We all know, of course, that “heart” refers to the organ in our chests that performs the essential function of keeping the blood moving around our bodies. We are also probably aware that the word “heart” is used to talk about many things that have nothing to do with that essential organ. In fact, when the word “heart” is used in the Bible – or in any of the world’s great sacred texts – it is almost always used in this second sense: to speak of something that has nothing to do with our biological functioning.
In the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, the word “heart” occurs 931 times (including variations on that word, such as “whole-heartedly”). While I will not claim to have closely examined every one of these occurrences, a quick review of the verses in question reveals that, indeed, the Bible seldom uses the word “heart” to refer to the organ in our chests.
Perhaps the best way to describe the use of the heart in the Bible and other sacred texts is to say that it refers to a person’s center, to the deepest, truest part of us. One dictionary definition puts it this way: “the vital center and source of one’s being”. The use of the term “heart” in this way speaks to something that is authentic in human experience, which is why the term appears so frequently in sacred texts and why we continue to use it in the same way today. Yet, heart as the “vital center and source of one’s being” is not something that we can locate in the body or subject to any sort of analysis. Still, most people I know have a sense that speaking of the heart points to something real about them and their experience.
So, why am I going on about the word “heart” in it’s non-biological sense? Because I think it has much to do with the way we approach the religious dimension of our lives. For generations, people understood that religion – and this is really true of all the various religious traditions – was attempting to speak to something that was authentic in human experience but which was difficult to express directly. Religion has always sought to draw human beings deeper into the mystery and meaning of our own existence, and to connect us to the mystery and meaning of the larger universe. Religion seeks to draw us into our hearts – that is, into the vital center and source of our being. And, by so doing, to draw us into The Heart: the vital center and source of Being Itself.
These connections to heart and Heart which the religious traditions make for us are not connections that can really be objectively examined. These connections are formed and unfold within a realm of human experience with which science is not really concerned, in part because science really has no way to access it. And yet, people who have taken their spiritual journeys seriously and discovered a deepening connection with heart and Heart know that they have discovered something real, something authentic, something that truly does dwell at the center of the human experience. Our various religious traditions are all, at their roots, attempts to describe this experience, to name it for ourselves, and to try to provide a path that others might follow into their own hearts.
Too often, religious people and institutions don’t take seriously this opening of the heart. Too often, we allow religion to settle into a shadow or caricature of its true self, choosing to focus our energies on the externals of religious life or institutions, or on the finer points of belief. We turn religion into a moralistic framework with which to torment ourselves or others. We settle for a God who has not been met in the heart, but is instead the projection of human fear, narrowness, and prejudice.
It is not surprising, when you think about it, that we allow religion devolve into such a monstrosity. After all, we allow ourselves to do the same thing: rather than spending the time and doing the inner work necessary to break through all our falsity to discover our true selves revealed in the heart, we devote tremendous energy into building up our false selves, reenforcing our egos. We allow our own humanity, and the humanity of others, to become a caricature of what humanity can be.
Yet, for all of this, at the heart of our religious traditions are still preserved pathways that will lead us to heart and Heart, if only we are willing to take them. Generations of mystics from all of the world’s religions have made this journey. As they have sought to share something of their experience, they have inevitably done so with reference to the particular tradition to which they belong. And yet there is a surprising convergence across all these various experiences with regard to the essential insights that have emerged from these encounters with heart and Heart.
The examples of these saints and mystics can encourage us in our journey. And, in fact, “encourage” is just the right word: it literally means “to hearten”. Indeed, to live with courage is to live with heart. And spiritual courage can move us out of caricatured religion and into the heart of spirituality.