The Journey to Purity of Heart
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (Matthew 5:8)
The angel’s greeting to Mary is an inexhaustible subject for meditation: `Rejoice, you who enjoy God’s favour: the Lord is with you’ (Luke 1:28 NJB). This summons to the most pure Virgin to rejoice, because she is perfectly ready to receive the gift of the Most High, evokes the Beatitudes, in which Jesus invites us also to receive that joy, to the extent that we too make ourselves transparent to the work of God in us. Let us today reflect in particular on the Beatitude of the pure in heart, following the most ancient monastic tradition. For did not monks of earlier centuries regard purity of heart as the ultimate goal towards which their asceticism was directed? And were not the words of Jesus in fact a transposition of the angel’s greeting? The only perfect purity of heart is the fullness of grace of the Mother of God; to say to Mary that the Lord is with her signifies that she sees God. Hence, the Virgin Mary alone completely fulfils the Beatitude of the pure in heart, which is why only she can truly teach us about it. So let us today, in the light of her Immaculate Conception, try to meditate as best we can on this inexhaustible theme.
Jesus has a terrible observation to make about our impure hearts: `Whatever comes out of the mouth comes from the heart, and it is this that makes someone unclean. For from the heart come evil intentions: murder, adultery, fornication, theft, perjury, slander. These are the things that make a person unclean’ (Matthew 15:18—20 NJB). Our hearts are the source of the pollution which spreads through both our inner and outer selves. In the very centre of our life of prayer there is an inexhaustible reservoir of disturbance, noise, agitation and of fog clouding our eyes as we seek the divine light. That is the heart we have to purify.
It would be foolish to want to deal at a stroke with this source of impurity without first disposing of all those external actions which make us blind. The first stage on the journey to purity of heart is interior silence. To ensure that our actions regain a genuine integrity, and above all to bring order into our thoughts and imaginations: this is the first, indispensable purification if we want to rediscover our hearts, hidden and buried as they are by the rush and bustle within us.
And so, one day we finally succeed in establishing silence within ourselves. But it is too early to proclaim victory, for we still find ourselves in the presence of that inexhaustible source that I spoke of earlier. We have to experience the painful reality of our impure hearts: even if our imagination has fallen silent and our thoughts become stilled, we shall find in the depths of ourselves a kind of fundamental instability, an inexhaustible fount of anxiety, a seedbed of judgements, condemnations and fear. If we are truly to have a strong desire to purify this heart, we must first experience its impurity and feel the radical need to transform it, if we are one day to see God.
This, then, is the next stage in our journey: to seek to purify the waters of our interior source. That means, first of all, custody of the heart, as that beautiful classical formula puts it: not allowing it to be agitated by all those circumstances which we know will give rise to unhealthy emotions, anxiety and distraction. We must establish a prudent control of our feelings; we must renounce superficiality so as to remain attentive to the deep movements within our heart, since we now know that it is from there that all our trouble proceeds. And so, little by little, the waters of that source will purify themselves. Yet we shall often be tempted to lose heart when our efforts appear inadequate to the task we have set ourselves.
By the time we have reached this stage in the purification of our heart, it is clear that we shall never transform it sufficiently by our own efforts to make it worthy of receiving the light from on high. It is then that we make our own, as though addressed to us personally, the word that God spoke to Israel through Ezekiel: `I shall pour clean water over you and you will be cleansed; I shall cleanse you of all your filth and of all your foul idols. I shall give you a new heart, and put a new spirit in you; I shall remove the heart of stone from your bodies and give you a heart of flesh instead. I shall put my spirit in you, and make you keep my laws, and respect and practice my judgements.’ (Ezekiel 36: 25—27 NJB)
I shall pour clean water over you and you will be cleansed; I shall cleanse you of all your filth and of all your foul idols. I shall give you a new heart, and put a new spirit in you; I shall remove the heart of stone from your bodies and give you a heart of flesh instead. I shall put my spirit in you, and make you keep my laws, and respect and practice my judgements.’ (Ezekiel 36: 25—27 NJB)
If the Lord himself gets involved, how can we doubt that our hearts will in the end be totally transformed? This is the light that shines in the darkness and puts it to flight; this is the silence of God that is louder than all the sounds of creation. But it must be emphasized that such a transformation will never be acquired cheaply. It is, in fact, the transposition, on the level of hearts, of what Jesús experienced when he bore the sin of the world before the Father, that is, its defilement, its utter absence of silence. In order to enter the repose of God, we must first pass through the trial which will transform us from within.
But the words of Ezekiel go much further. It is not just a matter of cleansing our hearts; it is in the end a matter of recognizing that the ultimate defilement which taunts us is precisely that we do not have a heart at all. It is a stone complacently wallowing in the world of its own emotions that we have instead. Turned in on itself, how could it ever open itself to God and attain the transparency necessary for the light to penetrate it through and through? For as long as I have a stone for a heart, how can I not remain closed off from my brother and thus cut off from the One whose image he is?
Give us, then, Lord, a heart of flesh: a fragile, vulnerable heart, attentive to all you say to it. Instead of this unfeeling and lifeless stone, give us a heart which knows how to respond, to suffer if necessary, and above all, to give itself to you.
‘I shall remove the heart of stone from your bodies and give you a heart of flesh instead,’ says the prophet. In other words, it is in my sensing and material self that God wishes to dwell. The Incarnate Word has come to meet me in the depths of my human nature, however unresponsive that nature might appear. In fact, in the eyes of God, that nature is not impure at all: it is precisely because I had denied its fragility that it became hard as stone. So if I want to possess the heart that God means me to have, I must allow myself to be exposed to all the assaults from the outside and to resonate with the sufferings of my brothers, sensitive to everything that affects them, so as to be equally responsive to all that affects God and to all that comes from him. My heart must become the place in which resounds the vibrant echo of all that is most intimate in the heart of my brother.
In the light of all this, we will surely be tempted to say, as did the Virgin: `But how can this come about?’ (Luke 1:34). Are we not talking about a distant and inaccessible ideal? No. God stepped right across the distance which separates us from him when he sent us his Son. It is now up to us to encounter this Divine Word made flesh. When that happens, his heart and mine come together. Through the human relationships which he wanted to create between each of us and himself, through this extraordinary intimacy that we possess with him who is a human being like us, the encounter to which we aspire takes place; it is his heart which will transform mine and make it capable of contemplating God. ‘The one who sees me sees the Father,’ he says. This is the secret which he has entrusted to us: if our eyes of flesh know how to see the Son, our heart will be transformed and will look upon God.
This is also the promise made to us by Ezekiel, when he announced the coming of a new Spirit, the Spirit which Jesus gave us definitively after he had been glorified. If he does not yet hold sway in us, it is because we do not thirst for him enough. ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me! Let anyone who believes in me come and drink!’ As Scripture says, ` “From his heart shall flow streams of living water,” ‘ (John 7:37-38). This is what must become of the defiled source which flows in us now. It must become a pure source; for, as the Gospel goes on to say: ‘Jesus was speaking of the Spirit which those who believed in him were to receive’ (John 7:39). This is the ultimate transformation to which our hearts are called: to be the well from which the Spirit springs forth.
We feel overwhelmed by these reflections: they seem so far above us! And yet, are they not directly concerned with promises that Jesus has made to each and every one of us? So why view them as strange? Let us simply ask the Virgin Mary, in conclusion, to give us an attitude of true humility, whereby we will have a genuine thirst for Jesus. Not only did she possess a heart of flesh, but she bore in her flesh the very Son of God himself. May she lead us out of shadow towards the Light which is the blessed fruit of her womb.
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