Monday, 16 January 2012

Hard and soft hearts - and toughness


We must make tough decisions - that is decisions that are right but which lead to upfront, immediate costs.

For those with a soft, warm heart - these decisions are a cause of pain; but we must not harden our hearts to make tough decisions.


It is, indeed, a terrible spiritual hazard to harden the heart - for any reason or purpose whatsoever. Nothing, ever justifies deliberate hardening of the heart.


Because to harden the heart is to exclude love, to build a carapace of pride - it is, indeed, an act of cowardice: hard-hearted people are cowards, in the sense that they take the easier and more expedient root of not caring.

I perceive many people, many intellectuals in particular, and perhaps especially intellectuals on the secular Right (Nietzsche as the model), adopting a strategy of deliberate heart-hardening.

They expose themselves to evils and suffering with the aim of becoming immune to them, of deadening their reactions to them. They want to be tough, imperturbable, at the cost of hardening their hearts, indeed by means of hardening theie hearts.


(The ideal of being 'cool' is this - it is a fairly pure form of evil since it entails chilling the soul until it is unaffected by good of bad, but moves serenely through life, needing nobody else, living-off its own invincible self-regard.)


Fr Seraphim Rose perceived hardening of the heart as one of the great hazards of the modern world especially among Christians. He saw this as a hazard of ultra-correctness in religious practice - of legalism, rule-following, an enforcement of the self-righteous spirit.

Once hardness has become advanced in us, we find it difficult or almost impossible to come into contact with the world, of feeling life, when we cannot moved by anything for good or ill (only experiencing pleasure or pain - but not feeling joy or sorrow).

Orthodox holiness is a matter of tears.

Real tears are a consequence of a soft heart experiencing joy and sorrow - not hysterical tears, obviously not faked and manipulative tears, but natural 'weeping' from the heart.

(What is the cost of real weeping being taboo in modern society?)


In the past, tough men - not just monks but Kings and warriors - would cry readily in response to both beauty and loss.

Toughness is not indifference; indifference is not toughness. 

My Northumbrian Charlton ancestors lived in a situation of sustained violence on the border of Scotland and England over some hundreds of years - indeed some regard it as the most sustainedly-very-violent human situation in history.

These were tough men living in a tough world by any historical standard, yet they composed and listened to the Border Ballads; which stand among the best anonymous poetry of the world; they were soft-hearted men, who were affected by life, they wept openly and often.


And modern Charltons have retained some of this!

Bobby was probably the greatest footballer England ever produced. A tough sport. That's him on the right of this picture, being awarded the World Cup in 1966:

In tears - and still crying several minutes later - at 2.50 minutes

(What an image!)


And that is how we must be - both tough and warm-hearted like Bobby Charlton; Bilbo, Frodo and Sam; Harry Potter - all the real heroes.



Kristor said...

In church this morning, feeling the (by now pretty routine, for me - at Mass, anyway) feelings of exaltation, grief, wonder, beauty, glory, relief at the Atonement, and at the redemption and eventual rescue of all things, I reflected that these feelings first became particularly intense as I suffered enormous personal tragedy. They have not since lessened. I thought: tragedy; it can harden a man, or it can soften, but either way the change seems to be permanent.

Christian said...

I'm struggling with this a lot recently. How often do I wonder, "What if this writer or this composer I like is actually in hell?" I don't know for sure, since nobody does, but there is still a possibility. How can I enjoy their works in this situation? My first reaction was to stop reading or listening, but it's an absurd solution since we can't be sure of anything. Then I start thinking, "Well, too bad for them." But I felt this was precisely a form of hardening the heart. Still, I believe it's wrong too care too much about human beings because it leads I'm affraid to the idea that everyone must be saved. What if Johann Sebastian Bach was in hell? Is it possible to accept this possibility without hardening the heart?

PatrickH said...

Personal note: I lived in Wembley England when the World Cup was played. We were near enough to the stadium that when we had the windows open, we couldn't hear the sound from the television...the singing from the stadium was too loud.

Thank God we didn't have the vuvuzela then!

Anonymous said...

Peter S. said...

The following quote, taken from “Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works”, is quite apropos:

Not too many years ago, a young monastic aspirant went to Mount Athos. In talking with the venerable Abbot of the monastery where he wished to stay, he told him, “Holy Father! My heart burns for the spiritual life, for asceticism, for unceasing communion with God, for obedience to an Elder. Instruct me, please, holy Father, that I may attain to spiritual advancement.”

Going to the bookshelf, the Abbot pulled down a copy of “David Copperfield” by Charles Dickens. “Read this, son,” he said. “But Father!” objected the disturbed aspirant. “This is heterodox Victorian sentimentality, a product of the Western captivity! This isn’t spiritual; it’s not even Orthodox! I need writings which will teach me spirituality!”

