The yearning for purification and transformation, which is especially intense today, has been with me for a long time. It often brings to mind the promise of Ezekiel.
A new heart also will I give you,
and a new spirit will I put within you:
and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh,
and I will give you a heart of flesh.
More than once I have referred to that passage (Ezek. 36:26) in vocal ministry, at least once offering something like a prayer: “Take away this heart of stone, and give me a heart of flesh.” But again today I wonder, as I do each time the passage comes to me, if such complete re-creation can ever really happen.
Ezekiel’s promise is interwoven in my mind with a passage from Ode of Solomon XI (trans. Barnstone). I once mentioned part of it — lines 1, 2, and 5 — in vocal ministry, and those same lines often come to mind during worship and at other times, such as now, when I’m feeling the weight of the world’s sadness. Here’s the entire passage.
My heart was cloven and there appeared a flower,
and grace sprang up, and fruit from the Lord,
for the highest one split me with his holy spirit,
exposed my love for him, and filled me with his love.
His splitting of my heart was my salvation,
and I followed the way of his peace, the way of truth.
Picturing those lines, I usually see a rock being cracked open by the force of the world’s random suffering. I see a small stem emerge, blossoming: the flower of compassion. But then I remember the passage from Ezekiel, and the image freezes; I am unable to imagine how a small blossoming of compassion would lead to the removal and replacement of my heart. Today, however, perhaps because of the urgency of my feeling, which is tinctured with the intuition of nonexistence, I need to resolve this, to understand. But I don’t want to uncouple the two passages, which both speak to me powerfully and which together seem to form a gestalt. And so I read more carefully, noting that the ode’s author says, in the lines I usually overlook, that he or she was filled with the Lord’s love when her own love was exposed. And I look within more carefully, allowing imagination to illuminate.
Peering into the cleft, which is growing wider as I look, I see that the stone is hollow, a mere shell. Within the stone is earth, and I recall Jesus’ reference to the fertile ground in which the seed of the divine Kingdom of justice, mercy, and peace is rooted. I perceive that the flower of compassion proceeds not from a simple stem but from a vine, and I understand that this vine of the Kingdom is the Christ, “the hidden human being of the heart” (1 Pet. 3:4). The vine grows as I watch; it fills the empty space within the stony shell and begins to wrap around the outside. Soon it covers the stone completely, so that the shell is both filled with and covered by the life of compassion and justice.
“Seeing” that, I feel that my eyes have been opened.
In my naïveté and pride, I had imagined that my stony heart would dramatically be destroyed and replaced; that, as I thought Paul said in Galatians 2:20, I would be crucified and live no longer as I. But today I am edified and humbled by this vision. In my case at least, pace Ezekiel, the stone is not removed; it is covered, inside and out, by the spiritual vine Christ, the divine-human form of love — or is that equivalent to removal and replacement? And, pace Paul, I am not crucified; I am broken, yes, but I am also covered, knit together in my brokenness, by suffering love — or is that equivalent to crucifixion and resurrection? (Does not the risen Christ continue to bear his wounds?) The images, icons, take me beyond themselves into the reality of my heart.
As understanding deepens, I see and can say this: I have never had a heart of stone. My heart has a stony carapace, but by the grace of love it has never been fully enclosed within its shell. And the shell itself is increasingly opened and covered by love’s flesh and blood, the Christ-vine of compassion whose seed lives in the humus, the God-breathed earthly humanity, that has always been my heart of hearts.
Knowing that life and love are suffering and will always be so, I understand the shell’s formation and function: it is the original innocent transgression, the protective human sin that is with us from birth. I understand, too, that for now it must remain, although eventually it may crumble, no longer needed, within the vine’s embrace. No matter. “Blessed is he whose sin is forgiven, whose transgression is covered” (Ps. 32:1). The vine lives in me and offers its healing life to me: freely may I receive; therefore, freely may I give. As compulsion yields to compassion, I see the end of law; I know more fully the peace of freedom in the face of nonexistence; I feel the blessedness of a heart of flesh.