The lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy, shepherding them rightly.Ezekiel 34: 16
The love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.Romans 5: 5
Today’s readings for this Feast of the Sacred Heart evoke a reflection on the connection between the love of God and our own sinfulness. As St. Paul makes clear in Romans 5, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” It seems as if it is not our goodness that moves the heart of God and its incarnation as a human heart in Jesus, but rather our sinfulness. As Ezekiel has God saying: “The lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy, shepherding them rightly.” We have all been taught this since we were children, but why, then, is it that we, in practice, think our task in life is to become good enough for God?
Perhaps the best known insight of Blaise Pascal is “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.” The reasons of the intellect and the reasons of the heart, while related, are of a different order. There is much in our western Christian tradition that would seem to indicate that somehow the reasons of the heart are lower or less significant. This feast day, however, reminds us that the reasons of the heart are not merely vital and emotional. They are, however, quite difficult to fully understand, much less appropriate.
Perhaps we speak of love and of the love of God far too facilely. Relatedly, perhaps we also are far too glib in our understanding of sin. For, today reminds us that we cannot truly comprehend either one of these without the other. Ezekiel tells us that the Lord seeks out” the lost” and heals “the sick.” Yet, “the sleek and the strong’ the Lord destroys. This seems to fly in the face of every notion we have of what constitutes self-esteem. In what we tend to term the “spiritual life,” we have the idea that God loves our nobility and virtue. Notice how we shall often respond to a person who is suffering from self-depreciation and self-loathing by telling them they are a “good” person. Jesus never does this, nor will he even allow himself to be called “good.”
Most often, we think of the love of God and the meaning of that love in the face of our sinfulness with the reasons of the intellect. In our mind, it is the virtue of the other, the goodness of the other that evokes love in us. For our heart, however, it is another story. Our heart is touched by the struggle and vulnerability of the other. When a child is lost, a whole town may drop everything to search for her. As Jesus continually teaches in accord with the scriptures that have formed his consciousness, it is the one lost sheep that the shepherd seeks out, leaving the others behind.
When we encounter a truly joyful person, we see that she or he is totally unconcerned about her or his goodness or virtue. They are just living their lives and doing what they can in the face of the present moment’s call to them. They are not measuring out what they are able to do or not, how much they can afford to give or not, rather they just respond with all they have to give at that time. They are not concerned with filling the lack in the situation or the other; they only long to offer what they can out of their own poverty and sinfulness.
A constant danger in our world and our tradition is that we make what is primarily a matter of the heart a matter of the intellect. It is always difficult and painful to live from the heart, to follow the heart’s reasons. This is because we do so from an existentially fragile, vulnerable and sinful place. As a result, we tend to use our intellects to provide a safe distance from our hearts’ reasons. I was raised in a family that used irony and humor to deal with the pain of life. I have always, at one level, appreciated this, because it gave me very early in life an appreciation for the powers of subtlety and nuance in language. Yet, as for my parents, it also paved the way for my defensiveness about life and love to take hold in me. One measure we can use to see ourselves distancing from our own hearts is irony and cynicism. As a friend once pointed out to me, such irony is “frustrated affect.”
I tend to feel more mature and adult in my ironic and cynical mode. For, to live from the heart is to live from our most fragile and vulnerable place. It is to be defenseless with oneself, others, and God. Whenever I am trying to be present in this way and am hurt or taken advantage of in the process, everything in me wants to retreat and withdraw back into my irony and cynicism. I want to reassert my own independence and false sense of “maturity.”
To ponder our own experience in this regard can help us to know, from the level of heart, something of the vulnerability of our God in Jesus. God never ceases to seek out the stray, to bind up the injured, and to heal the sick. On the other hand, the love of God destroys that illusory strength that we take to be maturity and virtue. It is almost humorous how often, when I take myself too seriously, that I am brought low by another or by circumstance. It is uncanny how quickly my self-inflation is pierced by reality.
