Often physical sickness draws man nearer unto his Maker, suffers his heart to be made empty of all worldly desires until it becomes tender and sympathetic toward all sufferers and compassionate to all creatures. Although physical diseases cause man to suffer temporarily, yet they do not touch his spirit. Nay, rather, they contribute toward the divine purpose; that is, spiritual susceptibilities will be created in his heart. – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 5, p. 231.
Two months ago my wife Teresa had a massive heart attack.
To say that we didn’t expect her heart to temporarily go on strike would be a vast understatement. She’s relatively young and fit, in good health, eats well, doesn’t drink, smoke, consume red meat or junk food, loves to hike and spend time in nature, and has abundant energy for her work running a global educational non-profit.
But biology, we’ve learned, is destiny, at least in terms of our bodies.
Her mother, her father, her older brother and several of her cousins have all had major cardiac issues. That means, the cardiologists have repeatedly stressed, that her familial genetic history plays an enormously important role in determining how her blood flows through her arteries. For those of us unlucky in the genetic lottery, our bodies naturally produce the type of cholesterol that clogs arterial walls and eventually creates heart attacks. That process, one physician told us, begins at about age five. Lifestyle and stress and other factors can advance or retard the disease process; but not entirely change or stop it.
This big event in our lives has had three major impacts on my wife and I:
It has brought the fragility of life and the inevitability of death quite a bit closer for both of us. We’ve updated our wills, our advance directives and our thinking about how imminent our transition to the next world might be. We’ve realized, as everyone should every day, that our bodies all have an expiration date. The thought of your own demise, as the old saying goes, tends to focus the mind.
We’ve paid much closer attention to relationships—the love and good wishes of close friends; the powerful ties to family; even the new connections to people we’ve never met before, especially the kindness and selfless dedication of the nurses and doctors who’ve taken care of my wife’s tender and generous heart.
Then, as we continue and intensify our daily spiritual practice of meditation, prayer and reading the Baha’i teachings, we’ve both begun to notice, more than ever before, the ubiquitous references to the heart, not only in the Baha’i writings but in the scriptures of all Faiths. Throughout religion, we’ve learned, the concept of the human heart has enormous importance.
What does religion have to do with the heart? The Baha’i teachings say that God’s mission, in every revelation and religion, centers on creating love for the Divine in our hearts:
The goal of all Faith, Baha’u’llah says in this admonition to the kings and rulers of the world, has nothing to do with the political life of humanity. Instead, its purpose revolves around our hearts—on what we love, how we express that love, and why we should expand it to include all of creation. Faith intends, most of all, to create a loving and tender heart in each person.
With this heartfelt love in mind, this week I began the process of seeking out references to the heart in the Baha’i writings and trying to better understand their meanings. I found an enormous treasure trove:
The Word of God is the king of words and its pervasive influence is incalculable. It hath ever dominated and will continue to dominate the realm of being. The Great Being saith: The Word is the master key for the whole world, inasmuch as through its potency the doors of the hearts of men, which in reality are the doors of heaven, are unlocked. – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 173.
All praise be to the one true God — exalted be His glory — inasmuch as He hath, through the Pen of the Most High, unlocked the doors of men’s hearts. Every verse which this Pen hath revealed is a bright and shining portal that discloseth the glories of a saintly and pious life, of pure and stainless deeds. – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 88.
O my brother! A divine Mine only can yield the gems of divine knowledge, and the fragrance of the mystic Flower can be inhaled only in the ideal Garden, and the lilies of ancient wisdom can blossom nowhere except in the city of a stainless heart. – Baha’u’llah, The Book of Certitude, p. 191.
These beautiful allusions, references and symbols, all focused on the human heart–that wonderful seat of our emotional and spiritual lives–made me want to explore the idea even more closely. This series of essays, then, is dedicated to learning more about our hearts.