Despite Closed Hearts – Ro Atilano, SJ

John 20:19-31, Divine Mercy Sunday

door to heart

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 magnanimous enough to love God’s people. However, there are times when the door of this heart is closed. And there could be valid reasons why this door is closed. For some, it is closed because someone has closed it for them. Deep hurt and trauma can bar this door, forcing the person to hide within, with fear and paranoia. For others, it may be closed only temporarily because the heart is grieving. For others still, it is not just ready to be opened but waiting for the right time. Indeed, there are reasons why some doors are closed.  

Whenever I do my annual 8-day retreat, I usually spend the first two days resting and sleeping in order to regain my usual strength and recharge my body. Only then am I able to enter smoothly into prayer. That is usually 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 but my mind kept wandering freely and aimlessly. I tried all the usual breathing and body exercises to pacify my mind; yet, I felt like I was banging the bronze doors of heaven and no one was there on the other side. In fact, I actually felt tired despite the oversleeping and resting. I could not understand why I could not focus and why I felt exhausted. So I stopped trying and decided to surrender my efforts to the Lord. Perhaps I just had to accept that this particular retreat was going to be uneventful 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 some resentments within. So I talked to God about them and how they had made me become self-righteous, cold, and lonely.  That night,after re alizing where my exhaustion was coming from, I opened Pope Francis’ book, 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.”

Pope Francis said that the grace of God can enter even closed hearts! God will try His best to find that small crack between the two slabs of the wooden door of our hearts where He can enter. My hands were shaking and I broke down weeping. I heard myself pouring out my heart to God and asking 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 fresh air entered into my heart once again. I felt free.

And there God was! He was able to enter into my heart despite its closed door. He found that small opening, that crack, that broken part of my heart. 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, the door was 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. It is translated as “mercy,” “kindness,” “faithfulness,” “goodness,” “loyalty,” and “steadfast love.” It is the unconditional love of God, a love that never changes nor falters, a love that pursues the beloved even if the beloved is undeserving. 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 heart. 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 his weary disciples despite their closed doors and showing His wounds in order to heal Thomas’ 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 the many closed doors, the Easter light which came into the world will penetrate into those cracks between the wooden slabs, even in those times when we prefer darkness to light, even in those times when we are seemingly unprepared to open our doors.

This is the sixth week that we are on enhanced community quarantine. We stay inside our houses and lock the doors. We really do not know when or how this pandemic will end. We fear that this might even get worse. Just like the disciples in our Gospel, we are also scared, lonely, and anxious. But the season of Easter reminds us that the Risen Lord can enter into fear, loneliness, and doubt in order to accompany us in the darkness until we are ready to open our doors once again.

I guess we cannot totally fathom the mysterious ways of God’s hesed, God’s divine mercy. So as we celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday today, 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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