The Abbot smiled, saying, “Unless you first develop normal, human, Christian feelings and learn to view life as little Davey did – with simplicity, kindness, warmth, and forgiveness – then all the Orthodox ‘spirituality’ and Patristic writings will not only be of no help to you – they will turn you into a ‘spiritual’ monster and destroy your soul.”

Anonymous said...

Peter S. said…

Re: Christian (& Kristor)

This may be a bit far afield, but the work “Oscar Wilde from Purgatory” ( is a possible confirmation in a specific case – although its provenance is ultimate unknowable, its verisimilitude is striking. In fairness to Wilde, it should be noted that his last works, “De Profundis” ( and “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” (pr. “Redding Jail”; are profoundly marked by the deepening spiritual change wrought by suffering and reflect an entirely different man to the man reflected in his earlier plays.

Of course, if J.S. Bach is in Hell, we are all pretty much done for; or, as Shakespeare’s Portia expresses it, “in the course of justice, none of us should see salvation: we do pray for mercy.” As Bach himself would say, “Soli Deo Gloria!”

Dale said...

Anonymous, the Church forbids seances, ouija boards, etc. No "communications" received by such means should ever be regarded with anything but the deepest distrust, and (I would say) they should be loathed.

bgc said...

@Christian - it seems like you have got stuck on a false question. The important thing to determine is to know whether something (like a piece of music) is doing you good or harm. And to pray for those you love. Everyone is a sinner, so there is no reason not to pray even if you suspect somebody may have been damned - the prayers are retroactive.

As I keep thinking at present (having been reading Charles Williams - we cannot save ourselves except by love of God and others - and we rely on other (and God) to save us - a profoundly humbling thought.

(BTW I would endorse Dale on the spiritual dangers of actively seeking religious/ spiritual experiences and knowledge. The Orthodox tradition emphasizes that - except for people advanced in sanctity - and sometimes even for them - such efforts are much more likely to lead to demonic than angelic/ divine communication. See Seraphim Rose's Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future)

Anonymous said...

Peter S. said…

I don’t disagree with Dale’s position and certainly don’t consider the reference cited as anything more than suggestive. The question of general principle, as Dr. Charlton would agree, is “does this lead to sanctity?” If not, best leave it aside. And yet, the general matter is at least in part empirical, which complicates judgment. Mark Fox’s “Religion, Spirituality, and the Near-Death Experience” is a relevant treatment in this regard. With that said, I don’t wish to distract the discussion further in this direction. As a final point, for all the profound respect in which I hold Fr. Seraphim, “Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future” is a generally disappointing work, one of his weakest.

Anonymous said...

Peter S. said…

As a final note to this minor exchange, I can’t help but recalling King Hamlet, father to the Prince, who – if his testimony is to be believed – makes a mockery of his son’s famous soliloquy, for of course there is ‘one’ traveler who has returned from that “undiscovere'd country”: the King who, though dead, is the very motive force of the play. And this is the question at the heart of the play, remarkably close to the point raised here: is the apparition of the King leading the Prince to his own damnation or to justified and necessary revenge? The apparition proves right about Claudius, but the certainty of the apparition’s identity is never truly and completely resolved, even at the play’s very end, when “the rest is silence”.

There is another famous Shakespearian instance of anticipating beyond the grave, one almost consistently missed by commentators: that of the death of Lear, perhaps the most critical moment of that play. Lear, heartbroken at the loss of his daughter Cordelia and at the very edge of death himself, gives as his final words in Act 5, Scene 3, Lines 362-8:

And my poor fool is hang’d! No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!
Pray you, undo this button: thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,
Look there, look there!

Performed well, this scene is at once heartrending and transcendent. Too many of the commentators upon the play seem only too happy to read this final line as a last delusion on the part of the dying King. However, it appears clear that Lear is certainly reunited with his beloved Cordelia upon his death, as his final words indeed clearly point to. Shakespeare gives this away quite deliberately in Lear’s first reunion with Cordelia, who rescues him from the storm ravaged heath. In Act 4, Scene 7, Lines 50-56, when the old King first awakens:

Cordelia. How does my royal lord? How fares your Majesty?
Lear. You do me wrong to take me out o’ the grave.
Thou art a soul in bliss; but I am bound
Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears
Do scald like molten lead.
Cordelia. Sir, do you know me?
Lear. You are a spirit, I know; when did you die?

