Imagine our hearts as vessels for the movement of life, of love. Sometimes I feel as if something is pulverized in the center of my chest as I process some new loss, some new disappointment. There is pain in the breaking, and in feeling broken, and even in the mending. Pain and fear, sorrow and anger. We need our spirituality to accompany us in those places. A spirituality that would desert us in our brokenness is, itself broken.
Sometimes our breaking is precipitated by some choice or action of our own, but more often it is out of our control. Either way, we are broken not because we are bad or wrong or inadequate, but because humans are breakable. This is important- a theological point- that parts of us the feel broken are not left out of what is sacred. Our broken parts have inherent worth and dignity. Our broken parts are holy too.
Perhaps you woke this morning feeling broken- and Good for you for joining us in that tender state. I bet all of us have felt some proximity to brokenness this past year, so I want to give us a grounding in a spirituality of brokenness -- for those moments when we feel like a pile of shards.
We begin with compassion for our broken places. If you were mending a broken bone, you would put it in a sling, and treat it gently. We can all probably remember physical injuries that hurt with each jostle- an injury to the body heals more quickly, and more cleanly when we treat it with gentleness, with patience, with quiet. The broken places in our hearts and spirits need the same gentleness, patience, quiet. Compassion makes space for healing.
The path of the spirit asks us to open our hearts to our brokenness, which requires compassion and courage. We might feel unproductive, out of control, unkempt, and the first instinct is to put ourselves back together again as quickly as possible, to hold ourselves together with an act of will if necessary. Because the demands of life keep going- the kids need to be fed, the bills need to be paid, so the question is-- can we keep our hearts open, instead of doubling our defenses as seems instinctive after an injury. This takes so much courage- to be open-hearted after heartbreak, to allow our spirits to be tender when they feel crushed.
I was struck by this poem by Max Mundan who often writes about his struggles with addiction:
Why do we spend all of our precious soft?
trying to be hard
talking like we’re hard
dressing like we’re hard
pretending to be hard
moving like we’re hard
acting like we’re hard
writing like we’re hard
living like we’re hard
until we wake up one morning
and we’d give anything
to feel a little bit of
That softness is often hiding underneath our hard exterior; sometimes when we are broken there is a rare and precious opportunity to touch that soft part of ourselves that many of us have been trained to hide away. That soft, vulnerable part is sacred, is holy. A broken heart cannot be puffed up and proud, it is humble, and open to the reality of what is. If you catch a glimpse of softness, vulnerability, humility when our hearts are broken, please honor it as a blessing and a gift.
When I was on retreat, right after the death of my father, my heart felt trampled. Fortunately, I had nothing to do, nowhere else to be for a week, and so my spirit seemed to take the occasion to bring me every broken shard, of every loss that had never healed. It also brought up past mistakes I had made, failures and disappointments. I allowed myself to just be broken that week. It was the first week of Lent, as it is today in the Christian tradition, and one evening in worship the congregation repeated the response “God loves a broken and humbled heart[i].” And I felt that was speaking right to me, to where I was in that moment. I felt so broken, I was relieved by the reminder that the spirit of Love included even me. As a Universalist, I believe that the divine is a love that will never let us go, but I was amazed that even in my brokenness I was still loved by the divine in a compassion more perfect than my own heart was able to offer. And, in fact, I noticed that my heart was more open to the divine than it had been in a long time. That the hard protective coating that allowed me to move and work in the world had muted my perception of that love, but now was stripped away. [ii]
When our hearts are broken, sometimes things shine through those new openings. Many of you have spoken to me of the love that reached you in times of deepest grief - the love for the person you have lost, or the love of your family and community supporting one another in the loss. In the very place of the breaking, love is shining through.
