The Religion of the Broken-Hearted

The following is developed from vocal ministry offered at Homewood Meeting on 2/12/2012.

* * *

There’s an old cartoon that, as I recall, depicts a smooth, wide, level path on which smiling people, some holding hands, walk toward an idyllic scene. A sign next to the path identifies it as “The Road to Heaven.” That’s on one side of the cartoon panel: on the other side, a man struggles to scale a steep, bare mountainside. He reaches for handholds, clings to roots.1 He looks tired but determined. We get the idea that, though his feet may often slip, he will continue despite the cost. There’s a sign on that mountainside, too: it says “The Quaker Road to Heaven.”Why should the Quaker way be so difficult? And, given that our path evidently goes in a different direction from the other, what and where is the Quaker heaven?

A religion of the New Covenant, Quakerism is a religion of the heart — the broken heart. We enter the New Covenant when our heart is changed. One biblical passage that is read as a prophecy of that event is Ezekiel 11:19:

I will give them one heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh.

That may sound like a promise of a spiritual heart transplant, but I’ve always conceived it in a somewhat different image, one informed by the knowledge that “that which can be known of God,” namely love’s “power and divine nature,” is in our heart.2 It seems to me that, in a natural reaction to our harsh world, we wrap our in heart a hard, stony covering. But that protective carapace must be broken apart if the living heart is to be revealed and flourish. Our spiritual life begins when we allow our heart to be broken by the suffering, the plight, of the world.

That’s beautifully reflected in one of my favorite scripture passages, one that I’ve quoted here before, from Odes of Solomon 11:

My heart was cloven and its flower appeared,
and grace sprang up in it, 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 breaking of my heart was my salvation,
and I followed the way of his peace, the way of truth….3

When our heart is opened by God-who-is-love, we are exposed to our own pain and to that of others, and we naturally want to close it again, to reseal the shell as quickly as possible. But if, as the early Quaker Isaac Penington suggested, we allow the wound to remain open while we wait in faith, we find that a flower of life, beauty, and hope for the future springs up in us. And as love conquers fear, the flower is multiplied: from the tiny seed, from “that of God” which had been dormant in the darkness of the armored heart, grows a field of flowers, a blossoming on the longing earth of the “Kingdom” of justice, mercy, and peace. With the odist we then can say

I became like the land which blossoms and rejoices in its fruits:
And the Lord was like the sun shining on the face of the land;
He lightened my eyes, and my face received the dew,
And my soul was refreshed by his fragrance;

To be thus is to abide in the blessedness of Paradise,4 despite the continuing pain and sorrow of life in this world.

And he carried me to his Paradise,
Where I knew joy and worshiped his glory.

Blessed are they who are planted in Paradise,
Who grow in the growth of your trees
And have changed from darkness to light.5

As we are “changed from darkness to light” and yet remain, so pain and sorrow, too, remain but are transfigured. We do not transcend them,6 do not leave them behind, but we no longer attempt to deny or repress them. We allow ourselves to see them in a new light, as opening us into deep humanity, into the life of the God known only in our participation in the kenosis, the self-emptying, which is the divine nature.

And so we begin the ascent by allowing the reality of life and love to break our heart. We begin in faith and hope, trusting that, however others may travel, this difficult climb is the way to the Kingdom of God. This is the way that is marked for us, the path that leads us into the Paradise of innocence in this life so that, our open heart manifesting love’s power and nature, we shine divine light into the darkness of our infinitely suffering world.


[1] I am reminded of, or am conflating the cartoon with, the Zen story of a man clinging to a vine on a cliff wall: see “Of Smiles, Secrets, Strawberries, Sunyata.” I saw the cartoon long ago and am unable to separate memory and imagination at this point.

[2] See Romans 1:19-20. The Geneva Bible’s note on verse 19 tells us that the locus of that manifestation is “in [our] hearts”: online at The Reformed Reader. As always, I am using God-language on the basis of the identification of the nature of God with the universalizing love that manifests itself in justice, mercy, and peace: see 1 John 4.

[3] Verses 1-3. This rendering is mostly from the translation by Willis Barnstone in The Other Bible, p. 273, with minor modifications based on the translation by J. Rendel Harris in The Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden, pp. 125-126.

[4] George Fox also spoke of being taken up into Paradise. This passage, remarkably similar in part to the Ode, is from his Journal:

“Now was I come up in spirit, through the flaming sword, into the paradise of God. All things were new, and all the creation gave another smell unto me than before, beyond what words can utter. I knew nothing but pureness, innocency, and righteousness, being renewed up into the image of God by Christ Jesus; so that I was come up to the state of Adam, which he was in before he fell. … But I was immediately taken up in spirit, to see into another or more steadfast state than Adam’s in innocency, even into a state in Christ Jesus, that should never fall.”

[5] This and the previous block are verses 11-16 in, again, a combination of translations.

[6] Thanks to Maggie Ross for reminding me of the importance of the difference between “transcend” and “transfigure”; see her Voice in the Wilderness blog.

8 thoughts on “The Religion of the Broken-Hearted

  1. Thanks, George, for this informed and beautiful posting. It is most relevant to a topic being discussed on a forum for people like myself who are taking a “Becoming Friends” course based in the UK but on-line too world-wide too.

  2. Very true.
    It reminds me of a cartoon published by “Friends’ Fun Fringe” in 1984, showing two very comparable paths, with the sign for the mountainous path saying “Towards a Quaker View of Heaven”.
    The quintessential Quaker shown (bald head, health sandals, strolling deep in thought with his hands on his back) takes that turn of course.

  3. I loved this, George. I think many of us start down the spiritual path hoping it will make us “feel better” or “give us joy.” It comes as a very rude shock when we encounter all kinds of difficulties, our “stuff” still remains with us, the Inward Light illuminates not only what is beautiful within us but what is ugly as well. Faith often consists of merely carrying on in the face of all the obstacles. But, if we remain faithful, we do indeed “find heaven” or at least gain intimations of it – it’s just not what we thought it was and neither is the journey. We have to remember that for the soil to bear fruit, it first has to go under the blade of plow. Thanks again for a lovely post.

  4. Thank you for this. When I first started attending meeting back in ’09, I found it so hard to still myself. I believed I had the Light within me, but couldn’t see it. The image which came to me unbidden in all of that was that the light source, whatever it was, had become encrusted with some kind of stone covering, and each First Day that covering was chipped away more. Eventually I abandoned the metaphor, and found that when I ceased to strain for transformation, it came more easily…still, it fit so nicely with your image of the breaking heart that I connected, and felt the need to share. Blessed be.

    • You’re welcome, Friend. As noted in the post, I, too, find that the key is allowing rather than straining. In my experience, straining, even when I think I’m straining for transformation, is effort that actually goes toward keeping the shell intact; it’s when I cease that effort that the carapace can be broken open by the working of love. In other words, I don’t need to break the light free, but simply to stop blocking it — and that, it turns out, is a very different thing requiring a very different, and much gentler, approach.

      UPDATE (3/14/12): It occurs to me to suggest another post here that also speaks of allowing the covering to crack and break open. It’s called Text and Anti-text.

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