By Jean McCurdy Meade
This summer I had some problems with my heart which required several procedures and two hospitalizations, with tests, treatments, and meds. While praying to the good Lord for healing for my heart, it occurred to me quite vividly that “my heart” was not just that vital organ which needed medical attention, but was also the seat of myself, my soul and mind, which just perhaps required healing too — actually, cleansing, to be precise, as opposed to the healing of a broken heart, or the softening of a hard heart like the Israelites displayed at Meribah. What if the cleansing of my heart of still-festering old wounds, resentments, judgmental attitudes, unwillingness to look for the good in every situation and person, and so forth, ad infinitum, is as important for heart health as the healing of my beating heart by the cardiologist?
At the beginning of each Eucharist we pray, “Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit,” and I think that many of us take that to mean getting our attention focused on the liturgy we are beginning so that the words we say and the actions we do “come from the heart,” so to speak. The heart, however, may need some diligent meditation and reflection and deliberate acts of forgiveness to be truly cleansed, and that takes some doing.
According to Scripture, God wants our hearts directed first to him.
The “first and great commandment,” given in the Torah and repeated by Jesus is, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.” The connection between feelings, rational thinking, and spiritual insight is clear: they are intertwined. That is why the palmist speaks of the “thoughts of my heart.” In human affairs we may speak of “loving” someone whom we rationally do not trust, or even approve of. The song from Showboat, “Can’t Help Loving that Man of Mine,” comes to mind. God, however, is asking for the devotion of our undivided consciousness, our whole heart of feelings and thoughts and wishes.
In the time of Noah God saw that “every imagination of the thoughts of [the human] heart was only evil continually.” And the Lord said to Jeremiah in 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; Who can understand it?” I do not think that many of us reading this reflection will believe our hearts fall into that category of evil, but there can be lurking in the most faithful of hearts ideas, attitudes, and outlooks that beg for cleansing by the Holy Spirit.
To begin this kind of cleansing of our hearts we can consider the words of Jesus about what is corrupting as opposed to what is not:
And he called the people to him again, and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him; but the things which come out of a man are what defile him.” And when he had entered the house, and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, since it enters, not his heart but his stomach, and so passes on?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man.” (Mark 7:18-23, emphasis added.)
As we consider which of these defiling things come from our own hearts, we might be tempted to overlook those that do not require forgiveness from another person we have harmed, but that instead appear and linger within our own hearts alone. Perhaps envy, slander, pride, or foolishness have taken up residence in an otherwise “good” heart and stay there as a blockage, so to speak, no less dangerous than one in a physical heart.
Other apt descriptions of harmful habits of the heart for some of us might be: mockery, gossip, not listening to the other side of an issue, making fun of another person we disagree with, seeing only the bad and not the good in a situation, irritation with the faults of others, holding on to old resentments, and “cherishing” offenses of others we have supposedly forgiven. These habits of the heart, it seems to me, are what continually need cleansing by the Holy Spirit. And then my heart can function again as God meant it to, both physically, thanks to modern medicine, and spiritually. The two are always intertwined in this life, but the latter affects us for eternity!
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right Spirit within me” (Ps. 51:10).