My brothers had, in their bedroom, a Little Tykes Football Toy Box– a shiny brown, nubbly egg-shaped container a little over three feet across, with a circular hole in the top and a circular lid that fit snugly over the hole. My parents bought it in an attempt to organize the ever-expanding mound of toys we’d collected over the years, but I don’t recall a single occasion where it was used as a toy box. Instead, it was used as a prop in our imaginative play– as a small space pod or asteroid when we played astronaut; as the cast iron stove when we played pioneer; as a giant cake when we played bakery.
And, of course, every so often, we would climb into it.
I don’t know what it was about the football toy box that made children want to climb inside, but something did. My brothers climbed in; friends who came over to play climbed in. Even I did, at least twice.
I did it the first time, to see what it was like.
I did it the second time, to prove I wasn’t scared, but I was.
Because, it was terrifying in there.
Something about the slightly elongated shape of the container, and the perfectly round porthole of an opening, meant that it was rather easy to squeeze into the top, easy to twist yourself into a shape that fit snugly– and impossible to get out without help.
I could enjoy echo of my breathing and the surreal look of light filtering through the round divots on the walls of the chamber for about two minutes; then panic would set in all at once. There was no way to un-twist. The pointed ends of the toy box wouldn’t allow it. I was curled up in fetal position in a frank breech, with the birth canal straight above me; I’d not only have to uncurl myself inside of hard plastic but defy gravity as well. I was trapped. And as soon as I realized that, I started to breathe more quickly– and when that happened, I found that it was difficult to breathe while encased in plastic, and I panicked even more.
Eventually, after I screamed hard enough, my father came in. He made the usual dad jokes about being trapped forever and having to go to college that way; then, when my screams redoubled, he yanked me out. I got a nasty scratch on my back where it rubbed against the side of the opening, but at the time I didn’t care. There are no words to adequately describe the relief of that moment. I was free. I could breathe. I could move my arms and legs. I was not trapped, folded double, inside of a giant plastic football.
Inevitably, another sibling or a visiting friend would try the toy box to see what all the screaming was about, and my father would have to come play midwife again.Perhaps this experience is what fostered in me a fear of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Every time I heard prayers or meditations directing me to place myself in the Heart of Christ, I’d cringe. I liked to imagine myself as one of the children in the image of Christ blessing them; I liked to pretend I was the hapless lamb resting in the arms of the Good Shepherd. Those were comforting images. But I couldn’t stand to think of myself inside a heart. It sounded suffocating and dark. I wanted to be outside, where I could breathe and see and be loved– not inside, stuffed into a noisy organ the size of a fist.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve found that other people– some people who hate religion and some people who embrace it– view giving themselves over to Christ, as curling their imagination and personality up inside of an organ the size of a fist. They believe themselves to be obligated to twist into an infantile shape and cram their minds into a toy box, and they try. Once they get in there, they’ll either panic and rail against their captivity or believe that they ought to like it– the ones who try to like it are usually the most abusive to anybody else, because they start by accepting that they have to abuse themselves. The ones who come out of the toy box hating religion are perfectly honest to their own experience.
I am not a wise person, but I’ve become wiser in this respect: I realize that the Heart of Christ is not a cramped little box. The Heart of Christ is pure love, and whenever we love, we go deeper into the Heart of Christ.
Everything else, however desirable, is a trap.
If we give ourselves over to anything other than love, we cram ourselves into a box. Power, fame, money, health, physical beauty, luxury– if these become our idols, then in following them we twist ourselves down a tiny hole into a tiny cramped box and get stuck there. If we’re wise, we panic and scream to be let out, but if we’re not, we may come to believe that that’s what life is supposed to be like.
If we love, if we allow perfect Love to transform us, then we cry out to the Father to be pulled out of the box. And Father helps us– painfully, not because He likes pain, not because pain is our punishment, but because it’s an unfortunate side effect of being a living thing getting pulled out of a box. And then we’re free. We’re in the Heart of Christ, which is the world outside, the world where the air and the light are, the world where we can move our limbs. We’re human beings alive again.
The Heart of Christ is pure Love, and Love is the place where you can live.
Everything else is a box.
(image via Pixabay)