The Heart of Life

One word or image that has recurred over and over again is that of heart, from little emojis to songs to book titles. The Latin word is cor which, I think, gets at its inner meaning, the core or inmost centre of ourselves or of anything. Following this same direction, theologian Karl Rahner speaks of heart as well as the centre of unity in a person from which all that is within the person flows and to which all is gathered back into that unity. It is a unity that is a fullness rather than an onliness.

We have previously quoted Eva Rockett who, in a Homemakers article, says that beautiful music is able to reach behind all our defences and touch the core of the condensed self. We have also spoken of that core self as the home place, surrounded by other layers of the self. Anything that is able to reach behind those layers and reach the centre is something that touches the heart, that, so to speak, hits home to us.

In Greek mythology, arrows which reach the heart are associated with Artemis, Apollo, and Eros or Cupid. Artemis is associated with birth and death, with the protection and hunting of nature; Apollo with sickness and healing; and Eros with love. If we try to integrate these elements, they suggest to me that these are experiences which touch us at the core. Birth and death mark the beginning and end of our lives. Once when I gave a talk to hospital staff, and an elderly nun who was also a retired nurse told me how she witnessed the death of an old man in the morning and the birth of a child in the afternoon, and how the feeling level of both experiences was uncannily similar. It strikes me that in both cases the preciousness and precariousness of life were felt at once in their inseparability.

As protector and hunter, the myth of Artemis indicates how are lives are lived out within a context of nature, a natural universe of which we are a part, and which can be at once the source of food that sustains our life and beauty that gives it meaning. Yet it can also be threatening, whether in the fury of a storm or the predatory character of some animals. Once again we experience both the preciousness and the precariousness of life. These too are reflected in the arrows of Apollo which can confer both sickness and healing. A Modern counterpart is found in the words of scientist, Carl Sagan: “For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.”

The myth of Eros and Psyche indicate that it is love which can hold all things together. The Latin name for Eros is Cupid, whose arrows of love, are often portrayed today in a sentimental and surface way. In a more fundamental sense, the arrows that pierce to the deepest heart or core of a person are those of love. The Greek word psyche can be translated not only as mind, soul, or life, but also as butterfly, which is a perennial image of transformation. It suggests that it is love which can most thoroughly transform a person and the meaning which they experience in their lives.

In our perspective, to love is to see and respond to the sacred beauty of another person and its reflection in oneself. It is to see and respond to the sacred worth of self and other, which does neither deny nor does it stop at the wounds, insecurities, or hostilities of self or other, but sees a sacred identity that is deeper than and beyond these frailties. In the story of Psyche, as in the folk tale, Beauty and the Beast, this kind of love is not blind but seeing, and involves a difficult journey to all the hidden recesses of the self, followed by a transforming awakening to a genuine love.

Along similar lines, one translation of the Jewish Song of Solomon, the lover says to the beloved, “You have wounded my heart.” This too is an indication of a love that reaches to and from the inmost core of the person.

It is fascinating that the word creed is so often taken as an expression of a set of beliefs held by the mind. The Latin root comes from two words cor and do, meaning heart and give. Your creed in this sense is what you give your heart to. It is that to which you entrust your self and your life; what you consider worthy of the gift of your whole self, your whole life; what is the foundation of your life and its meaning.

This is the lesson of the story of Rumpelstiltzkin, which comes out in one line of the story said by the dwarf who can spin straw into gold but lacks a child to love. “Something living is more precious than all the gold in the world.” It is echoed in the words of King Oedipus: “One little word can change all pain: that word is love.”

Albert Einstein says something similar in his letter to his daughter. “There is an extremely powerful force that … includes and governs all others. ..This universal force is LOVE. … This force explains everything and gives meaning to life. … When we learn to give and receive this universal energy, …we will have affirmed that love conquers all, is able to transcend everything and anything, because love is the quintessence of life.” In a similar vein, Eva Cassidy sings beautifully a song whose title is I Know You by Heart.

Finally, we may conclude with a similar teaching from the story of King Midas, as it emerged in a retelling from a conversation with my six-year-old godson.

King Midas and the Foolish Wish 

King Midas was a kind but not very wise man. He had always been a friend of the satyrs. These were part human and part horse, and companions to Dionysus, the god of wine and strong feelings. One satyr was found sleeping in the king’s flower bed, but Midas did not punish him.
Dionysus was grateful and granted Midas a wish. Without thinking, King Midas wished that everything he touched would turn to gold. He thought that this gift would make him the richest person on earth.
But when he tried to eat something, the food turned to gold and he could not eat. He was afraid that he would starve to death. While he was sitting worried and hungry, his beloved daughter came and gave him a hug, and she too turned to gold.
Midas was terribly upset and begged Dionysus to undo the wish. Dionysus granted his new wish. He was able to eat and drink again and hug his daughter.
Midas was beginning to learn that life itself and the food that keeps us alive is more important than gold. He also began to realize that love is what makes life wonderful, and that no amount of gold or wealth matters as much as love. The two greatest gifts are life itself and the love that makes life so worthwhile.

May you more and more be in touch with your heart, your inmost core, recognize its sacred worth, and live more and more from that centre.

Norman King, November 7, 2021