We say we keep some people (and some things) in our heart. Is it a place, then? What kind of place would it be? Very different, I imagine, from other places. It has some kind of topsyturvy geometry: when it’s crowded there’s room in it for more; and when it’s empty there’s no room in it for anyone. Then again some pleasure or interest seems to fill and overflow it, but when the froth subsides it is left half-empty. And famously in the matter of love, just when you think you’re getting to know how it works, it tells you that one and one are often not two.
    “The purposes of the human heart are deep waters,” says the Book of Proverbs (20:5). They are so deep that they are often murky even to oneself. The heart’s biggest problem, someone said, is when it doesn’t get what it wants; and the next biggest problem is when it does! Is it possible to understand such a place, where nothing ever stands still and no law seems to stay in place?
    But why this urge to understand everything? When you fully understand something you can go to sleep! - you have a certain control over it and it cannot surprise you any more. But when you don’t understand, you have to stay awake: anything could happen! When you think that the sound at night is only a mouse you go back to sleep; when you don’t understand it, it becomes a ghost! If we understood our own hearts fully we would lose all sense of wonder; we could ignore the depths of everything; we could become fully occupied with objects. Life then would have no depth, no inner echo; we ourselves would be just objects among objects. How boring that would be! Instead be on the alert! “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit.” “Be ready to open the door.” These phrases are from the Gospel.
    The paradoxes of the heart don’t become less when we think of it in relation to God. St Augustine, the great 5th century seeker after God, wrote, “God is within the inmost heart, yet the heart has wandered away from him.” And referring to Christ he wrote, “For he did not delay, but ran through the world, crying out by words, deeds, death, life, descent, ascension -- crying aloud to us to return to him. And he departed from our sight that we might return to our hearts and find him there.” As in many things that Augustine wrote, there is an inner resonance. Some people write about God and the human spirit as if they were writing about nuts and bolts. Or if they have any sense of wonder they reserve it for outer space. “People go out,” Augustine wrote, “and gaze in astonishment at high mountains, the huge waves of the sea, the broad reaches of rivers, the ocean that encircles the world, or the stars in their courses. But they pay no attention to themselves.”
    It's true that to keep gazing into one’s own heart could be pure egoism. But it could also be a sincere search for God, because God is there. It depends on how we approach it and do it. We in the present age find it natural to look inwards. Let that inward looking be the deepest kind of search, and not self-seeking in a narrow sense. We have ready access to that holy place. But as soon as we open the door a little, a thousand things blow in there! I'm saying nothing that I don’t know. In old-fashioned language we have to “keep vigil at the door of the heart.”
    I will leave you with a few words that were spoken even earlier than Augustine’s writings. They are from Abba Poemen, a 3rd or 4th-century monk of the Egyptian desert. He too was talking about that mysterious space, the human heart, and the need to keep it warm for God. “As long as the pot is on the fire, no fly nor any other animal can get near it, but as soon as it is cold, these creatures have no trouble getting into it!”




Donagh O'Shea OP

These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.