Thursday, October 31, 2013

What the Heart Wants

Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God
Matthew 5:8

Reflection –  I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I started this series on the Beatitudes. Blessed are the poor… those who mourn… the meek… the hungry for righteousness… the merciful… and now the pure of heart. It’s quite something to unpack each Beatitude individually and really look at what each one is. A text we can read in a minute and forget about in the next minute has enough material in it for a life time of meditation.

Blessed are the pure of heart. Purity of heart is an elusive quality in our days of hyper-sexualized imagery saturating the culture, and a million and one distractions, diversions, toys, entertainments. We can know that it is not only about sex—we should know that, anyhow—but that it is about having our desires, our attention, our whole life and being focused on the ‘one thing necessary’ (Luke 10), but that doesn’t make it an easier virtue to attain at all.

Blessed are the pure of heart. But our hearts are wayward, obstinate, changeable, fickle. Mine is, anyhow. Nor has it been my experience, 47 years into the experiment of human life, that I can simply make my heart be otherwise by a sheer act of will. ‘The heart wants what it wants’, wrote Emily Dickinson—and most of us, almost all of us, find within our hearts a welter of wants, a tangled profusion of contradictory desires and muddled up longings.

We hunger and thirst for righteousness… and for other things, too. And that’s the fact of our fallen, fragmented humanity, and never more so in this age of distraction, diversion, culture-wide attention deficit disorder, of serial monogamy of the mind. I want what I want… now. Ten minutes later, it will be something else.

Blessed are the pure of heart. So are we to despair, then? Is God the ‘beatitude Nazi’, like the soup Nazi on Seinfeld, demanding an impossible standard of performance and exactitude before doling out his blessing? ‘No beatitude for you!’ if we don't do it just so?

It is, perhaps, in this beatitude that we are forcibly impressed with the fact that all the beatitudes, and holiness itself, resides first and always not in the frail human heart with its adulteries and idolatries and compromises, but in the Heart of Christ which is given over to us to be our first and greatest treasure.

Christ is the pure one, as he is the merciful, the meek, the mourning, the poor, the one hungry for righteousness. It is Christ and Christ alone who is our beatitude, and who draws us along on the path of the beatitudes. There is no holiness but Jesus, no virtue but Jesus, no love but Jesus. This is, fundamentally, our Christian faith.

I think here of the Madonna House practice of poustinia. Catherine Doherty brought this from her native Russia to us, and brought it forth as a spiritual practice for the community in the turbulent 1960s when so many things in our world were tossed up in the air like wheat and chaff. To sort it all out, to allow the winds of God to winnow our hearts and purify them in truth, she knew it would take radical prayer and silence.

So… poustinia. I realize many of my readers know what I’m talking about, but some don’t. It is, for us, a little log cabin or perhaps a spare room, sparsely furnished, with no decorations save perhaps an icon or two, and a cross without a corpus. There is the Bible to read, bread and water for sustenance, you, and God.

And… that’s all there is to it, really. Poustinia is the Russian word for desert, and that’s the desert: Bible, bread, water, you, God. 24 hours in silence and prayer with no structure, no rules, nothing but the living you and the living God.

Catherine saw that this was the great path to the purity of heart, the refinement of the soul, the washing away, the emptying of our beings of so much junk and folly and useless noise. And so in Madonna House we have poustinias for the past 50 years, and it has blessed our apostolate immeasurably.

I say all that because I think something like poustinia is needed in everyone’s lives today. Our world has gotten noisier and noisier and noisier. The pitfalls and traps and wild clamor of the world abound. If we want to attain any sort of purity of heart, we need some degree of silence, some degree of empty space in which the living God can dwell and drive out the money changers and merchants from the living temple of our souls.

Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God. It is in silence and prayer that we ‘see’ God, and so I leave you with that: we need this, and we need to find our way to it today, one way or another.

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