More Beautiful in Person

It was easy to love God in all that was beautiful. 

The lesson of deeper knowledge, though, instructed me to embrace God in all things.

-St. Francis of Assisi



A couple of weeks ago I created a heart painting that particularly spoke to a friend of mine. She saw the picture on Facebook and liked the image so much she decided to buy the original. She’s in Cincinnati; I’m in Louisville. We arranged for a friend of mine who’s frequently between the two cities to deliver it to her. When she received the heart, she texted me:

My heart is even more beautiful in person.

I was delighted that my art had touched her in that way. Her statement has also led me to deeper reflection:

Isn’t it true that all of our hearts, when we reveal them, are more beautiful in person?

I can hear the voices of protest already. “But what about this person…do you really think this person has a beautiful heart? Or what about that one? Surely you’re not saying that even that person has a beautiful heart?”

My answer is yes, this person…and even that person have beautiful hearts, but some hearts have gotten lost, are in hiding, are deep beneath layers of defensive protection…and so what we see is not actually their hearts, but all the muck and armor and whatever else is there to obscure what we see. I believe that we are all made in the image of God, Love, That Which is Whole.  I also believe that some people’s hearts have been distanced so long from the divine source that they’ve forgotten their true nature.

What is it that causes us to armor our hearts? Is it fear that if we reveal our ourselves vulnerably, we’ll be hurt…again? Is it fear that if we open ourselves and connect to the hearts of others- those who are suffering from the effects of poverty, racism, sexism, heterosexism, and other -isms and -phobias- that we’ll be so consumed by grief, guilt, helplessness, that we won’t be able to hold those connections in balance with the connections that bring us joy, acceptance, a sense of agency and purpose? Are we even aware of the armor?

What is it that causes us not only to shield our hearts, but to lash out defensively, assaulting anyone who might try to touch that place most sacred within us, assaulting even people who have nothing to do with us? Are we afraid of what can happen if we don’t act with ferocity? Are we aware that we are only passing on our own unhealed pain?

I can think of more than a few people in both my personal circles and in the public sphere who seem to be acting from these places of fear and anger. I can think of times when I have acted from those places. I imagine there will be more such times. When I am at my best (not acting from those places), I can both hold my own emotions and also generate curiosity about what the other has experienced that has caused them to be the way they are. in those times, I am able to practice open-heartedness. These practices are part of my compassionate communication journey.

When I know and trust my own heart’s beauty, born of divinity, I can embrace God in people where God’s presence is not so obvious. In those moments I remind myself that they are more than what I see. I hope that someday I will see the beauty of their hearts. I wish it for myself, I wish it for them, and I wish it for our world. Our world needs more hearts’ beauty revealed.

What I am learning, slowly, through practice, practice where I learn from messing up over and over again, is that if I approach people with trust in their heart’s beauty, if I embrace God in them, even when I can’t immediately see it, sometimes I may get an unexpected glimpse of their divine nature. Vulnerable. Open. More beautiful in person than I could have imagined.

In truth, this is why I love the work I am called to do. When I am commissioned to create a heart portrait, I get to see the beauty of people’s hearts in a visual image. When I offer Reiki to someone, I get to see the beauty of people’s energetic bodies. When I teach Compassionate Communication (also known as Nonviolent Communication), I get to see the beauty of people’s hearts through the language of both body and words.

The experience reminds me of Thomas Merton’s epiphany at the corner of 4th and Walnut (now Muhammad Ali) in Louisville:

There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.


You are beautiful.

Your heart is beautiful.

Your heart is more beautiful in person.

I want to see it. The world needs to see it.

And whether we can or we can’t see that beauty in the moment, let us embrace each other, knowing that God is in all things and all people.


Surrendering Our Hearts

On Ash Wednesday 2019, I was invited to share my reflections at church (based on Joel 2: 12-18, 2 Corinthians 5: 20-6:2; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18). These were the words I spoke:

In today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Do not be like the hypocrites,” seeking external affirmation. In the first reading, we are told to “return to God with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, with mourning.”

I want to play with those words. Return to God with all your heart. Return all of your heart to God. Turn all of your heart in to God. Surrender.

I created this image shortly after speaking the words in this reflection.

I created this image shortly after speaking the words in this reflection.

With these words in mind, I offer an image: imagine a heart, perhaps your own. It is both broken and open. Broken open. Around that broken-open heart is another heart. And around that one, another. And another. All open, many broken in one way or another. The first heart, your heart, is nested in protection. Broken open, yet held with gentle care. The outermost heart is the heart of God, the heart of All, God’s heart that can hold the hurt that breaks us, God’s heart that can heal us, if we surrender our hearts to God.

