Life is sometimes complicated, and a number of personal factors have let me to heavily revise this article since it was first published in July. Those of you who read the original will find the revision helpful.
The “Enlarged Heart” and Times of Crisis
There are seasons in life when nothing seems to be going right! At least, that’s the way it feels. In times of stress it’s hard to overcome the emotional spill-off from a crisis that for the moment seems so overwhelming. At those times it is important to refocus, to return to praying the Offices; even when our current circumstances may make it difficult to keep our mind on our prayers. It may be that praying an Office, is for the moment, beyond our ability, and all that is left to us is an act of surrender. Start where you are and move on.
Our God knows us, and loves us; and understands the stresses raised by the various conflicts that surround us. He knows our plight, not from a distance, but from His Incarnation and participation in our human life.
Teresa of Avila renders Psalm 119:32 as “I will run in the way of thy commandments when “thou dids’t enlarge my heart”. On a practical and personal level that is often the issue when we face various crises as the children of God our Father. In times of stress and crisis we have a natural tendency to do the exact opposite and withdraw instead of opening up. We huddle around our hearts protectively as though by withdrawing we could preserve ourselves.
In a crisis the Divine Potter batters our hearts seeking a way for us to relax the death grip we have on our inner being. We resist! We would rather treasure other commands such as, “Guard your heart with all diligence for out of it spring the issues of life” (Proverbs 4:23). We would even guard ourselves against the intrusion of Him who made us and seeks to make us still.
When life batters us we resist with an inner clenching motion seeking to control the very thing that we should be surrendering. “No man can ransom himself” (Psalm 49:7 RSV), says the Psalmist. I am not my own kinsman redeemer, nor can I be yours. That is a spiritual reality for many reasons; but that doesn’t stop us from trying to be our own Saviors, and a times trying to be the Savior of others. Part of what is going on at such times is our own need to control. The truth is that we are not in charge, and all of our emotionally panicky responses don’t really help.
In the midst of the battering of life reverse the inner motion, relax into God’s hands. As you do so you will discover not the battering you have been trying to control, but the very gentleness of your loving Father remolding you. “He does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men” (Lamentations 3:33).
It is all well and good to give such advice, following it is another matter. When we are at sea on a storm tossed boat our every instinct of self-preservation is sharpened. We look wildly about; we bail like crazy. But the Master of the Storms says, “I am. Fear not, peace be still.” Relaxing into Him takes courage. Courage is a matter of the heart; a conscious decision and action undertaken in the face of fear. Deliberately we fix our eyes on Christ Jesus, and by an act of will, we slow down our breathing and relax. “All is well, all is well. All manner of things shall be well,” when we trust in Christ Jesus.
Everyone experiences moments of crisis. A crisis is just a crisis. For the Christian each crisis is an opportunity to deepen our trust in Him. A crisis is like a hot potato. When you find you are holding one, put it down on your plate. Relax into his hands. When trust is re-established He will help you undertake, “Peace, be still.”
There is another dimension not be ignored. Some people when faced with crises retreat into denial and projection, and do their best to relieve their own repressed internal tension by passing the hot potato on to others. Don’t accept a crisis that is passed on to you by others. They too need to learn their own surrenders.
For others the creation of crises is an attention seeking device. Some just seem to be wired wrong from birth. Don’t be surprised by those who create crises. We live, after all, in a fallen world. Those who create crises, like ancient Israel, are like a warped bow that twists in the hand of the Divine Archer (Psalm 78:9, 56-57).
If those who create crises can remain in the shadows they will be able to continue to do damage. Once you begin to recognize those who create crises for yourself and others, you will be free to take positive action as you trust in God. Keep your eyes on Christ Jesus. Relax. “Peace, be still.” Trust in God will build with a clearer understanding of the nature and causes of the crises and with a deepened comprehension of the sovereignty of God.
There is another facet of crises that should not be ignored. Too often our surrounding culture operates in a crises mode. “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. [Matthew 24:6]. Jesus was not speaking metaphorically. His own society was like that. Every society struggles through various conflicts, and there are forces within each society that want to make those conflicts the defining quality our lives.
By grace you will learn to deal with crises, no matter what the source. God is pleased with our first steps, but first steps are after all, only first steps. He does not want you to remain passive in the face of tumult. Surrender is to be followed by obedient action. He would rather that you move from inward surrender and then learn Holy Warfare with your eyes on Christ Jesus, “Blessed be the LORD, my rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle; he is my steadfast love and my fortress, my stronghold and my deliverer, my shield and he in whom I take refuge, who subdues peoples under me.” (Ps. 144:1-2 ESV).
Sometimes we are not able to surrender, but the best we can do is pray, “O Lord, you know I am not willing to surrender, but I’m willing to be willing. Give me the grace to surrender once more to You. Help me to let go of my tight grip on my life and the life of others.” Surrender is a gift that comes from without. You have to ask for it.
When you have made again your surrender, the time has come to put on the whole armor of God. Fasten on the belt of truth. Love truth and boldly speak it. Put on the breastplate of the righteousness of Christ. Let His righteousness become your righteousness. Take up the shield of faith and actively use it. A good shield is a weapon as well as a source of protection. Take up the helmet of salvation. Let your salvation protect your mind. Take up the sword of the Spirit, and become skilled in its use (Ephesians 6:10-18). Speak the truth, wield the sharp sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God.
Keep your eyes on Christ Jesus. Running the way of God’s commandments is not a matter of passivity, but a natural and active response to the enlarged heart. There is an old expression, more often used of women than of men, that says, “She has a heart as large as all outdoors.” We are all to have an enlarged heart; we are predestined to be conformed to the image of God’s Son. We are to have Kingdom Hearts, hearts as large as the heart of the King. As our hearts enlarge we begin to run, not walk, in the way of God’s commandments.
What is intended is not mere conformity to both the negative and positive proscriptions of the Holy Scripture, but conformity to the heart of the God Who is both loving and holy. This active and joyfully willing conformity of the heart to the heart of the Living God follows an incarnational principle; that of God working in and through human flesh. Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling, knowing that it is God who works in you both to will and to work for His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13). The one whose heart has been enlarged is ready to run in the way of God’s commandments; he is the one prepared to take the positive responsive actions necessary, hand in hand with the Master of Storms.
Dom Anselm + Oblate, OSB.