Matters of the Heart Series, Commentary III: How Do You Mend a Broken Heart?
Note: This is the third commentary in a four-part series entitled “Matters of the Heart.” The series is offered as a corollary to the traditional seasons of the Lent and Easter observances. This commentary provides a fresh approach to Palm Sunday and Holy Week. As always, comments are welcome to enhance the conversation and continue the dialogue. A pdf version of this commentary to print and read can be found here.
A Papal Parade or a Palm Sunday Procession?
Even before Pope Benedict XVI’s chartered Alitalia Airbus A320 had touched down in Mexico last week, he’d issued a statement calling on the host country to overcome their “idolatry of money.” Why? Because it feeds the drug violence that has resulted in the death of 50,000 citizens in that country.
In partial response, at least one of the drug cartels had reportedly declared a temporary truce, in honor of the brief papal visit.
Dressed impeccably in a white cassock and skullcap, and surrounded by his security detail, the pontiff then climbed into his pure-white bulletproof Mercedes-built pope mobile; to thread its way through a 22-mile long human corridor of well-wishers that lined the route.
After resting 24 hours to recover from jet lag, the Holy Father was then whisked last Sunday by military helicopter over a 72-foot tall bronze statue of Christ in the city of Silao. There, beneath that towering figure with its outstretched arms, he presided over an open air Mass for hundreds of thousands of the faithful followers of Jesus, the Christ. It was a sight to behold.
But now, with the upcoming perennial Christian observance of Passion Sunday – otherwise known as Palm Sunday — I could not help but think of that other storyline of peasants once cutting palm branches to carpet a dusty road outside Jerusalem; as a backwater Galilean rabbi entered the holy city of Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, to meet his own violent death.
Fast-forward, and I could not help but also wonder if anyone in the crowd lining the Pope’s motorcade route had repeated the line quoted in the three synoptic gospels (taken from Psalm 118:26) in those accounts of the Palm Sunday procession, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord?”
And thinking of those two stories together, I could not help but further wonder, had Jesus himself been invited to the supper held in his name for hundreds of thousands of his followers, if he would have first gazed upwards at that bronze idol towering overhead – a statue that surely would have dwarfed both him and the Holy Father many times over – and seen not the slightest resemblance to himself.
… had Jesus himself been invited to the supper held in his name … would he have first gazed upwards at that bronze idol towering overhead … and seen not the slightest resemblance to himself?
The Holy Father looks with dismay upon some of the rampant human faults and failures all around us that are truly heartbreaking. He then speaks as a prominent moral authority; as if Christian faith is nothing more than a matter of defending a particular moral order that is in utter decay.
On the other hand, I recall how Jesus once told the heartbreaking story of a no-name father and his two sons; and, as it turned out, for whom neither the prodigal’s presumed immoral behavior on the one hand – nor the supposed rectitude of the resentful elder son on the other — was of any consequence whatsoever in the end.
As soon as the penitent prodigal came over the horizon, it was the father who ran with those outstretched arms, and embraced the one with whom he was once estranged (Luke 15:11-32). It was this act of compassion alone by the one whose heart was broken that turned out to be the only prerequisite for reconciliation and a celebratory feast.
I look at the grandiose parade of a hierarchical church that seems preoccupied defending certain moral teachings, sometimes at the expense of the members of its own family of faith; even sometimes calling it instead an attack on religious freedom. And it makes one wonder if such messengers who come in the name of the Lord have lost sight of the utterly central message of the gospel of compassion.
Because, at the heart of the matter, this was once the only thing needed to mend a couple of broken hearts.
This is what this third commentary in this series that follows will address.
HOW DO YOU MEND A BROKEN HEART?
The daily news is filled with stories that could break your heart.
African warlord Joseph Kony’s crimes against humanity are displayed for all to see on the world’s stage; but so much of the buzz seems to be all about the accuracy of those excesses, or the startling power of a viral internet video campaign to arouse the world’s conscience.
There’s the Syrian regime’s indiscriminate shelling and killing of its own citizens. But the cries of the grief-stricken are drowned out by the debate over the constraints and implications of international intervention against a sovereign nation’s internal conflicts, and the limits of our own will. We condemn Assad’s actions, it’s heartbreaking we say, but what can we do?
A U.S. army sergeant allegedly “cracks” and goes on a rampage, killing scores of Afghan civilians, women and children. So people speculate about the stress and strains of combat fatigue, and the judicial process by which a full and complete investigation will strive to determine all the facts of how exactly all those lives were shattered and hearts were broken.
In France, a self-professed member of Al-Qaida kills seven people – three soldiers, three Jewish children and a rabbi—in Toulouse; before being tracked down and shot to death by French special forces. Now the pregnant girlfriend of one of the slain paratroopers has asked permission to posthumously wed her boyfriend. The French president’s office has indicated it will allow those two hearts to be joined in death, where they could not be in life.
And in this country worshippers in churches across the nation, as well as a congressman on the floor of the House, were wearing hoodies in remembrance of Trayvon Martin; the unarmed Florida teen shot to death, by a gun-toting, self-appointed neighborhood watch citizen in Sanford who claimed self-defense for his actions.
