Repairing a Sin-Shriveled Heart

You ring the doorbell, having arrived at the palatial home of your old buddy whom you haven’t seen in many years. As you hear his footsteps approach, you begin to dread what awaits on the other side of that mahogany-framed portal. Sure, when he called to invite you to this dinner party after so many years of silence, he sounded genuinely excited to see you. It really did sound as though he had forgotten all about your past failures, the betrayal that had ended such a close friendship. But you know better than to believe that. As you hear the doorknob turn, you convince yourself that you have been invited to this banquet to be accused, chastised, and cast out once more. This, after all, would be just. Better to skip all of it and make a dash for your car. But it is too late.

Such is the scene in George Herbert’s poem “Love”:

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back

Guilty of dust and sin.

But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack

From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,

If I lacked anything.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:

Love said, You shall be he.

I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,

I cannot look on thee.

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,

Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame

Go where it doth deserve.

~“Love (III)”, George Herbert

It’s all too easy, when we’re face-to-face with the terrible gravity of sin, to become the judge, jury, and executioner of our hopes for salvation. The burden of unworthiness before God can make reconciliation a crushing impossibility. In fact, the sinner cannot bear even to look upon Him who already knows the secrets of the heart. And so we can reenact the drama of our ancient ancestors, who hid from God after their primal disobedience.

They hid and we hide for essentially the same reason: we no longer view God as He is in Himself, but rather via the hallucinations of a sin-shriveled heart. We imagine God has a heart like our heart. And so we consider in our hearts how we might respond to someone who betrayed us in the same way we have betrayed God. If we carry out this examination with a heart shrunken by sin and wounded by wrongdoing, we are liable to conclude that the Lord must deal with us as we deal with each other. This ultimately denies to God the free exercise of His very nature, including the ability to show mercy and to forgive.

How then are we called to help enlarge the hearts of our brothers and sisters so that they might be open to God’s mercy and forgiveness? I was struck the other day by Zachariah’s declaration in his Benedictus canticle, which we chant daily as part of the Church’s Morning Prayer: “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare His way, to give His people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.” What is this “knowledge” we are to proclaim? As it says in the following line, we are to announce to our brothers and sisters the “tender compassion”—the misericordia—of our merciful God. This mercy has broken upon us in the dawning of the new age of grace in Christ Jesus, the shining light that definitively dispels the darkness and death that dwells in our hearts.  

In these last months of the Church’s Jubilee Year of Mercy, we might benefit many souls—including our own—through a renewed and intentional endeavor to meditate upon, preach, and bestow mercy. The truth that dispels despair is that Christ loves us despite our sinfulness. And so we can rejoice in the last lines of Herbert’s poem, as the sinner’s heart expands to make room for his divine Guest:

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame

Go where it doth deserve.

And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?

My dear, then I will serve.

You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:

So I did sit and eat.

Image: Rembrandt, Christ at Emmaus (detail)

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Br. Barnabas McHenry grew up in Buffalo, NY. He entered the Order in 2014 after graduating from the George Washington University with a B.A. in international affairs, concentrating on development in Latin America. He also studied for a semester at the International Center for Development Studies in San José, Costa Rica. On