There is a paradox at the heart of human unfolding: We can only love others to the degree that we are capable of loving ourselves. But, on the other hand, we are not born loving ourselves. We develop self-love by internalizing the love of all those who have loved us. As infants, we do not make our own food; neither do we make our own love.
The energy of the heart is a power for transformation. Such transformation requires “a conversion of heart.” This means letting go of our self-centered ego. It is something to intend, pray for, affirm, and aspire to. It cannot be accomplished by will power. Effort and will power build ego. Letting go of ego is a grace that happens when we open ourselves to powers greater than our ego. We can only ask for grace, not make it happen. We still put effort into our practices but we also let things happen as they need to. We take the steps and then shifts occur all by themselves. These shifts are what we mean be grace. When we balance unflagging exertion with an unconditional yes to how things turn out we are open to shifts happening in our lives. That is openness to grace. All that is left for us is to feel and express gratitude.
William James says: “Self-surrender is...the vital turning point of religious life.” That self is ego, “I” as the pivot of life. To surrender our ego is a spiritual victory because it means that we acknowledge that we have no separate self, that our self exists only in-relation-to God, nature, and all our fellow humans. St. Paul says of Jesus: “He emptied himself.” Phil 2:7 Jesus did not present himself as a single solitary self but as a self-in-relationship to God and to us. He showed us that our wholeness is in connectedness and that our spiritual challenge is to re-member ourselves within the mystical body of humanity. Teilhard de Chardin expresses it this way: “The organization of human energy, taken as a whole...pushes us towards the ultimate formation, over and above each personal element, of a common soul of humanity.”
Our heart is the soft center of our egoless self and it has one impelling desire: to open. The heart is the capacity to open. This is the force that complements our other powers. It takes us beyond our limits. It contains our ability to reach out so it is the antidote to despair. We are spiritually coded in ways we have not yet dared even to imagine. The depths of our spiritual capacity are still unplumbed. Contemplation of Jesus’ heart shows us how deep we really are, how vast our potential for love, how high our aspiration for the light.
Heart is also our capacity to be affected, to be touched, and to be wounded. A wounded heart is an opened heart. Heart spirituality, the essence of devotion, is about giving and receiving love. There is vulnerability inherent in all loving, which may be why so many of us find it hard to let love in. Yet, being truly loved is what makes our stay here on earth worthwhile. Feeling loved equips us to maintain serenity as we face what life brings, whether it be good or evil, secure or dangerous, pleasing or disturbing. Vulnerability to “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” honors our human condition. This is a healthy vulnerability. The vulnerability of a victim seeks or allows pain/abuse and thus dishonors our hearts and bodies too.
In the ancient Stoic philosophy there is a virtue called apatheia. This is not apathy but equanimity. It is the serenity beyond adrenaline-based reactions to life’s twists and turns and it is a direct path to transcendent knowledge of God. This equanimity is what is meant by being pure of heart. St. Clement of Alexandria says it leads to divinization (theopoiesis). This mystical realization is reminiscent of the Hindu perspective in which the inner self/soul finds absolute identity with God: “I am Brahman.” In the Christian view, oneness is not identity but rather a unity and communion with the divine.
An opened heart also means that we are open to all the happenings of life and nature. Ibn ‘Arabi, Sufi mystic, writes: “My heart has opened up to every form. It is a pasture for gazelles, a cloister for Christian monks, a temple for idols, the Ka’ba of pilgrims, the tablets of the Torah, and the book of the Koran. I practice the religion of love. In whatsoever directions its caravans advance, love shall be my religion and faith.” The “directions of the caravans” refers to the events and givens of life. For Ibn ‘Arabi the world of unseen presences becomes real when the natural world and its conditions are envisioned with heart.
