How do you hear a heartbeat?
At the end of her novel, A Map of Glass, Jane Urquhart, has her heroine, Sylvia, recall how her father, a doctor, once gave her a toy stethoscope as a gift when she was a little girl. She was fascinated with it: “I loved the little silver bell at the end of the double hose, a bell I could place against my chest in order to listen to the drum, to the pounding music of my own complicated, fascinating heart.”
Our hearts are complicated and fascinating and we’d all be gentler with ourselves and find our lives more interesting if we listened more regularly to their beat. That’s also the secret in our relationship with Christ. We need to put a stethoscope to his heart and listen to its complex and fascinating rhythms. How do we do this?
In the Gospel of John we’re given a mystical image for this. In John’s account of the Last Supper, he has a disciple, whom he describes as “the one whom Jesus loved”, reclining on the breast of Jesus. Obviously this connotes a deep intimacy, but it’s also meant to convey something else. If you lean your ear on someone’s chest you are able to hear that person’s heartbeat and that sound eventually begins to gently reverberate throughout your own body.
So this is the image, the image of perfect discipleship for John: We are “the one whom Jesus loves” and we need to have our heads on Jesus’ breast so as to hear his heartbeat and, from there, look out at the world. Being attuned to Christ’s heartbeat and reclining in solace and intimacy on his breast will give us both the vision and the sustenance we need to live our lives as we should.
As we know, “the one whom Jesus loved” in John (historically this might have been John himself) is meant to refer to every one of us. Each of us is to be the “beloved disciple”, the one who reclines on Jesus’ breast in special intimacy. For John, this constitutes the very heart of discipleship and dwarfs everything else (charism, church office, even prophecy) in terms of what’s important. Indeed, at the Last Supper, Peter (the pope, the leader of the church) cannot even talk to Jesus directly,but must ask his question through the “beloved disciple”. That’s John’s way of saying that intimacy with Jesus is more important than any charism or leadership role.
And that’s our call, to have the kind of intimacy with Christ that has us reclining on his breast, hearing his heartbeat, and looking out at the world from that perspective. But how do we do that practically?
To recline on Jesus’ breast is not the image William Blake so brilliantly describes in his poem, Infant Sorrow, where fear and hurt suggest it’s best “to sulk upon my mother’s breast.” In this case, our eyes are turned inward, or are closed, and what we are seeking is only comfort. John’s image says something more.
His is an image of the intimacy of lovers, where the bond of intimacy offers deep comfort but also attunes one heart to the other in such a way that energy and strength flow out, first from the one who is doing the consoling and then from the one who is drawing that consolation.
The image works this way: We are to put our heads on Christ’s breast, feel that intimacy, hear his heartbeat, be filled with the comfort of that, and then let the energy and strength we feel there flow out, through us, into the world. And that is meant to fill us with the vision and sustenance we need to live as we should.
In terms of vision: When we are listening to Christ’s heartbeat and looking out at the world from there, we will see what it means to love purely, beyond ideology, beyond being liberal or conservative, beyond different schools of thought, and beyond our opinions and those of others. We will also have a vision of self-sacrifice, beyond our own comfort, own ambitions, and society’s sincere, though shrunken, capacity to renounce pleasure and the immediate for something deeper and more meaningful long-range.
In terms of sustenance: When we are listening to Christ’s heartbeat, feeling his comfort, and looking out at the world from there, we will also more easily find the strength to keep our hearts soft when everything beckons us to be hard, our tongues gentle when everything is gossip and slander, and ourselves aware of others’ gifts when all around there is jealousy. We will more easily find the capacity to forgive despite our wounds, to live chastity inside an over-stimulated culture, to see beauty inside dram and duty, to see the sacred inside of the humdrum, and to remain aware of God’s presence inside a godlessness that sometimes overwhelms us.
Our sensitivity must be a stethoscope that hears the beat of the complex and fascinating heart of Christ.