Musings on the Heart

The shooting in Las Vegas provoked a wide range of reactions from all corners of American society and beyond. Many are debating gun control, and others are using the tragedy to score political points. Most, I believe are stunned and saddened. How can a person just indiscriminately open fire on a crowd of people? The evil of that action boggles the mind and grieves the heart.

Some commented on social media that it is because people are turning to Satan instead of God. At the core of this there is truth, since evil certainly comes from the devil, and evil at times appears to be winning in our world and in our country. Yet this seems to imply that it takes an overt Satan-worshipper to perpetrate such an atrocity. While this might provide a modicum of comfort in a way, since one would have to go to the extreme of uttering some prayers to the fallen angel or pledging one’s being to him, I don’t believe this is necessarily the case. In the Gospel of Mark we are told that evil can have another source as well. “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery…” (Mark 7:21) It’s a matter of the heart. The heart is a very powerful thing – much more powerful than any gun.

The ancient Hebraic notion of the heart (the physical organ) is very different from what we understand it to be today. Modern physiognomy has shifted its focus from the heart as the most central organ of the body to the brain, and rightly so. The Hebrews, however, understood the heart as the center of the person – physically, intellectually, morally, and emotionally. While they may have been mistaken physiologically speaking (and there is still some truth to their notion) the idea of the heart (not the organ) as the center of the person where the intellectual and emotional life of the human person meets is still quite revealing and applicable.

We are embodied souls or en-souled bodies, not soul/body somehow united, yet somehow still separate. The two are so united that to separate them causes death. The heart is the center of our beings, the confluence of all our faculties, capacities, and energies. All the things that push and pull us flow into our hearts, and from our hearts proceed our actions. The Hebrews also saw the heart as inscrutable, hidden, and mysterious. Why did the shooter commit such a barbaric crime? What was in his heart? We would all like to know. But instead of walking away concluding that we never will on this side of eternity, let’s stop assuming that this man is so different from us and examine our own hearts for a moment.

Now, a caveat: It seems obvious that mental illness was at work in the Las Vegas shooter, so I am not saying that any of us, without any warning are likely to commit some comparable atrocity. I am also not trying to excuse his actions. But what is mental illness? There are different categories. Perhaps this man was suffering from schizophrenia and was hearing voices telling him to do the awful deed. Schizophrenia is a serious illness that is largely biologically based. But what if he were not hearing voices? What if it were a disease of the heart?

If that is the case, this tragedy likely had its beginnings years ago. There is a parable that I’ve seen around, sometimes attributed to Cherokee Indians, sometimes to other sources, that speaks to this:

A grandfather is talking with his grandson, and he tells him that there are two wolves inside of him which are always at war with each other.

One of them is a good wolf, which represents things like kindness, bravery and love. The other is a bad wolf, which represents things like greed, hatred and fear.

The grandson stops and thinks about it for a second then he looks up at his grandfather and says, “Grandfather, which one wins?”

The grandfather quietly replies, “the one you feed.”

This parable illustrates the war that goes on in each of our hearts each day, the primordial tempest that strives to blow our hearts off the course of love, communion, connection, sacrifice, and relationship toward isolation, selfishness, bitterness, anger, hatred, and violence. Somewhere along the line I imagine that in the heart of the LV shooter the winds grew too strong and he began to veer off course. The poison of concupiscence that swirls in the hearts of every man and woman infected his heart and eventually culminated in the ultimate act of violence against others and himself.

Every day we need to watch our hearts that they not be infected with that same poison. The painful things we experience from day to day can build up and begin to eat at our hearts. It is necessary to pass those experiences through the dialysis of love – striving to forgive and show compassion for others and ourselves, feeding the beautiful inclinations of the heart that so many good people exhibited in the wake of the shooting. St. Gianna Molla once said: “Love is the most beautiful sentiment that the Lord has put into the soul of men and women.” Love feeds the heart; anything else consumes it.

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