A couple of years ago, a good friend, near to whom I formerly lived, now living several hours away from me, wrote informing me about a debilitating physical condition that had recently begun attacking the integrity of his body. Upon diagnosis, he was immediately admitted into the care of an NHS hospital. Sensing his distress, I shared this “blessing-prayer” with him.
May the Lord’s shalom enfold
and keep you, amidst this trial.
May you encounter fresh grace
amongst staff and friends.
May your physical body receive mortal strength
from your spiritual life.
May your spirit be refreshed
by heavenly manna.
May you find yourself restored
and once more ‘at home’ in your body.
May your body find rest;
heart and hearth once more in harmony.
My friend subsequently enquired about the meaning and significance of hearth, in the context of the blessing. These are some of the ideas I shared with him.
In historic and modern usage, a hearth is a brick- or stone-lined fireplace, with or without an oven, used for heating and originally also used for cooking food.
hearth — the floor of a fireplace: a cheerful fire burning in the hearth; the area in front of a fireplace: they were sitting around the hearth; used as a symbol of one’s home: he left hearth and home to train in Denmark.
For centuries, the hearth was an integral part of a home, usually its central and most important feature, such that the concept became generalised to refer to a home or household, as in the terms “hearth and home” and “keep the home fires burning.”
It is this symbolic and metaphorical sense of hearth that particularly inspires me. Clearly it shares a root with the word heart. So we have the imagery of a hearth at the heart of the home. A place around which people gather, to be warmed, physically and spiritually.
To me, this imagery evokes a sense of what a strong, generous, hospitable human heart is able to provide. It becomes a source of emotional and spiritual warmth. Of welcome. Of fellowship. Like a fire in the hearth, such a presence does not dominate visitors. Rather it facilitates rest, relaxation and conversation. It warms the hearts of those who gather around it.
Heart and hearth in harmony
The juxtaposing of heart and hearth extends this imagery and metaphor. It invites the thought that our home can be a place where our hearts are warmed and find both spiritual and natural rest.
Heart and hearth in harmony suggests a home in which the human heart is at peace. Even if we don’t have an actual fireplace, our home is still potentially our “hearth”—our source of warmth, encouragement, mutuality and fellowship; the place where our sense of vulnerability recedes deeply into the background.
Is our home a place of harmony and restfulness? A place that welcomes us in daily, after we spend ourselves in the world? It is a place in which we feel at peace, in harmony with ourselves? With other members of our household? Are we at-one therein?
Being at-one within our homes maybe an essential, but undervalued component of the yearning for wholeness. Out of the lived experience of homely harmony, there is the opportunity for our human heart to become a source of living, loving warmth to others.
Visitors to a home where heart and hearth are harmoniously united sense they are welcome and draw upon the radiant warmth that is exuded. Even when we are separated from our homely hearth, those who are “visitors to our heart” may still sense a fiery warmth residing within us.
Such a harmonious uniting of heart and hearth, I suggest, is the elusive quality we sometimes call integrity. Much more than mere honesty, integrity refers to something integrated in a wholesome way:
integrity — integrated; possessing wholeness; having a unity or an “at-oneness” with regards to ourselves (our heart) and our place in the world (hearth, vocation);
integer — a whole number or a thing complete in itself
How then, does heart and hearth become deeply, harmoniously united? Consider the possibility of atonement. Traditionally, a religious concept, I suggest that it can be understood as something quite accessible and intimately related to integrity and wholeness.
(N.b: the root word, religio—from which comes religion—refers to reconnection: ligio, from ligament; re-ligio → re-ligament → reconnection. Authentic religion is intended to spiritually and socially reconnect people and communities, in the way that ligaments connect the muscles and bones of the body.)
Harmony through atonement
atonement — “at-one-ment”; to be united with another, in heart and spirit
Atonement refers to a process of being authentically reconciled to another, such that our unity, our wholeness is restored. We are no longer at war with ourselves, nor with others; neither fear nor ego, insecurity or selfishness block the way towards authentic alliance and love expressed towards and received from others.