While the predominant debate in that sad story has centered around racial profiling and the questionable merits of such statutes as “stand your ground” laws, the deeper fissure that has once again been exposed to the light of day is the stark reality that we continue to look to all the shortsighted and misbegotten ways with which we seek to mend so many broken hearts.
Even while much is made about the shattered lives of the victim’s friends and families, legal proceedings tend to afford the alleged perpetrators nothing more than determining their own guilt or innocence.
So, in Florida, George Zimmerman is said to be in hiding, for fear he could suffer the same fate as that of the boy he shot and killed.
But beyond that, who cares about his fate, and his life that has been forever shattered? Our sensibilities are offended as often as they seem to be so routinely affronted; with all these stories that look so similar after awhile. Rarely do we hear anyone ask if there’s even the remotest chance the perpetrator could ever be forgiven, or that all broken hearts could somehow be mended.
What of forgiveness?
Recently, when a television documentary aired about the Amish way of life, it touched once again on the 2006 tragedy in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania; when a gunman burst into a one-room schoolhouse and indiscriminately killed five Amish girls and injured five others before committing suicide himself.
That same evening, representatives of the Amish faith community went to the home of the killer’s parents, and told them they would be forgiven. The pastor to that family who was present to witness this extravagant gesture later recalled the scene. “…grace walked in the door,” he said, “And with grace walking in the door, hope walked in the door. And we didn’t know it at the time, but that’s what happened, that was the effect of them coming, and saying, ‘Chuck … we will forgive you.’” The faith community, however, had been spared the more difficult task of forgiving the perpetrator himself.
But as the grieving mother of one of the victims put it: “To me, when I think of forgiving, it doesn’t mean that you have forgotten what he’s done. But it means that you have released unto God the one who has offended you. And you have given up your right to seek revenge.”
The public at large expressed utter astonishment. At the same time, it is said that even the Amish themselves will only forgive their own member’s transgressions if they confess them. The unrepentant face the fate of being shunned, cast out, and excluded from the life of the community. Even for the Amish, it would appear, there are some things some people can do that are beyond the pale.
When outgoing Mississippi governor Hayley Barbour recently exercised his right to grant pardons to a slew of prisoners, including four convicted murderers, there was a huge outcry from a large segment of the population who believed a certain kind of justice – that is, the kind of retributive justice that constitutes nearly the whole of our penal system — had not been sufficiently served.
But the same laws on the books that had locked up those perpetrators also had within them the governor’s discretion to forgive wrongdoers. Clearly, in the eyes of the general public, something was very wrong with all that. But in the end, the courts had to uphold the law and allow the pardons. It might be noted, however, that the governor waited until the end of his career in public office before he himself committed the equivalent of political suicide.
More challenging by far is the lifelong task undertaken by Joshua Milton Blahyi — aka General Butt Naked — a brutal warlord who murdered thousands during Liberia’s bloody 14-year civil war. Today, the General has renounced his own violent past and become a Christian evangelist. How amazing is the grace that saved a wretch like him, some might say. Now he spends his days seeking out victims, begging their forgiveness, and attempting to rehabilitate the former child soldiers who once fought for him. He is regarded by some as an insincere conman who could never change his ways. To others he is a redeemed sinner, born-again in Christ.
In the end, the two tasks of asking forgiveness and granting it has to do with the estranged relationship of two persons facing each other. We so often describe the events that lead to any such heartbreak as tragic. But what is truly tragic is the missed opportunities to face off and wrestle with that harder task of forgiveness, and the only thing that can truly mend a broken heart. That choice, suggests Catholic theologian and writer Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, is “at the heart of our shared humanity.”
“We are made for relationships. Forgiveness emerges as the need to re-establish a broken relationship, without which we cannot live. The search for forgiveness is the search for a healing of an ache of the human heart. It is the memory of lost possibilities. It is the enormous presence of absence. It is an ache for what could have been … and is no more.”
That is all well and good, one might say; and we all know we’re supposed to forgive. We strive to do so either for the liberation of our own tortured soul, for that of the offending party, or both. But what if one can’t? What if one carries a wounded heart in their hands for years and years; and still one cannot find, in all honesty, muster the genuine capacity to forgive? That is, to truly and unconditionally forgive another, with no strings attached, with no need for acknowledgment or remorse?
I believe there is a pre-requisite to the act of forgiveness. It is something that precedes such a magnanimous gesture that without it, forgiveness and the unmerited gift of something some would call grace, can lie outside our grasp. Moreover, it is the means by which one can begin to mend a broken heart.
… there is a pre-requisite to the act of forgiveness. It is something that precedes such a magnanimous gesture that without it, forgiveness and the unmerited gift of something some would call grace, can lie outside our grasp. Moreover, it is the means by which one can begin to mend a broken heart.
Consider the Prodigal Son story found in Luke’s gospel (Luke 15.11-32, below). But first, remember the parables found in the canonical gospels are considered by biblical scholars to be among the most original sayings attributed to the historical figure, Jesus.
