The Clean of Heart

posted 6/15/20

There was a book that came out in 2006 by Mark Kurlansky, entitled: The Big Oyster: History on a Half-Shell, that chronicled the history of the oyster beds that used to proliferate in New York Harbor. “Before the 20th Century, when people thought of New York, they thought of oysters.” The mollusks were everywhere and were a staple of the average New Yorker’s diet. They were so plentiful, that they were a cheap and simple way for even the humblest citizens to get the protein they needed to stay healthy. The oyster beds began to decline, however, with the increase in pollution in the waters of the Hudson River that emptied out into the Harbor, making the oysters unsafe to eat. The last New York City oyster beds closed in 1927, and since then, New Yorkers have had to import their oysters from other places. But even if they’re not fit to eat, oysters and clams and other such mollusks provide an important service to the waterways of the world, in that they are natural filters. Indeed, I recently learned that the oyster population of Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay prior to the 1880s was able to filter the entire body of water in just a matter of days. Today’s population would require an entire year to process the same amount. The diminution of the oyster population in places like New York Harbor and the Chesapeake Bay has had a profoundly negative impact on the water quality there. There are many who advocate the re-establishment of oyster beds in these places in order to clean waters that have become polluted, murky, and hostile to the flourishing of life.

“Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God.”  In its pristine state the human heart, like water, was created clean and pure.  Adam and Eve were clean of heart before the fall, and the scriptures speak of how they enjoyed regular interaction with God.  But that changed with their rebellion.  When they ate the fruit that was forbidden them, it affected their vision: “The eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.”  There is an irony in this passage.  It says that their eyes were opened, which implies an improvement of sight.  Indeed, they noticed their nakedness.  But at the same time, they felt the need to cover themselves because of the disorder introduced into their mutual gaze. It was suddenly harder for them to see the dignity of their shared humanity.  Lust narrowed their vision; it blinded them, and they had to cover themselves to defend against being reduced to an object of possession.  

The lustful heart is like the murky waters of the sea.  Things and people are collected as a means of self-satisfaction and self-fulfillment. The light of God has a harder time penetrating the lustful heart because it is filled with stuff.  It has a harder time recognizing the humanity of others, and loses sight of its own humanity.  It leads us to identify ourselves with the cloudy particulate, the stuff we fill our hearts with, the fallen and disordered desires that distort the image of God in us and in others.   

Untouched by the sin of our first parents, the Lord Jesus is the clean of heart.  His vision is not obscured by any selfish tendency to objectify and possess others.  He is completely self-forgetful, completely absorbed in adoration of the Father.  And He wants to share His vision of the Father with us.  He wants us to be clean of heart so that we can see God, with nothing obstructing or obscuring the view.  How do we receive a share in Christ’s purity of heart that grants us such vision?  Fr. Simeon Leiva-Merikakis says that a clean heart “has been purified from an attachment to the profane by being washed in the blood of Christ, the Lamb of God.”  It is the sacrifice of Christ that reorders our relationship with God, freeing us from disordered attachments and consecrating us to the service of God.  Our Lord shed His blood for each person that we encounter.  This reminds us of the supreme dignity that we share with our neighbor and which our lusts threaten to obscure.  Sins like the use of pornography, contraception, abortion, euthanasia, consumerism, racism, ruthless ambition – they are the consequence of narrow vision.  Our neighbors’ humanity obscured, we reduce them to objects for our consumption and/or obstacles to be disposed of, and we lose sight of our own humanity in the process. 

“A clean heart create for me, O God; renew within me a steadfast spirit” (Psalm 51). A clean heart allows the love of God to radiate through it.  Jesus shares His Sacred Heart with us, which (like the oyster beds that populated New York Harbor years ago) acts like a filter for our poor hearts – clearing out the clogs and the clutter and leaving us awash in the purifying Blood of the Lamb.  Our narrowed vision can make it easy for us to get discouraged and even despair of being free of the things that pollute our hearts.  But the Lord sees us perfectly, and still finds us worthy of the shedding of His Blood.  Despair and discouragement have their root in self-obsession and pride. We must be steadfast in our trust of the Lord, who wants nothing to prevent our hearts from being dazzled by the beauty of the Beatific Vision. 

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