Human integrity comes from experiencing atonement, which is to say becoming at-one with:
- our humanity (our heart)
- our place in the world (our hearth)
- our vocation (our giving of our selves: inviting others into our heart and home, to serve them, or taking our “fiery hearts” out into the world to serve others).
For this to become a reality is not straightforward: it requires a significant letting-go of the things we mistake for real life. Things that undermine rather than enhance a life of abundance—by which, I trust it’s clear, I mean a spiritual, rather than merely material abundance.
Atonement requires giving up our sense of absolute self-importance. It requires listening to others with our hearts, not merely our heads. It requires letting go of the idols that have grown up, like weeds, choking the true humanity within our hearts. It requires us to forgive our own failures, as well as those of others. It requires a humble embrace of the heart we have, in all its weakness and lack of integrity.
It means: no longer playing hide-and-seek with our inner realities; acknowledging the gods we worship; naming the shadows that so readily shroud our hearts and minds, limiting us from a fulfilling experience of life in all its breadth.
At-one-ment also requires humble acceptance of the boundary-lines that constrain us—sometimes appropriately, sometimes only because we allow them to. There are limits to our talents and time and energy that we must acknowledge; we cannot keep giving of ourselves out of a vacuum, pushing ourselves on to achieve or reach what is out of our reach. At the very least, we must acknowledge what is lost by the pursuit of what is costly and difficult to achieve.
I do not imply that any of these things are easy. Only that they are essential to the process of wholeness, atonement, integrity. However long the transformation takes.
The loss of integrity
The same imagery, of heart and hearth, works in reverse to explain why we sometimes feel bereft and helpless when away from the familiarity of our hearths (i.e. homesick). When this happens, the source of our comfort and relaxation is gone. We have been rent from the place of our restfulness—sometimes suddenly, even violently, following a crisis, such as an emergency or the diagnosis of disease (dis-eased: no longer at-ease); sometimes it happens slowly, creeping-up upon us, like loneliness.
At such times, we need to draw warmth from somewhere else. In times past, this was understood and a home-away-from-home could be found amongst many institutional settings. Nowadays, there is a crisis of practically all institutional contexts. For example: there was a time when hospitals were set up to provide a significant measure of inter-personal care. Sadly this is rarely the case today. Clinical requirements take priority over the emotional care and comfort of patients. Hospital easily become daunting, alien environments for vulnerable people, like my friend, as he contemplated his need for care following his unanticipated diagnosis.
The experience of post-modernity has taught us that institutions cannot be trusted. There is a loss of integrity in so many of them, that we cannot, dare not trust our integrity to them. There are no hearths in sight. Or, if there are, they are cold and the fire has gone out. So: to where might we turn when we sense a need for reconnection? Faced with such a prospect, the only hope for people such as my friend is to draw warmth from the comfort and encouragement of friends, colleagues and associates, maybe fellow patients, perhaps an occasional chaplain visit. I encouraged my friend:
You are someone who has offered this kind of fellowship to others. Now you must draw on the warmth that others provide, to ensure that the warmth of your own heart does not suffer unduly from the shrill wind represented by this disease attacking your body’s integrity. Open your heart to those who offer to come alongside you and draw warmth from their concern for you. I encourage you to share not only the clinical details of your disease, but also to share the vulnerability that your heart is experiencing, in response to your present experience.
It is when we sense we cannot continue alone that we find we must (again) take the risk of revealing our sense of personal vulnerability. In this post-modern age, where trust is the rarest of commodity, particularly for those whose trust has been badly abused, by others, including institutions, this is so often genuinely hard to do. But the prize is a rediscovery of our capacity for atonement. To become at-one with:
- ourselves — including all our weakness and vulnerability and incapacity…
- others — whose care is incomplete, because they too are vulnerable and weak…
- our place in the world — our own hearth, rekindled with fresh fire…
- our vocation — the call to be all that we can be, sharing our heart and hearth with others…
…so that day-by-day, we are nourished by the warmth of our own hearts and that of others and the world is, once more, enriched by our presence.
May you find yourself restored
and once more ‘at home’ in your body.
May your body find rest;
heart and hearth once more united.