Broken Heart, Open Heart
The good we would do, we do not do. We may sometimes find ourselves untethered to our deepest values or sense of self. There is no shortage of public examples of those whose spiritual or moral gyroscope spins off its axis, issuing in a host of troubles. But, in fact, it's safe to say that all of us, at least to one degree or another, have been there. None of us is perfect. Newspapers merely record the most spectacular crashes, but it happens every day in far less public domains. And, yet, while few consciously choose to be ruined, sometimes it takes being ruined to learn powerful lessons that can catapult us into a recovered or deepened humanity. The great Sufi poet Rumi speaks of a "bankruptcy that's pure gain," and in another quatrain writes,
The minute I'm disappointed, I'm encouraged.
When I'm ruined, I'm healed.
When we are bankrupt or ruined, we grow humble (or may grow humble), far less self-important or certain of ourselves, nor of our presumed goodness. We may open to a deeper humanity, and be opened further to the divine. Paradoxically, our untoward actions and dubious choices can become a fertile condition for encountering the divine. This is not to excuse hurtful choices, but contextualizes them in the presence of unconditional love. Our sin or brokenness becomes a catalyst for a recovered humanity, a renewal in life and love. By the same token, our goodness, oddly, sometimes becomes a burden, and it cannot hold up. We fall. But in falling—or falling short—we access a tender vulnerability. Being ruined or bankrupt means arriving at a poverty of heart, a brokenness that opens to the presence and touch of the divine.
This spiritual or emotional poverty is among the most striking sensibilities in the Psalms of the Hebrew scriptures, as well as many great poems in the Hindu tradition, including the two that begin this essay. While many of the psalms certainly are joyful and jubilant, others convey wrenching anguish over injustice, loneliness, perceived separation from the presence of God, and, finally, sorrow for sin. King David seemed to have it all, for example—a sense of being favored by God, the lavish benefits of royalty, gifts in music, art, and leadership—and yet he forgot all this in his irresistible attraction to Bathsheba, who was married. David, after sleeping with Bathsheba, ultimately engineered the death of her husband, Uriah, by ordering him to the battlefront. After the consequences of his illicit relationship became clear, David offered no defense to Nathan, the prophet who boldly confronted him, instead openly admitting: "I have done what was evil in God's sight." Later, overwhelmed with remorse, he is said to have written what became Psalm 51, known, in Latin, as the "Miserere" ("have mercy"); it begins with the following lines:
Have mercy on me, O God, in your kindness,
in your compassion blot out my offense.
Wash me more and more of my guilt
and cleanse me of my sin.
David's brokenness, however destructive and emotionally unmooring, was itself finally a grace, for it allowed him to encounter his core humanity and therefore his utter dependence on God:
Sacrifice gives you no pleasure,
were I to offer holocaust, you would not have it.
My sacrifice is this broken spirit,
you will not scorn this crushed and broken heart.
It no pious sentiment to suggest that, if God is, then we are God's; we belong to God. And, therefore, we are accountable to this divine presence, not in terms of bearing relentless guilt, or cowering before a cosmic bully, but to consider soberly and thoughtfully several key questions: who am I? What am I about? How can I add something constructive to world, even in the most discreet, unknown, humble ways?
How can I love, and love more skillfully?
To put it another way, if we belong to God, then, in the end, our relationship to God or the sacred, is in fact the primary relationship in our lives. And this obtains owing to a fundamental anthropology: we are wired for the sacred; we always and everywhere, consciously or unconsciously, gravitate in the orbit of the divine. If God is, and God is the source of life and love, then it behooves us to become conscious of this existential orientation. Why? By knowing God, we come to know ourselves. Intimacy with the divine thus becomes the source of one's deepest identity. In a beautiful metaphor likening the soul to musical instruments, Rumi writes, "The tambourine begs, Touch my skin so I can be myself!"Touch—intimacy with the sacred—establishes identity and generates flourishing.
Perhaps some may take offense at a fundamental orientation or need for God woven into the human constitution. It may come off, to some, as, well, needy, or slavish or psychologically unhealthy. But some of the most intense spiritual expressions in the history of religions precisely exalt this state and cultivate it. Indeed, devotional (bhakti) poets in Hinduism were often hailed as "slaves of God"; in one of the great Bengali poems dedicated to Krishna, the words of Radha become a model for absolute devotion: "I have offered you everything; in truth, I have become your slave." Mirabai, the great Rajasthani saint of the 16th century, sings to Krishna, "I have been Your slave for many births/And You are my excellent Master."
Thomas A. Forsthoefel, Ph.D., is associate professor and chair of Religious Studies at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pennsylvania. He served as poet laureate of northwestern Pennsylvania (Erie County) 2010-2012. His work focuses on the religions and philosophies of India, and he has published numerous articles and has written or collaborated on several books, including, Knowing Beyond Knowledge: Epistemologies of Religious Experience in Classical and Modern Advaita, a study of cognitive dimension of religious experience in Hindu non-dualism; Gurus in America, an edited volume; Soulsong: Seeking Holiness, Coming Home, a cross cultural exploration of holiness; and Dalai Lama: Essential Writings.