As such, it’s important to move beyond for the allegorical interpretation given to this particular story by the early communities of believers; where the father was taken to represent an ever-forgiving God, the wayward son the gentiles, and the elder son the begrudging Pharisees.
In its original telling of it, at the heart of this particular story — where compassion transforms heartbreak into a joyful celebration that knows no measure — is a tale that resounds with the simple and moving kind of message for which the Galilean peasant sage from Nazareth ought still be remembered.
Below: The Prodigal Son - Jean Louis Forain, 1852-1931
When Jesus tells this story of the father and his two sons, he sketches an easily recognizable picture of the two different ways we all typically behave; vacillating sometimes between our faults and poor choices that should justifiably lead to our own disinheritance (i.e., “I am no longer worthy to be called your son”), and the moral self-righteousness, jealousy and resentment that turns an otherwise hearty and virtuous life into in miserly existence of self-denial for the sake of self-justification (i.e., “I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.”).
It would seem that only when we hit bottom (i.e., “ … when he came to himself”) in our own dissolute excuse for a life — do we often find ourselves truly open and capable of at least seeking that undeserved, unmerited, unearned state of grace through genuine forgiveness; that is, the kind of forgiveness where the slate is wiped clean, and the once-prized scoreboard the elder brother once clutched as a prize above all else doesn’t even count anymore.
In other words, when we remain entrenched with the only measuring stick of what’s right and wrong being a moral system that has us barely staying within the lines while others transgress – albeit sometimes flagrantly – we remain blind to that which could ever make forgiveness itself even possible. What’s that?
To make it as inescapably clear and simple as possible, Jesus gives it to us in a single line: “But while the prodigal was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion …”
The capacity to feel, in one’s own broken heart, the broken heartedness of another is the com-passionate response that creates that otherwise-improbable space where forgiveness — and the subsequent possibility of reconciliation and redemption — is made possible. And it does so with such remarkable spontaneity that – as with the prodigal’s father — it causes one to go completely deaf to the din of all the reasonable, judicial, equitable arguments against such lavish foolheartiness.
The capacity to feel, in one’s own broken heart, the broken heartedness of another is the com-passionate response that creates that otherwise-improbable space where forgiveness … is made possible. And it does so with such remarkable spontaneity that … it causes one to go completely deaf to the din of all the reasonable, judicial, equitable arguments against such lavish foolheartiness.
In his overwhelming joy at his son’s return, that dull heartache the old man thought would never go away vanishes instantly. He can hear neither the penitent’s confession of human failure, nor the objections of his dutiful, resentful older child. The only thing that matters – as expressed in the only lines the father is given to utter twice in the story – is the joyful call for celebration. Nothing else matters anymore, and to do otherwise would be the height of impropriety. How can we do anything else, he tells his elder son, but to have the greatest celebratory feast possible?
Why? Because one who was lost has been found. That’s it. That’s all. At the heart of the matter, that’s all that matters.
And how is it all made possible? What did it take? What was the only thing required? It was neither the expression of remorse, acknowledgment of wretchedness, and appropriate penance on the one hand; nor moral uprightness on the other. Rather it was the compassionate response of a heart that was broken that had been left waiting at the garden gate; waiting for a long lost hope to once again come into sight over the horizon.
The old man had spent so many days at the door to that place called home; the place to which we all long to return when there’s no place else to turn. That place you can go when no one else would welcome you. The one place on earth you might return and they won’t kick you out.
This was the place where the old man had waited for the return of one who’d wandered beyond the pale. And then, when his failing eyesight had first spotted the wretch from a distance, his broken hearted was so moved that his old, unsteady legs sprang back to life beneath him; in order that he might rush to the one who rightly should have been written off.
“Moved with compassion,” the storyteller says, “he ran and threw his arms around him and kissed him.” Against his better judgment and maybe even his willingness, the old man was so moved that he could not help but embrace his greatest heartache.
Moved with compassion, he ran and threw his arms around him and kissed him. Against his better judgment and maybe even his willingness, the old man was so moved he could not help but embrace his greatest heartache.
The mending of the heart is a two-fold blessing, of course; both for the one who has done the breaking, and the one whose heart has been broken. Because – and in as much as we’d like to avoid the hard truth of the matter — it usually takes a broken heart to break another.
But it is only the compunction of compassion that can move the brokenhearted to the point of forgiveness.
The old man was so moved with such compassion that he could not help but embrace his greatest heartache. … It is only this compunction of compassion, I would suggest, that can move the brokenhearted to the point of forgiveness.
And finally, such compunction, I would suggest, is something we do not conjure up for ourselves. Such capacity to feel with, to feel for another is not entirely of our own doing, not of our own making. There is a co-creative sacred dynamic at the heart of compassion that creates such a space and makes a place for the mending.
It is that sacred reality to which these considerations on the matters of the heart lead us when we next look at what some call Easter; and what I call a Change of Heart.
© 2012 by John William Bennison, Rel.D. All rights reserved.
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