Several of my clients have told me they have a broken heart. Others said their chests pound with tension. They lay awake in bed feeling like they will burst. Others feel like they are going to have a heart attack and possibly die. One said crying uncontrollably works a lot better than the breathing techniques I suggest.
Let’s spend a few minutes letting our hearts and minds be at rest; we need it.
We have heart problems.
At the recent CAPS Conference, Eric Johnson revealed how unacquainted with our hearts most of us have become. The modern and postmodern eras became increasingly subject to the “mind” as the central feature of human psychology and experience. Scientists thought they were overcoming many centuries of describing the heart of us with the word “heart” by asserting “mind.” But “heart” persists, since that common-sense description of our core experience is built into all the languages of the world (except for scientific language, for the most part).
- Take heart.
- Follow your heart.
- She has a heart of gold.
- He wears his heart on his sleeve.
- We had a heart-to-heart talk.
- He is heartbroken.
We all know what these things mean.
The brain scientists tend to ignore the “embodied metaphors” we learn as children in favor of their “more adult” cognitive bias. Psychology is supposedly the “science of behavior and mental processes.” If you use the everyday term “heart” to describe psychological dynamics it makes you look quaint and scientifically naïve, if not just a bit stupid. But just looking at the fact that stress is related to heart attacks would argue for a whole-body approach to wellbeing, even one centered on the 40,000 neurons clustered around the heart.
The way of Jesus is heartfelt
The dominant psychological term in the Bible is “heart.” It occurs over 800 times. For instance:
- “Be wise, and direct your heart in the way” (Proverbs 23:19).
- “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33).
- “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).
- “Love one another deeply, from the heart” (1 Peter 1:22).
The psychology of the way of Jesus has been shaped by how we see the heart:
- “The heart is restless, O Lord until it finds rest in You” (Augustine, Confessions)
- “Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God” (Martin Luther, Larger Catechism)
- “The heart has its reasons which reason does not know” (Blaise Pascal, Pensees, #277)
Since psychology aligned itself with the modern scientific method many critics have argued it leads to a truncated and reductionistic view of human beings. We are uniquely constituted by our beliefs about ourselves. So a distorted sense of our psychology can, and does, impoverish us. Psychology might malform us in the name of science. So when my client tells me his chest feels heavy when we talk about his anxiety and shame, I don’t tell him, “It’s all in your head.” His feeling also reaches back to his first experience of himself as a child and how he has related and considered himself and God ever since.
The way of the heart
Psychologist, priest and spiritual director, Henri Nouwen, consistently used the word “heart” to mean our access point to God through contemplative, listening prayer and active obedience. His little book on the desert fathers and mothers, The Way of the Heart, has been a foundation for prayer for many of us.
The way of the heart helps us come to God with all we are: our fears and anxieties, our guilt and shame; our sexual fantasies; our greed and anger; our joys, successes, aspirations and hopes; our reflections, dreams and mental wanderings; our family, friends and enemies – all that makes us who we are. With all this we listen to God’s voice and participate with God speaking to us in every corner of our being.
As people have become vaccinated in the past weeks, I have repeatedly heard them describe a “weight being lifted.” As the George Floyd murder trial grinds on, mass shootings hit the news and attacks on Asians become known, many people feel deeply infected. Our hearts ache. It is no wonder we describe our experience that way. The “heart” is the secret place in us where our spirit, soul, mind and body come together in a unity of the self. There is no such thing as a disembodied spiritual heart. Our joys and sorrows happen in time. We are restored in Jesus so we can love God, neighbor and self with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength (Luke 10:27).
The way of the heart sends us on a quest with a lot of questions. The main one is “Who am I? What is at the heart of me? Can I trust my heart? Will Jesus really give me a new heart?” Even if we are quarantined we only need to look at the TV to live a very challenging life. Nouwen says the greatest trap in life is not success, popularity or power; it is self-rejection, doubting who we truly are at the heart of us – the beloved of God. When we believe the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, or define us as a series of chemical reactions, or condemn us to whatever society labels us, then we might be steered any old way.
Johnson and Nouwen have encouraged me to sink into that scene at the Lord’s baptism when God demonstrates how she feels about humans bearing sin and death as he says, “You are my beloved, on you my favor rests.” It is that heart-to heart moment we continue to incarnate as we also come to God as we are in our own time and dare to open our hearts.