Spiritual Reading 4

4. The Heart as a Universal Symbol

The terrifying immensity of the heavens is an external reflection of our own immensity... In the sublime inner astronomy of the heart...we see the Milky Way in our souls.

–Leon Bloy

There are more than one thousand instances of the word “heart” in the Bible. It usually refers to the inner self, where our soulful meanings reside. In Hebrew symbology, the Holy of Holies in the temple in Jerusalem was considered to be a heart as was Jerusalem itself, the heart of the world. In addition to symbolizing a center, the heart in the Hebrew bible refers one’s character. The heart also signifies our understanding of God’s word and our personal decision to follow it. Jer 31:32 In Jewish tradition, the heart contains wisdom and evil too. Jer 17:9 Thus, it is a combination of opposites, that is, an example of spiritual wholeness. A “change of heart” is a transformation of one’s personality/being in the direction of goodness. Ezk 18:31

It was only in recent centuries that the heart referred to love. To love the Lord with one’s whole heart, i.e., one’s character and entire being, is a Jewish and Christian commandment. Babua ben Asher, a rabbi of the eighteenth century, commenting on this commandment, said that the heart was the first part of us to be created and will be the last to die, so to love with our whole heart is a promise to go on loving till our last breath. The commandment is devotion to a personal love for God which is an unconditional love of neighbor.

In India, the heart is symbolic of the universe. This makes sense physically since the heart, like the whole universe, contracts in systole and expands in diastole. The human heart in Hindu tradition is called Bramapura, the abode of Brahma the creator. The heart has perennially represented centricity since it is the center of the body. The Celtic words for center and heart are similar. The word for heart is cridhe, related to the Indo-European word krd from which comes the Latin cor-cordis. In the West, heart represents feeling, especially love. It was also associated with intellect and intuition and considered the core of the entire psyche. In archetypal symbolism, a center is the zone of the sacred and the path to it is difficult. An heroic journey, our central human archetype, is the challenge required.

To the Chinese, the heart in the human body mirrors the position of the sun in relation to the universe. In this sense, the heart is a fiery energy, an equation we will encounter later in the mystics and in Teilhard de Chardin. Master Su-wen says the heart lifts itself to the principle of light and is thus the center of enlightenment. Buddhists refer to bodhicitta, the enlightened heart, as the longing to heal the sufferings of the world.

Taoist Lao Tzu speaks of the heart as the lord of breath and as light or spirit. Islamic mystic Ibn al Arabi speaks of the “breath of the Merciful One” that releases infinite possibilities into the world. This is the same as the Hebrew ruach, the Spirit/breath that brooded over the watery void in the first sentence of Genesis.

Universally in the world of symbol, the heart is also recognized as a container. In Egyptian lore, a vase represented a heart. This representation accords with the principles of alchemy in which a vessel is the container and locus of the transformation of the leaden ego into the gold of the higher Self. The Grail myth is about the quest for a spiritual center and refuge. The Holy Grail in western legend is an alchemical vessel/container in which personal and universal transformation take place. In the Grail stories, the human heart is a container symbolizing the heart of Christ whose life/blood grants nourishment to the soul. Indeed, the heart is like an inverted triangle which stands for the Grail. Shakti, the Hindu female principle of life, is symbolized by just such an inverted triangle as are the primeval waters from which, in Hebrew and Mesopotamian lore, all life is said to have emerged. The inverted triangle is a feminine symbol. In the opposite direction, the triangle is a masculine symbol. These two directions are joined in the star of David.

There is also a symbolic connection between a containing cave and the heart. The Sanskrit word guha means cave and also heart. The Upanishads speak of an inner shrine within us called the cave of the heart. A cave is an incubating place, the birthplace of the light and of gods, for example, Hermes, the god of alchemy, was born in a cave. Some rituals in ancient Greece included entering a cave and, upon emergence from it, the initiates were considered reborn.

In the cosmology of Memphis, the God, Ptah, conceived the world in his heart and then gave birth to it by his word. The heart was understood as the center of life, will, and intellect. This is why the heart was the only internal organ left intact in a mummy. At judgment time, it was weighed by the goddess, Maat, against the feather of an ibis bird. If the soul weighed more than a feather because it still had attachments, the voyage to eternal life could not be embarked upon. If it was lighter than a feather, the ship of immortality was ready to set sail. An Egyptian sage alludes to this death experience and to the mystical realization of the oneness of human and divine hearts: “My heart is my God and is content with its life deeds.”

In Islam, the heart (qalb) stands for contemplation, spiritual life, and the point of connection between spirit and matter. In Islamic mystical tradition, the heart contains seven colors visible only in an ecstatic state. Qalb is related to qabil, to receive, and thus the heart is the center of receptivity to whatever shape the divine may take, e.g., a needy homeless person asking our help or an awesome phenomenon in nature. The heart is the capacity for universal receptivity.

Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam. Hazrat Inayat Khan says: “Sufism is the religion of the heart, the religion in which the most important thing is to seek God in the heart of humankind.” Sufism offers three ways of seeking God. The first is to see divinity in every person and then showing love by word and action. This entails a letting go of self-absorption and an ever-increasing concern for those around us. The second way is to extend our love toward those whom we do not see, a style we will see in the Buddhist practice of loving-kindness. The third way of realizing the Sufi ideal is to acknowledge and be thankful for grace and to be open to guidance from God.

In Sufi tradition, the heart is eternity, light, and divinity. It is the center of consciousness and the vehicle by which God sees us. In Sufi tradition, God breathing life into Adam means that a heart was given to him: “The heart is the center of divine consciousness and the circumference of the circle of all that is,” wrote Sufi mystic Jili.

In the “Ring of the Dove” by Ibn Hazm we find this mystical stanza:

Love came as a guest
Into my heart,
My soul then opened,
So that love could dine in me.

God, speaking in the Koran, affirms this marvelous realization: “Heaven and earth cannot hold me but I am contained within the heart of my servant.” The heart is the point at which a mortal being encounters God. Sufi mystics sometimes call the heart “the throne of mercy” manifesting love from God to us. God’s rule is a rule of love. This means that a loving heart in any of us is mirrors God to the world. To be made in the image and likeness of God means that we can be fulfilled only by a life of love. Only loving keeps us true to our human nature. This may be why the Islamic sage, Yunus Emre, advised: “When you seek God, seek him in your heart.”

The symbol of the Sufi Order is a heart with wings. The heart is considered to be both earthly and heavenly. The heart receives the Holy Spirit which rises to heaven, symbolized by wings. Hazrat Inayat Khan adds: “Realizing that love is a divine spark in one’s heart, one keeps blowing on that spark until a flame rises to illuminate the path of one’s life.” For the Sufis, love leads to “heart knowledge” and intuitive mystical knowledge comes through an organ of discernment called “the eye of the heart.” This is an immaterial reality that sees all that is in heavenly light, the light that is the raiment of God. “I have seen the Lord with my heart’s eye,” says al-Hallaj.

This theme of light is echoed in The Egyptian Book of the Dead: “I long for nothing but to live as a light within, to enter God’s heart singing a song so stirring that even slaves at the mill and asses in the field might raise their heads and answer” (translation by Normandi Ellis). Notice how the heart of God is a source of joy and nature responds. We see this same equation throughout the history of mysticism.