“The person who will not have a softening of the heart will eventually have a softening of the brain!” That warning, issued by G.K. Chesterton more than a half century ago, is particularly relevant for today, a time when virtually everything conspires against tenderness and softness.
Everywhere, today, the atmosphere is one of professionalism, efficiency, toughness, competitiveness, and lean strength. Workplaces, and at times even our homes and church circles, leave little room for softness, be it inefficiency, sentiment, or fat. Even to insert a call for any tenderness and softness to somehow tone this down is to endanger one’s status and respect. Our world has a very restricted place for what is unprofessional, sentimental, inefficient, fat, soft and fragile. Toughness and achievement are what get respect.
For this reason, we often experience our places of work and even our homes as being cold and somewhat brutal. But when we feel this coldness, what we are actually experiencing is our own intimidation. Our fear of being seen as soft, fat, childish, and as unable to handle pressure and meet certain standards of toughness and efficiency pushes us to make every kind of sacrifice rather than let ourselves be so judged. This shouldn’t be so, but, in fact, most often is. Ideally, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be thus intimidated, but, most often, we do. The fact is that we generally do live and work within an atmosphere that is cold and unfeeling.
Given this, it is all too easy for us to become embittered, cold, and competitive ourselves. This happens gradually, imperceptibly, like the process of aging and the greying of hair. We look into the mirror each day and think we look the same. Then one day we look at an old photograph of ourselves and we’re shocked at how much we’ve changed. If we could see old photographs of ourselves which somehow indicated eagerness of spirit, spontaneity, hospitality, compassion, and simple joy and zest for life, many of us, I suspect, would be shocked at how much we’ve changed, hardened, through the years. The coldness, untenderness, and hardness that was so long outside of us, is now, in a large measure, inside of us, in our eyes, in our actions, and, sadly, often enough in our hearts. So gradually it happens. We change, harden, become the type of persons we would not choose to be friends with ourselves.
Given this, perhaps the most important prayer moments we can have each day are those moments which soften the heart, moments which bring us back to eagerness of spirit, hospitality, compassion, and childlike joy. To have a tender moment is to pray. Praying is more than just saying prayers. We are asked to “pray always.” This implies that we need to be praying even when we aren’t formally saying prayers.
To pray always, as Jesus says, implies that we read the signs of the times, that we look at the conspiracy of accidents which shape our lives and read in these the finger and providence of God. The language of God is the experience that God writes into our lives. To pray means to read our lives religiously. Perhaps the most important way in which we need to do this today is to pick up, read religiously, and see as grace and prayer those moments which somehow soften the heart, moments which put us in touch with our vulnerability, our tenderness, our sense of compassion and hospitality, and our connectedness with each other and our common struggle. We share a common heart and a common struggle. To become aware of that is to soften the heart. The world can be hard and, if we aren’t careful, if we do not massage the tender moment as prayer, we will harden too, becoming as untender, cold, and inhospitable as the world itself.
William Wordsworth once observed that a person often seems cold when s/he is only hurt. Lately, I suspect, too many of us radiate this coldness for precisely that reason. We need to pray by picking up the tender moment and letting its grace soften us. What constitutes the tender moment? Anything in life that helps make us aware of our deep connectedness with each other, of our common struggle, our common wound, our common sin, and our common need for help…the suffering face of another which mirrors our own pain, the sense of our physical mortality, the acceptance of our own sin, the beauty of nature, the eagerness and innocence of children, the fragility of the aged, and, of course, not least, moments of intimacy, of friendship, of celebration, of every kind of shared joy, pain or vulnerability.
John of the Cross once suggested that the function of solitude is “to bring the mild into harmony with the mild.” Moments which make us mild are deep moments of prayer. We need such moments badly or a cold and brutal world will make us cold and brutal. We need, daily, to pick up the tender moment.
Chesterton once also said: “The swiftest things are the softest things. A bird is active because a bird is soft. A stone is helpless, because a stone is hard. The stone must by its own nature go downwards, because hardness is weakness. A bird can of its nature go upwards, because fragility is force.” (Orthodoxy, Page 221)