Soften your heart: How to keep love alive in violent times

“O Lord, remember not only men and women of good will, but also those of ill will. But do not remember all the suffering they inflicted on us. Remember the fruits we have borne thanks to this suffering: our comradeship, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of this; and when they come to judgment let all the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness.”

~ Written on a piece of wrapping paper found near the body of a dead child in Ravensbruck, the second largest concentration camp for women in the German Reich, where 92,000 women and children died in the Holocaust.

How, O my God, could a woman in this death camp write these words?

How did she find the courage to keep her heart open? To care about the eternal salvation of those at whose hands she suffered and very likely died?

Friends, today we also are living through turbulent and violent times. As we watch the social fabric of our nation disintegrate with mass shootings and watch with horrified anger at what Russia is inflicting on the Ukrainian people and the world, we may find our hearts closing. It could be that our hearts are hardening in fear or anger without our even realizing it. Whatever we are feeling, it is okay. We might feel overwhelmed at the prospect of the future for our children and grandchildren. It is okay. We might feel lost in the midst of everything that is going on around us. It is all okay.

How difficult are you finding it to love and believe in the power of love in these days?

The news cycle overwhelms and incites the fires of anger and fear and hatred in our minds and hearts. It all can feel so righteous, so right. After all, there is a clear bad guy in these incidents, and our hearts immediately take the side of the innocent victims. Today only the bravest can keep lit in their hearts the flame of charity. 

Pema Chodron in Practicing Peace in Times of War counsels us, “We have to take responsibility when our own hearts and minds harden and close. We have to be brave enough to soften what is rigid, to find the soft spot and play with it. We have to have that kind of courage and take that kind of responsibility.”

The tiny snippet of paper found alongside the body of a child who had died in Ravensbruck, this one prayer that testifies to a love greater than death, could so easily have been lost to history. It is a testament to someone who courageously took responsibility, in the most atrocious suffering, to soften her heart. How many others there must have been in these concentration camps who lived and died with soft hearts! We’ll never know the hidden and silent acts of heroism among those who perished as well as those who survived.

I think of Etty Hillesum who at the age of twenty-eight was murdered in Auschwitz. She became known to the world when her diaries were published under the title An Interrupted Life. The diaries reveal a heart that could not be sullied even by the evil she saw.Israeli author Aharon Appelfeld honored her in his preface to the Hebrew translation of the diaries saying she was one of those who “on the edge of the abyss, rise to become saint-like.” He compared her to Janusz Korczak, the director of a Jewish orphanage in Warsaw, who in 1942 declined an offer of sanctuary and accompanied the children to the Treblinka extermination camp.

We too stand on the edge of an abyss. We are in the midst of turbulent changes that will transform Europe and the world as we know it. Just as Etty and Janusz and the woman who wrote the note in Ravensbruck  couldn’t see into the future to understand the full horror of World War II and what lay beyond it, neither can we from the vantage point we have now comprehend the transformations in society the world is undergoing or where it will lead us as a human family.

3 ways to keep love alive in violent times

I want to offer three ways to open our hearts, soften our hearts, live with hearts set on fire with the love only God can give us. These three suggestions I have culled from the diaries of Fr. Christophe Libreton, the youngest of the seven Trappist monks assassinated in Algeria by terrorists in 1996. Their story has been dramatized in the film Of Gods and Men, and Christophe’s journals have been published in the book Born from the Gaze of God.

1. In each Eucharist we celebrate the victory of the Living One over against those who kill.

When his two friends Henri and Paule-Hélène were killed by the Islamic terrorists in Algiers a year before his own assassination, Christophe wrote these words in his journal on May 29, 1995: “After the murders of Henri and Paule-Hélène, our Christian community is marked, just like the people at large, by this shed blood—shed unjustly by the assassins and quite often courageously offered by their innocent victims. And then there is the blood of Christ, which gives life and offers us communion in eternal life…. In each Eucharist we celebrate LIFE: the victory of the Living One over against those who kill. This celebration overflows into a service of charity, exercised by each one according to the measure of his gift of faith: ‘caring for all life, and for the life of all’” (page 158).

The heart’s capacity to open outward in love flows from the victory of Jesus Christ over sin and death.

A way to keep your heart open:

At Mass we live already what the world will become when the Kingdom of God arrives and the will of God is done on earth as it is in heaven. Give as much time or more to prayer, the Mass, and Eucharistic adoration as you give to following and discussing the news.

By sharing life, giving life, sacrificing ourselves for the life of all, in whatever way you can, you overcome the power of death at work in the world with the power of love.

2. Open your heart for we belong to each other

In his meditation on March 11, 1995, Christophe reflected on the Gospel reading of the day: “I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Mt 5:44-46).

Christophe recorded his thoughts in his journal: “What’s at stake is love: non-exclusive, unlimited. Excessive love. Prayer for those who kill people (they haven’t threatened us explicitly yet, despite the arms they undoubtedly were ready to use against us) sustains our relationship with them. It also disposes us interiorly and identifies us as sons of the Father with regard to brothers who are also his beloved sons” (page 144).

These are hard words to hear, even more difficult to live. My heart wants to scream out No, I will not love a murderer, I will not love a perpetrator of war.

I, however, will only be truly human when I can love with an unlimited love that can embrace even the bad guy. It goes against all logic to call a murderer brother. We humans so want to charge the guilty, to dismiss them to the shadows of punishment where we no longer have to think of them again.