Turn all of your heart in to God “with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” There is much to lament in our world. Racism, sexism, heterosexism, xenophobia, poverty, ecological devastation, sexual abuse, addictions, the school-to-prison pipeline. So many people lack access to clean water, clean air, adequate medical care, adequate educational opportunities, adequate housing. No doubt there are other things to add to the list. There is much to mourn and yet instead of mourning, we may allow our emotions to go only as far as anger, with our resulting actions rooted in something other than love; we blame whoever we perceive to be the problems. We mistake people for problems, even as we accuse “them” of doing the same. We may not allow ourselves to weep and mourn, because we’re fearful that we will be consumed by grief if we turn our hearts in to God. Instead of allowing our hearts to be fully nested in God’s, we may shrink our hearts, close them a little tighter every time we judge people as “wrong,” “stupid,” “heartless,” every time we call them names and mock them as we direct our righteous anger at them. As we determine who is right and who is wrong, we may seek the approval of other righteous folks, and refuse to engage in connection with those who we believe clearly don’t get it.

Maybe we engage a little, volleying accusations back and forth online or on the streets or in “dialogues” that are actually just talking at or yelling over. But these engagements aren’t connecting. They create distance between us, and keep us hanging in the painful, but sometimes also powerful, feeling of anger.

A nonviolent communication activity that I love to lead takes people through ways of responding to difficult messages. When we receive a message of shame and blame, we have four options: we can shame and blame back; we can direct the shame and blame toward ourselves; we can offer empathy and understanding to ourselves and/or we can offer understanding and empathy to the other person.

The movement from shame to empathy is profound. Sometimes as people go through the exercise, they wonder aloud if it’s ok to express empathy and understanding for a person with a perspective they find deeply problematic. Because we live in a shame and blame culture, we may think that if we don’t immediately express our righteous indignation, we are abandoning our values. And yet, if we are clear on our values, and those values include compassion, hope, love, kindness, humility, it is vitally important to practice them precisely in those places where we are sorely tempted not to.

Going to Palestine gives me many opportunities to try. On my first stint with Christian Peacemaker Teams, I started doing something that, when I remember to practice it, helps me turn my heart into God. In times of relative calm, when I am around Israeli soldiers, I repeat these words in my mind: “I do not hate you. I wish you peace. I wish you love. I wish you joy. I know you are more than what I see you doing.” This practice is not easy. It is exhausting. Sometimes my stomach churns and my head aches as I do so. As I let these words play in my mind, I also try to meet the eyes of those to whom I offer these wishes. Sometimes our eyes meet for a few moments of connection where I am not a CPTer and they are not soldiers, we are just human beings. What I know about those moments is that my heart experiences both breaking and healing simultaneously. I experience our interconnection and deep sorrow because the connection I feel is not the norm in that context. It is a fleeting moment of stepping out of hypocrisy and into integrity. Turning my heart into God.

I created this image in October 2015. It was one of the first heart images I ever drew.

I created this image in October 2015. It was one of the first heart images I ever drew.

When I am willing and able to sink fully into God’s presence within me, the response from the soldiers is often also more humane and human. Perhaps they are sinking into their divinity, too. When I stand fully armored in anger and righteousness, the response is one of equal or greater defensiveness: posturing and flaunting power, just as I, too, am trying to do. And yet, my truest power comes when I take my armor off, when I stand in a humble posture of trust in God.

I want to end with an example of someone who knows a far harsher reality than I. In the midst of the civil war in South Sudan, Bishop Paride Taban turned his heart into God and transformed his weeping and mourning into connection and joy. Instead of choosing righteous anger in response to the war, he chose to create the Holy Trinity Peace Village, “where individuals and communities can interact without threat or fear… People from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds learn peaceful coexistence there” (from Choosing Peace, edited by Marie Dennis) To stay grounded in the spirit of reconciliation and peace, Bishop Taban offers 28 words to say every day. Today, I offer his words to you. I invite you to say these words daily, to explore them, and to practice them:

Love, joy, peace, patience, compassion, sympathy, kindness, truthfulness, gentleness, self-control, humility, poverty, forgiveness, mercy, friendship, trust, unity, purity, faith, hope, I love you, I miss you, Thank you, I forgive, We forget, Together, I am wrong, I am sorry.

During this Lenten season, I invite you to let these words sink deep into your heart. Tears of weeping and mourning may wash over you.  I invite you to let these words reach the place of deepest connection within you, where your heart is reconciled to God and all of God’s creations, and let that connection guide your action with and for yourself and others. During this Lenten season, I invite you to surrender your heart to God.