“Open the Eyes of My Heart” – Fr. Bob’s Homily for Sunday, April 30, 2023

Reading through our first reading, I stopped at the words that said the people listening to Peter’s Pentecost sermon were “cut to the heart”. Because this coming Wednesday, that will happen to me as well. I will be literally, physically, “cut to the heart”. The sternum bone in my chest will be cut open and my whole heart muscle will be exposed to view so that the surgeon can carry out the necessary repairs to my aorta and aortic valve, as well as fix a hole in my heart. 

It is so often the case that what God does in the supernatural, he first does in the natural. Which is why we are told by Jesus in the gospels to pay attention to the “signs of the times” in nature, which give a clue to what God is wanting to do in us supernaturally. The Book of Hebrews, chapter 4:12 -13 vividly describes the process of God “cutting us to the heart” spiritually. It tells us that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account”.

Just as my heart surgeon will be able to lay bare my heart physically to his examination, to see where there has been damage and deterioration, and go to work to fix all that, so God, our spiritual heart surgeon, is able to do the same. God tells the prophet Samuel in 1 Kings 16; 7 that “Human beings look on the outward appearance of someone, but God looks on the heart”. When we listen to the word of God, spoken to us either by our reading of Scripture, or given in a homily, or through other people or circumstances, and it “punctures” our heart, causing us to experience sorrow for our sinful attitudes, words or behavior, God is performing spiritual heart surgery on us. He is opening up our inner self, so that God can see where sin has damaged or corrupted us at different levels of our being, and can go to work on our hearts and souls and spirits, removing that which is defiling and polluting our lives and repairing our spiritual relationship to him, to others and to ourselves. 

In fact, because we are a combination of body and spirit, what affects one will also affect the other, either for good or bad. Sin in our inner self, our spirit can touch our outer self, our body and cause all kinds of physical suffering. Heart disease, cancer, arthritis, asthma can come from a lack of forgiveness in our hearts to someone else. Bitterness in our hearts can lead to a bitter reckoning in our bodies. Condemnation, harsh judgements, self-rejection, resentment, anger, rage, hatred can call down a “curse” on us, leading to physical illness, depression, broken relationships, and a general “breakdown” of blessing in our lives. Which is why, when I am praying for healing of certain physical illnesses, I will often suggest to the person I am praying with that there may be someone whom they need to forgive, and that unforgiveness could be preventing or slowing down their recovery of physical and emotional health. The person they need to forgive may be someone else, maybe even God, maybe even themselves.  By the way, this last one, unforgiveness of self is often the most grievous form of unforgiveness, and the one where someone, even a good Christian, may have the most difficulty recognizing and repenting of.

There is a special name for this “puncturing” of the heart, and it is called “compunction”. The definition of this term is “a feeling of guilt or moral scruple that prevents or follows the doing of something bad”. In a person with a healthy working conscience , this “compunction” is the voice of God speaking to their heart , pointing out the consequences of immoral behavior that they are about to undertake, or have taken. Those who have a conscience that is seriously dimmed or switched off altogether can contemplate a bad action before or after it is undertaken, and feel no “compunction” about such an action. They have a spiritual “hole in the heart” through which all good intentions drain out.  A person with a healthy conscience will feel healthy feelings of guilt, dismay or disgust about such immoral behavior and will either refrain from committing it or seek to confess and make amends after committing it. 

The people listening to Peter’s sermon in our first reading today have a healthy conscience and show proper compunction for having crucified Jesus, their Christ, their Lord. However, it is not enough just to have compunction about your sins. It can be followed by either “remorse” or “repentance”. The latter is supremely effective for healing and salvation, the former is ineffective and insufficient for one’s healing and salvation. Remorse is sorrow that comes from being caught out in one’s sin, or embarrassment about being shown up in others’ eyes. It seldom leads to heartfelt change for the better. Repentance, however, is genuine sorrow for one’s sin, that leads to a person changing their life around. What makes the Jews who respond to Peter’s exposing of their crime in putting Jesus to death, what makes them truly repentant, rather than just remorseful, is that they actually do something to show their sorrow and guilt. They follow Peter’s instruction to “repent, be baptized in the name of Jesus, and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” to the letter. They confess their sins, and are baptized in the name of Jesus, meaning they give themselves completely over to becoming disciples of Jesus and they receive the Holy Spirit, who is the engine of a changed lifestyle. In the verses that follow this passage in our first reading, we see the incredible effect of such a changed lifestyle,  what a powerhouse of spiritual good that these new disciples achieve in their world and their communities (Acts 2: 42- 47).

 In St Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he praises them for their heartfelt response to his earlier criticism of their bad behavior. Paul writes: “Now I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance; for you felt a godly grief, so that you were not harmed in any way by us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death.” (2 Corinthian 7: 9-10)

In my experience, the reason why, when we have gone to the sacrament of reconciliation and confessed our sins, but felt no change in ourselves, no freedom or lightness of spirit, it is usually because we have shown remorse, but not repentance. Our expressed sorrow for our sins is not heart-felt, in other words, it is not felt at the level of the heart. We have not allowed God to “puncture” our heart and “lay bare the secret thoughts and intentions of our hearts”, as the letter to the Hebrews puts it. We leave the confessional, but without any real desire to change our sinful habits, by examining the thoughts and intentions that lie behind them. We don’t allow God, the “gardener” of John 15: 1 to “prune” and “cleanse” our hearts, souls and spirits of the poisonous weeds of unforgiveness, condemnation, anger, resentment, bitterness and so on. We submit to a superficial “trimming” that remains on the surface of our sin, but we don’t allow God to “go deep”, to “search our depths” through his Holy Spirit, in the words of 1 Corinthians 2:10. 

Superficial sorrow for sin, remorse, leads to superficial repentance and confession, that leads to no real change in our lives. Superficial Christians produce a superficial Christian community, with no real spiritual maturity or growth, that has very little effect on the world outside its walls. The more members of a Christian community submit themselves to allowing the word of God to “cut them to the heart”, and effect real, godly repentance and change at the level of the heart, the more we can affect for good those around us and bring them also to a personal saving encounter with God.  I am told that, if the heart surgery next week goes well, I will feel like a “new man”. If we allow God to do a real work of spiritual heart surgery on us, we also will become “new men and women”, who will change the world for good. How about it, brothers and sisters?