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“Take Away My Heart Of Stone and Give Me a Heart Of Flesh”

I picked up Thomas Merton’s last book, Contemplative Prayer, which I am starting to read, and the foreword by our good Quaker friend Douglas Steere brought back to my memory a strange incident in my life. He quotes William Blake: “We are put on earth for a little space that we may learn to bear the beams of love.” And he goes on to say that to escape these beams, to protect ourselves from these beams, even devout men hasten to devise protective clothing. We do not want to be irradiated by love.

Suddenly I remembered coming home from a meeting in Brooklyn many years ago, sitting in an uncomfortable bus seat facing a few poor people. One of them, a downcast, ragged man, suddenly epitomized for me the desolation, the hopelessness of the destitute, and I began to weep.  I had been struck by one of those “beams of love,” wounded by it in a most particular way. It was my own condition that I was weeping about – my own hardness of heart, my own sinfulness. I recognized this as a moment of truth, an experience of what the New Catechism calls our “tremendous, universal, inevitable and yet inexcusable incapacity to live.” I had not read that line when I had that experience, but that is what I felt. I think that ever since then I have prayed sincerely those scriptural verses: “Take away my heart of stone and give me a heart of flesh.” I had been using this prayer as one of the three acts of faith, hope and charity. “I believe, help Thou my unbelief.” “In Thee have I hoped, let me never be confounded.” “Take away my heart of stone and give me a heart of flesh,” so that I may learn how to truly love my brother because in him, in his meanest guise, I am encountering Christ.

Perhaps I knew in that moment in the bus in Brooklyn what St. Augustine meant when he cried out, “May I know myself so that I may know Thee.” Because I felt so strongly my noth-ingness, my powerlessness to do anything about this horrifying recognition of my own hardness of heart, it drove me to the recognition that in God alone was my strength. Without Him I could do nothing. Yet I could do all things in Him Who strengthened me. So there was happiness there, too. The tears were of joy as well as grief.

These to me are incidents in the realm of the supernatural – these sudden overwhelming insights, or recognition of Love and the abyss of nothingness, of emptiness into which we would sink if we were not upheld by Christ’s loving hand.

I have thought many times since that I would hesitate to ask God to “let me know myself,” remembering the unbearable pain, as well as the joy of that experience. What if the joy did not come?

But more and more I see that prayer is the answer, it is the clasp of the hand, the joy and keen delight in the consciousness of that Other. Indeed, it is like falling in love. (From Dorothy Day: Selected Writings: By Little and By Little, edited by Robert Ellsberg).

As Dorothy said on another occasion about visitors to the Catholic Worker and how they could better understand it:

People have come here and worked with us and they tell us, after awhile, that they learned a lot and are grateful to us, but they disagree with us on various matters… We feed the hungry, yes, we try to shelter the homeless and give them clothes, if we have some, but there is a strong faith at work: we pray. If an outsider who comes to visit doesn’t pay attention to our praying and what that means, then he’ll miss the whole point of things.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXXIV, No. 1, January-February 2013.