Lift Up Your Hearts!

by Elias Blum

I was cooking supper, at the end of a long, difficult, stressful and emotionally exhausting day. As I stood over the pan of vegetables and rice, adding the cumin, chilli, cardamon and ginger, I found myself singing.

Tunelessly and absent-mindedly, these were the words that came out:

Father, hear the prayer we offer:
Not for ease that prayer shall be,
But for strength that we may ever
Live our lives courageously.

Not for ever in green pastures
Do we ask our way to be;
But the steep and rugged pathway
May we tread rejoicingly.

Not for ever by still waters
Would we idly rest and stay,
But would smite the living fountains
From the rocks along our way.

And that’s where my memory dried up. I couldn’t remember the last verse. I had to look it up in my old school hymnbook. But it doesn’t matter. The  song picked me up a bit. It fortified me. The very act of singing it, unknowingly, as if it came from a deep, half-forgotten corner of my subconscious, created within me a glimmer of the strength of which the lyrics speak.

I’ve known anxiety, depression and despair, as well as love, hope and joy. In real life we cannot expect for things to go well all the time. If we are honest in our theology, we must accept that there is no ‘Almighty Father’, no Magic Sky-Daddy who can fling the Cosmic Switch from ‘Fucked’ to ‘Sorted’.  Our problems are not going to magically disappear. All we can do is to find the strength to deal with life’s reality as we find it; not to avoid the difficulties of life, but to overcome them. This does not mean, of course, that we accept our lot passively or fatalistically. We are not merely to survive what life throws at us, but to transform the lives of others for the better. We are called not to endure brokenheartedness, but to ‘bind up’ the broken hearts; not to endure captivity, but to liberate captives. We must work in the world as it is, but for a world as it should be.

To overcome, to keep going in this struggle requires inner strength. For me, the inner strength I need most is that of ‘encouragement’ – or, translated from latinate words into plain English, the strength of a ‘high heart’, the strength to overcome the downheartedness that otherwise can crush my chest and paralyse my actions.

That inner strength is not acquired instantly or easily, but, like all virtues, by practice. I like to think of this as toning-up our ‘heart-raising’ muscles.

The liturgical line ‘Lift up your hearts!’ is expressed not just as an invitation, but also as a command. It is our duty – to ourselves, to the divine Spirit within us, and to those who depend upon us – to lift up our hearts. Just as we must decide to love, we must decide to lift up our hearts.

But we cannot lift our hearts unless we are trained for it and prepared for it. To expect us to lift hearts that are too heavy for our weakness would seem like just another burden, another ‘requirement’ against which to measure our failure. So, to the weak (and I include myself here), I say this: all you can do is your best. Lift your heart as high, and as often, as you can. But if you cannot lift it, let it lie where it is. Do not be hard on yourself, nor rack yourself with unrealistic expectations. Gather your strength, and try again later. Remember you are not relying on your strength alone, but also on the transcendent, ineffable, universal Paraclete. Sooner or later, you will raise it.

So much of what is valuable in ‘spiritual practice’ is really a form of self-training. Acts such as prayer, meditation, song and work, laughter and play, are healthy exercises that build up our inner reserves of strength. To sustain it takes self-discipline, commitment, lots of love, friendship and mutual help. There are many days when we feel like giving up, and some days when we do. But with practice, care and gentleness, we can acquire the strength to ride out the hard times, and to emerge just a little bit stronger – a just little better able to lift up our hearts when the clouds of despair and storms of difficulty next assail us. Perhaps, as in my case today, we will emerge fortified by the half-remembered words of an old song, sung tunelessly in the midst of a mundane task. It doesn’t make the bad things go away, but it helps us to see them in their proper proportion.