Fr. Christophe’s words are reminiscent of Mother Theresa’s admonition: “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”

A way to keep your heart open:

Every snippet of news is a call to enter into the lives of our brothers and sisters. Whenever you see the headlines of news on the internet, television, or social media, whisper a prayer for everyone involved. Be honest with Jesus about what you are experiencing and feeling in the face of the tragic event, and plead with him for all of those who are affected. You could use words such as these: “Jesus, I am angry about this. What is happening makes me nervous about the future of society and the world. I worry about my own family. About the future. But right now, I beg you to send your angels to comfort the victims, to hold in your powerful care all those who are suffering from this. And yes, Jesus, this is hard for me, but I ask you to have mercy on the one who did this. Stop him. I pray that peace may be restored. Through your divine mercy change his heart. Help us all. May your Kingdom come. And, Jesus, I pray that this person who has created this tragedy may be with me in heaven. Father, we both are your children. Have mercy.”

You could pray the rosary, or favorite novenas or litanies for particular individuals or groups suffering in the world today.

3. Rest your head on the heart of Christ

Christophe looked out onto a world where there seemed to be no future in sight, where everything possible for peace was blocked, where there seemed to be nothing and no one that could stem the tide of violence. The monks at Tibhirine were becoming increasingly aware that this violence would also one day snuff out their own lives.

Yet as Christophe struggled with the thought of his own death, as he grew in trust of God’s providential care even in the midst of the evil all around them, his began to undergo a transformation of heart, almost a transplantation of heart, so that Christ’s own heart on the cross replaced his human and faltering heart. In time he no longer feared for his own life. He wrote at the end of 1994, “Ah, if dying could stop and prevent the death of so many others, then I would gladly say: Yes, I volunteer” (page 128).

Just today I read the account of drivers who are going into the war zones in Ukraine to bring humanitarian aid and to ferry out civilians who are stuck in cities now demolished by constant missile attacks and artillery fire. These individuals run into the danger because they know there are women and children who can’t save themselves and who need someone to bring them out. Many of those left are the elderly who need to be carried from their homes. It is in times of trial that we discover truly who we are becoming.

In his journals, Christophe includes quotes from various sources he was reading in those days. I have been greatly moved by this selection from Father Lev Gillet, speaking about the Apostle John who alone remained on Calvary with Mary Jesus’ mother:

… “ ‘The only one who remained standing in the hour of affliction was the one who, the night before, had bent his head to rest it on your breast’ (Father Lev Gillet, Un moine de l’Église d’Orient [“A Monk of the Eastern Church”], by Élisabeth Behr-Sigel, Éditions du Cerf, p. 311). I want to rest my head on you….”

What did the apostle John hear as he rested his head on Jesus’ chest? He heard the beating of a Heart overwhelmed with love, a great love, greater than any love ever known on earth. It was the beating of the Sacred Heart of the Savior of the world who would shortly give his life for this youngest Apostle and for all of us. Because the beating of that heart remained in the apostle John’s memory, because he had, in a certain sense, synched the beating of his own heart with that of the Sacred Heart, John could stand beneath the cross, where his Lord and Master died in an act of atrocious violence. John could stand there still loving, remaining in love, abiding in love, in that love that flowed from the Heart of Jesus. He saw how Jesus loved through it all.

A way to keep your heart open:

Give your life to others in an ever-growing divine love. No doubt, in some way, you are already giving your life, putting yourself on the line for others. It may be for your family, those you care for in ministry or career, elderly parents…. We can serve others for many reasons: it’s a good job, it’s what is expected of me as parent or daughter, it makes me feel like my life has meaning, it puts the dinner on the table, it’s what I always wanted to do in life…. None of these are bad reasons for giving of ourselves to another. However, this moment in history calls us to something more, to a love that is greater. At this moment raise your intentions to the supernatural level. Resolve to serve because you love. Resolve to serve because you care about the others. Resolve to serve even at the cost of your life. Resolve to love with the very love of Jesus who gave his life for us.

Greatness begins with the heart

Friends, we are living in times that call for greatness, and greatness begins with the heart. We can all begin right here, wherever we are, right now, to become giants in the love that beats in the heart of Christ.

Brother Luc, the medical doctor who served in the community where Fr. Christophe lived in Algiers prayed at the prayer of the faithful on December 31, 1993: “Lord, give us the grace to die without hatred in our heart” (page 25).

In the spirit and vision of Israeli author Aharon Appelfeld, may we “on the edge of the abyss, rise to become saint-like.”

O Lord, remember not only men and women of good will, but also those of ill will. But do not remember all the suffering they inflicted on us. Remember the fruits we have borne thanks to this suffering: our comradeship, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of this; and when they come to judgment let all the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness.

Image Credit: Christian R. Rodríguez via Cathopic

2 thoughts on “Soften your heart: How to keep love alive in violent times

  1. To keep our hearts soft and open during big atrocities we have to have practice with small hurts. Intentional or not. I practice spontaneous prayers when I see my heart closing in. Prayers such as “Lord push back foreboding and darkness.” “Lord snatch victory from defeat.” “Lord do not let this suffering go to waste.” and other short prayers. I got those from Fr. Spitzer of Magis Center. Also from My Sisters/Sr. Kathryn I say “I forgive you, I bless you, I release you. And I remember other teachings like: “All things break and all things can be mended.” “So go love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally! I find we get hurt when we set conditions on our love others cannot or should not fulfill.
    Thank you sister Kathryn I do want to practice your three steps to keep my love alive during these sad and violent times.

    Liked by 1 person

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