What does your Heart tell you?

Brenda Rockell
Sunday, 16 November 2008



Watch video clip from the Return of the King: Aragorn and Gandalf...'what does your heart tell you?' 'that Frodo is alive...'


Normally I would find this kind of scripting very difficult to take. It's the kind of line that I'd expect in a romantic comedy...somebody has a decision to make, between two choices of partner, wallpaper, wedding dress, whatever. And they're counselled to search inside their heart for the answer, which will always, of course be the right decision leading to 'happily ever after'. I'm a 'T' on the myers-briggs. That kind of approach to decision making drives me barmy. Moreover, I believe that when most people consult their 'hearts', they're actually consulting their sentimental ideas, their feelings, their compulsions, their projections, their neuroses and their wants, rather than asking for guidance from a genuinely reliable source within the self.


But here it is 'What does your heart tell you?' - deep in the midst of one of my favourite films, uttered by the heroic and not very rom-com Aragorn, of Gandalf, who should know better. It turns out, though, that 'knowing better' is the point of this line, and actually very fitting for Gandalf, who of all the characters can be expected to have a source of 'knowing' that goes beyond mere observation. In fact, Aragorn invites Gandalf to search within himself for knowledge that he couldn't possibly gain from an empirical source. Is Frodo, on the other side of Middle Earth, alive? How could Gandalf know? Is it just wishful thinking? What is this 'heart' of his, that could give him reliable information on this point? Just what is involved in wizard training, anyway?


Here are three vignettes from the gospel of John.


1. Philip brings his friend Nathanael to meet Jesus. When Jesus sees Nathanael coming, he says: 'Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.' When Nathanael asks how Jesus could possibly know anything about him, Jesus tells him that 'I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.' Forget 'Sensing Murder', this is 'Sensing potential disciples'.


2. Jesus sits at a well with a Samaritan woman. He tells her 'you have had five husbands, and the person you're living with now isn't your husband.' The woman's response? 'Sir, I see you are a prophet', she says and runs off to tell everyone in the village that there's a man who told her stuff about her life that he couldn't have known...


3. Mary and Martha send word to Jesus to tell him that their brother Lazarus is ill. Jesus stays away for some days. Eventually, he tells his disciples, in essence - 'Ok, Lazarus is dead now, I'm going there to raise him up.' Which he does.


I don't know what you do with these parts of the gospel narratives that seem to give Jesus special powers of 'knowing things'. Do you put them into the realm of miracle...something that God zapped him with from time to time, in order to help his followers believe? Or do you see them as moments where Jesus' 'son of God' superpowers overwhelm his earthly self? Or do you do textual analysis, crediting the gospel writers with boosting the narrative with these supposed moments of 'foreknowledge' in order to illustrate Jesus' distinct call and identity?


I've been enjoying, recently, thinking that maybe what Jesus demonstrates here is an advanced and integrated use of a spiritual gift that is available to all of us. Namely - the gift of listening to our hearts. Or seeing round corners. Some people call it prophecy. Maybe there's a way of knowing in this world that uses more of us than our eyes and our rational minds. A way of knowing that taps into the essential connectedness of all people and all life, and that draws on depths of ourselves and the Spirit of God within us.


What is this 'heart' that might know things beyond what our mind knows? As I said earlier, I'm reasonably suspicious of the 'follow your heart' motif in our culture, which really means 'follow the wants of your ego, even if that means breaking your commitments and hurting other people.' And I, like many of you, have been in situations in the church where I've been told that my mind is getting in the way of the action of God's Spirit within me, as though human thoughtfulness or intelligence is somehow a problem for God. So, let me be quite clear that when I'm talking about the heart, I'm not talking about our emotions, or, as the desert fathers called them, our 'passions.' If I feel panic, or rage, for example, when my will is crossed, or my routine interrupted, listening to my heart would not mean to act out that panic or rage into the world. Panic and rage are signs that I'm being acted on by my small self, my ego self, and that I've tripped a personal land mine. They're not signs that I'm in touch with my authenticity. Likewise with feelings that might be perceived as more positive, like attraction, or happiness.


The 'heart' that I'm talking about is a more religious idea - it's present in most religious traditions. It's the antenna that orients us toward God. The Sufi teacher Kabir Helminski says:


'In addition to the limited analytic intellect is a vast realm of mind that includes psychic and extrasensory abilities; intuition; wisdom; a sense of unity; aesthetic, qualitative, and creative capacities; and image-forming and symbolic capacities...This total mind we call "heart". (Kabir Helminski, quoted in Bourgeault, the Wisdom Way of Knowing)



Jesus talked often of the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven. I've spoken before about how I don't believe this idea refers to a place, nor to a state we enter when we die. Nor do I believe it refers to the church. There are many other ways of conceiving of the kingdom of heaven and if you look at the various ways Jesus uses the phrase it seems as though he meant more than one thing by it. One thing he may have meant, and that relates to this 'heart' idea, is that the kingdom of heaven is a dimension of reality, a realm that lies alongside and interpenetrates this physical reality, that has to be seen or recognised in order to enter into it. That is, we enter the kingdom of heaven in those moments when our awakened or attuned heart allows us to see the reality that lies beyond our normal vision. This is the realm where attention, prayer, and love have power to change things. This is the realm where we know that someone we love has died even though we're apart from them, or that the person we're talking to is honest - or dishonest, or where we have a dream that tells us about a part of us that needs healing, or when we look at someone and know that they are covering up their pain.


