This week I seat myself on a high stool behind the coffee bar, facing the wall of windows that bring in winter’s fragile light, a steaming mug of rooibos chai between my cold palms. We begin with silence, and as I open the pages that I open every Sunday, I remember the old Hasidic tale that gives me reason and hope to repeat the familiar words once again:
The pupil comes to the rabbi and asks, “Why does Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?” The rabbi answers, “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks, and the words fall in.” (Parker J. Palmer in A Hidden Wholeness)
Today, the oft-repeated words that fall into my heart are these:
“Why do you spend your money on that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy? Incline your ear and come to me; listen, that you might live.”
These are Isaiah’s words, but intoned as a weekly invitation and reminder, and they speak to me today not of how I spend my money so much as how I spend my energy. Suddenly, in the light of these words, I see the ways in which I have been miserly with my energy in recent weeks, maybe even months. Especially at home, I have been trying to conserve and protect my energy – somehow viewing it as a severely limited resource – and have felt a self-righteous justification in resisting external ‘demands’ on this resource. But I can see now that what I have spent myself on has not been bread, and it hasn’t satisfied. Yes, it has felt at times as if it were bread and should satisfy – there is wisdom and goodness, after all, in caring well for oneself as well as others – but in fact my choices have not been true, joyful self-love, but have on the whole been making me more selfish, stubborn, harsh, and this is not who I want to be. At long last, the pain of my choices has broken my heart open, wide enough for these words of life to fall in.
The heart has reasons which reason knows nothing of, and I may never know when, where or why the subtle shift occurred that moved me into self-preservation mode. I have functioned in this mode before, many times, and I know it isn’t good, doesn’t work. I have also experienced the expansive freedom of trusting that there is enough for me, and that I am deeply and lovingly resourced for every day and every action. But somehow, somewhere, I turned imperceptibly off that good path and find myself now at this dead end. How true that these shifts in our motivation and behaviour are almost always subtle and hard to perceive, because the lies behind them are often so close to truth. But now that my current path has taken its course for some time I can see its twisted ways for what they are, and I can respond to this morning’s gracious invitation by making another subtle shift:
I can incline my ear, and live. I can incline my heart towards the Ground of my Being and the Source of my Strength.
‘To incline’ suggests to me a gentle turning towards, a bending in a new direction. I do not have to expect myself to turn around 180˚ on the path. My movement can be tentative at first, just trying it out, carefully testing the waters of grace and my own willingness to cooperate. I have tried too many times to make drastic turnabouts that I cannot keep up, and too often these are fueled by guilt, shame, a desire to prove myself, or the allure of dramatic and visible results – and none of those are energies that sustain me for long.
So my inclination of ear and heart may at first only be the simple noticing of a self-preserving choice – though noticing is in itself a gift, and sure sign of a new direction. It may be just a remembering, in the harried moment, that I am not alone and can draw on strength and love, patience and wisdom from both deep within and beyond myself. And with each noticing or remembering, I can also incline my heart with a quick apology or a small, perhaps wordless, prayer for help.
Such small movements. Like a door allowed to swing open a crack, or a faltering flower turning its face indiscernibly towards the light.
Yet these inclinations, however small they might be, are powerful.
For as an inclination is both a direction of movement and a disposition, so each little movement can build on the one before to become a tendency, and together these movements can grow into a natural urge that draws, powerfully, along the new path.
So with cold hands cupped around the mug and broken heart cupped around the words, I incline my ear and say yes to the door ajar, the bowing bud, while hoping for the full creaking swing and the unfurled blossom ablaze in love’s sun.