“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”
A friend of mine is a teacher, in training to become a hospital chaplain. As I asked him about his inspiration for the life change, he told me: “I needed a way to train my heart a bit more. There’s so much suffering right now, and the best thing I can think of doing is being with people who’re lonely in their time of illness.” It was a noble response and reminded me that just because I work for a place with “Spiritual Center” in the name, doesn’t always mean that I am cooperating with the graces that God has placed in my life; it doesn’t always mean that all of my moments are spent training and growing my heart, although perhaps that desire to do so is part of my reason for being at the JSC this year.
As I reflect on my life, I think of all the times in my life where my heart has been cloudy, double minded, or just plain ungrateful, and it hurts, knowing how ignorant and coarse I was, and indeed, sometimes still, am. There have been times in my life where it might’ve seemed it was a lifeless stone, rather than a pulsing organ that resides in my chest. Some treat the heart with so much importance, that it flows with mystical excess. The verse of Sufi poet Ruzbihan Baqli comes to mind: “Neither My Earth nor My Heavens can contain Me, but the heart of a Believing Servant, contains Me.” While we might balk at this as an orthodox theological interpretation; the intuitions of poets testify to the depths that we can encounter in our hearts. I remember learning a little bit about the prayer of the heart in Christianity, trying it for the first time, and being surprised at just how much the heart can sense. The infinite gratitude and longing it can feel for God and for the well-being of beings, and the sorrow we can experience over our own failings and tragedies in life.
Sometimes, I find that it’s a bit intimidating to examine the heart – what I might find may be uncomfortable, demanding me to face a part of myself that I’d rather ignore, or bring me to a stark realization of human fragility and finitude. But trite and sentimental as it may sound, I’ve never regretted taking the time to examine my heart, even if the result is never anything tangible in the world. In the words of one of my teachers “…in the last analysis, an account of perception consigning itself to the world and its things not only overlooks perception’s loftiest power, but with it, our very human essence, one whose dignity resides in the heart’s personal encounter with God.”