How is your Heart doing? – Ro Atilano, SJ

John 20:19-31, Divine Mercy Sunday


How is your heart doing?

Each of us is called by God to have a heart that is always open and available for others, a heart that is big enough, magnanimous enough, to love God’s people. However, there are times when the door to this heart is closed. There could be valid reasons why this door is closed. For some, it is closed because perhaps someone has closed it for them. Deep hurt and trauma can bar this door, forcing the person to hide within with fear and paranoia. Bawal tumawid, nakamamatay. Some doors are closed only temporarily as part of their regular maintenance or self-care. Kailangan din kasi magpahinga ang puso minsan para di mapagod. Still there are doors which are not ready for opening. They are still waiting for the right time. May tamang panahon ang lahat ng bagay sa mundo. Indeed, there are reasons why some doors are closed.

Whenever I do my annual eight-day retreat, I usually spend the first two days resting and sleeping. After recovering all the missing hours of sleep, I regain my usual strength and my rejuvenated body. Only then am I able to smoothly enter into prayer and beg God for all the graces I need for the retreat. That’s normally the case for me.

But this last retreat was different.

I was already on the fifth day into the retreat and by this time, I had rested and slept all I wanted. Yet I still felt restless and agitated. I tried to focus on the Scripture passages as proposed by the retreat master yet my mind seemed to be wandering freely and aimlessly. I tried all the breathing and body exercises to pacify my mind, yet I felt I was banging on the bronze doors of heaven and no one was there on the other side. In fact, I still felt tired despite all the sleep and rest. I could not understand why I could not focus and why I was so exhausted. So I decided to stop trying and just surrender my efforts to the Lord. I thought perhaps I just had to accept that this particular retreat was going to be uneventful, unfruitful, and undramatic. So I found myself talking to God about my exhaustion. Then I realized that my exhaustion was not physical.

When I looked closely into my heart, I found resentments residing within and saw the door closed. So I talked to God about it and how it had made me self-righteous, cold, and lonely. That night after realizing where my exhaustion was coming from, I opened the book of Pope Francis, The Name of God is Mercy, and read: “It’s true, that’s how it is. It’s a good example of the lengths to which God goes to enter the heart of man, to find that small opening that will permit him to grant grace. He does not want anyone to be lost.” He said that the grace of God can enter even closed hearts, for God will try His best to find that small crack between the two slabs of the wooden door of one’s heart where He can enter. My hands were trembling and warm tears welled up in my eyes. I broke down and wept. I poured out my heart to God and asked for His forgiveness. Then I felt all my self-righteousness and pride flowing away like pus from a stubborn abscess. That night, I felt I was healed from a long paralysis and hyperventilation, and fresh air entered into my heart once again.

And there God was! He was able to enter into my heart despite its closed door. He found the small opening, the crack, that broken part of my heart where He entered. He was not there when I was banging the doors of heaven for Him to show up. He was there when I surrendered my will and allowed forgiveness to dwell in my heart. And there God found me. And when I looked again into my heart, I saw the door already open.

With this conversion-of-the-heart experience of mine, I remember the Hebrew word hesed. There is no exact English equivalent for this word though it is oftentimes translated as mercy. It also appears as “kindness,” “faithfulness,” “goodness,” “loyalty,” and “steadfast love.” It is God’s attribute of Himself and His relationship to His people. In Psalm 23:6, the psalmist declares that the Lord’s goodness and hesed will pursue him all the days of his life. During my retreat experience, God’s goodness and mercy followed me despite my closed heart. His grace was able to change my heart of stone back into a heart of flesh. His grace flowed into me despite my closed door. God did not give up on me. He pursued me even when I stopped pursuing Him.

Today we hear the story of our Risen Lord appearing to the disciples despite closed doors and showing Thomas His wounds in order to heal his doubts. This is the beautiful image of Easter, an open door, an empty tomb. This is the good news of Easter: Jesus rising from the dead to new life and breaking the chains of the locked doors of our hearts. And yes, despite closed doors, the Easter light can penetrate into those small cracks between the wooden slabs of our closed doors, even in those times when we prefer darkness to light, even in those times when we are seemingly unprepared to open our doors.

I guess we could not totally fathom the mysterious ways of God’s hesed, God’s divine mercy. Let us continue to beg for God’s grace to assist us in opening our doors to the people around us and freeing us from the chains which we ourselves have placed around our hearts. We also beg for the grace of patience with ourselves and for the gentle healing movement of the Holy Spirit within our hearts.

How is your heart doing?

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