Cynthia Bourgeault says: 'to realise the kingdom of heaven here and now...is really a matter of developing a kind of x-ray vision that can look right through the physical appearance of things and respond directly to their innermost aliveness and quality.'


To express these ideas in more familiar Christian language...when God's Holy Spirit comes to dwell within and work inside us, our hearts begin to attune to God. If we allow, and create space for this work, and if we are faithful in the practices that invite this work of the Spirit, our perceptions are shaped and renewed to include the 'more' - the dimension of life beyond our five senses and beyond the narrowness of our intellect.


For those of you who have a 'how does that work' approach to slightly spooky things, and don't enjoy 'it's a spiritual mystery' as an answer, here is a way of thinking about how this 'heart knowing' might lead to insight that appears seemingly out of nowhere.


Firstly, many of the world's religious traditions, and now recent discoveries in quantam physics, tell us that the sense we have of living in a world of physical distinctness and separateness is an illusion. That is, I don't stop where my body seems to stop, and you are not separate from me. On the level of subtle energy, we are joined, we belong to a whole, we are part of a unity. We experience this when we're born - very young children don't know where they stop and start, their consciousness is one with their mother and the world around them. But, right from the word go, we teach them to see themselves as distinct - and of course they are, and there's nothing wrong or unspiritual about making distinctions and coming into self-awareness, or self-consciousness.


However, as we develop our ego, we begin only to think in terms of difference, not connectedness. Part of learning to consult the 'heart', or the 'large mind' is to learn to draw once again on the reality that separateness is only a partial and limited description of how things are. When we begin to form spiritual perception, we can learn to travel in our hearts out along the web that connects us, and to 'know' things beyond our edges.


Cynthia Bourgeault offers a useful analogy of two different ways of 'navigating' through the world...she likens following the promptings of the heart to sailing in a fog. Imagine that our normal awareness and normal ways of thinking and knowing are like sailing on a clear day. You can see your destination, or at least landmarks on the way. You can set your course, look up, and watch yourself arrive where you're going. Sailing in the fog, however, requires a totally different set of skills. You have to attend to the things immediately around you, sensing where the ripples and the swell change depending if you're in deep or shallow water, navigating by the scent of the trees on land, or the quality of sound. You have to be totally and sensually present to where you are, and notice things that normally go totally unnoticed.


As Bourgeault says, almost nobody chooses to go sailing in fog. We all prefer to navigate our world by techniques that are familiar, and reliable, ones that have made us successful. However, this life has a way of shoving us around from time to time, so that things we thought were reliable suddenly aren't, and we get confronted with just how confined and limited our usual methods are. Our ordinary ways of thinking will get us a long way. But they won't necessarily lead us into the kingdom of heaven, and they won't necessarily serve us when we're 'slammed against the wall', and all that we have yearned for turns out to be a sham. At these times, when we experience the longing for something more, or when we need to draw on resources that we've never needed before, there is a path to follow, of learning to listen to what our hearts know.


Some of us may have a sudden and overwhelming entry into this gift of knowing with the heart. Through the Spirit, God might suddenly open up a whole world of insight, images, dreams and visions and a core sense of connectedness and spiritual intuition. But I believe this heart way of knowing actually exists in all of us, and we can increasingly access it through the practice of disciplines that attune our hearts, and that decrease the noise coming from our habitual ways of perceiving, our ordinary awareness. The practices of meditation, sacred reading, and chanting are ancient disciplines that have for hundreds of years opened up portals into heart knowledge for those who practice them. I believe that Jesus practised them. Maybe Gandalf did too.


I am going to pray a prayer that invites God to journey with us into learning what our hearts have to tell us, and then play a track to give us a little space for reflection.


Our God,

Teach us to see again, with the eyes of our hearts.

Teach us to hear again, with the ears of our hearts.

May your Spirit who indwells us awaken our hearts,

and stir us to your call and your knowing.

May we learn to let go of our habits,

our chattering, noisy, mechanical selves,

that we may attune to what our hearts know,

and act on what our hearts tell us.

Show us how to nourish our hearts,

and give us the courage to follow our hearts,

and to speak the truth of our hearts,

for the healing of our world.



Note: For many of the ideas in this sermon I am indebted to Cynthia Bourgeault, and in particular her book 'The Wisdom Way of Knowing'.