Often times, when the love of God is being preached, I have to admit to myself that I don’t understand. But I shouldn’t be surprised because even after decades of life, I am not certain what love is. What I do know is that at moments of being drawn into love, I know a joy and enjoyment, a sense of truly being alive, that I do not experience in any other way. I also know that when I sense love, I am drawn to be with and for the vulnerability of the one whom I love. Jan van Ruusbroec says that that in the love of God “we must place our entire life on the foundation of a groundless abyss.” Perhaps my understanding of love is so limited precisely because for us it is, in its eternal and infinite dimension, “a groundless abyss.”
Van Ruusbroec also says that in the love of God “we will also melt and be dissolved.” To participate in the love of the Heart of Jesus is to discover a new life, a life quite different from the life to which we cling as a possession. This latter is the life which cannot know the reasons of the heart, of our own heart and of the Heart of Jesus, which are ultimately called to be one. Rainer Maria Rilke says that love is difficult, the task for which all other tasks are but a preparation. The difficulty with living in love is that it means living with a sense of poverty and vulnerability that is very difficult to bear, as joyful as the experience itself is. It is difficult to feel esteem for ourselves as lovers, because we realize how poor and seemingly always inexperienced we are in loving. It is so much easier to manage and control life and relationships, as illusory as that is.
In Jesus, God takes on a human heart, with all of the vulnerability that we feel when we attempt to live from our own hearts. God, in Jesus, is willing to be wounded and rejected by us and yet to keep seeking and healing us despite ourselves. Recently, in listening to some reports on the opioid epidemic, I found myself pondering the experience of those parents whose children have fallen prey to the addiction. Not being a parent, I realize that I cannot begin to know their experience of the love and pain that their children’s suffering evokes in them. Those parents whom I heard speak manifest in their words and tone the brokenness of their hearts. Yet, what is also communicated is their unending love, faith, and hope for their children. They truly, as Ezekiel’s shepherd and as Jesus himself, keep seeking those who are lost, longing to bind up the wounds of their injured children, and healing the sickness in those they love. What we all know for sure is that loving another will always at some point break our hearts.
Recently a good friend told me of how one of his formation directors used to tell them that they should not take a vow of celibacy until their hearts were broken at least twice. The Feast of the Sacred Heart is our “celebration” of the broken human heart of Jesus. Van Ruusbroec says that in the love of God “we will flow forth and flow out of ourselves.” This is the heart’s true direction. It is to seek union and communion in love. For us who are broken by our sinfulness, that desire and attempt to love will inevitably break our hearts. It is in such breaking, however, that our hearts slowly become transformed into the Heart of Jesus and so flow out in love for the good of the world.
When young, I thought that to love with the love of God would be painless. Sometimes still I think that once I really know the love of God then my longing to love and be loved will not be so painful and difficult. This Feast, however, communicates something quite different. As those parents of drug addicted children, and all parents at some time or other, suffer such pain for love of their children and in this way learn of love, so too for all of us. It is, perhaps, much easier to be “good” than to be loving. But we’ll never know the real love of God in Jesus in our attempts to be good, but only in our vulnerable attempts to love.
You can thus see that this Unity of God which draws all things to itself is nothing other than a love which has no ground and which lovingly draws the Father and the Son and all that lives in them into a state of eternal enjoyment. In this love we will ceaselessly burn and be consumed by fire for all eternity, for in this lies the blessedness of all spirits. For this reason we must place our entire life on the foundation of a groundless abyss. Then we will be able to plunge eternally in love and immerse ourselves in a depth which has no ground. Through the same love we will ascend and transcend ourselves as we rise to an incomprehensible height. In this formless love we will wander about, and it will lead us to the measureless breadth of God’s love. In it we will flow forth and flow out of ourselves into the uncomprehended abundance of God’s riches and goodness. In it we will also melt and be dissolved, revolve and be eternally whirled around in the maelstrom of God’s glory.Jan van Ruusbroec, The Sparkling Stone, I, C