On the Feast of the Epiphany, consecrated to the Sacred Heart, I’m pondering what the word heart means. And, much to my chagrin, I see the image in the old, I ♥ NY. The pink or red image ♥ is ubiquitous, whole or broken – on T-shirts and jewelry, in emails and kindergartners’ valentines, or floating over cartoon characters’ heads – so much so that it has become rather sappy and trite. The love that it’s supposed to represent seems cheesy to me – and I fear that this kind of love (demonstrative, but of nothing at the core) is prevalent in our society. There is, however, a deeper, more ancient meaning of the heart that shouldn’t be forgotten because it opens a greater understanding of truer love – and of our true selves.
The physical heart is, of course, an organ in the body that pumps blood. The rate at which the heart pumps changes based on the perceptions and needs of the body, which may be the main reason that the heart has become a symbol of, not only love, but the seat of emotion in general. Sensing danger, the heart rate changes as part of the fight or flight response, so that a sudden fright may cause the exclamation, “You nearly gave me a heart attack!” When we are aroused, or excited in any way, the heart also beats faster and harder, and so we say that the heart throbs or leaps. Studies show that social rejection or loss is “felt” like pain by the human brain – and I know that I have experienced, deep within my chest, the heartache of longing and the heartbreak of grief. No wonder, then, that the sensitive heart has become associated with love. It’s unfortunate, though, that the concentration has been on physical kinds of love and that the overly sentimental symbolism and imagery has rendered the heart into a cliché. We shouldn’t dismiss all heart symbolism as romantic gobbledygook. In order to refresh and to restore pure imagery, I turn to the spiritual understanding of the heart– which is both mystical and essential – as the innermost self… thus journeying toward greater understanding of who I am as a human being.
“The heart is the dwelling-place where I am, where I live; according to the Semitic or Biblical expression, the heart is the place “to which I withdraw.” The heart is our hidden center, beyond the grasp of our reason and of others; only the Spirit of God can fathom the human heart and know it fully. The heart is the place of decision, deeper than our psychic drives. It is the place of truth, where we choose life or death. It is the place of encounter, because as image of God we live in relation: it is the place of covenant.” (CCC #2563.)
I believe this needs my continual rereading and personal reflection. This is, after all, talking about the deepest recess of my being, my sacred core. It is only through this understanding of the heart that I can ever hope to reflect upon truth, upon the Heart of God… that I can ever hope to encounter truth, to encounter God, in true communion… that I can ever hope to be fully myself.
So, I ask myself the questions that human beings have asked themselves since humans have been:
Who am I?
Where do I live?
How do I decide?
What is truth?
Where is God?