“Guarding the Heart” Mk 7 (2/13/2019)
Fr. Ignatius John Schweitzer, OP
Do we like to have heart-to-heart talks with others? It sort of depends, doesn’t it? If we know we’ve done something wrong and are in trouble with someone and he says, “Look, I want to have a heart-to-heart talk,” it’s kind of intimidating. It means he wants to get down to business and address the issue head on, while we’re trying to avoid it.
Yet on the other hand, if we’re on good terms with someone and he says, “Let’s have a heart-to-heart talk,” it’s kind of exciting. He might reveal something, so we come to know him better; we might connect on a deeper level.
When we speak of the heart, it means we are getting to the heart of the matter, for better or for worse. And in our relationship with God we can have both experiences. It can be scary to get to the heart of the matter with God, yet it can turn out to be most joyous.
In our Gospel today, Jesus speaks of the human heart. Here he speaks of the things that come from within that can make a heart-to-heart connection with God difficult. He says it’s not food that defiles one. Rather “from within the man, from his heart, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, and folly.”
That’s one side of the matter. But we also know that from the heart also comes what is noblest and holiest. Elsewhere Jesus says that from our hearts “will flow rivers of living water.” He spoke of the Holy Spirit whom, Jesus notes, the Father would send in his name. While in the creation account, God “blew into [man’s] nostrils the breath of life,” Jesus breathes into us his own Spirit. He breathes into us the Holy Spirit so that our hearts may be united to his heart—that in us may reverberate the inner stirrings of Jesus’ own heart.
In the Christian tradition, a whole spirituality of guarding the heart developed, based on the good and the bad that can come from the human heart. For instance, John Climacus, from the 7th century, describes our task as being a watchman, guarding the garden of our heart. He says, ‘Sit in a high place and keep watch if you can, and you will see the thieves come…as they try to steal your clusters of grapes. The watchman stands up and prays, and bravely carries on guarding his garden.’
Basically, the aim is to be watchful and attentive to what’s going on within oneself. Then to cut off right away any evil thought—or even just any thought that is unhelpful. All the filth that Jesus says begins in the fallen heart can be squashed from the get-go before it takes root. More importantly, it can be replaced with the remembrance of God and thoughts and desires for holy things. It is not to make us overly scrupulous or puritanical but to give us hearts that are healthy and fully alive to the good things of God.
Along these lines, it’s often recommended that we repeat short prayers, short aspirations to direct our minds and hearts to God. Something like “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy!” or “Jesus, I trust in you!” The idea is that praying these words in the depths of our heart will overcome any negative influence and replace it with what’s good and holy. Our Catechism too recommends this invocation of the name of Jesus (2665-9).
The prayer need not be intense and forceful, but rather peaceful and gentle. For the power is not in us, but in Jesus. For in the name of Jesus is salvation. At the name of Jesus, every knee will bow. In the name of Jesus, comes healing. At the name of Jesus, demons scatter. Above the name of Jesus, is no other name. Like the name of Jesus, is honey on our lips. And at the name of Jesus, our hearts will belong to God. Then we will have a heart-to-heart with God, beyond all imagining.