February is “Heart Month.” Presumably the American Heart Association chose February as the month to raise awareness about cardiovascular health because in February we celebrate Valentine’s Day which we observe by the giving and receiving of hearts of all kinds — heart-shaped Valentines, candy, jewelry – symbolic declarations of love, of giving our hearts to one another. Hearts have long been associated with love. When bringing our emotions to the surface, we “wear our hearts on our sleeve.” When speaking our deepest feelings, we “pour our hearts out.” Feelings of tenderness “warm our heart,” and compassion “pulls at our heartstrings.” When grieving, we feel “heartache,” and loss of love renders us “heartbroken.” The French word for heart, coeur, associates hearts with courage. We “take heart;” we “lose heart;” we “hearten.” We can engage in a task “wholeheartedly,” “halfheartedly,” or our “heart’s not in it” at all. We can be “bravehearted,” “lighthearted,” “tenderhearted,” “hardhearted,” or totally “heartless.” That’s a lot for the heart to carry.
The heart also bears many religious significances – from the seat of joy, thankfulness, integrity, and courage, to purity and righteousness:
“A glad heart makes a cheerful countenance” – Proverbs 15:13
Create in me a clean heart, O God.” – Psalm 51:10
Blessed are the pure in heart.” – Matthew 5:8
The list could go on, but the one that hits me the hardest is this –
A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. – Ezekiel 36:26
— for February also happens to be the month in which I received an actual heart from a far-too-young donor who had died tragically in a plane crash. Had my heart become stone? What did I need to cut out, let go of, change? What were the spiritual lessons I needed to learn?
I recently discovered another woman’s story of her heart transplant – Lerita Coleman Brown.[i] The parallels between us are almost too uncanny to be believed. Within eleven months of each other, we both received a heart transplant at the age of 41. We have the same blood type and body size. We were both college professors. After our transplants, we both wrote books of spiritual reflections on our heart transplants and became spiritual directors. Most striking of all, both of our donors were named Jody/Jodi.
Of course, our stories also differ in significant ways. She is black; I am white. She was single and had no children; I was married with a young child. Her donor was about her age; mine was only nine. She waited four days for her heart while I waited almost four years. She had significant complications post-transplant; my post-transplant journey has been fairly smooth. Nevertheless, the impact of the transplant on our lives, the spiritual wisdom gained is very similar. As we are entering “Heart Month,” it seemed fitting to share a few of them here.
Surrender, Trust: Both of us struggled with the fact that so much of our lives and our respective heart issues — hers, heart failure; mine, deadly dysrhythmias – were beyond our control, (though I often thought if I could just learn to meditate better I might be able to control my heart rhythm, ignoring the fact that my heart was the size of a basketball and mostly flopped around.) Neither of us wanted to let go of our hearts. My heart was my constant companion for over forty years, the center of my love and identity. Now they wanted to cut it out, and then trust that a newly implanted heart of a stranger would start beating after sitting in cold storage for several hours. And we both dealt with the fear of dying. As Lerita asked, “Do I have enough trust in God to go through with this?”[ii]
We both needed to learn surrender and trust. Lerita described this as listening to and trusting the “still small voice of the spirit.” As she wrote, “ . . . you are going have to LISTEN to the quiet urgings of your spirit that lies deep within your heart. You are going to have to TRUST what it tells you.”[iii] Similarly, for me, letting go and trust were a matter of listening to an inner wisdom. The days I listened and was open, everything flowed. In those moments, especially those of coming close to death, when I surrendered to a deeper knowing, I experienced a deep peace. I realized letting go is not so much a leap of faith as a fall into a deep pool, trusting that the water would buoy me up. I learned I needed to focus on the faith, rather than the fear; to ride the current of this river of my life, and be held in this deep pool by love.
Patience: “Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes” – the song from Rent recalls those days of waiting. My lessons in patience came from the waiting – over a thousand days, thirty-five thousand hours, two million minutes. I often felt like I was counting the minutes. Patience was difficult with every day I couldn’t go out and play with my son, with every shock of the implantable defibrillator, with every night of wondering if I would wake to see the morning. For Lerita, whose heart told her, “You’re going to need plenty of PATIENCE,”[iv] lessons in patience came with months of difficult recovery and episodes of rejection.
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart . . . ,“ counseled the quote from Rilke above my desk. I learned that patience was also a matter of letting go and trust, as well as of being fully present in the here and now, not the longed-for future. I was reminded of Sisyphus, who day after day rolls his rock up the mountain, only to have it roll back down, then turns, goes back down, and rolls the rock up again. Patience is being willing to roll the rock up the mountain countless times, in trust. It is a matter, as Rilke suggested, of living the questions now and, with hope, living into the answer.[v]
Bartlett, Elizabeth. 1997. Journey of the Heart: Spiritual Insights on the Road to a Transplant. Duluth, MN: Pfeifer-Hamilton.
Brown, Lerita Coleman. 2019. When the Heart Speaks, Listen: Discovering Inner Wisdom. Digital edition.
Rilke, Rainer Maria. 1954. Letters to a Young Poet. Revised Ed. Norton, M.D. Herter, Trans. New York: W.W. Norton.
[i] When the Heart Speaks, Listen: Discovering Inner Wisdom.
[ii] Brown,p. 1478.
[iii] Brown, p. 1855.
[v] The full Rilke quote is: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves . . . the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” Letters to a Young Poet, 35.
BIO: Beth Bartlett, Ph.D., is an educator, author, activist, and spiritual companion. She is Professor Emerita of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. She also served as co-facilitator of the Spirituality Task Force of NWSA. She is the author of numerous books and articles, including Journey of the Heart: Spiritual Insights on the Road to a Transplant, Rebellious Feminism: Camus’s Ethic of Rebellion and Feminist Thought, and Making Waves: Grassroots Feminism in Duluth and Superior. She has been active in feminist, peace and justice, and rights of nature and climate justice movements, and has been a committed advocate for the water protectors.
3 thoughts on ““A new heart I will give you . . .” : Part One by Beth Bartlett”
Thank you for this beautiful and wise post and for sharing the insights that you learned from your experience. I think both your points — surrender/trust and patience — are applicable to so many aspects of our lives and we would all be wise to keep them in our spiritual pockets to take out when necessary! It reminds me of when I was going through a medical crisis and the years afterwards when I learned to accept uncertainty as not only a part of life, but a part of life that actually makes life richer and, I think is also very much connected to the ideas of surrender/trust and patience. Thanks again for sharing this experience with us!
Thank you, Carolyn. I’m sure the lessons are ones that many people going through serious illness experience. More tomorrow!
extraordinary moving story with so many lessons…patinece, Letting go – the biggest ones for me…
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