Thursday, July 27, 2006

"Acquire a heart"

"Acquire a heart and you shall be saved," declared one of the desert fathers of the 4th century. What he meant was a heart riven through by love and transfigured by compassion. Here we might ask: what are the characteristics of a compassionate heart? In the 7th century St. Isaac of Syria posed the same question and answered it in this way: "It is a heart that burns with love for the whole of creation – for men and women, for the birds, for the beasts, for the demons, for every creature. When a person with a heart such as this thinks of the creatures or looks at them, his eyes are filled with tears. An overwhelming compassion makes his heart grow small and weak, and he cannot endure to hear or see any suffering, even the smallest pain, inflicted upon any creature. Therefore he never ceases to pray, with tears, even for the irrational animals, for the enemies of truth, and for those who do him evil, asking that they may be guarded and receive God's mercy . . . he prays with a great compassion, which rises up endlessly in his heart until he shines again and is glorious like God."[i]

“Acquire a heart and you shall be saved.” Compassion is the balm which heals us and the world. Nurturing the seeds of compassion within us is the essence of growth into the fullness of Christ. The entire thrust of the spiritual life is toward the acquisition of a compassionate heart. As a Christian community, our mission is to help each other acquire such a heart for the sake of the healing of the world.

How do we acquire a heart for mission, a mission with heart? St. Isaac of Syria identifies three movements: vulnerability, prayer, transparency.

“Eyes filled with tears”

The first step toward acquiring a compassionate heart is vulnerability to suffering. It requires a letting go of our defenses, allowing ourselves to really feel our oneness with all things. “Burning with love for the whole creation” is not mere indulgence in sentimental feeling, but rather a willingness to experience ourselves as part of the whole – a whole that encompasses even “the enemies of truth” and “those who do evil.” It means allowing ourselves to be moved by the reality of our deep interconnection with all things.

The question we must ask ourselves is “Who or what am I unwilling to love, both in myself and in the world?” When we are honest about this, we can ask God to give us the willingness to embrace even the unloved parts of ourselves and of the world. When we practice this kind of vulnerability, our eyes will fill with tears. Such tears are a sign that we are becoming fully human, acquiring a compassionate heart.

“Never ceases to pray”

St. Isaac notes that our hearts are too small to encompass the reality of our oneness with all things. It is too much truth to bear alone. And so we are moved to pray. It is only by turning over to God those things we cannot understand or control that our hearts begin to become enlarged.

A compassionate heart is heart that grows ever larger to embrace more and more of life as it is, and not simply as we want it to be. Such prayer does not leave us or the world unchanged, but it begins with a stance of humility and acceptance. It is only then that we begin to see what part we are called to play in God’s great project of healing the world.

Only after turning everything over to God’s care, when we have nothing left, can we ask the question: “Now God, what work do you wish to share with me?” It is then that we begin to become transparent to the power of God working through us.

“Glorious like God”

As we acquire a compassionate heart, the glory of God begins to shine right through us. We become transparent to the divine love that created and redeemed all things. What begins in tears, praying on our knees, moves toward our transformation into the very likeness of Christ, in whom the love of God for each and all shone with perfect clarity.

Jesus said, “Be compassionate, as your heavenly Father is compassionate.” It is through acts of compassion that the glory of God shines through us, that God’s power is made perfect in our weakness. This is how we become fully alive and reveal the glory of God.

This fall at my parish, St. John’s, we will be discerning what it means to acquire a heart for mission on many levels. In late September, several of us will be traveling with members of St. Aidan’s, San Francisco, to El Salvador, exploring a call to develop a companion parish relationship with Mission San Lucas in San Miguel. Throughout the fall, the parish will be engaged in conversation about how best to use a generous bequest from the estate of Otis Richman, a much-loved and remarkable parishioner, to enhance our mission. As we initiate a parish recycling program and a series exploring health and justice issues related to food production and consumption, we extend our sense of mission to include compassion for the Earth. All of these are ways in which we become glorious like God.

An Invitation to Joy

“Acquire a heart and you shall be saved.” This is the fundamental spiritual truth that must guide our discernment about mission. We must acquire a heart for mission, and the heart of our mission must be compassionate action for the healing of the world. When we become transparent to God’s love in this way, we discover true joy. The question before us, then, is “How may the glory of God shine through us, so that others may share our joy?”

[i] The Most Rev. Frank Tracy Griswold III, sermon preached at St. Paul’s Church in Knightsbridge, London, July 23, 2006.

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