Acquire a Heart- A Chapter Talk to her community by Mother Kathy DeVico, Abbess of Redwoods Abbey

Jesus: the icon of God’s love, the icon stamped upon our hearts. Thus, this is our end goal (telios) to become fully open, arms outstretched in mercy and compassion. “Acquire a heart and you shall be saved”. This desert saying coming out of the fourth century from Abba Pambo can accompany us for our whole life’s journey! ‘Acquire a heart’, ‘find your heart’ – To do so is our salvation. I don’t think we just once and for all ‘acquire a heart’. It is a process…we ‘acquire a heart’ day by day, step by step. Cassian uses a different image for the end goal (telios): the ‘kingdom of God’ and he says the way to the end goal, the immediate goal (scopas), is ‘purity of heart’. It seems to me we could also say that the immediate goal is to ‘acquire a heart’. This immediate goal of ‘acquiring a heart’ will lead us now, in the present moment of our lives, to experience the grace of Divine love, and to experience the intimations of the end goal, full union with God, union of hearts, full union of Love.

If we gaze on Christ’s heart, what do we see? I think the first thing we see is how open his heart is in compassion, unrequited love, love expecting nothing in return. So, to acquire a heart involves the expansion of heart, of growing in the love that Christ is, the love that Christ reveals in the gospels. We are to grow in compassion and in forgiveness, which does not happen in a vacuum. The ‘stuff’ of daily life always comes knocking at our door. Every relational encounter, every situation containing choice, conflict, demands from others – all these and more (!) are the context, the fertile soil for ‘acquiring a heart’…a heart that is soft and pliable, listening, stretching towards my sister or brother in their need, or even towards myself in receiving my need.

Acquiring a heart invites us into deeper levels of self-knowledge for if we don’t know what is in the heart, or are not aware of what is happening there, then, we can suddenly find our heart burning with jealousy, envy, anger, resentment, or bitterness. Notice how all these emotions that I mentioned have that ‘burning’ quality…BUT it is not the burning that the disciples felt in their hearts on the road to Emmaus. Rather, this burning is the ‘bad’ zeal, which St. Benedict describes in the Rule as separating us from God, separating us from our truest self and one another. I would say that the process of acquiring a heart graces us with the ‘good zeal’ that unites us with our selves, God and neighbor…it is wonderful to experience this.

Jesus is the center of our lives. Sr. Maria Boulding, OSB, in her book Gateway to Resurrection, writes: “In that brokenness he became the place where the glory of God is revealed, where the Spirit is given, where the meaning of love, of God’s own Trinitarian love, is disclosed, the love that holds nothing back” (p.14). Following Jesus, conforming our lives to his, means we are on “an inner Spirit empowered journey to the heart” (p.27), that is, a process of opening and purifying the heart, conversion, transformation, suffering, glory.

It is clear, that for the ancient monastic tradition, the focus of prayer and the ascetical practices is towards acquiring a heart. In an essay I read a number of years ago the author, an Episcopalian bishop named Frank Griswold, writes: “Finding one’s heart rendered one permeable and available to God’s mystery” (Cross Currents, Spring-1999, p.5). When the heart is “permeable to God’s presence and mystery” (p.6) it is compassionate and merciful. As we all know the path to finding one’s heart is not just straight and obstacle-free! When the heart is not ‘permeable’ to God’s presence we meet the “biblical condition”, which afflicts us all, known as ‘hardness of heart’. Scripture calls us to acquire a ‘heart of flesh’, to change our ‘stony’ hearts. In a homily by D. Brendan Freeman, he said: “Jesus often spoke against hardening of the heart. It bespeaks of a closed mind, unwillingness to receive – a totally self-sufficient person needing no one – the mind is made up. Monastic life is meant not only to soften our heart but really help us find our heart” (January 2011). When we are in the hardened state described by D. Brendan, we close ourselves off from receiving the Divine Voice, which addresses us ‘today’. On the spiritual journey there is always the need for our heart to be transformed – we are never finished with conversion. The conversion process is what expands, enlarges the heart, and makes it spacious enough for God to dwell there….

Painting of St John leaning on the Heart of Jesus