Mid-February is Valentine’s Day, college basketball and Ordinary Time limping along toward Lent. Two unrelated reflections collided inside my head this weekend and yielded a third.
The first was the overly done Valentine’s Day at my children’s school. I mean, it was Halloween on red and white steroids. Of course one can’t share a greeting with a favorite friend, but must get something for each person in the class, sleepily filling out pro forma Valentines the night before while complaining about it (I have grade school boys, after all,) and coming home that afternoon with a frog shaped box full of greetings (hastily read if read at all) and candy (hastily digested if digested at all.)
My reflection was the disproportion of complete hearts, half-heartedly given. This was surely not something the kids put their whole hearts into. It was get-er-done and eat-the-candy. It was not self-gift but a mixture of self-love and one-upmanship. I am not saying that the whole class or school did it that way, just my little guys. But it led me to muse about the irony of giving a whole heart when one does not really mean it.
The second reflection was a post-game interview. As one team saved a perfect record by last second heroics, someone remarked something like “It was a struggle, but we got the ‘W’.” The fight is worth it if one gets the “W,” and not worth it if you take a loss.
The result of the reflections colliding is this: I struggle to put the “W” in “wholeheartedly.” My prayer, my parenting, my friendships, are constantly under the temptation of holding back from giving myself completely. This constant weakness in my nature is my unfortunate inheritance as a son of Adam.
I am, indeed, hole-hearted. I can’t give my all because, radically, I don’t have an “all” to give. I am fallen. I am incomplete. Without help from someone far more powerful, I can do nothing.
I can take some solace from the fact that, when given a moment to reflect, most people find themselves in this same state of hole-heartedness. It can lead to depressing thoughts like the Dowager Grantham’s observation (on last night’s episode of Downton Abbey) that “Life is a series of problems and solutions. One after another. And then you die.” Misery may love company. But it’s still misery.
Do we ever feel ahead of the game? Do we ever feel the satisfaction of a full heart? Can we ever draw a fully expansive existential breath?
T.S. Eliot speaks of such “freedom from past and future” but adds, “For most of us, this is the aim / Never here to be realised; / Who are only undefeated / Because we have gone on trying” (The Dry Salvages, 226-229)
But I also realize that, to the degree that I succumb to such disappointment, I am not a Christian. The Christian proclamation is the unexpected, undeserved, unassailable certainty of the ultimate “W.” She whose soul was blameless had her heart pierced by a sword of sorrow. He who is completeness itself assumed a heart of flesh that was pierced and perforated. And by his wounds we are healed.
So although my prayers are wheezed and pursy, though my hole-hearted life limps along breathlessly, Jesus Christ takes up the cross, my cross, and by his infinite merits, the infinite hole is my heart is healed by grace. And only the struggle united to Christ’s is worth it, because only the struggle in union with Christ’s can guarantee a “W.”
While a whole-hearted Valentine can be but a false promissory note, a Lenten Cross is a true sign of love and victory. For only a Heart, pierced and scorned, crowned with a cross, is truly afire with love, truly whole, truly Sacred.