This Mystery of the Heart


She loved this country, which was a good place, and loved those with whom she lived and worked. She had so much love to give. . . that, she knew, was good; for that is what redeems us, that is what makes our pain and sorrow bearable—this giving of love to others, this sharing of the heart.
– Alexander McCall Smith

I don’t usually turn to mystery novels for theological reflection. On the contrary, I often read them to clear my head of too many theological and transcendent thoughts. I read them as a reminder not to take myself too seriously. For instance, after finishing the latest Kinsey Millhone mystery I feel that Kinsey’s gritty attitude toward life has brushed aside the theological cobwebs in my brain. Some mysteries, however, especially Alexander McCall Smith’s series about the “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” set in Botswana, ground me in the sacredness of the everyday. They remind me of the holiness of the place and the people in which I “live and move and have my being.”

So I was not surprised when volume six of McCall Smith’s series concluded with the words quoted above. The simplicity of them struck me as utterly true, but something I take so for granted that I often forget to live this simple truth. This sharing of the heart is simple but it is not easy, and if it is to mean more than the sentimentality of a Hallmark card I have to look deeply into the mystery of my heart.

I think most of us have “so much love to give.” But that love gets blocked by all kinds of fears and addictions, and so what is simple becomes complex. My heart hardens in defense and I am unable to share it. It is hidden in the multiple folds of my complex self. Not only do I find myself limited in the love I can share, but worse yet, I may be unable to receive the love that others freely offer to me.

Recently I went to a contemplative retreat with Fr. Laurence Freeman, the founder of the World Community for Christian Meditation. In this retreat Fr. Freeman spoke about the necessity for simplicity in meditation (contemplative prayer.) He explained that the word simplicity comes from the Latin simplex and that it was originally a word that tailors used to describe the way a piece of cloth was folded. For a tailor simple meant not folded at all but laid out flat—whole and entire. Fr. Freeman believes that to meditate regularly means to enter into a process of unfolding our complex selves. He suggests that to be simple is to learn to wait—to endure—to go through the obstacles that life presents rather than trying to speed past them or avoid them altogether by hiding beneath yet another fold of complexity.

So to live the simple truth of giving and receiving love I must practice. I know from experience that the only way the ego’s tight grip on the folds that cover the mystery of my heart can be loosened is through the practice of sitting meditation or contemplative prayer. Without this practice my complexity gives rise to the anxiety and pain that block the sharing of my heart. And I forget the simple but profound truth stated by Fr. Freeman, “the meaning of life is the mystery of love.”