Hearts of Flesh (A Reflection on Ezekiel 11.14-25)

As long-time readers will know, one of my favorite lines in all of literature comes from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts.” It is a profound truth: we can’t point fingers at our enemy because there is something of the enemy within ourselves. This came to mind again this morning because the lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures assigned for Morning Prayer today contains a similar idea of a separation within our hearts:

Thus says the Lord God: I will gather you from the peoples, and assemble you out of the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel. … I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them. Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God.

This message of hope was given to the prophet Ezekiel to deliver to the exiles in Babylon. This hope is not just the hope of a return from Exile, but also the promise that God will do something to qualitatively change their life: He will “remove the heart of stone” from them and transform it instead into “a heart of flesh.” This image brings many things to mind for the Christian imagination: the softening of the heart that leads to repentance, the refiner’s fire of the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost, and our ritual participation in these at our baptism and confirmation / chrismation. And certainly these once-and-for-all acts are good and true and beautiful. But, as important as they are, they are not magical rituals that allow us to rise above our stone-heartedness. Rather, because we must always “Become what we are,” these beautiful sacraments are just the beginning, and not ends in themselves. We are given the gift of becoming farmers, but must till the soil of our heart to break up its hard stone and make it soft and welcoming for the seeds that will bear good fruit. We are given the gift of being spiritual soldiers, but must use our shields and swords to gain ground in the battlefield of our heart, to move the line between good and evil the Solzhenitsyn talked about forward. And that is a job that’s never done. “This line shifts,” Solzhenitsyn reminds us. “Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an unuprooted small corner of evil.”

And yet, these metaphors — especially the martial ones — will only take us so far. At least in my experience, the harder I fight something within me, the harder it fights back. The most sure-fire way to harden our heart is to attack the hardness head on, using its own weapons and tactics. James and Myfanwy Moran state the problem well in their beautiful essay, “The Battle for Spirit in the Human Heart:”

Does this mean man should be fighting to get rid of the heart of stone (the idealistic and puritanical solution)? Or to rise above it (the romantic and esoteric solution)? Or suppress and contain it (the humanistic and rational solution)?

These ways do not work: none of them in the least affects the power of the heart of stone to inhibit love, and all of them in different ways dangerously diminish the power of the heart of flesh to love. For they are all ways in which the heart of flesh hardens itself by dealing unlovingly with the refusal of the heart of stone. Thus by following them, the heart of flesh actually grows harder and more akin to the heart of stone. This is the great danger of the spiritual life.

This is such a perfect summation of the problem: any attempt to overwhelm our stone-heartedness, whether by attacking it head on through violence, by trying to rise above it through ceremony and sacrament, or by simply assuming it can be contained by rational means, we actually put our hearts in greater danger. Just as the best way to ensure you think about a purple elephant is to tell yourself not to think about a purple elephant, trying to overcome and overwhelm our heart of stone is the most surefire way to ensure that the heart of stone continues to control and define your life.

The answer is the harder work of whole-heartedness: not destroying the evil within, but redeeming it, not pushing it into the shadows, but bringing into the healing light of day. The answer isn’t to fight stone with stone, but to soften it through softness. The answer is vulnerability.

Vulnerability is frightening because it feels like weakness, but it’s actually the strength to show up to and for ourselves. This means it’s actually very similar to a more common, but deeply misunderstood, Christian word: repentance. As the Morans put it, repentance — and the same is true of vulnerability — “entails bearing the lesser heart [i.e., the heart of stone] in the greater heart, inwardly, like a cross. But from this comes the strength both to love more and to resist what inhibits love, to learn from it the virtues which are the strength of love: long-suffering, patience, humility, and courage.” It is mercy without sentimentalism; it is honesty without judgmentalism. It is forgiveness without forgetting. In other words, it is living in truth. It is the true love that is love without illusion.

I wonder what would happen if we lived like this? If instead of destroying our fear, we thanked it for keeping us safe before going on with the work to be done. If instead of being ashamed by our instinct towards tribalism, we were simply to acknowledge it before opening the doors to strangers in need of welcome.

The promise of Ezekiel’s prophecy is that we are not alone in this, that God gives us the tools we need to stand up for whole-hearted vulnerability, to stand up in true loving repentance. What a beautiful image as we approach the great feast of Pentecost, when we remember and celebrate the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus’ disciples. This promise and this gift is for us too. So, as we prepare for the feast, let us join with the Psalmist and with the faithful in every age and pray: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”

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