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An Altared Heart: Friday

Lily, our five-year-old, is standing in the narrow hallway outside her room in only her underwear. It’s bedtime. It’s past bedtime. She should be brushing her teeth. She leans back against the century-old, textured wallpaper. “Mama,” she says seriously as I approach. “I am thinking of Mowgli.” She grins because I grin, and begins to bop up and down, giving herself a back-scratch.

I lean against the opposing wall and join in. Look for the bare necessities, the simple bare necessities, forget about your worry and your strife! we sing together, dance-scratching our backs against the walls until Lily announces, “Well, that feels much better,” and dashes into her room for a song and prayers. Usually I sing her one song: a nature-loving re-write of “Hush Little Baby.” Tonight she does not have to work hard to convince me to sing another song, and then two more.

We made it through our first week of mandated “homeschool” and social distancing. We haven’t been off the property for over a week. California just issued “shelter in place”; Massachusetts will do so soon, too, we expect. Now that there are more tests available, the numbers will sky-rocket.

I’ve been thinking about bare necessities more than ever.

Settling into bed myself, I go through the liturgy of the pillows: flat one for beneath my knees; feather pillow for my head; the third propped behind me against the headboard, ready to grab if I turn from my back onto my left side. In this position I need something to hold.

For the first time in fifteen hours, the house is quiet. Lily and her older brother, Jacob, are sleeping. My husband, Joshua, has gone through his own pillow liturgy and turned onto his right side away from me and is settling into a slower, rhythmic breath pattern that isn’t yet punctuated with snores.

I am concentrating on my own breathing, scanning my body for signs of illness. My face feels hotter than usual (fever?). My throat has had a tickle in it for the last week and a lump of phlegm or anxiety (anxiety phlegm?) right in the spot where, on the outside, the neck pools between the collarbones. Right in the spot where I have welcomed kisses. Right in the spot where, on the inside, I imagine a malicious gathering of germs ready to plunge into my lungs.

I really have no idea about the anatomy of my respiratory system.

I am concentrating on my breathing. I am holding my breath to check my lung capacity. The tickle in my throat seizes and I cough, and cough again (a dry cough?). I reach for that third pillow and turn onto my left side. But now, because my left ear is pressed against a pillow, my head is an echo-chamber for my heartbeat.

In poetry, the basic unit of rhythm is the iamb, one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable: bum-BUM. A heartbeat. Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter because it was the rhythm of heartbeat plus breath. Five iambs to a line; five heartbeats to one cycle of breath. To learn lines by heart, you have to get them into your body. You have to get them into your breath.

I turn onto my back again and concentrate on lines I’ve learned by heart over the last year: “The Altar” by George Herbert, then “My own heart” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Finally, Psalm 23. Surely goodness and mercy will follow me. Surely goodness and mercy. Surely.

I didn’t use to have—or didn’t think I had—a problem with anxiety. But there it is: fear. One of the basic human emotions with all its progeny alive and well in me, too. I look at the “Emotion and Feeling Wheel” a counselor gave me once and name the lump in my throat: dread. And there is worry, inadequacy, helplessness, insecurity, nervousness and panic. Yes, all of these. Yes, I am afraid.

This time last year I had recovered from a bad bout with the flu I came down with on the night of my 39th birthday, only to find myself locking horns with fear. Who am I kidding? Locking horns? I was running for my life in the colosseum of my heart and mind. In hindsight, I realize I was hovering on the edge of a full-blown panic attack for about two weeks.

Today I might die. Yesterday I did not. All of my tomorrows belong to you, Lord Jesus. Sarah Chestnut

At the time, I chastised myself for “being dramatic.” (I recovered from the flu, after all). I could feel my imagination tunnel-visioning on all the possible tragedies, but I couldn’t pull my mind back from that cliff-edge. It was, I see now, a real confrontation with my mortality. A facing-off with one of the most basic truths about human existence—about my existence: contingency. I do not have to be. I am dust and breath. Apart from God’s life-giving breath we all sink back to the dust.

I was working on a lecture on the heart at the time. Whatever attempting to pluck an articulate path through the vast terrain of the heart was doing to the blood-pumping muscle off-center in my chest, I don’t know exactly. I know it was stressing it. There were no unstressed beats: bum-BUM. It was BUM-BUM-BUM-BUM-BUM all the time.

But what the Holy Spirit has been doing with that whole constellation of events—turning 39 (here comes 40 and mid-life); being in bed with the flu for nearly three weeks; acute anxiety—is the work that God has been committed to for every one of us ever since our first parents laid their hearts on the altar of self-sufficiency, ever since they rejected contingency as prerequisite to life.

The Spirit has been chipping out my heart of stone, and giving me a heart of flesh.

In the biblical imagination, the heart is the seat of the will, the organ of perception, that core part of us that is always worshipping something or someone. 17th century Welsh poet-priest, George Herbert, understood this. Looking at the altar in the little stone church where he pastored, he saw his own heart:

A broken A L T A R, Lord, thy servant rears, Made of a heart, and cemented with tears: Whose parts are as thy hand did frame; No workman’s tool hath touch’d the same… —George Herbert

The weekly remembrance of Christ’s sacrificial death on our behalf happens on an altar. Here Herbert internalizes that altar and puts Christ’s body and blood, the bread and the wine, right on his own heart.

Herbert did not live a long life by our standards, though he reached the average life expectancy for his time, dying at 40 of “consumption,” or tuberculosis. In his lifetime, London theatres were closed at least three times because of “plague.” A common devotional practice of the time was the momento mori, the remembrance of one’s mortality, a daily face-off with the fact that you will die. Even during a time when death was literally at the door, the human heart needed to be reminded of this truth: you are dust and to dust you will return.

Last year as I recovered from the flu and was learning how to cope with anxiety, I started every day with a series of slow stretches (You are a body, Sarah! And you are alive!). I ended lying flat on my back on the floor. In this position, I prayed, “Today I might die. Yesterday I did not. All of my tomorrows belong to you, Lord Jesus.” Stating and facing these basic facts became a “bare necessity” of each day, a momento mori.

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