your young child wanders out of sight, and suddenly your heart is in your throat. The search seems to take forever, and then you find her slyly hidden underneath a rack of clothes.
Getting a cancer diagnosis, walking away from your firstborn when you drop them off at college or watching someone lose the love of their life are the moments when the ache in your chest must be what a broken heart feels like.
We are most aware of our heart when it beats heavy and hard within us, or when something goes amiss with its function and requires medical attention.
The heart is a muscular organ that is about the size of our fist. It lies beneath our breastbone slightly to the left. Its function is to pump blood through the network of arteries and veins within our body. It controls our blood pressure and our pulse. Without it, we are useless (and dead).
On the metaphorical side, the heart has been described as “the spark of life,” “the fount of emotions,” and “the house of the soul.”
People say, “I love you with my whole heart.” “He broke my heart.” “Take heart.” “Bless your heart.”
Biologically we know that our bodies cannot function without a healthy heart. Emotionally we know that our heart requires tending and relationships to feel whole.
But what is the function of the heart as it relates to our spiritual nature?
Cynthia Bourgeault, in her book, The Wisdom Way of Knowing: Reclaiming an Ancient Tradition to Awaken the Heart, says, “The heart…is an organ for the perception of divine purpose and beauty…finding the way to where our true heart lies is the great journey of spiritual life.”
Mystics have often described the heart as the “spiritual mind” – the organ that was prepared by God for contemplation.
Through the prophet Ezekiel, God makes a promise to the people of Israel.
I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 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. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. (Ezekiel 36:24-28 NRSV)
Instead of a heart of stone – one that is unchangeable and inflexible – God wants to give the people a heart of flesh. A heart of flesh that is soft and tender. This heart has spiritual sensitivity. God wants to offer the Israelites an inward change.
Jesus says it this way, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5:8)
Bourgeault goes on to explain that the work of cleansing the heart and restoring the heart as a spiritual organ requires the act of letting go.
“The core practice for cleansing the heart, for restoring the heart to its organ of spiritual seeing, becomes supremely, in Christianity, the path of kenosis, of letting go. The seeing will come, and it’s a part we still have to work on in Christianity, but the real heart of emotion is the willingness to let go, to sacrifice . . . your personal drama, the letting go at that level so that you can begin to see.” (An Introductory Wisdom School with Cynthia Bourgeault: Course Transcript and Companion Guide [Wisdom Way of Knowing: 201]), 124)
Having the willingness to let go is the beginning. That is the beautiful part – knowing that God meets us in our willingness. When we are willing to let God work in us at chipping away our “heart of stone” that is when our “heart of flesh” begins to be revealed.
That chipping away can’t happen unless we open ourselves to the spiritual practices of meditation, contemplation, and prayer. These spiritual disciplines lead us into a deeper way of living. This is the way to the heart of flesh – a heart that is soft and tender - a heart that begins to see God.