It’s hard to keep our hearts open -- we feel so vulnerable. Jan Richardson wrote, in "Blessing for the Brokenhearted" for the first Valentines day after her husband’s tragic and untimely death:
Perhaps for nowWhat our heart contains, what flows through our heart, is love. When our hearts are broken, it is ironically love that helps them heal.
it can be enough
to simply marvel
at the mystery
of how a heart
can go on beating,
as if it were made
for precisely this—
as if it knows
the only cure for love
is more of it,
as if it sees
the heart’s sole remedy
is to love still,
Other blessings can flow through those broken places too. Once, when my heart was broken by bullying, I was full of rage, and in that rage I felt truth shining through- the truth of who I was, and the truth of what life needs to thrive. For the bird in our story today it was the beauty of her song that shone through her broken places. If we leave ourselves open, even in our brokenness, we make space for something new to flow through, some gifts form outside ourselves to flow in, or some gift from deep inside we had no idea was in our depths. Some call this Grace.
Now we may feel pressure from ourselves, form our families, toward a premature closure. Sometimes people can’t bear to see us broken, and so they want us to hurry up and go back to being the person they knew before. But the miracle of healing can’t be rushed, because as we are healing, we are re-forming, like a broken bone knitting back together. We have undoubtedly experienced a sort of battlefield healing, where there is not the safety, or the time, or the compassion to stay open, and so we become smaller and more heavily defended after a break, bound up by the scar tissue that saved our lives. Let us shine compassion on these tight places, and strive to create a world where everyone has the safety, the time and compassion they need for their healing.
Even if you know in your head that healing is possible, a broken heart will never be truly the same again, and we have to first grieve the old form before we can see the new form that is taking shape. If we don’t take time to grieve, we betray the reality of that broken moment, the reality of the loss.
Like the bird in today’s story, The Wing, we can’t always be put back together as we were before the breaking, but healing in a new form is possible. Again the words of Jan Richardson, in her poem "Blessing for a Broken Vessel":
I am not asking youSometimes, miraculously, people grow bigger and more open to life in the midst of their brokenness. I hope you have had the gift of witnessing people who have experienced great loss, transform, grow and heal beyond what can be imagined or promised. People like Jan Richardson -- whose compassionate and wise poetry has been a comfort to others in their time of great loss. In this very congregation I have known many hearts broken open.
to give up your grip
on the shards you clasp
so close to you
but to wonder
what it would be like
for those jagged edges
to meet each other
in some new pattern
that you have never imagined,
that you have never dared
One of the new capacities brokenness makes available to us is greater compassion. Once we know in our hearts what it is to experience a certain breakage, deeper compassion may be possible for others who have suffered a similar loss. The word compassion comes from the roots “suffer together.” I believe compassion is one of the most sacred qualities, because it connects us to one another. I have noticed this is most available when we are first compassionate with ourselves. If we harden our own hearts to our own suffering, it’s likely that hardness will ripple out to the suffering of others. If we can be brave enough to be compassionate with ourselves, to let our hearts stay open even when they are broken, we increase the odds that when finally we begin to heal, we will heal hearts and spirits that are larger, that are more compassionate than before.
Sometimes, we may find in retrospect, the veneer of control, of competence, that we prize so highly, and lost when we were broken, had been limiting who we are and how we could grow. When we break, it sometimes opens us to new truth about what it means to be alive in this world. Please understand, I’m not saying that the breaking is somehow worth it, that our losses were a necessary price for growth. As Richardson’ writes; “Let us agree/ for now/ that we will not say/ the breaking / makes us stronger / or that it is better / to have this pain / than to have done / without this love.”
Only that because we are human, loss and betrayal and pain are part of what it means to be alive. Sometimes in our pain, in our brokenness there is also a blessing, and it is worth the risk of staying open to make space for that blessing.
Our Brokenness is sacred, and the new form we take as we heal is sacred too. In fact we are breaking and healing all the time, it is part of being human, part of being alive. Have courage, friends, when your heart or spirit is broken, have courage to keep your heart open, your spirit open, your mind open however much you are able. And may we be patient, hopeful, courageous and compassionate for all who feel broken. Let us be a blessing to one another in those tender times.
[ii] I want to be careful to make a theological point here- I don’t believe that we must suffer to receive such compassionate grace. I think that kind of transactional theology has allowed us to let suffering go un addressed. We don’t earn grace through suffering. Brock and Parker do a beautiful job of explaining this in their book Proverbs of Ashes