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The Fault in Our Hearts

6:00:00 AMAnna Smith

There’s a scene from the recent movie, The Fault in Our Stars, in which seventeen-year-old Hazel, a victim of cancer, goes to a support group in the basement of a Christian church. The participants are seated in a circle around a campy, tacky carpet emblazoned with a gaudy image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. At this point in Hazel’s battle with cancer and struggle with impending death, sharing her “feelings” in the “Heart of Jesus” is the punch line to an awful, morbid joke. So Hazel rolls her eyes and dismisses the Heart of Christ.

(Check out the rug!!!)

She turns her gaze instead to the outskirts of that carpet where she sees Augustus Waters, a fellow cancer patient and the boy she eventually falls in love with. Augustus gives her courage, faith, and the ability to share suffering with another human person and strain a little meaning, beauty, joy, and even hope out of the cup of suffering she has been forced to drink.  As I watched the movie, I applauded Hazel’s strength, her rejection of a nihilistic view of human life, and, ultimately, her ability to look past her own suffering to love someone else. But it hurt to see that, in the end, Hazel only skirted the edges of the carpet. She kept a safe distance from that other heart, the one that was portrayed as campy, sentimental, and ridiculous…the kind of imagery a washed-up, lame support group leader would use to comfort strangers in the midst of life-shattering illness.

Dietrich von Hildebrand has passed away and Hazel is fictional, but, if they were both alive today, I imagine they would enjoy a conversation with one another. I picture them sitting across from each other in the dim basement of the church.  Hazel has her arms crossed defensively and Hildebrand looks with quiet respect from her scarred arms to her buzzed hair. She is tenacious, sarcastic, biting, and tough, but she is also tired. So tired of living life under the shadow of death, without the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). They look at the pathetic representation of the Sacred Heart that separates them and Hildebrand sighs with disappointment. He recalls writing in The Heart that presenting Christ’s heart as a “mediocre, sentimental human heart” turns many people away from considering what the Sacred Heart actually is. This is exactly what he was writing about. We do not reject the Heart of Jesus because His Heart is lacking or unworthy, but because we “project our own mediocrity and pettiness into the Sacred Heart and nourish ourselves with this image.” When we try to make God into our own image, “we remain imprisoned…distorting [the Sacred Heart] to such an extent that the challenge to be transformed is lost.” A gaudy carpet depiction of the Sacred Heart does not uplift, inspire, comfort, or call to transform because it is a kitschy representation that does not demand a true value response. (See here for more about kitsch art.) The sad result is that this lame representation of the Sacred Heart actually encourages Hazel to dismiss exactly what her starving heart needs. Hildebrand cannot bear it.

(Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt)
He tells Hazel that Christ’s true heart is impossible to sentimentalize. His voice grows strong and his eyes shine as he begins to tell Hazel about Jesus' real heart, revealed through his words and actions in Scripture. Jesus’ heart is a generous heart, turning water into wine to provide abundance of joy at a wedding party. It is an aching heart, mourning as a mother mourns her wayward children: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing” (Mt. 23:37). It is a forgiving heart-- a father runs out to embrace a son that has wasted his money and rejected his love. It is a true and loyal heart, brought to bitter tears at the death of his best friend Lazarus. It is the ardent, protective heart of the Good Shepherd, the self-sacrificing, charitable heart of the Good Samaritan. It is the trembling human heart, “sorrowful even unto death,” begging God to take away the cup of suffering. Nothing about this heart is trivial. It is beautifully human, but so beautiful that it must also be divine. Made in His image and likeness, our own human hearts aren’t trivial either. He took a human heart to give His love a shape that we could understand. Made in His image, we cannot truly love unless we learn to love with His heart.

Hazel’s gaze shifts back to the technicolor carpet. That’s all fine and good. She can accept that it is good that we have hearts and it is important to value them and all that... but what happens when your heart bleeds? Is that what God wants? After all, Christ did drink the cup of suffering. He did die on a cross. Does God expect us to be like Him when He allows life to trample our hearts?

Hildebrand nods. He explains that when a conflict arises between our affective responses and God’s will, then our will must make a choice. Do we trust God’s will? Do we give our fiat? This is the truest test of love. Giving a fiat does not imply stifling the affective response of the heart. Hildebrand is clear on this point: when we lose something or someone of great value, a spouse, a child, a parent, or our own good health and security, it is natural and good that our hearts respond with a fitting emotional response. Our grief does not signify opposition to God’s will, but bears testimony to the intrinsic value of who or what we have lost. Hazel looks up. Augustus had said something similar, “That’s the thing about demands to be felt.” Hildebrand continues to explain that if our will and our heart’s affections were never at odds, then we would lose the “deep and great mission of the cross” and “we would lose our full personal character. For God loves us as persons, not as instruments.” He desires that we choose Him and His will, but He does not wish us to silence the affections of our hearts.

God does not want us to love Him with repressive, stoic, machinized hearts. Our love for Him and acceptance of His Will doesn’t imply a Kantian suppression of affective response. It requires a laying down, even of our affections, at the service of a higher value: the will of God. It requires introducing a hierarchy, with His Will taking supremacy over all other loves.  And mysteriously, His Will does not dominate, because He is the source of love. Paradoxically, uniting our wills to Christ “endows us with new freedom.” Once we accept His “yoke” we are “freed from the fear of letting [ourselves] be[come] enraptured, from the need of moderating the blissful plenitude of [our] love.” And then, all our other loves take on new life and power. Loving with the Heart of Christ takes nothing from us. Rather, our hearts become capable of greater and deeper love as the hues of holiness imbue our human affections. Hildebrand looks at Hazel’s earnest eyes and knows that she wants to love with generosity, ardor, compassion, and self-sacrificing charity. 

He wants to bring you there. He is waiting for you to let Him in, Hildebrand tells Hazel.

Be not afraid of your savior, O sinful soul. I make the first move to come to you, for I know that by yourself, you are unable to lift yourself to me. Child, do not run away from your Father; be willing to talk openly with your God of mercy who wants to speak words of pardon and lavish his graces on you. How dear your soul is to Me.

I have inscribed your name upon my hand; you are engraved as a deep wound in My Heart.” 

(Words of Jesus to St. Faustina, par 1485 from the Diary of St. Faustina).

Green, John. The Fault in Our Stars. Dutton Penguin. 2012.
von Hildebrand, Dietrich. The Heart: An Analysis of Human and Divine Affectivity. South Bend: St. Augustine Press. 2007.

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