An opened heart is boundless, i.e., unconditional in its scope. Once we are awakened to love as the lifelong purpose of our hearts, then feeling love for all the world becomes the meaning —and greatest joy— of living. St. John Chrysostom says: “If you have found the way to your heart, you have found the way to heaven.” Thus love makes life a heaven on earth. Lutheran mystic Jacob Boehme wrote: “ On the last day we will not ascend from someplace in this world but will stay here as in our fatherland. We go home into another world: this earth, a crystalline sea, where all the wonder of the world will be seen, transparently. The radiance of God will be the light within it…. Heaven is the turning in of the will into the love of God. Where you find God manifesting in love, you find heaven without traveling even one foot. And now you know where hell is too.”
To find our true heart is to find our dark side too. The heart is not all bliss and goodness. An opened heart reveals who we are in all its fullness. Sin is the choice to act out our dark side— what Carl Jung calls our shadow. Our work is to turn from sin, i.e., repent and make amends. Then we commit ourselves to choices that lead us to act from light. Our mistakes are motivations. Even our faults become honey in the hive of our hearts. Ralph Waldo Emerson goes so far as to say: “Divinity is behind our failures and our follies also.” This fits with the continual references we see in the words of Christ to the fact that his heart is open to and loving toward sinners. The wooing of humanity by God happens when we need his love desperately, not when we believe we are entitled to it.
In Hebrew, lev means heart. As we saw above, the heart is thought to have two directions, toward good and toward evil, its shadow side. Levcha means your heart. In the prayer “Love the Lord your God with all your heart” the word used is not levcha but levavcha. There is an extra syllable in the word. It must be there for some purpose. The meaning suggested by rabbinical teaching is that we are to love the Lord our God with both hearts or both “inclinations,” that is, the good inclination (yetzer ha’tov) and the bad inclination (yetzer ha’rah). This is a way of affirming that all of who we are can be for God.
To soften rather than harden our hearts is to become humane. How do we deepen our hearts as well as open them? We increase our capacity to love others unconditionally. This inclusiveness makes letting go of fear a spiritual practice. We cannot do this alone. It requires grace. The belief that if we do not do things ourselves they will not happen, leads to a sense of emptiness. Grace is the gift of God that expands and extends our love and virtue beyond what our ego is capable of on its own.
“Entelechy” is Aristotle’s word for the dynamic purpose embedded in things. It is an inner urge in nature and in the individual psyche to open their built-in potential to bloom. The entelechy of an acorn is an oak. From the human perspective entelechy is what unconsciously organizes us. Autopoiesis (self-making) is the term for the tendency within every living thing to become itself. Emma Jung says it this way: “An inner wholeness presses its still unfulfilled claims upon us.”
The autopoiesis of an acorn is its inclination to grow into an oak no matter how harsh the conditions. The autopoiesis of a human being is to open to love no matter how harsh the conditions. The Sacred Heart of Jesus is the entelechy of the human capacity to love. Fulfilled people tend to be virtuous, altruistic, and self-giving. They identify themselves by how consciously loving they are not by their status in society. Such individuals become more and more sensitized to the suffering around them and they respond with generosity and with compassion.
Our psychological work and our spiritual practices are sacred tasks because they help us fulfill our entelechy, our divinely infused purpose to become whole. Here is a chart that may help us see how the psychological connects to the spiritual:
|Our psychological work||Our spiritual practice|
|Growing in self-esteem||Acting with integrity and virtue|
|Healing/grieving our childhood losses, abuses, or disappointments||Forgiving our parents and moving on with life|
|Acting assertively||Standing up for the truth|
|Letting go of guilt and fear||Making amends and trusting God’s love for us|
|Building healthy relationships||Living in accord with the image of the triune God in us: forming a community of loving relationships|
|Working on our intimate relationships and our fears of intimacy||Fearlessly loving others as Christ loved us|
|Showing concern for others rather than being self-centered||Practicing loving-kindness, showing compassion, and attending to the needs of others in works of mercy|
|Deflating our narcissistic ego||Believing in grace at work in us and asking for humility|
|Acknowledging our dark side and altering our behavior for the better||Befriending our shadow side and repenting for our refusals to act with love|
|Expanding and sharing our gifts and talents||Hearing our personal calling and fulfilling our destiny of contributing to the good of all humanity|
|Accessing our unconditional love and showing it||Accessing our unconditional love and showing it as a form of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus|