Walking through fire to the deep heart’s core

  • September 28, 2023

Human hearts are miracles. Pumps made of solid muscle to move blood and oxygen to the rest of the body. And our spiritual hearts are the core of our emotional, social  and spiritual selves. Strong and vulnerable miracles at the core of who we are. And God invites us to receive and maintain “hearts of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26).

I love the way this metaphor combines physical and spiritual reality. In the midst of exile, the loss of a kingdom and freedom and land, God speaks hope through Ezekiel that hearts of stone will be replaced with hearts of flesh. The losses and suffering of our lives threaten to harden our spiritual hearts in the same way that arteries can physically harden and blockages can threaten the beating of the heart that keeps us alive.

In the late fall of 2016, I pitched a book to my publisher about a spirituality for suffering. I intended for the book to be informed by my experience of post-partum and situational depression. In February of 2017, I miscarried a baby and my husband lost his job. In April, my twin sister was murdered. I called the publisher to say I couldn’t write the book yet, because I was living it more deeply than I could have known before.

I wrote that book on the same theme but with more varied experience in the spring of 2018: My Heart of Flesh: Choosing Life in the Middle of the Mess. A new baby had arrived, and there was joy in the midst of deep sorrow. The book came out in September and I started a new job. We were waiting for a murder trial, unable to talk publicly about the events, and then a pandemic shut down the world — and the chances to speak more about my experience — and the book.

Five years later, the world still needs our hearts of flesh.

Issues are polarized. Wounds are still exposed. So many people are feeling vulnerable and fragile. Our collective hearts are weary and fearful and at risk of hardening out of need to protect ourselves from further harm. And it has been my experience that a heart that knows love can stay soft in the midst of great suffering.

One of the stories that surrounds Joan of Arc’s burning at the stake is that her heart was left in the ashes. While it is scientifically unlikely that an open fire would consume a whole body (Joan of Arc officially died of smoke inhalation), the image of a fleshy heart in ashes is a powerful one.

I have been entrusted with so many stories of people walking through fire and collecting what is left of their lives from ashes. Surviving addiction and walking into recovery. Devastating and unexpected deaths of precious tiny ones and children not done growing and best of friends and life-long loves. Cherished marriages and relationships ended by grief, trauma and abuse. Loss of employment, businesses, hopes and dreams. Chronic pain and physical and psychological illnesses that are lived with but rarely cured.

It is possible to receive and nurture a heart of flesh even in a world on fire. We can set boundaries without building walls. We can forgive ourselves and others for the damage inflicted and do the work of healing. We can start over and begin again, knowing that love has more power than darkness, hatred and evil of every kind.

We cannot think our way to cardiac health any more than we can think our way to softer hearts. Just as our physical hearts need consistent healthy food, movement and rest, we need to live and practice our way to hearts of flesh. Hearts of flesh are fed by generosity and surrender, forgiveness and gratitude, boundaries and grieving with reckless abandon.

When the world is cracked and charred, smoky and licking us with flames, we can sink into the promise offered to Ezekiel and us. Hearts of stone can be exchanged for hearts of flesh exactly where we are, if we will enter into Love.

May we hear Grace whispering and feel our walls crack, even just a little. May we see and recognize goodness and light in the midst of what seems impossibly dark. And may we fight for hearts of flesh for our own lives and the life of the world. Amen.

(Perrault works in Catholic health care in Saskatoon and writes and speaks about faith. Her website is leahperrault.com)

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