June 20, 2019

The Enchanted Heart

by Peggy McDonagh

Journalist Henry Louis Mencken wrote: “An enchanted life has many moments when the heart is overwhelmed with beauty and the imagination is electrified by some haunting quality in the world or by a spirit or voice speaking from deep within a thing, a place, or a person.”

Enchantment is about being overwhelmed or captivated by something beautiful, breathtaking, or heart-lifting such as a stirring novel, a mountain view, a walk through the forest, a falling star, a symphony, or a brilliant sunset. We can be fascinated by people as well, by their way of being, their wisdom, compassion, or enthusiasm. Enchantment is what we feel when our hearts are wide open and allow us to be drawn into experiences or encounters through which we feel a profound sense of connection, wonderment, and inspiration.

Celtic mysticism considers the heart to be a metaphor for the true or authentic self, the self in which love resides; and when our hearts are enchanted, love bursts forth and infuses our actions, interactions, speech, and way of being. Spiritually speaking, the heart is often described as being either hard or soft, and the spiritual journey is an ongoing process of keeping the heart soft so that love flows freely.

Celtic spirituality teaches that enchantment exists within every heart. We certainly see this in children. When children feel valued, safe, loved, and free to be curious, their imaginations are captivated by a butterfly, a mud puddle, a bird, a dandelion, a tiny frog in the grass, a kite flying, a bubble — and even a stick. Everything is new, mysterious, and fascinating. Very young children have soft hearts enabling them to embrace people, nature, and experiences with wonder, love and openness.

As children grow, life’s events and circumstances challenge them. Some may get bullied, experience dysfunction in their family life, struggle to feel good about themselves, or feel neglected, unloved and not safe. Many children feel anxious about the state of the world. In these ways, the enchantment begins to dissipate as anxiety and fear arise and these children begin to close off their hearts to protect themselves. Thus, begins the slow process of hardening.

As we age, disillusionment can harden the heart because of conflicting cultural messages, the stresses, speed, and busyness of everyday life, financial worries, the bombardment of negative news and worldwide conflicts, the harm and hurt caused by discrimination and hatred, and environmental concerns.

We discover that education does not always secure good jobs, marriages fall apart, and raising children can be difficult. Careers consume our time and eventually end, illnesses strike, debt overwhelms, death separates us from loved ones, and world situations alarm us. When hearts harden, disenchantment and disillusionment set in. Disillusionment creates negativity, pessimism, and fear, and as people become spiritually closed off, they can become selfish and insensitive and lack empathy and compassion.

The evidence of hardened hearts includes walls built to keep out perceived enemies, human rights violations, eradication of native languages, intolerance of diverse faiths and spiritual
traditions, family disputes, crippling marriages, sexual immorality, massive migrations of
refugees, violence, and war.

The spiritual question is, “How can we reenchant or soften our hearts so we can live with greater integrity, love, acceptance, and peace?”

Describing the metaphor of a soft or open heart, theologian Marcus Borg writes, “If what is within is to live, the egg must hatch, the shell must break, and the heart must open. If it does not, the life within dies and becomes foul-smelling and sulfuric.” We know well the odour of a bad egg, and human behaviour can be just as repulsive. The heart must break open in order for us to cast out fear in order to respond to life and to our neighbour in positive, kinder ways.

In an article entitled “Perfecting Love,” James Burklo writes, “Border walls will not cast out fear. A nuclear arms race will not cast out fear. Radically restricting immigration will not cast out fear. Keeping a gun will not cast out fear.” We have learned that segregation enhanced fear, slavery stimulated fear, and that death camps were responses of racism and fear. What we know is that hatred and racism and blaming and shaming do not cast out fear.

Burklo suggests that what casts out fear [or softens a heart] is “knowing our neighbours and showing them kindness. Welcoming strangers. Directing open, warm curiosity toward other people and toward all beings and things, even those that at first glance may seem disturbing. Practicing love attracts us to kindness and distracts us from fear.”

Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello suggests that casting out fear requires that we “ruthlessly flash the light of awareness on our motives, beliefs, perceptions, emotions, needs, and our tendency to control and manipulate.” Doing so means taking full responsibility for our attitudes, actions and ways of responding to the injustices and difficult realities of life.

Love casts out fear; and when fear dissolves, the heart softens and attitudes change resulting in actions no longer motivated by hate, fear and prejudice. With and through love, soft hearts honour and respect the accomplishments, creativity, rights, and personhood of all people; and as we become kinder toward ourselves and one another, we become more accepting and loving.

I encourage you to be fierce with your love, and I invite you to cast out fear to live more compassionately as together we share this enchanted life, striving always to turn hard hearts into soft hearts.