The Heartbeat of Our Souls

by The Rev. Deacon Thom Rock on March 5, 2020
In our faithful observance of Lent, we are invited into a season of “self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word” (from the Liturgy for Ash Wednesday, BCP, p. 265). In his post last week, Father Daniel commended two specific practices for us to consider in our Lenten observances this year: the use of the rite of Reconciliation of a Penitent (sometimes called “Confession”), and incorporating the Psalms into our prayer life. I’ll be writing here about the latter. Building on Father Daniel’s helpful guidance of using the day-of-the-month tags (which are sprinkled conveniently throughout the Psalter as it appears in our prayer book) that link particular psalms to either Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer, I’d like to suggest that engaging in such a rhythm echoes the one that naturally beats at the center of our being. For prayer has always been the heartbeat of our souls, just as the Psalms have long been at the heart of prayer.
            The Psalms themselves might be thought of as a heartbeat, moving often from laments or woes that constrict, to ebullient praise and expansive worship—not unlike the way our heart contracts and expands, thus sustaining our body. In fact, the Hebrew word for “heart” pulses throughout the Psalms, occurring more than a hundred times in the Psalter—and nearly a thousand times throughout the Bible! There are, of course, plenty of instances when that word in the Hebrew Scriptures is meant simply to signify the internal (if excitable) organ, such as the prophet’s “wildly beating heart” in Jeremiah (4:19). But in the overwhelming majority of its biblical occurrences, the heart implies something distinctly more than the blood-pumping machine with which we associate the word today.
            The biblical heart represents the human person in our entirety and, especially, in relationship to God. In all of these instances, the heart is seen to represent not only the totality of the human person, but the location where we experience union with the divine nature. As Paul wrote to the church in Galatia: “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts” (Galatians 4:6), or in other words, our very being. Similarly, Paul prays that Christ may dwell not in the minds of the Ephesians but in their hearts through faith (3:17). So too did the mystic and monk John Climacus note in the sixth century that when the psalmist sang “I cried out with all my heart” (Psalm 118:145), the psalmist was referring not only to the bodily organ, but also to the soul and spirit.
            While the contemporary heart has come to be most closely associated figuratively with the emotions—and love in particular—it originally represented something much more expansive and integrative than that. The biblical heart not only felt but also listened, thought, reasoned and instructed. Saint Augustine couldn’t help but speak of the heart in metaphorical terms; he referred to this central organ of belief more than two hundred times in his Confessions, beginning with one of the most beautiful and still-resonant lines in the language of faith: “our heart is restless, O God, until it rests in You.” Thus, Augustine not only placed the heart at the very center of our soul’s longing, he identified its ultimate source and destination: our hearts always have and always will belong to God.
            I fear we’ve lost much of this notion of the heart today—except, that is, in our prayer life, where it still makes sense that our hearts not only pump blood, but also think and know and hope and feel deeply. The psalmists surely knew this; for them our hearts could not only beat but also leap for joy, or melt like wax, or sing with gladness. While the Psalms are surely poems and hymns, they are unlike any other poetry we know. They do not rhyme sounds and syllables that only our ears and minds can discern, so much as images and ideas that only make sense in the chambers of the muscle that beats in the center of our being, where our hearts can rhyme with a deer longing for water in the desert.
            Part of my daily prayer practice is to lift my heart up to God. (We all do something similar each Sunday at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer when Father Daniel says, “Lift up your hearts” and we respond joyfully, “We lift them up to the Lord!”). In my personal practice, I ask God to “make my heart beat to your rhythm”, and pray that my heart might somehow rhyme with the magnificent muscle at the center of Jesus’ being. To be honest, though, when I lift my heart up to God in my daily prayers, it isn’t always joyful; sometimes I lift up a troubled heart; other times a thankful one, and still others a contrite and repentant heart. And therein lies the bewildering and bewondering beauty that brings me to my knees to begin with. Because whatever is on our hearts when we lift them up to God, the Maker of our hearts reaches out to receive them, gathers up all that we offer, and holds it all tenderly in God’s own wide heart of mercy. Because not only does God already know what is on our hearts before we lift them up; God knows each and every one of us by heart.  
            This past week in our adult Sunday School, in which we are making our way through the Psalms, we paid particular attention to the blessedness of confession and the forgiveness of one who repents. This coming Sunday we will spend some time with the contrite and repentant heart of David, someone after God’s own heart, as he pours out his particularly Lenten remorse: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10). As you proceed in making and keeping a holy Lent this season, I pray that the Psalms at the heart of our Scripture and Book of Common Prayer might somehow inspire your prayer life. Please know that you are always welcome to drop in to the Psalms study class that meets every Sunday between the two services.
            You don’t need to bring anything other than your God-given and beautiful heart!
            In Christ’s Love,
            Deacon Thom
 
 
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