Harden not the Heart with Pride By Father Roland Rolheiser
(Taken from CatholicNews—3 September 2006)
‘THE HEART has its reasons!”
Blaise Pascal wrote that and it explains why our feelings and behaviour are often a mystery to us: “Why do I feel this way?”, “Why am I so restless just now?”, “Why am I angry at this person when I should feel love?”, “Why am I so tense at this meeting?”, “Why do I feel this particular jealousy, coldness, bitterness, or obsession?”
The heart has its reasons and we’re not always privy to them. And part of the heart’s tortured complexity is its pride. We have proud hearts (for good reasons). Because of that pride, we are never far from being defensive, aloof, cold, assertive, suspicious, and paranoid. A very small slight can trigger huge reactions that can quickly make us shut doors inside of us.
We all know how easily this happens: We feel a little threatened and immediately doors that were once open begin to close inside of us and we feel the need to protect ourselves, to reclaim ourselves from someone, to be cool, aloof, disinterested, and seemingly given over to more important things. Where just minutes before there was warmth, vulnerability, softness, trust, and the desire to share, there is now a chill, a hardness, a distrust, and a reluctance to share anything beyond the surface.
There’s a biblical name for this, “hardness of heart”.
Jesus warns against this everywhere. For example:
He idealized children, warned about the dangers of not welcoming them, asked us to be like them, and laid hands on them. Scholars tell us that his laying hands on them was more than a simple gesture of affection. The laying on of hands is an ordination, a missioning. For Jesus, children are “missionaries’ in that they reveal to others that discipleship consists in having a heart that is not yet hardened, but is still trusting, vulnerable, warm. We all start from there, but our wounds cause us to harden. Jesus invites us back to that place, before our hearts grew hard.
Jesus teaches this too when he is questioned about divorce. There’s an incident in the Gospels, little understood, where the Scribes and Pharisees ask him: “Is it lawful to divorce?” (In essence: “How does God look on divorce?”)
Instead of answering them, Jesus turns the question back to them: “What did Moses teach?” They answer that Moses said a man could divorce his wife. Jesus uses their answer as a springboard to teach something deeper. He tells them that Moses allowed this only because of their “hardness of heart”, but that originally, before there was sin, God’s design was that the physical, one-flesh, sexual union between a man and woman was meant to reflect a communion of spirit between persons within which the very notion of divorce is foreign. One-flesh union reflects what is happening inside of God, perfect union of male and female, perfect mutual empowering. That kind of union should never be broken apart.
Divorce, Jesus tells us, is a reality, not in the design of God, but in the bitter realities of our world and how those realities harden our hearts and render it impossible at times for us to not have our relationships unravel.
What Jesus does in this teaching is invite us to go back, back to the beginning, back to pre-fallen times, back to that time before our hearts began to harden, back to when we were still childlike, and, from there, to try to answer for ourselves how God feels about divorce and the fracturing of any relationship. Not an easy thing.
In my life, I go to a lot of meetings. Almost always I am with good, sincere, dedicated people. Almost always too we meet in an atmosphere of shared faith, shared prayer, and shared concerns. But sometimes at those meetings the mood and tone will suddenly change. A minor slight, an unexpected irritation, a small misunderstanding, a gratitude that isn’t expressed, an ill-chosen comment, or just someone having a bad day, can trigger a chill, a loss of trust, a hardening of atmosphere, and suddenly we all feel a need to protect ourselves and the whole atmosphere becomes guarded and professional, devoid of warmth and genuine sharing.
And therein lies one of the biggest moral struggles within our lives: To keep a mellow, warm, trusting heart when, as Pascal says, the heart has its reasons to want to chill and become aloof in order to protect itself. But the capacity to resist that impulse, to not turn cold, to not turn off, is, I believe, the real mark of maturity and even of faith. It’s this that makes for a great lover.
For the most part, as we know, we’re not there, none of us. We’re still too often defensive, cool, self-protecting and prone to all the subtle negative behaviours this triggers. But it’s good to recognize that this is a broken place, a humble place, and a place from which we are invited, each day, to make a new beginning.