What the Heart Knows

Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to have a fully open heart? Mystics write about this, the amazing quality of being able to open your heart in love to whatever is here, whatever is present. St. Francis, the 12th century Catholic friar and mystic who brought us the Canticle of the Creatures, was particularly good at this kind of love. He felt love toward any being he met—whether it was a wolf terrorizing a town, tiny buttercups in a field, animals and birds in the forest, lepers who were cast out of the village, or poor townsfolk he met on his travels.

In the years leading up to Francis’s transformation, he wasn’t a particularly spiritual guy. Born into the family of a wealthy silk merchant, Francis was pampered and spoiled. He lived a carefree life. History tells us he was handsome, charming, witty, and he had lots of friends and spent his father’s money lavishly. He occasionally helped out in his father’s store, and there’s a story that one day a beggar came into the store, asking for money to buy food. Francis chidingly sent him away and then, with a sudden change of heart, chased the man down the street and gave him everything that was in his pockets. When he returned to the store, Francis’s friends mocked him mercilessly, and when he told his father later that evening, his father raged and carried on about his strange, uncharacteristic act.

But that odd moment—when suddenly everything shifted and Francis saw and felt things differently, caring deeply about the plight of another—was perhaps  preview of a thaw that was already starting in Francis’s heart. Not long after that, Francis joined a military expedition and wound up becoming a prisoner of war, during which time he grew weak and ill. When he was released, he tried to go back to his normal life—in fact he signed up for another military tour—but everything felt empty and meaningless now. He had somehow lost his taste for high living and excitement. He began craving time in quiet places, seeking out the sanctuary of the church, and enjoying the company of animals in the surrounding forests. He prayed to understand what was happening to him. One afternoon, when he was in a broken-down, abandoned chapel in a small village outside of Assisi, the image of the crucified Christ on the wall spoke to him, saying, “Francis, Francis, go and repair My house, which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.”

The road ahead for Francis would be difficult. He was rejected by his friends and family—they thought he’d lost his mind—and he was ultimately disowned by his father. Loved by no one intimately, he loved all indiscriminately and unconditionally. Francis traveled the world of his day, led by his love and devotion to God. He eventually founded the Franciscan order, which follows a vow of poverty so as to live simply, seeks to ease suffering, to befriend the friendless, to embody and share the great love experienced in Christ. Francis’ life was characterized by devotion, by giving, by gentleness toward all. He did his best to heal the separation between living beings—all living beings—loving all life into unity.

The prayer people often attribute to St. Francis, the one that begins with, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,” wasn’t actually written by Francis at all. But the last lines of the prayer do sound like something written by one of Francis’ closest friends, Giles of Assisi, who was his companion from the very beginning of his time as a monk. Giles wrote,

Blessed is he who loves and does not therefore desire to be loved;
Blessed is he who fears and does not therefore desire to be feared;
Blessed is he who serves and does not therefore desire to be served;
Blessed is he who behaves well toward others and does not desire that others behave well toward him;
And because these are great things, the foolish do not rise to them.

I’ve always loved St. Francis—probably first and foremost, because of his love of animals. You often see statues of Francis with a fawn at his feet, a bird on his shoulder, and a bunny and raccoon nearby, seemingly listening to his homilies. I like the fact that he’s an unlikely saint—a rich boy who grew up in the lap of luxury, who found that all the trappings of wealth couldn’t meet the simple yearning in the center of his heart. That’s what I think happened that day when the beggar walked into his father’s shop—suddenly, his heart glowed into life and he cared, and he acted.

Our Old Testament reading today says something about what happens when love blazes into being in the center of our hearts: “When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, I was stupid and ignorant;” the psalmist said. “I was like a brute beast toward you.” We can imagine here a person, young or old, struggling with life, cynical about the future, feeling cut off from a sense of security and blessing. Of course she feels bitter. Of course his heart is raw. Hope is difficult to find and impossible to hold on to.

But the psalmist continues, “Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me with honor. Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

Such an interesting change, isn’t it? I think it captures St. Francis’ experience—from a rich, charming boy living an empty life to a monk whose heart was ablaze with the love of God. And that’s not just for Francis, but for any of us who stop listening to the stories in our heads long enough to turn toward the presence of God in our hearts. It’s been said that the longest journey we’ll ever make is the 18 inches from our heads to our hearts, and we each do it in our own time and in our own unique ways. Thankfully, we have Spirit as our guide.

You may be familiar with the children’s story, The Little Prince. It is a novella that was first published in 1943, and it has become one of the most translated books in the world. I have 10 copies of the book myself– French, Spanish, English, Portuguese, and German translations, as well as a version that is a pop-up book, a graphic novel, a coloring book, and the 50th anniversary edition written in the author’s own hand, with his original watercolor illustrations. I don’t know all the languages, but I love all the books. There’s a spiritual aspect to it for me; it’s like having a rainbow of love on my bookshelf.

The Little Prince tells the story of an eight-day encounter between a pilot who crashed in the desert and a young prince who is visiting from a far-away asteroid. The prince tells stories of what he has seen and learned, and along the way, we learn about his sweet, pure, love-based philosophy. Some people liken the Little Prince to a Christ character because he is innocent and without guile, and he believes in life after death, telling the pilot that the body is only a shell that is laid aside after its usefulness is done.

Many quotes used in our culture  today have come from The Little Prince, but the most famous one—which is really the primary theme of the book—is this:

“Here is my secret. It is very simple. It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Only with the heart can we see rightly. What is essential is invisible to our eyes. It makes me wonder: What would we see in this world if we could look through the eyes of the heart?

Author Mary O’Malley, in her book What’s in the Way Is the Way, says that when we connect to the deeper knowing in our hearts, we find a sense of unchanging peace, even in the midst of difficult or turbulent times. Our brains, on the other hand, are coded to look for danger, to be ready for fight or flight, to evaluate who is a threat and who isn’t. Our brains process things quickly in terms of good or bad, right or wrong, like or dislike. You’re in or you’re out, according to our brains. We’ll all in, according to our hearts.

That’s because the heart unifies instead of divides. It includes instead of excludes. Our hearts point out our kinship with all life, helping us to recognize that of God in each other. Our hearts understand that life is eternal, that God is unfolding everything in perfect order, that all is well.

O’Malley says that all children start out with wide open hearts. They love, they hope, they play, they trust. But as they grow, they learn how to anticipate, how to worry and plan—all actions of the mind—and soon the practical promptings of thoughts take over. Why? Because our brains tell us there’s something to be afraid of, and our fight-or-flight response kicks in. It’s hard for us to get quiet and calm enough to listen to the gentle, reassuring messages of our hearts when fear is running the show.

Philippians 4: 4-7 offers us a perfect way to take that difficult 18-inch journey from our uptight minds to our knowing hearts. The solution is gratitude and gentleness. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Notice that the phrase is, “hearts and minds.” The peace of God—the kind beyond all reasonable explanation—actually guards our minds, which may be telling us all kinds of fearful stories, as well as our hearts, which already know the truth—that God is with us, awake, and in charge, leading us with light and love toward the best outcome for all.

When we catch our minds going into overdrive with fearful or worrying thoughts, we can take a deep breath and pause, feeling grateful for God’s presence. That’s rejoicing, by the way. And that little moment of gratitude will help us come back to the pure knowing of peace in our hearts. From that vantage point, we’ll be able to look and see rightly, recognizing what is essential but often invisible in our everyday world: God is all and all is well.



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