As a kid I was always considered overly sensitive, that I needed toughening up, to develop another layer of skin. For a long time I attempted to do so and of course it only made things worse as I attempted to be something I am not, to harden my heart. The truth is that all I needed to do was to learn not take things so personally and to allow my sensitivity to become perhaps my greatest asset. I no longer attempt to defend my heart, instead I just allow my heart to lighten my life and pour my love out. Today my sensitivity may well be my greatest asset, my treasure, it is certainly where my heart is
I regularly meet with several colleagues. We talk about ministry; we talk about where our own lives are at; we talk about our own spiritual development. One colleague often repeats the following words when we come together.
“I honour your gods
I drink at your well
I bring an undefended heart to our meeting place
I have no cherished outcome
I will not negotiate by withholding
I am not subject to disappointment”
Oddly these words come from traditional Celtic wedding vows. Hardly romantic, but perhaps they symbolise something deeper.
For me religion and spirituality are not about being at war or in conflict and the God of my limited understanding does not want me armour plaited. I know these kinds of images appeal to many and certainly to some of my own traditional Christians friends. Not to me though and it does seem in conflict with the message I find in the Gospels.
Increasingly for me the spiritual life is about “Living with an unarmoured heart”, easier said than done I know. It is the treasure though and wherever my treasure is I have come to believe that this is also where my heart is.
How many of us spend lifetime’s building these walls that we think protect us? When in fact all we succeed in doing is block ourselves off from the love present in life, a treasure of infinite value, a pearl of great price.
To live with an open heart is to live intimately with all that is life. It is to experience life through our felt experience to not be ruled by what our minds project from our past, those disappointments and fears that have been built over a life time. To live with an unarmoured heart is about connecting with all that is there. Zen Buddhism talks about intimacy with 10,000 things, meaning intimacy with all things, all phenomena, that nothing is left out.
In “The Exquisite Risk: Daring To Live An Authentic Life” Mark Nepo talks about daring to live your whole unique self, to sing your authentic true song, and to be you unforgivingly. The key is to dare to slow down and to really feel life rather than merely manage it. Nepo encourages us to become quiet enough and open enough to listen to what truly matters; he encourages us to listen intimately to our own hearts, our loved ones, the wonders of nature; he encourages us to live with nothing held back. He shares his own journey including a battle with cancer which he overcame and which helped him understand how only by daring to embrace all that life has to offer can we come to a deeper appreciation of its meaning and beauty. The beauty of Nepo’s work is that he makes the personal universal. He speaks in a way that anyone can relate to, if they would only find the courage to open their own hearts.
Nepo does not suggest that we have to suffer in order to draw out these beautiful gifts of the heart that are within all of us, although it seems that for most of us this is the case. It is often suffering that finally humbles us enough to open up and transcend the limits of what we think we know. The key he suggests is in self-education. Since the word “educate” means to draw out to call forth what is already present within us (if only schools and places of education would learn this). In so doing we will discover the world within us and ourselves within the world. This requires us to listen to all that the world has to say and not just the thoughts going round and round in our own little worlds. It requires us to shed the skin that we are imprisoned in, to let down the armour plating to learn to live with an un-defended heart.
Nepo speaks powerfully to me, to my condition. The spiritual life is indeed a journey under the skin, beneath the surface. This takes courage to go beyond the limits of material life. It takes courage to truly engage in the exquisite risk, to live the authentic life, to join in the courageous conversation. I invite you to come and join with me on this journey under the skin, to lose the skin that you’re imprisoned in. Let us take together the exquisite risk.