Vanity melts in the heat of virtue’s soft heart

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By Fran Salone-Pelletier, Religion Columnist

With a friend like Qoheleth, who needs an enemy? Hot, dog days of August are here and are already lending themselves to a unique kind of humid desperation and inertia without hearing the not-so-pleasant message that all is vanity, even the restlessness of a sleep deprived mind! I guess there is a fine line drawn between being realistic and dwelling in negativity. At any rate, the radical optimist in me finds it difficult to be in the presence of people whose being exudes continually bad news in the name of realism.
At the same time, perhaps the rising temperatures might also give us pause to think in terms of another intensity: the powerful need we have to “set our heart on what pertains to higher realms where Christ is seated at God’s right hand.”  [Col. 3:1]
It is fairly easy to set our heads to loftier sites. We all know the right things to do and say, as well as those that ought not be done or said. Accurate knowledge is attainable and available from all sorts of sources. Minds can be changed with minimal effort. Even if it takes a bit longer and requires the swallowing of some pride, gaining a new mindset is not a terribly sacrificial action. Hearts, however, are a different matter.
There is a certain passion to a change of heart. It is much more than performing new actions. It is a whole new attitude. An essential shift of focus, perspective, and direction is required. In fact, our “hardheadedness” is more likely a “hard-heartedness.”
The voice of God is calling us to radical transformation. It is not just a challenge to improve. God’s call — and our vocation — is to respond from the roots of our being. We are to become new people, from the inside out. Obviously, this is a lifetime commitment to a daily process. Nobody ever changes overnight! Even St. Paul’s “miraculously spontaneous” conversion occurred over a span of time, part of which was spent both in blindness and being led by others! God’s command is to put to death all that does not have or emit a life based on God’s will.
There lies the heart of our focus, the vitality of our existence, and the source of our evaluation. We are to be first responders on the human scene, bringing with us whatever is needed to sustain and encourage God’s life in all. The standard of sanctity is not sinlessness, but deathlessness! It demands a dying to self and a rising to God.
Obviously, that does not mean that we may continue blissfully on a sinful path. A killing field is involved. There are evils that must be put to death. We need to stop lying to ourselves and each other. That’s it, in a nutshell. Unless we admit that God is not everything in and for all of us, we will continue to state a holiness we have not yet learned by heart! When we allow those words to be solely theological thoughts, knowledge is gained but our hearts have not softened.
Soft hearts are both malleable and vulnerable. They bleed easily and often, pained with the suffering brought by injustice and inhumanity. Soft hearts also see beyond the appearances of difference, going to the core of our common union. Soft-hearted persons cannot relax, eat heartily, drink well, or enjoy themselves at the expense of others. They are “ill at ease” when others are “dis-eased.”
I watch Hubby Dear ache with the suffering brought before our eyes as we watch the nightly news. Each swollen belly is an indictment against our bounty. Each mortally wounded or broken body creates a wincing pain in our protected, sofa-bound flesh. The geographic distance that separates us from those hurting peoples vanishes into a heart-filled presence that incorporates the pain and blesses it with care and compassion.
Someone with a soft heart “avoids greed in all its forms,” as the Lucan author states. He or she is acutely aware of the reality that greed is most insidious when it is buried deep in one’s subconscious. We can be voraciously searching to possess power or prestige while convincing ourselves that we are only looking to do good for others. In our need to be helpers, we bind others with cords of dependency. Though this greediness grants us considerable wealth, it also consumes the freedom God offers. “Looking good” to others, we may have adulation, position, and control, but   possessions do not guarantee life!  Too often, they posit death.
By contrast, someone with a soft heart seeks constantly to be “formed anew in the image of the Creator.” This is our sole goal in life. Paradoxically, it is also our inheritance. Children of God, we want only to be formed and re-formed into the God who made us. Nothing else has real value or virtue.
No one can force us to accept this gift. Nor is it possible for us to demand it from any one. Demands are fruitless when the gift is free for the asking and taking. All we can do is defy the vanity of an existence that holds us captive to anything that is not authentically life giving. We disobey the call of death heard in stubbornness, selfishness, possessiveness, and struggle for power — allowing God to chip away at our rock hard refusal to listen, learn, discern, and love.
Instead of handing out quick, inflexible answers, we need to become questioners. Rather than telling God — or anyone else — what to do, it is necessary to ask their aid and support in becoming the persons we were always meant to be.
These are the torrid thoughts with which we suffer in summer’s heat. Perhaps they will serve as a reminder that the fiercest heat we face is the dry iciness of an existence devoid of God. It is the definition of hell once given by a little child: “Hell is where God ain’t — and that’s what burns you up.”  
Heaven is where God is — and that’s what frees you up! “So, if today you hear God’s voice, harden not your hearts.” To do otherwise, is to discover sadly that all things are vanity!

Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of “Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives,” lead chaplain at Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center, religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer and grandmother of four. She can be reached at grammistfran@gmail.com.