This is nothing but a deliberate foretaste, set within the necessary, mortal confines of the play, of that which follows Cordelia’s passing, and Lear’s. That so much of commentarial literature should be so evidently and obviously wrong on this critical point is painfully telling.

Dale said...

Peter S., thank you for your two further comments. My heart warms to what you say about King Lear. When I teach this play, I try to allow (at least) for the affirmative interpretation of those words of Lear's about Cordelia living. I read this play as (in part) a thought experiment of Shakespeare's: an attempt to imagine, for the purposes of drama but also because the matter is so intrinsically interesting, the condition of Britons "when all our fathers worshiped stocks and stones" (Milton). In Britain before the coming of the Gospel, what inklings of divine revelation might have been available? What Hope? And I conclude that Cordelia's life and death provide a glimpse. She is not a Christian saint -- she doesn't die as a witness for the Faith (which she has never heard) and she does not embody Christian love wholly (at least I don't see forgiveness in her towards her vile sisters). Yet she provides a glimpse.

(Incidentally, this reminds me of the situation in Tolkien's Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth.)

As for communications from beyond the grave -- One of the key issues seems to be whether someone has sought them or hasn't. To seek contact with the departed seems to be one of the most wicked of sins, according to Scripture. But they may, very rarely, appear for God's purposes to people who haven't sought them: I think of Moses and Elijah appearing to Peter, James and John on the mount of Christ's transfiguration.

Incidentally, readers of the famous book about the Oglala figure Black Elk by John Neihardt are often taken in by the white author's presentation, which ends with Black Elk broken-hearted because he has failed his vision, etc. Neihardt suppresses Black Elk's conversion to Roman Catholicism and 40 years of his life. The story is told in Michael Steltenkamp's book. Black Elk comes to mind because he was evidently a visionary, but note that his chief experiences seem, as I recall, to have come unsought. He believed that at their best the pointed him towards Christian truth.

Anonymous said...

Peter S. said...

Re: Dale,

Thank you for your very interesting comments. Yes, this could well be conceived as a literary exploration of the persistent Christian question regarding the posthumous fate of virtuous pagans. In this regard, it is telling that the revived Lear describes Cordelia as “as soul in bliss”. Dante also explores this question, and here, too, we find two leading pre-Christian pagans in Paradise – the Emperor Trajan and Ripheus of Troy. More recently, the entire legendarium of Tolkien’s Middle Earth is built upon the notion of virtuous paganism, although without the possibility of Paradise (the question of elves aside). Karl Rahner’s somewhat controversial notion of “anonymous Christians” is a contemporary presentation of this same issue.

Regarding your distinction between sought and unsought communications, I would support this. As Hamlet would say, “Angels and ministers of grace defend us!” Regarding Lear’s final moment, let me add an observation that may well be entirely original – I do not recall mention elsewhere. Lear’s final perception, on the edge of his death, of Cordelia as alive is actually quite similar in type to a phenomenon termed the “deathbed vision”. The classic studies are:

William Barrett, “Death-Bed Visions” (1926)
Karlis Osis & Erlenddur Haraldsson, “At the Hour of Death” (1977)
Carla Wills-Brandon, “One Last Hug Before I Go” (2000)
Peter & Elizabeth Fenwick, “The Art of Dying” (2008)

The studies referenced are all strictly empirico-medical in character while the phenomenon itself is sufficiently common in the experience of hospice care nurses as to be unremarkable. Given that lay evidence suggests that deathbed visions may well have been common throughout history and across cultures, and further given that Shakespeare exhibits evidence of having been a keen medical observer – as in his description of the death of Falstaff – it may well be that he has gestured toward the actual deathbed phenomenon at the climax of his tragedy. In other words, that Lear’s final perception is in fact a true one may be doubly supported: both from the evidence within the play itself and from the extrinsic evidence of the deathbed vision phenomenon.

Regarding Black Elk, I am quite familiar with the writings on the Oglala holy man, including those of Neihardt and Steltenkamp. My own view is that the truth of the matter lies somewhere between these extremes: yes, Neihardt over-romanticizes Black Elk; yes, Steltenkamp over-Christianizes him. Black Elk did become a Christian, but did not thereby reject native Lakota religion in so doing. Joseph Epes Brown’s “The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk’s Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux”, the outcome of the author’s living with Black Elk for several months during the final period of his life, is to my mind perhaps the most objective view we have of the man. It may also be helpful to look to Black Elk’s nephew and another famous Lakota holy man, Frank Fools Crow, as portrayed in the remarkable authorized biography, “Fools Crow”, by Thomas E. Mails, himself a Lutheran minister. Like Black Elk, Fools Crow was a Christian, but as in Brown’s book, his Christianity never displaces his native Lakota religion.