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With My Heart Enlightened

Last February was the 10-year anniversary of my open heart surgery to replace my aortic valve. The valve problem was caused by a congenital defect, and the time had finally had come for the replacement. Scripture, mystics, and poets say that the heart is the organ of spiritual perception. I’ve wondered if the purpose of the surgery my defective valve was ultimately to better attune my spiritual heart to God’s promptings.

Building on my long term contemplative prayer journey, I approached my surgery and recovery as a kind of spiritual practice. I had my surgery at Cleveland Clinic, an amazing medical facility that believes that healing involves our minds and spirits, not just our bodies. As part of the preparation for my surgery, the Clinic provided a CD with narrated visualizations to promote relaxation and accelerated healing. For weeks before the surgery—and even as I was being wheeled into the operating room—I went through the visualization process to relax my body and to imagine a beautiful, peaceful healing place. I felt very close to God in this inner imagined place and safe and loved in God’s hands.

Following the surgery, I looked forward to the eight week recovery period as a sort of “spiritual sabbatical” from work, with lots of time to read and reflect. And, I had a selection of books all lined up.

But after my surgery, I was surprised to discover that less was more. I gravitated to simplicity and rested in a pervasive gratitude. One or two poems or short readings were about all I could digest in a day. In that spacious openness, I felt God speaking to me through images or symbols, from readings, my imagination, or something I noticed around me.

The opening of my physical heart was leading me to a deeper connection with my spiritual heart. The passage from Ephesians puts it this way: “…that God may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you…” (1:17-18).

Images became doorways to spiritual insights and a feeling of deeper knowing and connection to God. Images have the power to short-circuit our mind and get us right to the heart of things. They can animate our receptivity to the divine presence within each of us. Paul Ricoeur, a 20th century philosopher and spiritual teacher, called images and symbols the “pivotal language of interface with the Divine.”

As I look back, there is one image that particularly stands out. On a bright, sunny spring afternoon, I was in our living room and heard a banging and rustling against one of the windows facing our front porch. When I looked, there was a bird on the outside ledge, repeatedly flapping hard against the glass. The bird looked young, though not newly hatched. I went out onto the porch to take a closer look and see whether the bird was hurt.

As I approached, the bird became very still and calm and looked at me. I noticed that the brilliant day and the bird’s image were reflected in the window almost as clearly as in a mirror. I paused, then walked over and cupped my hands under the bird’s warm little body. I was surprised how peacefully it settled into my palms. I still didn’t know whether it might have a broken wing, whether it would be able to fly. Slowly and carefully, I turned and walked to the edge of the porch and held out my hands. With a slight hesitation, the bird took off, and flew.

This powerful image became a living parable for my next steps in life. When I returned to my full time job, the culmination of a 30+ career I’d loved, it wasn’t the same. At times, I felt myself knocking against a wall. But then I would remember that warm little bird in my hand and turn in a new direction, toward a Light that was drawing me.

In my life up until that point, my spiritual journey had been on the back burner, a kind of collection of side activities. It was time to make the leap and say a whole-hearted “yes” to wherever God might lead. I gradually transitioned out of my job, but with no specific plans other than the intention to trust deeply and listen with the ears of my heart to God’s promptings. With this open receptivity, I’ve welcomed an abundance of unexpected opportunities for nurturing others’ spiritual growth as well as deepening my own: from the joys of leading spiritual groups, retreats, and labyrinth programs to the challenges of providing loving and compassionate care giving to physically and mentally declining family members.

Recently I read a quote from Howard Thurman that so aptly captures the story of my last decade. Truly, God [has been] at work expanding the boundaries of my heart.

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