A Clean Heart


 I used to taunt and mock my son as he tried, helplessly, to compete against me in table tennis. I would exclaim: 'Whatcha gonna do? What chance do you have against such force and skill? You have none! Resistance is futile! 'Whatcha gonna do?'

 The badgering would, of course, work the boy up into a lather: 'This is what I'll do!' he'd respond, slamming the ball back against me. It was then my turn to feel helpless under his wrath. These matches between us were intense - two ping-pong warriors, determined to demolish each other.

 The joy of the competition was to 'give one's all' and to feel somehow purified and cleansed through the process - an athletic asceticism.

 In a similar fashion, I have found that by immersing myself fully in this moment that I can sometimes feel clean and pure, like the young lad in the Christian hymn who asks: 'What can I give Him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; If I were a wise man, I would do my part. Yet what can I give Him? - give my heart."  What I always can give is my heart - in this moment, or any moment. 

 I can open and give my heart now. I don't have to first understood everything. I don't have to have worked everything out. I can give my all now in an act of openness and surrender. I give my all now and make that a way of life to do so, holding nothing back.  

 If I give my all in this way, I begin to create the possibility of living in a state of grace - living with a clean heart. 'Create in me a clean heart,' prayed the Psalmist, (Psalm 51) having realized that to live with an unclean heart was unbearable.

 Speaking of which, I had begun to watch a highly recommended t.v. show recently. I didn't, however, watch for long. I felt soiled by the gratuitous violence and sex. I thought: 'I don't need this in my life.' So I turned it off with my whole being and felt free and clean!

 I was reminded then of Professor Jacob Needleman's challenge to his students to turn off the t.v.show just at that point when you're totally wrapped up in it. Those few students who did so felt immediately free and empowered! And then came the realization that the show, game or movie didn't matter anyway! The act of turning off the show interrupted an addictive pattern. The result was a state of grace, a sense of being inwardly clean. 

 This is what life can be, that is, a life lived with a sense of freedom and purity. Living like this forms a soul of integrity and keeps it intact

 Professor Ralph Wood suggests that a good many folk do not think of life in such terms - as a spiritual quest, as a soul forming adventure, but instead think superficially that life's goal is to live as long as possible in order to keep having good times, fun times! These folk come alive, in some sense, as fun seekers. These are girls and boys still wanting just  to have fun in various states of disrepair, 50, 60, 70 or 80 years of age, now perhaps comic figures, even tragic ones, demonstrating neither dignity or class. What are these beings doing? Looking for fun and partying hard. High school days are still going on. 

 Perhaps the fun seekers would like to put J.R.R Tolkien's ring of power on one of their fingers. Maybe they already have, for the ring is a symbol of giving yourself over to that which diminishes and enslaves, to that which will have the effect of stripping your soul bare. 

 Professor Ralph Wood states that Tolkien's ring of power offered three distinct powers. These are one, the power to be invisible. Two, the power of deathlessness. And three, the power to coerce.  

 First, what is attractive about becoming invisible?  Well, there are the obvious things, Professor Wood suggests, such as the ability to steal stuff and to copulate freely.

 What might any one of us like to do, never be found out? Invisible, we can never be held accountable and responsible. Is this enticing? 

 Is that attractive - to disappear and never to be found out? Nobody will ever know that it was you who did the deed. Nobody could have witnessed you there. Is that attractive? Would you like to get away with stuff, never to be found out?  

 Is 'invisibility' the attraction for an internet addict? The passive user can remain hidden, invisible, as a mere spectator, watching and reacting, calling himself some strange name so as not to be detected and found out. Might this be some kind of way of running and hiding from yourself, from taking responsibility for your life?   

It may be that the wish to disappear is a real temptation because it is easier to be a spectator than to be a creator. It's easier to be nobody than to be somebody. You can vanish from your responsibility to be a person who visibly puts himself into his life, imaginatively and creatively. 

 What was admirable about Tolkien was that he put himself into his creation, The Lord of the Rings. A fully formed man, 'a man in full,' J.R.R. Tolkien, is there on every page with messages that will be explored for years to come! It took him twelve years to write it, revising it over and over, notes spread everywhere on his bed. Nothing digital to help him out.

 Through his writings, Tolkien re-enacted the creativity and imaginative power of God. By making himself visible in this way he effectively resisted that power that could have made him disappear into a nothing, a nobody, an unimaginative, uncreative sluggard.

 So this may account for the attraction of invisibility. I may not want to be seen. I may not want to be accountable and responsible. Instead I lurk in the shadows, appearing only occasionally to say boo

 We are in the power of the ring, secondly, suggests Professor Wood, when we wish for deathlessness, that is, refusing to let go, wishing for life to 'go on and on and on.' 

 Do you know that you can now pay a mere hundred grand to have your body frozen at death with the hope, presumably, that when the technology is more advanced that you might one day be unfrozen and then reassembled or embellished, using all of the latest techniques? Lucky you, eh? - to 'go on and on and on' in the twenty-second century? You might now wish to rush on over to the life extension shop to make a deal to have your body frozen. There's a sale on this week. Go now. Quickly. Long lines are forming.   

 You may recall, however, that Tolkien's character, Bilbo, who had been 'living and living and living' because of the power of the ring, said wearily that he felt "thin and stretched." His prolonged life felt to him like "too little butter over too much bread."   

 A third way that we may be under the power of the ring is if we involve ourselves in coercing others to get them to do what we want! We think of Hitler and Stalin who succumbed to this power. We may perhaps not see ourselves as one of these, but, would we like to wield power to get people to do our various biddings? If so, we're vulnerable to a certain power.

 Or it may be that instead of coercing, we are being coerced. Professor Woods suggests that we may not even have noticed that in all kinds of ways we are being coerced. Evil, he says, slips up on us. He recalls, for example, noticing a student sitting in the front row of a class wearing a tight fitting shirt which said: "Goats like to nibble."

 He then made the comment that this girl didn't wake up one day deciding that she wanted to become a slut. She was gradually sexualized in this culture, gradually becoming an object rather than a dignified and classy lady. 

 In this way or that, we too, may find that we are being diminished and enslaved by becoming something we never consciously wished to be. 'Wretched man that I am!' cried St. Paul, realizing his predicament, "for what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do." (Romans ch. 7) He longed to be free from that coercing power that had pulverized his will.    

 In Solzhenitsyn's The Red Wheel there is the story of a young woman who allowed herself to be tantalised and allured by the prospect of an affair with a married man. Even though, as Solzhenitsyn writes, "she had seen him as one of those characters whom Chekhov portrayed so faithfully who were "there at large everywhere, nice, amiable people who wouldn't hurt a fly and would never make anything of themselves." He was one of these, a man of no character or substance who had made nothing of himself, but she chose to ignore it. 

 Sound familiar? He was, she knew it, like so many who are "satisfied with what comes along." She came along and he went along. She knew what he was, but had felt sorry for him and imagined she could save him. So she slept with him. The consequences were devastating. A moment's passion turned her life into a living hell.

 That's the tendency of human beings, as it appears, to act against ourselves, even our highest interests, because some impulse of the moment takes over. Our own undisciplined impulses wreak havoc in our lives. We are coerced against our better judgment.

 Which is why, for the sake of my soul, I pray this prayer every day: "Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within.' For I want to experience continually the freedom of a clean heart, the freedom of a clear conscience.   

Immortality image

Audio: Arrival of the Birds, Cinematic Orchestra