June 13, 2021
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. ~ Psalm 51:10
Let suffering soften our heart rather than harden our soul. –Father Ron Rolheiser
When our family moved to Mancos nearly seventeen years ago, our niece moved with us from Denver. Morgan was twelve years old, her parents were divorced, and her mother, my sister, had just been killed in an act of extreme domestic violence. To say the least, Morgan’s heart was deeply broken and wounded.
Morgan loved the quaintness of Mancos and the intimacy of our church. At school, one of her teachers wanted to have a debate on a controversial subject that was not personal to any of his students, so he chose capital punishment. The man, Roosevelt, who took my sister’s life was in jail awaiting sentencing for second degree murder and kidnapping charges at the time.
The class had a rigorous debate about the pros and cons of capital punishment. At the end, they took a vote. I do not remember the number of students in the class, but every student voted strongly in favor of capital punishment except one. Morgan, the one kid who knew the deep pain of unnecessary death could not support taking another person’s life, even the life of the man who killed her mother. Her suffering broke her open and led her to more empathy for others.
How do we respond to the “hurts” of life? Does suffering, trials, and difficulties soften our hearts or harden our souls?
All of us are members of various communities: families, churches, colleagues we work with, civic organizations, or a circle of friends. Father Rolheiser writes, “In every one of these environments, there will always come a time when we will get hurt, when we will not be honored, when we will be taken for granted and treated unfairly. All of us will get hurt. This is a given.”
Do we respond to the pain or the suffering with bitterness or forgiveness? Do we respond to other people’s pain with empathy or indifference? Do we have soft hearts? Do we have empathy? Are we merciful? Do we feel deeply and stand for others? Or do we have hard hearts? Are we bitter and angry and do we lack empathy? Do we yell, “Crucify him!” Our responses color our lives, says Rolheiser. Suffering, pain, and humiliation will either soften our hearts or harden our souls.
I have a good friend who grew up in an abusive home. Consequently, he has tremendous animosity for his mother. When she was dying in a long-term care facility, less than a mile from his home, he refused to go see her. His bitterness leaks into his relationships with his wife and children, but he cannot see it. Does a hard heart serve anyone?
I also remember volunteering at the Bridge Shelter for the homeless in Cortez. Some volunteers were so kind and patient with clients. They graciously cleaned soiled clothes and sheets, meticulously made beds, and they listened and held people’s stories in a sacred place. While talking with these volunteers, I discovered that many of them had been homeless at one time in their lives. Their hardships and struggles gave them soft hearts and the gift of empathy.
What has opened our hearts to a deeper understanding or more tenderness? Has anything closed or hardened our hearts? Can grace and intention transform our hearts?
Father Ron Rolheiser says suffering and humiliation make us deep. “It can make us deep in understanding, empathy and forgiveness, or it can make us deep in resentment, bitterness, or vengeance.” Do we give ourselves over to love or bitterness, forgiveness or resentment, softness of heart or a hardness of soul? Do our hearts grow softer as we grow older and grow up?
Jesus was condemned to death and felt as hopeless as any human would be in that situation. Rolheiser writes, “The issue was not whether to die or not die. It was about how to die. Jesus’ choice was this: Do I die in bitterness or in love? Do I die in hardness of heart or softness of soul?” We know his choice. His death (suffering) led him to the extreme depths of empathy, love, and forgiveness.
In our daily lives, Christ invites us to cultivate a soft heart with the grace of God. “Every time we find ourselves shamed, ignored, taken for granted, belittled, unjustly attacked, abused, or slandered we stand between resentment and forgiveness, bitterness and love,” says Rolheiser. A soft heart initiates the healing process within us and gives us more empathy for our brothers, sisters, and creation.
May we choose to let go and may we live and die with a soft heart.
May the peace of God which surpasses all understanding soften our hearts.
Blessings and peace,
What experiences in life have given us more depth and a softer heart? What has opened us to deeper understanding and empathy?