Simplify My Heart
Fifth Sunday of Lent. Fr Matthew Jarvis urges us to learn from the loneliness of Christ in his Passion.
‘Unless a wheat grain falls on the ground and dies, it remains alone.’ This mini-parable from Christ about the grain that dies, about losing our life in order to save it for eternity, forebodes his own impending death on the Cross. But how is it that we must die to avoid being alone? Isn’t it precisely death that makes us most completely alone?
Christ will be the grain buried in the ground on Good Friday, having died in lonely agony on the Cross. In homes and hospitals, isolated by Covid, so many people have faced death without a family member or friend by their bedside, sometimes also deprived of the sacraments. Even in ‘normal’ circumstances, death is a step that we each must take alone: someone might lovingly hold our hand, but no one can cross over with us. ‘Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return’ (Job 1:21). Perhaps death is the ultimate test of who we are, the moment of our personal judgement, just because we have nowhere to hide, no masks that will hold, and no one to stand in our stead.
But we are not created for loneliness. ‘It is not good for man to be alone’ (Gen 2:18). And so we typically spend our time and our money running away from this lonely destiny. We seek comfort and security to shelter us from the suffering of life, even at the cost of others; we seek to immortalise ourselves through our works, through children, through the memories we leave with those who will outlive us. All this is common enough. But if we really think we can save our life like this, we will most certainly lose it. The more I prioritise the personal needs and desires of Myself, as I struggle to cheat death, the more I find myself alone. Selfishness is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.
By contrast, the grain that dies is not selfish, not afraid of its own smallness, even of its own loneliness – because really it isn’t concerned about itself at all. It is ready to ‘hate’ its life in this world; that is, it doesn’t give a fig about bodily life or death because it lives for love of something – or rather Someone – much greater. As St Paul says, ‘If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s’ (Rom 14:8). You can almost hear him shrug his shoulders in the face of death.
Is this too superhuman for the rest of us mortals? Perhaps our second reading from Hebrews can restore our courage. It was ‘in the days of his flesh’ that Jesus Christ faced the cross: it was in his full humanity that he cried aloud and wept silently in the garden of the Agony. As one like us in every respect but sin, Jesus learnt through his experience what it meant to be humanly alone. The author uses a traditional Greek play on words when he writes that Christ ‘learnt (emathen) obedience through what he suffered (epathen)’ (Heb 5:8). It would be too simplistic to translate this as ‘no pain, no gain’!
It was Christ’s single-hearted love for his Father, a love that embraced this whole world, that gave him the capacity to submit freely and obediently to the suffering of the cross. In refusing to run away from our mortal condition, from his own death, the eternal Word-made-flesh became ‘the source of eternal salvation’.
The challenge for us is to become single-hearted like the Son of God, to ask for a ‘pure heart’ like the Psalmist today. One of my favourite lines in another Psalm says: simplex fac cor meum, ‘simplify my heart, Lord’ (Ps 85(86):11). I was delighted to see recently that the Dominican brothers in the Philippines have even made it into a T-shirt slogan!
In the end, we are not made to be alone. We are made for loving communion, with God and with one another in Christ. But, paradoxically perhaps, we need a simplified heart in order to be less alone. A simplified heart is attentive to the constant presence of God. But this is not easy for us. So let us learn from Christ’s loneliness, by which he joins himself to all who are physically, emotionally or spiritually lonely. In him, we will discover ourselves no longer alone, but simply and fully alive. The grain will have yielded its rich harvest.