Though I am a Buddhist these days, I suppose nobody gets out of Catholicism easily–or ever. I was raised a Catholic, and I have been obsessed with the image of the Sacred Heart for as long as I can remember. The Sacred Heart is in my mind and heart now every day–it reminds me that I have to go into the world with a broken heart, a heart brimming with too much, and that the living with one’s heart outside one’s chest is life itself.
My grandmother, who emigrated from Germany to Arkansas with her family in the 1920s, brought with her a strong faith. In her house in Subiaco, Arkansas, she stocked up on all kinds of Catholic figurines–St. Christopher riding on the dashboard of her car, tiny metal Madonna and Child peeking from every pocket, saint cards stuck in every birthday card. Disembodied praying hands on top of the television set. A scary rolly-eyed Jesus on the cross seemed to hang in every room, such an agonizing figure that I wanted to take him down and tuck him in somewhere next to my stuffed animals. I suppose that was the point.
But maybe because of the crucified agony, the figure I loved was the Jesus with a Mona Lisa smile, two fingers up, and the Sacred Heart bursting out of his blue robes.This Sacred-Heart Jesus figure was, I think, a larger one in plaster, and he might have been located in the back hall of my grandmother’s house, near the phone. This Jesus was not agonized, even though it seemed someone had started open-heart surgery and then walked away.
Other times the Sacred Heart appeared just by itself, red-orange and full, sometimes surrounded with barbed wire, on prayer cards or amulets. What I loved about the Sacred Heart was first what terrified me about it. At first it seemed super-gross; a freaking organ. I remain staunch in my belief that Catholicism is a little much for imaginative children, for whom someone should offer early explanation of the symbols. But as an adult I have more and more come to love that the heart is not bleeding, not in crisis. It just is. Jesus is just chilling out there with his heart outside his body.
Of course this would resonate with me much more after I had a child, who is now a 13-year-old constantly inventing new ways to smash himself up. The other day I watched him roll down the street on his skateboard and thought, “My heart wears a helmet and knows how to ollie. My heart grinds the curbs and rocks Independent trucks.”
My heart. Of course, it’s outside my body these days, as yours might be. I get up in the morning and the first feeling I have is the heart-catch of diagonal free-fall, the second you realize you are falling down a flight of stairs and it’s too late to grab ahold, yet too early for impact.
The Sacred Heart reminds me, too, of what I have learned in Buddhism as an adult. Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche writes in his book It’s Up To You: “In both Western and Tibetan cultures, having a big heart is associated with generosity, kindness, warmth, and compassion. In Tibetan culture, a person with a big heart is also someone with the ability and courage to hold even the most painful truths in his or her heart without becoming despondent. During difficult times, my mother used to say, ‘You need to make your heart big enough to hold a race horse inside.'”
I think this is the hard but necessary thing–now but also all the time: the challenge to not shut down in the face of the awfulness. Although it’s important to take care of ourselves and rest, there’s also courage in witnessing, and in being present. It’s so tempting to cocoon against the awfulness of the world. Hell, I do it all the time, but I then get lonely and isolated and sad.
Once I would have said that though there were concepts from the world of faith useful for social justice work, there was nothing in faith for me to fill myself back up in the face of severe challenges. But now I am just googling “sacred heart” and looking at an amazing collection of Sacred Heart images on Pinterest, looking and looking at those beauties like fruit that remind me, there is pain, and bearing pain is more than just shutting down and muscling through. There is something in letting pain touch us, being open like that plaster Jesus, like the medallion my grandmother gave me with one heart actually stabbed through with a sword (ouch). And so much like the Sacred Heart, I have a postcard that hangs in my own hallway that says, “Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of A Fist. Keep Loving, Keep Fighting,” a slogan used often in social justice work.
And maybe I get it, Grandmother. (Yeah, I actually called her Grandmother. She was kind of fierce, not the kind you’d snuggle up to with a nickname like Gammie!). I get that sometimes when life feels like daggers, you need images that remind you– deeper than words– that there is a way to bear pain and to feel pain and yet to also remain open, willing to consider the world and to consider hope, like Jesus just chilling with his very red-orange organ on fire and wrapped in barbed wire. He’s not bothered. Or like a Tibetan teacher who has a racehorse inside of his heart.
And that there’s nothing to hold onto. My grandmother’s sacred heart medal is actually disappearing, worn almost flat from contact with her skin so long ago. There’s nothing to hold onto these days in our country, it seems, but I keep remembering that we are not alone, and that so many before us found the need and the images to pull themselves forward with their hearts outside of their chests and on fire.