Upon arrival in Anchorage (see Heartifact #2) my parents rented an apartment at Martin Arms, a small complex out on East 3rd. In 1961 there wasn’t much development there yet and parts of the Alaskan forest encroached right up to the apartments. It was heaven for my six year old self. The days of summer were gloriously long, with the sun staying up until midnight, allowing plenty of time to run, play, and explore.
There was a tall mound of dirt out past our building, probably bulldozed there during construction. My sister and I called it “Secret Hill”. I’m not sure why, because there was nothing secret about it. But back then the whole world seemed to be hiding its secrets from us and our job was to uncover them. Having just traveled the AlCan Highway’s 1400 miles of wonder, we were now explorers. At any rate The Hill was a magnetic place where we often found ourselves climbing, jumping, rolling—generally tempting gravity and fate in as many ways as we could imagine.
I was out at Secret Hill one day with my best friend, Billy Tracy, digging holes at its base. I think we were looking for buried treasure. As I dug, I pulled a rock out of the dirt. It caught my eye because of its obvious heart shape. I brushed the dirt off and held it in my hand, and a strange thought came to me. It’s hard to put words to it, but the essence was, “This is God’s heart for you, Danny. Jesus is with you.” I didn’t hear a Voice speaking these words; I can only describe it as a kind of quiet knowing that came from somewhere else.
Again, at that age the world was bursting with magic and mystery so my own inner response wasn’t incredulity but a sense of wonder. I really only had a vague notion of what this might mean. Our family didn’t attend church, other than an occasional holiday appearance. My knowledge of God and such was minimal. I remember asking my Dad about Jesus when I was even younger and his telling me that “Jesus lives in your heart.” I pondered that one a good long while. How could this be? I pictured a tiny, dashboard Jesus standing upright inside my heart. Maybe he was waving to me? I filed that image away in the back of my brain, not sure what else to do with tiny Jesus.
I took the heart rock back to the apartment where I scrubbed it clean under the faucet and then dried it off. I found some red paint and gave it a coat or two. After that initial sense of wonder wore off, I placed it inside a small box with a few other boyhood treasures. The stone heart stayed in its treasure box, packed and moved along with my other belongings many times over the years of our nomadic Air Force life. When I grew up and moved away from home the box went with me.
My most recent move was about a dozen years ago when my own family and I moved to a house up in the suburbs and farmlands north of Cincinnati. The heart rock, inside its treasure box, inside yet another large cardboard box found its resting place in the basement, stacked somewhere between the boxes of Christmas decorations and stuff left behind by our three grown children.
I’ve mentioned in another post that I like to call this subterranean storage depot the “Great Basement of Unknowing”. That’s because I’m not entirely certain what’s down there anymore. For the past couple of years Tracey and I have been intentionally thinning our lifetime’s collection of stuff, but all that jettisoned stuff seems to somehow replace itself with more stuff. And so it goes.
A few months ago I went down to find my heart rock. I hadn’t thought of it in years, but I had the feeling that it connected to my current life in a deep way. I found the big cardboard box and inside that my boyhood treasure box. I opened the treasure box and….. no heart rock. The shiny red heart of stone I’d kept for over 50 years was gone. I couldn’t believe it. I combed through the box’s contents again, hoping maybe I’d just overlooked it, but it really was gone.
My hope is that, as we continue lightening the load of stuff down there, I will eventually come across it. In the meantime, I bought a piece of river stone that’s been carved into the shape of a heart. I’ve posted a photo of it here, but it’s just not the same. It’s just too perfect.
My original heart rock was imperfect and natural looking, uncut by human hands. My own human heart is like that first rock. It’s flawed and asymmetrical. My own heart has been deeply loved, and loved deeply. It’s been mistreated and broken from time to time. And it’s done its own share of mistreating and breaking. It’s been lost, and it’s been found. It’s had the dirt brushed off. It’s got a lot of miles on it.
I had a visceral connection to the first rock because I’d found it myself early in my life’s story. Or if you want to take a more mystical approach to this, it had been given to me. I hadn’t bought it. I had been “led” to where it had been under the dirt for….forever, more or less.
With so much life in the rearview mirror now, it’s ever clearer to me that my life is, and has been, a pilgrimage. I’ve never walked the Camino del Santiago, or travelled to Iona, although I’d like to. But I’ve been on a pilgrimage every day nonetheless. A pilgrimage of the heart. A pilgrimage toward my true heart, and toward God. That’s why I searched the basement in search of my heart rock that day. When I decided to call my Spiritual Direction practice, “PilgrimHeart”, it was like all the tumblers clicked into place and the padlock popped open.
“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36:26)
I believe that there is a “true heart” within each of us. A heart of flesh that is fully human, fully you, fully alive and, perhaps most unexpectedly-- fully God’s. It isn’t found by superhuman effort, religious or otherwise, but by a childlike openness and seeking. The rest is grace. Like the Tin Man, you actually already possess that heart. There’s something called the Imago Dei (image of God) stamped in every heart, waiting to be discovered.
Maybe your true heart has been buried under the dirt of your own “Secret Hill”, waiting to be found and brought out into the light of day, waiting for the dirt to be knocked off, waiting to pulse with love, compassion, kindness, creativity, courage and wisdom. A new heart of flesh, not stone.
The beauty, joy, and even hardships of this pilgrimage is what draws me to accompany others now on their own journey through this practice called “spiritual direction”. In one way or another that will be my life’s work from here on in. And I think it started in a pile of dirt outside Martin Arms in 1961.